Ask the Experts: Boat Gear
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.””
Gearing up can be a decisive activity for boaters. The sheer variety and volume of available products in a large chandlery can induce panic in some, while uncensored boat nerd joy consumes others. Additionally, the increasingly techy scene adds a new layer of complexity and capability to boat stuff that many love while others avoid. With the cruising days of spring just around the corner, we sat down with David Farber, store manager of Fisheries Supply, to talk about everything gear, from safety equipment to electronic gizmos, defining 2018 Pacific Northwest boating.
Q: It’s boat show season, and there’s probably going to be plenty of new boat owners on the scene with all kinds of experience levels. What would you say to the new boat owner who needs to gear up?
Whether it’s a power or a sail boat, the first thing to do is go over the U.S. Coast Guard checklist of what’s required. A lot of people who buy a boat are surprised by how much is on the list and how little their new boat came with. Some brokers are really good about going through and helping customers with that. Often, production-style boats are pretty barebones, but specialized Coast Guard compliance kits are often for sale.
As far as safety gear, we’re talking about your fire extinguishers, pyrotechnics, safety lights, etc. Make sure the gear has official U.S. Coast Guard approval and that the life jacket situation is under control. You need to have the right number of life jackets aboard for the number of people on your boat.
Most marine stores will only carry U.S. Coast Guard-approved products, but of course there are exceptions to look out for. Around here, we get a lot of Canadian boaters in American waters and vice versa, so those Canadian regulations need to be considered as well.
Q: What are the differences in gear requirements between the USA and Canada?
As far as number of items, more are required in Canada, but the different item approvals can be a bit confusing. A product may be made with a particular market in mind, so it will have one approval but not the other, for example.
We [Americans] do luck out on overall expenditures. For example, in the States, a typical recreational boat just needs three visual signals, flares or lights, that can be seen day or night. Canada requires 12 visual devices. Some of them can be daytime only, like smokes. Vessels over a certain length also have to carry a fire axe and bucket. You do need to comply with Canadian regulations if you’re staying in their waters for a certain extended period of time. If you’re below that number of days, you can use the rules of the country of which the boat is flagged.
Q: As long as we’re on the topic of safety, can you go over the different life jacket styles? In your experience, what are the most popular and why?
The U.S. Coast Guard has their designations for life jackets (I, II, III, IV, and V), but that doesn’t matter too much for the boater. A U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket is a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket and counts regardless of the type it is. Those types matter more when there are paid passengers and paid crew aboard, for then the regulations are little different.
Type I is the sort of vintage horseshoe that goes over your head, and it keeps the wearer’s face above the water regardless of the wearer’s consciousness. They are often associated with what we put on kids in a canoe or kayak. When we think about keeping people safe on a boat, I think it’s important to keep comfort of use in mind. Some of them will turn people upright, while others are just made to be buoyant and will not turn a facedown wearer upright on its own. Just something to keep in mind. For those who tend to be kayaking, canoe, dinghy sailing, the traditional Type III’s are common.
Type IIIs are the ones that are used for waterskiing or wakeboarding. They tend to be more comfortable, but won’t naturally turn the wearer upright. However, a lifejacket worn is infinitely superior to no life jacket at all.
And then you have your inflatables [Type III or Type V] that range in style and pricing. You can pick up inflatables for around $100 that automatically inflate when they come in contact with water. I almost always recommend automatic inflating life jackets unless the wearer is doing an activity like flyfishing or paddleboarding, where they are in the water a lot and have more opportunity to manually pull the inflate tab in case of an emergency.
When it comes to serious open-water angling, sailing, being offshore, etc. and you’ve accidentally fallen overboard, something has gone very wrong. My feeling is that you want it to go off automatically in that kind of situation.
If somebody is doing something that’s active or close to the water, I prefer the traditional foam lifejacket (Type I, II, or III). They can provide some comfort when seated or leaning back against a seat, and it’s nicer to get wet, get dry, get wet again, and not have to worry about carrying re-arm kits. For cruising around on a sailboat or fishing on a powerboat, I’d say the inflatable will be the most comfortable for people.
