Vessel Safety Check an Annual Benefit for Boating Anglers

Stay as safe as possible on the water with an annual United States Coast Guard inspection.
U.S. Coast Guard vessel safety inspection
Recreational boats that pass a vessel safety check conducted by a U.S. Coast Guard-approved vessel examiner receive a VSC decal for the year. Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

An annual vessel safety check (VSC) represents one of the most important safety steps you can take as a boating angler. This 15-point inspection is conducted by U.S. Coast Guard-approved vessel examiners — all volunteer members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadrons. An easy, natural reminder occurs this month during the annual National Safe Boating Week.

A VSC takes about 20 to 30 minutes, and if your boat passes, it receives a VSC annual decal, which is placed on the port side of the cabin or console.

U.S. Coast Guard vessel safety inspection
A vessel safety check is free and takes around 20 to 30 minutes. Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

“The purpose of a VSC is to ensure that recreational boaters have the appropriate safety equipment, it is in good order and they know how to use it,” says Harry Jacobs, a 37-year member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and an approved vessel examiner in Southern California.


“A VSC is free, and your participation is completely voluntary,” Jacobs says. “Although we are required to wear uniforms that look similar to those worn by members of the Coast Guard, auxiliarists are not law-enforcement personnel, so boaters should not be intimidated by the uniform.” There are no consequences for boaters who do not receive a decal.

Lifejacket check on boat
Vessel examiner Harry Jacobs inspects life jackets and throwable cushions to ensure that all are functional. Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

Learning About Boating Safety

I arrange for a VSC aboard my 22-foot center console fishing boat every year, often in early spring, and on more than one occasion, I have discovered safety issues. For example, during the most recent VSC, Jacobs pointed out that each life jacket should have a whistle attached. I did not know that. He gave me a whistle for each jacket on board.

My boat usually passes, but not always. One year, for example, an inspection of my flare kit by the examiner, a member of the Power Squadrons, revealed that water had leaked inside, very likely ruining the flare cartridges, so I didn’t receive the decal. But a week later, I met with the examiner again — this time I had a new flare kit — and my boat passed.


Over 50 percent of boats don’t receive a decal on the first try, says Jacobs. Yet, boat owners should not consider that a failure but rather an opportunity to make their vessels as safe as possible, he adds.

flares on fishing boats
Expired flares are a common issue found on boats during the inspection. Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

Common Reasons for Not Passing Safety Check

“Whether or not a decal is awarded, the captain receives a VSC checklist,” Jacobs explains. “That list outlines what is required for the boat to receive a decal. “That gives the boater the guidance to obtain the required equipment or fix any issues and then arrange for another VSC.”

Sometimes, an examiner can fix the problem on the spot. For example, boats with an LOA of 26 feet or greater with an engine room are required to post a pollution placard or decal. Many examiners carry these signs to give to captains who don’t have them, ­resolving the issue immediately.

flares on fishing boats
Flares have expiration dates telling you when each requires replacement. Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

Jacobs says some of the most ­common reasons for a boat not to pass include:

• No boat registration
Discharged fire extinguisher
• Malfunctioning navigation lights
Lack of age-appropriate life jackets (when children are aboard)
• Improper letters/numbers or ­spacing of the state registration ­number on the boat
• Expired or insufficient number of signal flares

When it comes to replacing expired flares, Jacobs is quick to advise boaters to look closely at the expiration dates on the new flares. “Make sure the flares are not ‘short-dated,’” he says. “Some flares sit on the shelf for a year or more at the store.” Make sure the flares you buy are freshly stocked and that they don’t expire for at least three years.

vessel safety inspection on boat
Making sure boaters have a de-watering device such as a bucket or bilge pump is part of a Vessel Safety Check (VSC). Safe Boating Week is May 20-26 this year, which serves as a natural reminder to request an annual VSC. Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

Important Boating-Safety Topics to Discuss

In addition to VSC decal ­requirements, the examiner will take some time to discuss with you a number of recommended items related to boating safety. These include topics such as the importance of having a VHF radio, anchor and rode, first-aid kit, navigation equipment and boater education, as well as accident reporting, weather concerns, fuel management and ­insurance considerations.

VSCs also now include a ­discussion of how recreational boaters can aid authorities when it comes to drug interdiction and homeland security by being mindful of suspicious activities and reporting them immediately to law enforcement. Boating anglers in particular are in a position to eyeball nefarious characters on the water. The Coast Guard and U.S. Customs ­encourage everyone to speak up.

safety inspection decal for boats
Requesting a safety check is simple, and if your boat passes, you’ll get one of these decals showing your boat meets safety standards. Jim Hendricks / Sport Fishing

How to Request a VSC

There are two ways to arrange for a VSC. You often can find members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary or Power Squadrons conducting VSCs at popular launch ramps and marinas on ­weekends during the boating season.

Most of the time, these VSCs are ­conducted on a first-come, first-served basis, so you might have to wait for an examiner to become available. Also, you will need to allocate time for the VSC itself, which might not be convenient if you’re anxious to go fishing or tired from a long day on the water and in a hurry to get home.

However, you can also schedule a VSC at a more convenient place, such as at your house if your boat is on a trailer or at the marina if your boat’s in the water. You can also work with an examiner on a mutually convenient time to conduct the VSC.

To schedule a VSC, visit and click on the link for “Get Vessel Safety Check.” The website also offers a self-administered safety check; click on “Virtual Safety Check.”

Safety Inspections for Canoes, Kayaks and Stand-Up Paddleboards

Although recreational boating accidents and fatalities steadily declined from 2012 to 2015, last year saw a spike in fatalities, says Capt. F. Thomas Boross, chief director of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

“During July and August 2016, the United States had the highest number of fatalities in five years, most of which were attributed to paddle-craft accidents,” Boross said in a speech to auxiliary members in St. Louis, Missouri, in January.

As a result of this revealing data, VSCs have been expanded to include a focus on canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, says Jacobs, who currently serves with the District II Public Affairs Detachment in Southern California.

“We need to bring paddle-craft enthusiasts into the boater-education community,” says Jacobs. Examiners are now conducting VSCs for paddle craft and issuing decals for canoes, kayaks and SUPs meeting requirements that include a sound-making device, a life jacket, a white navigation light, visual distress signals and more. – JH

For more tips, click the link below to learn the top helpful marine hardware items for boating anglers.

Helpful Marine Hardware for Anglers