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Rules of the Road: Inspect safety gear often

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Rules of the Road by Capt. Jake DesVergers

While safety equipment is critical for any yacht, we always hope it never needs to be used. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the crew to ensure it is ready at all times to be used.

Regulations for the type, size and number of any particular piece of safety equipment on board are determined by the flag administration, meaning where the yacht is legally registered. Each government assigns a specific agency to ensure its regulations are properly enforced.  For example, yachts registered under the U.S. flag are the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard. For the United Kingdom and its Red Ensigns, it is the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Other agencies include the Malta Maritime Authority, Australia Maritime Safety Agency and the Maritime Authority of Jamaica.  

The safety regulations imposed by these agencies usually stem from the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, commonly known as SOLAS.  Because SOLAS is used primarily for merchant ships, many countries promulgate equivalent rules for yachts. A good example of this is the MCA’s Large Yacht Code.

While regulations provide the basis for what is required, the actual equipment on board must be inspected to ensure compliance. Here is a list of the most common items to be reviewed on yachts, along with some known issues.

  • Life rafts:  Probably one of the most expensive pieces of equipment that no one ever wants to use. These items must be inspected ashore annually by an approved service company.  Crew must check on a monthly basis to ensure the units are properly installed, free from damage and ready for immediate launching. Every yacht should have life raft capacity for at least 100 percent of the people on board. Charter yachts usually will have a combination of 150 percent to 200 percent capacity on board, depending on their type and location of service. And to answer my favorite question from those budget-constrained yachts – yes, that capacity number includes the crew.
  • Life jackets: This critical piece of lifesaving equipment should be checked on a monthly basis. Each jacket should be fitted with reflective tape, a whistle and a light. Damaged or faulty items must be replaced immediately. Crew should be familiar with the lifejacket in their cabin or those stored at a muster point. Additionally, crew must be sufficiently comfortable with lifejackets to assist guests. During an emergency is not the time to figure it out.
  • Pyrotechnics:  Flares and smoke signals must be checked monthly to ensure validity and condition. Discovering in an emergency that one of the flares is damaged is the wrong time.  Expiration dates should be treated the same as those on a jug of milk. Once it is expired, it is expired. Do not think you can squeeze out some more time on it. Replace it.
  • Fire control plan: This piece of paper may not seem like safety equipment, but it provides essential information for the crew. When the plan is outdated or equipment illustrated on the plan is missing, it creates a sense of false security and a potentially hazardous situation if an emergency does arise.
  • Smoke detectors: The entire system must be checked every month. Detectors must be audible and activate the central alarm panel, if fitted. Do not fall into the habit of disconnecting units in the galley or a dusty work locker. They are placed in those locations for a reason.

Very few regulations in the marine industry were proactively created. Somewhere at some time, something happened that necessitated a rule to prevent it from happening again. Safety equipment falls into this category. It is there to save lives – maybe yours.  

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (yachtbureau.org). Comments are welcome below.

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About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

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