It’s a pretty attractive examination, really: Pass it and get bragging rights, a decal, and self-confidence that comes from knowing you’re prepared for just about anything. Come up short and there’s no penalty — just the opportunity for a do-over after making your boat safer for you and those you love.
The exam is a Vessel Safety Check (VSC), performed free by a certified examiner with the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary or the U.S. Power Squadrons. At your request and by appointment, the examiner comes to your boat — ideally, when it’s in the water — and does a walk-through of required equipment and boat maintenance, gear that’s recommended but not required, and opportunities for safer boating yet.
That means life jackets, emergency signals and gear, and fire extinguishers — all up to date and in order. Life jackets of proper sizes, number and condition. Flares not having passed their expiration dates. Navigation lights correctly installed and functioning. Recommended gear includes radio, dewatering devices, first-aid kits, anchor and rope, and more. Systems on which you rely, such as electrical and plumbing.
And perhaps just as important, your examiner is prepared to offer information and advice on issues such as accident reporting, navigation charts and aids, float-plan filing, boating classes and many other boating subjects.
Mark Barros is a Florida-based VSC specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, active in that program for more than 20 years. He says examiners are advocates for boating safety, not enforcement officers. “It all leads back to our whole safety message,” Barros said. In recent years, he said, the VSC program has made a conscious effort to stress its safety and service roles. Meanwhile, “lately we’ve been seeing the boating public react more positively to our programs.” Barros sees some boaters return yearly for reinspection and a new VSC decal, their confidence restored that they and their boat are ready for enjoyable boating. (VSC checks are good for a single year.)
Some believe a sticker displayed makes it less likely for a routine boarding inspection by USCG or harbormaster, marine patrol or other law enforcement agency. Nice thought, but there’s no guarantee. The decal does, though, reassure you that you’d likely pass such an enforcement inspection with flying colors — and enjoy safer boating in the meantime!
And you can learn while earning the sticker. For one thing, examiners make it their business to know when boater education and other courses are available. Barros said he sometimes encounters boaters unsure of how to use equipment that came with the boat — such as the boater who had never used the onboard toilet because he or she doesn’t know how the system works. An examiner can explain procedures, rules and regulations, and set the stage for a more enjoyable boating experience.
One big problem? Barros says he’s seen an increasing number of life jackets bought online that are not USCG approved. “Great prices, and they look great, but they’re not acceptable” under federal and state rules, unless approved. “The [VSC] program can be really helpful to most boaters,” Barros said. “And over the years, we’ve learned how to be more helpful,” explaining how a system or piece of equipment works, and its importance, for example, rather than delivering a harsh enforcement message. VSCs are free and voluntary. Boats of 65 feet and less are eligible, including paddlecraft, personal watercraft, and even some inflatable boats.
To obtain a VSC, watch for a vessel-safety-check day at your marina (Barros’s flotilla conducts one each month at a local marina) or make an individual appointment through the vessel-safety-check website maintained jointly by the Auxiliary and the Power Squadrons, wow.uscgaux.info.
The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit uscgboating.org.