Q: What would you say are the top things boaters tend to forget?
You want to check out things that will make your day nicer. If the boat has a head, have toilet paper. If it’s colder, bring extra layers. We’re in the Northwest, and the waters of Puget Sound are always around 50 degrees. Even on a warm 80-degree day, if you get some decent wind over the water it may get chilly.
There are a lot of nice added pieces of safety gear these days that are just good ideas. People with smaller boaters don’t always think about the need for a VHF radio as much, but they should. The do-everything smart device is nice for a lot of things, but it has its drawbacks as well. Smartphones aren’t built for being on the water, they are susceptible to moisture, they don’t float without specialty cases, and you can get out of cell phone range quite easily with the terrain that we have here.
Also, you don’t know the phone number of the stranger’s boat next to you in an emergency! For all these reasons and more, I always recommend that boaters have a VHF radio aboard regardless of vessel size. The scenarios are endless where a VHF makes the differences; you can be a small sailboat with a down mast and hailing a nearby powerboat for help saves the day, or you’re on your powerboat and the engine goes out – something that can happen when something as simple as a plastic bag gets sucked into it – and that radio links you to help.
Q: There is a giant variety of boating-related attire, some of it very niche or specialized. How do non-fashionista boaters proceed?
Boat clothing can be very diverse, but there is some crossover between different boating and land-based activities. Here in the Pacific Northwest, people tend to be familiar with what it takes to be in the outdoor environment. Skiing, snowboarding, hiking, backpacking, the same rules apply. You want to dress in layers for what environment you’re in. Cotton breathes great in warm environments, but can actually be dangerous in cold, wet environments. Around here, generally, it’s better to wear synthetic or wool thermal layers close to the skin. Jeans can get cold and wet, so fleece, rain pants, and spray tops are popular.
You can definitely use your outdoor or mountain gear for boating too! A lot of folks don’t like to do that because exposure to saltwater will start to aggressively break down the fabrics unless properly maintained.
Q: What about gear maintenance? Just about every little thing has associated maintenance that can increase its lifespan, no?
As with parts of a boat, maintaining helps. With fabrics, there’s protectants like 303 (303 Fabric Guard). Coating your fenders with a UV protectant makes them last longer. You can really get a lot of extra life. With clothing, people sometimes think you shouldn’t wash high-tech fabrics, but you should. Wash them with appropriate detergent.
Check your batteries, that’s something they tend to forget to do. Boats don’t get used as often as cars, while cars are regularly started and charging the batteries. If you have a traditional lead acid battery, you want to pop those open to make sure there’s water inside.
Q: Smart devices seem to be taking a more prominent role aboard. Do you have any thoughts about boat gear trends of 2018?
here have been some great innovations with regards to safety. For example, people are finding that it can be easy to accidentally let your pyrotechnic flares expire. Now, both Weems & Plath and Orion (common pyrotechnics manufacturers) are coming out with electronic LED signaling devices. Lights and flags may replace some pyrotechnics. Of course, if you’re going to a remote place with terrain visibility issues, having pyrotechnics is good. But if you’re in Lake Washington or Shilshole Bay, switching out the pyrotechnics for LED light visuals can be a good thing because you don’t need to worry about expiration or disposing of hazardous materials. Just make sure you have spare batteries.
In addition, there are a lot of nice signaling devices for when people fall overboard. There are a few MOB (Man Overboard) devices, one of which can be put into a wristband or neck lanyard. When that device strays more than 30 or so feet from the Bluetooth base, it will sound an alarm. You can even wire it so that the alarm cuts off a gas engine. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where this kind of setup could save a life, like if someone goes over while the other crewmate is below deck. Weems & Plath has come out with a large key fob that sends out an alarm to a cellular device when somebody goes over.
