Some of you, especially divers, may recall the tragedy in late 2019 with the dive boat Conception catching fire near Santa Barbara, California. Shortly after, the conflagration of the Red Sea Aggressor I liveaboard happened. Both tragedies resulted in a tragic loss of life.
Of course, the final responsibility for safety lies with the boat captain, but it’s good to know the safety conditions when you’re checking charter boats. These become paramount on multi-day trips where you stay onboard overnight or head out far away from shore.
Below, you will find some general guidelines to evaluate your safety when checking out charter boat options. However, depending on the activity, the distance from shore, the region of the world, and the sea conditions, you may need different safety equipment. A cruise ship would have far more extensive requirements (by law) than a dinghy.
In any case, the boat crew should brief you about the safety protocols aboard the vessel. Pay attention to it – that’s your responsibility.
Name and Credibility of the Boat Charter
No matter when or where you’re looking for a charter boat, the first thing to check is the organization’s reputation. Along with that, if possible, you should try and get an idea of the upkeep of the boat and how they inform the staff.
One thing to consider is the general reputation of the company. Similar to airliners, some have an excellent safety record while others have a terrible safety record. So doing your online research is a good start for a first assessment.
Maintenance, of course, is closely related to reputation. A lack of maintenance will sooner or later lead to a bad reputation.
Still, if you are about to book a charter boat on the spot, you can decide for yourself if the boat deserves your confidence. If the boat itself is in a questionable state (rust, dirt, damage), you may wonder how well the machinery is maintained. Has the engine been serviced according to the schedule? Is the safety equipment present and in a usable condition?
Not only the passengers need to be briefed, but the crew needs to be briefed beforehand as well. The crew needs to know the safety drills, just as the flight attendants in an aircraft know the emergency procedures. You may get a good impression of this by meeting the company staff. Your gut feeling will lead you in the right direction.
Technology and Machinery
Number of engines
From my personal experience as a diver, I like to pay attention to the engines. I worked in locations where the higher-end dive centers had two outboard engines on the boats, while other dive centers only had one.
Considering the weather circumstances, I was happy to be on a boat with two outboard motors. I am a big fan of redundancy. What if there is just one engine, and it blocks for some reason?
Truth be told, boats may have an auxiliary outboard motor that’s not directly in sight, but could be installed if necessary.
Especially in areas with limited coverage or without cell phone coverage, marine radios are essential equipment to communicate with other ships or with receivers at the shore.
The crew can use the radio in cases of emergency to contact rescue services. Marine radios operate on specific channels – channel 16 is the international frequency for distress calls.
Water may come inside the boat because of waves or rain. A damaged hull may also cause the boat to take on water, for example after hitting a shallow reef or a rock formation that was not detected in time by the captain.
In these cases, a bilge pump can be used to remove water from the lowest compartment of the ship. In very small boats, buckets will be enough to remove any excess water.
If the water level rises too high, the bilge pumps will switch on to get rid of the excess water (either automatically or manually).
For boats used in diving expeditions, an oxygen kit is essential. If a diver shows symptoms of decompression illness, he or she should be administered 100% medical-grade oxygen.
Oxygen kits typically come in green, waterproof boxes. The crew, you, or your dive buddies should be familiar with the usage of oxygen kits. As a diver, you may learn this during a diver course, in general first aid training, or in a specific oxygen provider course.
Just a small note still on sailboats. If you look to rent a small sailboat, you may opt to have a backup sail as well.
There must be a life jacket for every individual on board the vessel. If you are taking children on the trip, assure yourself there are enough kid-sized jackets.
Life jackets are especially important if you go further away from the shore. I can imagine that a dinghy may not have them at all times, due to limited space, but then it’s your decision whether you feel comfortable or not.
The best life jackets support the head and will turn an unconscious person face-up. That’s why a typical BCD, which divers use, is not considered a life jacket, as it allows the face to go down into the water if the person overboard is unconscious.
Throwable Flotation Devices
The safest way to help someone overboard is to throw a flotation device. This also prevents you, as a rescuer, from entering the water and thus keeps yourself safer.
The most well-known flotation device is the ring buoy that you often see at swimming pools or lakes. However, it could be any floating device that you can throw towards a person in the water. Preferably it has a rope attached in order to pull it back to the boat. Obviously, these have to be readily available on the deck.
Cruise ships and liveaboards may host tens or hundreds of passengers, so there should be enough deployable lifeboats on these kinds of vessels. In the case of a major threat on board, these are the only way to survive on open water.
Fire on a boat is the last thing you want. After all, there is no way to escape, except into the possibly freezing or shark-infested water (or on a lifeboat, if you’re lucky).
Either way, you don’t want to be in the water, not even with a life jacket. If you are below deck, you might not even have that escape route anyway.
At the beginning of your journey, find out where the fire extinguishers are located. They should be near the fire-prone areas, but far enough away from the fire source to safely reach them in case of an emergency. They also have an expiration date which you could check.
Mostly important on bigger ships, but keep your eyes open for possible escape routes. Where are the emergency exits? Do you spot emergency exit signs? Are the escape hatches not blocked? What are the possibilities to reach the upper deck from your sleeping cabin?
It is always a good idea to have first aid kits available, not just on boats. But a boat needs to be self-sufficient, as there is no immediate external help available.
You may not only want to rely on the boat, but have your personal kit as well. You will find them in all sizes, as you can see with the Red Cross.
The boat should have complete kits onboard which are regularly checked on their expiration dates, and trained people who know how to apply first aid.
Flares are an essential part of the emergency tools a boat should have on board. They are used to send a visual distress signal.
Most types emit light and/or smoke to attract attention, and they are either handheld or fired in the air.
Prepare yourself. Think about your swimming capabilities, follow a first aid training program, act responsibly on the boat, listen to the briefings, and follow the instructions from the crew.
You can find more tips on this guide to water safety.