Emergency Preparedness for Boaters: 6 Steps You Can Take in the Off-Season

February 8, 2018

Day dreaming about boating season? As you plot and plan for a summer of fun and adventure, it’s also a good time to ensure you’ll be well prepared in case of an accident or emergency.

As the saying goes: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Here are 6 emergency preparedness steps you can take now—as you patiently (!) await the start of the season:
  1. Check basic safety requirements. Learn whether your boat meets minimum federal and state safety requirement by getting a vessel safety check from a member of the U.S. Power Squadrons or the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. It’s free!
  2. Determine your needs. Beyond the minimum safety requirements, make sure your safety gear and related devices are adequate for the type of boat you have and the type of excursions you’re planning to take. You may need to go beyond the prescribed minimums (you might want to check out our safety whistle and rescue streamer).
  3. Check your PFDs. Make sure you have enough PFDs for your family and other boating companions. Inspect and test inflatable life jackets for viability. If you have growing kids, make sure their life jackets still fit!
  4. Create a checklist. Create a checklist of inspection and maintenance tasks. Remember that many items must be inspected and maintained regularly to ensure they will be reliable if/when you need them.
  5. Familiarize your crew. Make sure your regular crew (yourself included!) knows how to operate—and where to find—each piece of safety equipment. That includes everything from fire extinguishers, lifelines, and bilge pumps to distress signals and VHF-FM marine radios.
  6. Learn (or review) CPR/First Aid: Take a Coast Guard-approved course in first aid and CPR and encourage your family and/or crew to do the same. If you’re already certified, take some time to review your training.



6 Tips and Tricks for Winter Boaters

January 23, 2018

Boating season? Pshaw!

If you’re the type of boater who hits the water all year round, you need to consider a number of issues that don’t apply to regular “boating season” folks.

Here are 6 key tips and tricks to keep you—and your boat—safe and sound on the winter waters.

1. Pack like a winter warrior.

  • You may not be attempting to summit Mount Everest, but you still need to take precautions against hypothermia. If you get wet in sub-freezing temperatures, your ability to get (and stay) warm can be a matter of life and death. Be sure to pack hand and foot warmers, a thermos with hot soup or a hot drink, an extra change of warm clothes (including gloves and dry socks), and anything else you may need to warm up fast.
  • If you’re a skier or snowboarder, you know goggles work much better than sunglasses to protect your eyes from the wind and cold. While you may not need to wear ski goggles for your entire boating excursion, it’s a good idea to bring a pair as backup protection from the biting wind.

2. Be storm-informed. Even if you live (and boat) in a place where winters are typically mild, it’s critical to be storm ready at all times. Make sure you’re well informed: sign up for alerts, and check the latest weather, water and tidal conditions before you head out on the water.

3. Carry an EPIRB.  As noted above, it’s important to be storm-informed. But despite your best efforts to avoid going on the water in bad weather, conditions can change rapidly. As such, winter boaters should carry a registered Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) for marine use and know how to use it.

4. Swap your life vest for float coat. Whenever you’re on the water, you should wear a personal flotation device (PFD). But in the winter, wearing a life vest along with your winter clothes can be pretty uncomfortable. A float coat is the perfect solution. These heavy-duty jackets have foam floatation built into the body and arms. The PFD insulation doesn’t just keep you afloat; it also adds a layer of warm insulation. In fact, many high quality float coats will keep you as warm as a winter parka.

5. Keep your battery topped up.  The last thing you want when you head out for a winter excursion is to find your boat’s battery weak or dead. To ensure you battery is well-charged, even after sitting idly for weeks in cold temperatures, keep it on a one-amp trickle-charge at all times.

6. Protect your plumbing.  Just like the plumbing in your house, you need to make sure any pipes or hoses on your boat don’t freeze in the winter—and subsequently burst or crack. Any accessories (like livewells, for example)—that don’t have seacocks to cut them off—can quickly fill up and freeze while you’re on the water. To prevent this, plug such accessories from the inside before you launch.

NOTE: In addition to these winter boating tips, be sure to take all your normal boating safety precautions, like filing a float plan with friends and family; creating a plan of action in case of an emergency or accident; and making sure your emergency supply kit is up to date.

