Three kits you need on your boat when heading offshore.
I have been fishing offshore and northeast canyon waters since the late 1970s and have seen a lot of water pass beneath the transom. With thousands of hours of bluewater time logged on various vessels, I have seen, done, and been involved in numerous situations that many of you probably have not. As the popular axiom goes, “stuff happens,” especially so when you are out of sight of terra firma. It can occur when you least expect it due to bad fuel, mechanical issues, structural boat problems, weather, medical issues, or whatever. I will detail a trio of emergency kits that experience has taught me to never be without when I head offshore. Having these onboard your boat when the unexpected happens just might be your salvation in troubled waters. Of course, whatever you decide to put together will be driven by how much room you have on your boat and your budget. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s get started.
Safety & Signal Kits
USCG regulations require that coastal boaters carry a specific selection of daytime and nighttime visual distress signal devices onboard. The complete list of safety requirements is available in the USCG’s latest booklet, A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats and Safety Tips, which is available at: www.uscgboating.org/images/420.PDF.
There are myriad safety items that you are required to have on your boat at all times. Some of these include readily accessible, USCG-approved PFDs (personal floatation devices) for every person onboard; throwable flotation devices; fire extinguishers; visual distress signals; etc. It is important to note that children under the age of 13 are required to wear correctly-sized PFDs at all times when in the cockpit. Additionally, as a for-hire charter boat captain, I must have Offshore Type I life jackets on my vessel. I also choose to bring one with me on all of my away charters as part of my traveling kit. The benefit of Type I PFDs is that they provide the most buoyancy for non-inflatables at 22 pounds. It is effective for all waters, especially open, rough, or remote waters, where rescue may be delayed. It is designed to turn an unconscious wearer to a face-up position in the water. I acquired a Type-V inflatable Mustang life jacket from my friends at Yamaha at the Miami Boat Show rated for an impressive 28-pounds of buoyancy. This offers a less-bulky alternative to the classic foam-filled Type I PFDs and is easier to wear than these bulky “Mae Wests.” No matter which type you prefer, the best life jacket is the one that you actually wear. I’ll try the Mustang out this season and report back on my findings.
According to the USCG guidelines, “Boats over 16-feet in length are required to carry a minimum of three daytime and three nighttime visual distress signals (VDS).” Regulations prohibit the display of visual distress signals on the water under any circumstances, except where assistance is needed because of immediate or potential danger. Pyrotechnics are universally recognized as excellent distress signals, but there is potential for injury and property damage if not handled properly. These devices produce a very hot flame that can cause burns and ignite flammable materials.
If pyrotechnic devices are selected, a minimum of three signals are required for day use and three signals for night use. Some pyrotechnic signals meet both day and night use requirements (combination flares). If possible, pyrotechnic devices should be stored in a cool, dry place. A watertight container painted red or orange and prominently marked ‘DISTRESS SIGNALS’ or ‘FLARES’ is recommended. U.S. Coast Guard-approved pyrotechnic visual distress signals and associated devices include:
- Pyrotechnic red flares, handheld or aerial (day/night use)
- Pyrotechnic orange smoke, handheld or floating (day use)
- Launchers for aerial red meteors or parachute flares (day/night use)
Each of these devices has a different operating/burning time. Check the label to see how long each pyrotechnic device will remain illuminated. Choose a device best suited to the conditions in the area where your vessel is typically used.
Keep in mind that these types of VDS have expiration dates, so check yours periodically and make sure that they are current. I like to “augment” my USCG minimum requirements for visual distress signals by having at least twice as many as required onboard, both with handheld flares and pyrotechnic meteor flares. I also equip my MarCeeJay’s PFDs with whistles and strobes and change the alkaline batteries at the beginning of each season.
Other added signaling and safety gear that I keep onboard are a reflective mirror; a 24-hour electronic floating strobe light; chemical light sticks (chartreuse and lime green) like those made by Cyalume and Snaplight; a handheld GPS; a handheld waterproof VHF radio; plus both home and away ACR ResQLink PLBs (personal locator beacons) for offshore rescue security. One of the handiest safety devices in my bag are LED flashlights. I carry both the professional-grade and recreational grade in the form of a high-vis yellow Streamlight (pro grade) Polytac 600 lumens marine-grade first-responder tactical light that is energized by a pair of C123 lithium batteries that are good for up to 10 years of storage and will last for 3 hours of continuous use. These go for around $50 each. The other recreational grade LED flashlights that have found their way into my travel kit are those ubiquitous Duracell darlings sold at Costco in three packs (batteries included) for $20. The latest iteration of these features an impressive 550 lumens output that can reach out a long way with its adjustable beam, plus it has three settings that include high, low, and strobe—all of which are useful for nighttime operations, whether picking out lures or for signaling rescuers.
I arrange my home and away safety signaling devices via two methods. My onboard kit is packed into a Life Cell “Trailer Boat Box” that features a blaze orange floating hard plastic case with a waterproof gasket lid that opens to reveal all of the safety gear inside that is bungeed in place. A welcome byproduct of this box is that it acts as a floatation device if you are in the water. My “away charter” signal and safety gear is neatly stowed into a floatable SOS ditch bag that is bright yellow and stays within 10 feet of my reach at all times when I’m at the helm or in the cockpit.