Another trend is that electronics are starting to do more. There are limitations to the handheld devices, partially because not a lot of effort is going into standalone handheld devices right now. For most companies, the focus is going into mobile smart devices that pair with an onboard device. For example, to get a proper GPS signal on your phone, you can pair it with an onboard device like the Garmin Glow, that feeds the info to your phone. It has the same 10-Hertz GPS receiver that their $10,000 systems have but for $99. There are other companies doing that kind of thing as well, that’s just one example.
Wireless technology onboard is taking off as well. If you really want to, you can monitor just about every system on your boat. We haven’t brought any companies like this on board yet at Fisheries, but we’re looking at a few different systems that you can wire up that either broadcast sensor information via cellular chip or Wi-Fi at a marina, and you can monitor all the systems on your boat from home. For example, if power’s out at the marina during a big storm, you can check on your bilge pump activity and battery power levels. I helped a gentleman a few years ago whose batteries were completely killed because his kids had gone out, left every system on, and didn’t recharge the boat. A monitoring system like I mentioned might’ve saved those batteries.
Chargers are becoming both more sophisticated and easier to use at the same time. The tradition has been to plug into shore power or alternator engine, but people who want to be conservative on fuel consumption try to run their generators a bit less. There’s a cultural aspect to the Pacific Northwest where boaters don’t want to disturb their neighbors with a loud genset first thing in the morning when you wake up, which is nice.
There are newer technologies in the electrical field that are growing. We’re carrying the EFOY (a division of global energy company SFC) fuel cells and they’re nice. You do have to keep in mind what they are meant to do. They won’t be dishing out a ton of power to charge all the batteries, run the water maker, watch TV, and run a microwave all at the same time. They are just meant to maintain your batteries. EFOY fuel cells replace solar in a lot of applications. I don’t know if I’d recommend it for the wild blue, but it runs on methanol and produces distilled water, which can be used for the batteries, and a little CO2.
Q: Our phones these days can do so much, and it’s cool, but are there some cons to that?
I think so. I equate it to putting all your eggs in one basket. When it comes to navigation, for example, I think it should be a secondary tool instead of primary. A lot of people are relying on the apps, and many of those apps are wonderful and comparable to a traditional chartplotter device. However, you are relying on the hardware provided by phone companies that is typically fragile, the GPS receivers aren’t nearly as good, the screens aren’t typically sunlight readable, and while some of the phones are getting better with water and weatherproofing, they are still not on the level of a Garmin or Raymarine chartplotter that are built to be exposed and rained on 24/7.
Also, some folks are relying on website information as primary navigation, like marinetraffic.com. Those websites are amazing, but people forget that the information on there is delayed. The information is travelling through relay stations, through servers, across the web, etc. You must remember where that information is coming from.
Q: What are your thoughts about the increasing use of AIS (automatic identification system) in the recreational sphere?
I think a growing number of people should have AIS on their boats. We sell AIS MOB devices that, if your boat has AIS aboard, it would put the distress signal on the chartplotter. If you look at the U.S., it’s certainly growing, but if you look at Europe, the number of users has gone up exponentially. There’s a lot of great safety considerations around here that AIS is good for, like the commercial marine traffic. The more AIS users, the more everyone is going to be aware of whose around them.
AIS also allows for direct calling, similar to VHF. If a boat has AIS and you have an AIS receiver, you can identify them and directly call them. It’s like doing a phone call almost. That’s definitely nice, and I think AIS is a great safety tool with an easier learning curve than radar. Of course, radar shows boats that don’t have an AIS device.
Q: Any words of advice to boaters planning to make the most out of boat show season?
Boat shows are a great time to look at these products. Fisheries Supply is going to have a lot of them on display at our booth at the Seattle Boat Show, and surrounding our booth tends to be a lot of manufacturers that we deal with. Now is a great time of year to think about doing those boat projects versus waiting until the big rush right before the spring and summer seasons. We hope we can help you out!