Mapping the Fabled Northwest Passage

December 15, 2017

When Sarah Porter, a fourth-year student at the Marine Institute, was offered the opportunity to map the Northwest Passage this summer, she jumped at the chance.

“I was on a work term with the Centre for Applied Ocean Technology when my supervisor, Kirk Regular, offered me the opportunity to partner with the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) to survey through the Northwest Passage using their new shallow water multibeam system, Norbit,” said Ms. Porter. “As a student, I was so fortunate to have been trusted with such an incredible project.”

The fabled passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian Arctic, is one of the most unexplored areas of the ocean floor. Indeed, the last nautical chart production for the Northwest Passage is dated 1957.

As an ocean mapping and bachelor of technology student, Ms. Porter was well suited for the task. During the 28-day expedition, her job was to mobilize the Norbit system on a small boat and collect data during stops in Pond Inlet, Bellot Strait, and Cambridge Bay.

“To take a system, get familiar with it and its software, take it to the North and to survey areas that are unknown, with no charts, was an incredible experience,” she said.

Ms. Porter hopes the data she collected will be published at some point—and used to benefit boating activity in the North.

When the Northwest Passage was discovered in the mid-1800s, it was expected to provide a major shipping shortcut from Europe to Asia. Until recently, however, the presence of thick, year-round sea ice made the route virtually impassable—and extremely dangerous.

Today, however, average annual temperatures in the Arctic are warming, and the sea ice is melting. As a result, open water in the Northwest Passage is beginning earlier in the year and lasting longer. Although the passage is still not practical or safe for commercial shipping, there has been a recent increase in “destinational” traffic—small boats, private yachts, and occasional cruise ships.

As the ice continues to melt in the Northwest Passage, and vessel traffic continues to increase, sea floor mapping will play a crucial role—both for the safety of mariners and the health of the environment.

“I love the ocean and I really enjoy discovering the unknown underneath,” said Ms. Porter. “I think it’s crucial to know what our sea floor is all about.”



My Favorite Chart Format

December 4, 2017

Bob Sweet, Senior Navigator

So many charts! So many formats! How do you choose?

Selecting the right charts to cover your route is only half the battle. Once that’s done, you need to choose your formats. Do you want your charts rolled or would you rather have them folded? Mapfold, trifold or folio? Waterproof or water-resistant?

It’s nice to have choices. But too many options can be paralyzing.

In the end, we just need a format that works the way we want, when we want it. Something that’s easy to pick out and use.

I’ve used all the chart formats for various situations, but there is one format that sticks out way ahead of the others. OceanGrafix calls it the “Small Format” chart.

Five Reasons to Love the Small Format Chart:

  1. SIZE: At 21-inches wide, small format charts are perfect for use at the helm, on a chart table, or even on your lap. Even though the width is less than the full-size NOAA charts (which are typically 36 inches), you need not worry that information is missing. The small format chart is split and printed on both sides, with a large overlap. To find the rest, just flip it over.
  2. SCALE: They are not rescaled like the charts you’ll find in chartbooks and many waterproof formats. Small format charts are full size—which means the scale is consistent with your plotting tools. They are also easy to read, with no squinting to read reduced-size copy.
  3. FOLD: Small format charts come pre-folded like a map, which is great for a couple reasons. Closed, the title and chart number are right on the top, so it’s easy to pick out the one you want. Plus, you can stack a whole bunch of charts in a relatively small space—and quickly pull out just what you need.
  4. DESIGN: They are flip-fold—and printed North-up, with the long dimension along the shoreline—so you can open up the chart to just where you need it. Assuming you’re running along the shore, the small format chart will always unfold along your path.
  5. PAPER: Printed on quality, water-resistant paper, these are durable charts. You can write on them to plot courses or make notes (which you can’t do on your chartplotter)—or just glance ahead for interesting places to view or visit. And because they aren’t printed until you order them, they always have the latest information.



When Hurricanes Strike, NOAA Helps Speed Re-Opening of Ports

October 29, 2017

After a damaging storm, ports will only operate when it is safe for navigation.