Food & Comfort Kits
Food and water are the second part of the emergency plan. When you’re fishing offshore and experience some sort of electrical, mechanical, or fuel-related hiccup, you might be out there for a while until someone can tow you back to your home port. To address this problem, the latest addition to my bag of tricks is a portable, watertight bag that I keep on my 228 EdgeWater CC that contains an assortment of freeze-dried food, in addition to “emergency ration bars,” similar to those that are standard issue on lifeboats. The 25-year storage food bags packaged by Ready Wise, Mountain House, My Patriot Supply (Ready Hour), and others consist of high-protein meals like lasagna, teriyaki chicken, and rice, among other selections. Each comes in a sealed eat-in-pouch that is a breeze to hydrate and eat. Most of them require that you add boiling water, let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes, stir, and eat it right out of the bag. While the ability to boil water exists on larger boats with generators or lithium battery gen-set replacement banks, it’s harder to do this on more Spartan craft like my 22-foot center console.
This is where the next addition to my food and comfort kit solution comes into play. I always carry anywhere from 15 to 20 half-liter water bottles on board for any of my trips. If I need to hydrate a few meals, I can leave a few bottles in the sun to spike their temperature, I will also leave the food out in its aluminum packaging while it hydrates; this will also increase the internal temperature. This solution is significantly more palatable than chewing on raw fish or looking at those frozen squids and clams in your bait box with disdain.
|Sometimes space is important when heading out to the deep. The AFTCO Transformer jacket saves you space by packing into its own pocket.|
Several folks distribute the emergency ration bars, but one of my favorites is offered by My Patriot Supply in the form of their 12-pack Emergency Rations that are individually wrapped and offer 200 calories per bar. These are specifically designed not to promote thirst, which is a big no-no when drifting around in the shipping lanes with limited fresh water. These usually go for about $10 a bag. The bars have a 5-year shelf life, the freeze-dried food kits range between 20 to 30 years but need water and some preparation that might not be convenient in your moment of need.
The “comfort” part of the equation for this kit includes a few common-sense items like a packable raincoat and a portable sleeping bag. I purchased one of AFTCO’s Transformer fishing jackets this past winter and will use it as part of the “comfort kit” this coming season. The Transformer fishing jacket excels in the portability category, packing entirely into its right-hand pocket. The jacket features a nylon ripstop base with spandex blended in for stretch and comfort. The 10K Water Resistance means it easily handles light rain and salt spray. The emergency sleeping bag that I keep onboard and in my travel kit folds neatly into a box that’s about the size of a deck of cards. When unfolded, it’s generously sized, measuring a full 90-inches long by 39-inches wide, so you should be able to fit inside, even with your clothes on. The sleeping bag is a larger version of the ubiquitous space blanket and uses reflective material to capture your body heat to keep you warm. My Patriot Supply is currently selling these for $4 each. They are worth the investment, especially if you think you will ever be exposed to the elements for an extended timeline. I also keep one of these in my truck.
The third part of the emergency kit trilogy can be arguably the most important of the three in this particular time of need. Medical emergencies, especially in the form of nasty knife cuts, shark bites, broken teeth, broken bones, being impaled by 10/0 hooks, extreme blood loss, etc., must all be addressed quickly and with a high degree of effectiveness with the right tools. A failure to solve these problems can lead to potentially fatal results, especially since you’re many hours away from professional help. I know this for a fact since every one of these aforementioned medical problems has bitten me personally on the backside on my many hundreds of offshore trips over the past five decades.
While store-bought first aid kits are a good start, the ones I carry on my boat or away pack have a few more goodies that will turn a potential disaster into a harmless fish story with your buddies at the local watering hole. The basic first aid kits usually consist of items like adhesive and woven cloth bandages; adhesive tape; sterile gauze pads; trauma dressings; alcohol wipes; a cold pack; antibiotic ointment; non-aspirin extra-strength pain relievers, and motion sickness tablets. Over the years, I have found the need to add the following items to my medical kit: a generic form of crazy glue (Derma Bond to the Med Professionals); needles and sutures; quick clot; sterile scalpels; tweezers; clothing pins; a propane lighter; hydrocortisone/anti-inch cream; duct tape; pressure and packing dressings; trauma shears; Tac Pac Trauma Kit; an emergency blanket; heavy-duty stainless steel nail clippers; and a high-quality tourniquet.
If you think that these medical adders are superfluous gear, allow me to respectfully disagree. When the top of my left hand was raked by an angry 80-pound mako shark during tag and release ceremonies 20 years back, I put many of these bonus items to good use, including the crazy glue, a tourniquet, pressure dressings, the nail clipper, and duct tape. When you are 30-miles offshore and bleeding out, you’ll do some crazy “MacGyver” things to survive. The blood clot powder can be a real game-changer, and I have removed more than one hook from a customer’s extremities and a twin trolling hook from my ankle out in the Hudson Canyon. And how did it get there? Well, that’s yet another fish story for a later date. I had to take a few medical training courses, including CPR, to get my USCG Master’s License. I also went to high school and college with many friends who all became doctors and frequently got medical tips from them on how to handle a variety of situations when you are the only medic onboard. I am constantly training and learning something new.
Some Closing Thoughts
One conspicuously absent kit in this article was an essential damage control kit, which is a topic unto itself. Mechanical, electrical, fuel, and hull problems can vary widely, depending on the type of engines (outboard, inboard, gas, diesel, I/O, two-stroke, four-stroke, etc.) and the fuel source (gas or diesel). If you want me to work on the damage control kit concept, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I get enough reader response, we’ll put that piece together later this season. Let me know if you would add anything to the three emergency kits detailed here in this article and be safe.