6 items that could save your life if you're lost at sea

Flotation devices, distress signals, homing beacons & float plan are key

By Jenese Harris - Reporter/anchor, Garrett Pelican - Digital executive producer

The search continues for two firefighters who remain lost at sea. Jacksonville firefighter Brian McCluney and Justin Walker, a fellow firefighter from Virginia, set out from Port Canaveral early Friday aboard McCluney’s boat. McCluney’s brother alerted the Coast Guard when the pair did not return.

Rescuers led by the Coast Guard covered 24,000 miles in the first two days of the search that has reached far south as Brevard County all the way up to North Carolina. Crews caught a break Monday when a tackle bag belonging to one of the men was found about 50 miles offshore of St. Augustine.

CHECKLIST: Federal boating safety rules | INFOGRAPHIC: By-the-numbers breakdown of search

The pair’s disappearance is a reminder to boaters about the importance of having safety equipment in case of an emergency. It’s crucial that boaters plan for the worst-case scenario and pack accordingly, so they can let someone know if something goes wrong and so that searchers know where to look.

Personal flotation devices

It’s illegal to go boating without having a personal flotation device for everyone on board, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. These PFDs must meet requirements outlined by the Coast Guard, they should fit their wearers and be handy in the event of an emergency. Any children under the age of 6 must be wearing their life jackets when the boat is in motion. Visit the Coast Guard’s website to learn more, or check out state requirements via FWC’s page.

Visual distress signals

Visual distress signals

Any boat that measures 16 feet or longer must have visual distress signals on board, according to the Coast Guard. And here in Florida, you're required to have at least three of these devices on any boat shorter than that. But flares and flags are a good supply to have handy on any boat. If your boat breaks down or begins taking on water, signals like these can let anyone nearby know you're in trouble and help them zero in on your exact location. See which kind of signals you need.

Sound-producing devices

Like visual distress signals, sound-making devices can come in handy when you're stranded or get into trouble out on the water, especially when there's low visibility. Your boat likely has a horn installed, but you should also have some sort of handheld device, like an air horn or whistle. These supplies are both affordable and effective at getting someone's attention. You're required to have them on board for boats of certain lengths, but they're just another way you can let someone know you need help.

Have an EPIRB handy

EPIRBs

Make sure your boat is equipped with an emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB. These devices send out distress signals in case of an emergency. According to NOAA, these devices come in two varieties: Category I and II. A Category I beacon should be mounted in a place where it can detach and float to the surface. Category II beacons must be activated manually, so it should be stored in a place where it can be easily reached. It’s important to register your EPIRB with the Coast Guard.

Keep a personal beacon

Like EPIRBs, personal locator beacons (PLBs) can be the difference between life and death when you are lost at sea. In fact, according to NOAA, they helped save the lives of 122 individuals in 2016 alone. Unlike EPIRBS, PLBs are devices you carry, and they can only be activated by hand. Once activated, they send out distress signals to help rescuers pinpoint your location. As with EPIRBs, registering your PLB is key. To register yours or to learn more about the registration process, visit NOAA’s website.

Make a float plan

Even though a float plan isn’t necessary for an afternoon on the water, the Coast Guard suggests telling someone where you’re going and when you are due back. But when it comes to lengthier boat trips, it’s recommended that you make a written float plan, including a description of your boat, an inventory of the people and safety equipment on board, your location and your expected time of arrival. Give a copy of the float plan to a loved one and keep them updated on your progress throughout the trip.

If you're not sure you've covered all your bases, the Coast Guard has put together a complete guide to boating safety. There you'll find a list of equipment you're required to bring on the boat, a sample float plan form you can fill out, plus safety and survival tips that can help you out in a pinch.

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