Federally Required Safety Equipment for Recreational Sailboats

Family on a sailing ship
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All sailboats operated in US waters must have certain equipment required by federal law. In addition, some states have additional requirements - be sure you know your state's laws.

The federal requirements vary depending on the boat's size and whether it has an engine and if so what type. Note that the following lists of requirements are accumulative. For example, a larger sailboat has certain requirements but must still meet the requirements listed earlier for smaller boats also.

All Sailboats of Any Size

  • Coast Guard-approved PFD for each person aboard - readily available
  • 1 buoyant throwable device (life ring, cushion with straps, etc.) - immediately available
  • 1 sound signal (handheld air horn or athletic whistle)
  • Appropriate navigational lights required at night and in areas of restricted visibility
  • For all boats with installed toilets, a certified marine sanitation device such as a holding tank

All Sailboats with Motors (In Addition to All the Above)

  • Must be state-registered or federally documented, and must carry papers
  • State-registered boats marked with 3-inch numbers on a forward hull
  • State registration stickers positioned by numbers
  • Documented vessels with vessel name and hailing port in 4-inch letters on the stern
  • Documented vessels with vessel number permanently mounted in the interior in 3-inch numbers
  • For boats with gas engines or tanks in enclosed spaces (built since 1940), a natural ventilation system with at least 2 ducts with cowls
  • For all boats built since July 1980, a rated power exhaust blower
  • For all gasoline engines (except outboards) since 1940, a backfire flame arrestor

All Sailboats Under 16 Feet (In Addition to All the Above)

  • 1 electric distress light, or 3 approved day/night red flares (required only at night)
  • 1 fire extinguisher type B-I (if an enclosed cabin)

All Sailboats 16-26 Feet (In Addition to All the Above)

  • An approved combination of day and night visual distress signals such as: (a) 3 combination day/night red flares (handheld, meteor, or parachute type), or (b) 1 orange distress flag (day) plus one electric distress light (night), or (c) 3 handheld or floating orange smoke signals (day) plus one electric distress light or 3 flares (night)
  • An all-around white anchor light (required when anchored at night)

All Sailboats 26-40 Feet (In Addition to All the Above)

  • 2 fire extinguishers type B-I or 1 type B-II fire extinguisher
  • For all boats, 39.4 feet (12 meters) or larger, a sound-signaling appliance audible for 1 half-mile sustained 4 to 6 seconds
  • Oil pollution placard permanently mounted near machinery space
  • Garbage placard displayed in a conspicuous place denoting discharge restrictions
  • For all boats 39.4 feet (12 meters) or larger (operating in US inland waters), a copy of the Inland Navigation Rules.

All Sailboats 40-65 Feet (In Addition to All the Above)

If you're not sure you have all the knowledge and skills you need for safe boating, check this list of safety topics included in boating safety courses to see you have any gaps to fill.