When a hurricane hits, the U.S. Coast Guard calls on NOAA navigation response teams to conduct emergency hydrographic services—to map the ocean floor for hidden debris or shoaling that might pose a danger to navigation. Their work is essential to speeding the re-opening of ports and waterways.

According to the Office of Coast Survey, the faster NOAA teams can notify USCG of its findings, the faster the ports can re-open and resume shipping—allowing goods and services to enter.


Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on September 21, 2017, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure of many critical ports—and preventing vessels with critical fuel supplies and commodities from entering safely.

On September 23, NOAA’s mobile integrated survey team (MIST)—which can set up equipment and manpower quickly on a vessel of opportunity—arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to conduct emergency hydrographic surveys in the Port of Arecibo, an important fuel and chemical port.

NOAA Photo Library Photo Credit: ship1010

On September 24, while the MIST was conducting its emergency surveys, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson—a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean—departed Port Everglades, Florida, for San Juan. Upon its arrival on September 28, Thomas Jefferson deployed its launches and delivered supplies to NOAA’s National Weather Service at the USCG small boat pier.

But Thomas Jefferson’s mission didn’t stop there. The ship was also tasked with the following duties:

  • Providing equipment needed to repair the NOAA tide gauge station in San Juan
  • Traveling to Ponce, a large city on Puerto Rico’s southern coast, to deploy launches to survey the deep draft channel—a crucial step to re-opening the port
  • Performing a complete side scan sonar survey to locate a crane that was potentially knocked into the water during the storm and to check for any other obstructions in the channel and port
  • Conducting additional survey operations, based on USCG priority, to help re-open ports from Puerto Rico to St. Croix
  • Conducting surveys to update charts in the affected areas

“NOAA is really proud that the Thomas Jefferson has arrived in Puerto Rico to help the United States Coast Guard and the local port authorities to restore the full capacity of the island’s sea ports,” said Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “The people of Puerto Rico need the transportation infrastructure restored to bring relief to the stricken and rebuild their lives after this tragic storm.”

How to Select Charts: A Cheat Sheet for Boaters

October 15, 2017

NOAA has a massive library of charts, which they continually update. With so many charts available, how do you know which ones you’ll need?

Here are two key pointers to get you started:

  • Get only the charts you need. Clearly, your charts should cover the entire route you will travel. But since for many boaters there’s a storage issue (as well as costs) associated with charts, you don’t want to load up on more than you actually need.
  • Ensure your charts are up to date. Charts are continuously being updated based on information from a variety of sources. Depending on the area of boating, you should consider updating your charts regularly.

We’ve created the “cheat sheet” below to help you select the right charts for your next voyage.

Chart Selection By Region


  1. Get each of the 1:80,000 scale charts between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: 1:80,000 scale charts provide end-to-end coverage from the Canadian border in Maine to the Mexican border in Texas. Each offers about 50 miles of coverage along the coast. They are presented North-Up (which makes it easier to “get your bearings”) and provide sufficient detail for safely navigating in the near coastal area they cover.
  2. Optionally, select more detailed charts for harbors you intend to visit.
    Explanation: There are more detailed charts (e.g. 1:40,000, 1:20,000, 1:10,000, or even 1:5,000 scales in some places) that provide coverage along the way. These charts mainly provide supplemental coverage of local harbors or regions. You may also want these more detailed charts for those harbors you intend to visit along the way.
  3. If you intend on traveling the ICW, select the corresponding 1:40,000 scale strip charts.
    Explanation: In some places, more detailed charts of 1:40,000 scale provide contiguous end-to-end coverage. They are rotated to align with the shoreline, focus near the coastline, and include the ICW. They don’t need much width, so they are printed end-to-end, side-by-side, to double the overall length of coverage. If you intend on taking the ICW, add the appropriate 1:40,000 charts to your list.



  1. Get each of the end-to-end contiguous charts (generally around 1:200,000 scale) between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: Much of the Pacific coastline is devoid of harbors in Washington, Oregon and California—so there’s little reason for NOAA to provide detailed charts. Therefore, the end-to-end contiguous charts are generally around 1:200,000 scale in these areas. If this is part of your planned voyage, you’ll want these charts—each of which is presented North-Up and covers 100-150 nautical miles North-South.
  2. Optionally, select more detailed charts for harbors you intend to visit.
    Explanation: For those few harbors along the way, there are more detailed charts. Given the distance between them, you’ll probably want to get all of those you consider stopovers.
  3. If you intend on cruising the Puget Sound or interior Washington and the region, select the appropriate 1:40,000 scale charts.
    Explanation: There are lots of charts available for these areas. Your decision of which to get will be based on which waterways you intend to traverse and which islands and harbors you will visit. The larger area coverage is best reflected in 1:40,000 scale charts.
  4. If you’re planning to visit any islands off the coast of California, you don’t need any additional charts.
    Explanation: There are a number of islands, such as the Channel Islands off San Francisco, Catalina and San Clemente, where 1:20,000 scale charts are available. However, since these islands are all well within the coverage of the respective 1:200,000 scale coastal charts, you don’t really need them.



  1. Get each of the contiguous charts between your starting point and intended destination.
    Explanation: The contiguous charts are 1:120,000 scale, North-Up in Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, and 1:80,000 in Lakes Erie and Ontario. NOAA creates charts for the U.S. side, and CHS (Canadian Hydrographic Service) creates charts for the Canadian side. The CHS charts provide contiguous North-Up coverage and vary from around 1:20,000 to around 1:80,000 scale.

Do a lot of boating in various US regions? If you boat locally in a number of regions around the country, you may want to consider getting one of NOAA’s small-craft folios. Each folio contains a collection of charts showing the extended shorelines in various scales and orientations, with generally greater detail than is available on other charts.


NOAA Proposes National Marine Sanctuary to Preserve Historic Shipwrecks in Lake Michigan

October 4, 2017

Thunder Bay 2010 Expedition, NOAA-OER (expl4133)

In Lake Michigan, a 1,075 square-mile area spanning Wisconsin’s shoreline is home to a historic graveyard of sunken ships. NOAA is proposing to designate the area as a national marine sanctuary.

According to NOAA, “The shipwrecks in this proposed sanctuary represent a cross-section of vessel types that played critical roles in the expansion of the United States and the development of the Midwest during the 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period entrepreneurs and shipbuilders launched tens of thousands of ships of many different designs, with eastbound ships carrying grain and raw materials, and westbound vessels carrying coal, manufactured goods, and settlers.”

“These shipwrecks really tell us the history of how shipping was the engine of the American economy,” said Russ Green, NOAA regional coordinator. “There’s a huge legacy of risk, sometimes tragedy, personal stories of innovation, entrepreneurship—all locked into this proposed area.”

The proposed sanctuary site includes:

  • 37 known historic shipwrecks, 18 of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places
  • About 80 potential shipwrecks yet to be discovered
  • Wisconsin’s two oldest shipwrecks, dating to the 1830s

What’s more, many of the shipwrecks in Lake Michigan are still in relatively good shape—thanks to the cold, salt-free water, which helps preserve iron and wood, as well as the cold temperature, which helps prevent deterioration.

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, “Divers have found many [of the sunken ships] with masts still standing, unbreached hulls, and even one with nautical charts still stowed in the drawers of the wheelhouse—something that would be unlikely in ocean waters.”

Unfortunately, a population explosion of zebra mussels (which cling to the sunken ships and rapidly reproduce) poses a serious risk to the structural integrity of the ships.

But the zebra mussels aren’t all bad. Because they can filter a liter of water a day, they’ve helped improve the water clarity. In fact, since their introduction in 1990, underwater visibility has improved from 5-10 feet up to 80-100 feet. The improved clarity in the lake makes it easier to find new shipwrecks, as well as to view and study them.

If the Wisconsin site receives national marine sanctuary designation, it would bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal resources each year. It would be the first national marine sanctuary in Lake Michigan and the second in the Great Lakes.

According to NOAA, the proposed national marine sanctuary designation does not include restrictions on commercial or recreational fishing. The scope of the proposed sanctuary regulations are narrowly focused on maritime heritage resources.

NOAA is expected to make its decision on the proposal by next year. Before the designation would become effective, Governor Scott Walker has 30 days to review the documents.