Paddlecraft vessel safety checks

Jim Greenhalgh


As an experienced paddler and vessel examiner, I know that many paddlers don’t see themselves as boaters and rarely take boating safety courses. Paddle sports organizations usually teach only physical paddling skills with little or no emphasis on boating safety rules and regulations.

Because they don’t see their craft as vessels, paddlers often paddle through marked no-vessel zones, swim areas and other restricted zones. Photos posted on social media show paddlers wearing non-U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, night paddling with improper navigation lights, paddling through vessel exclusion zones, and even posing beside large ships docked within homeland security zones.

Use vessel safety checks to educate paddlers

Paddlers need to know the vessel safety laws that apply to their sport. The Vessel Safety Check Program is one way America’s Boating Club and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary can bring that education to the paddling community.

As a vessel examiner, I convey basic boating safety education to paddlecraft owners during vessel safety checks. I start by emphasizing that paddlecraft are boats and they are operators. In other words, as skippers, they have the same rights and responsibilities as the operator of any vessel—be it a kayak or cruise ship. I encourage boat owners to take a boating safety course like America’s Boating Course or to at least review “A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats” to gain knowledge beyond physical boat handling skills.

How to perform a paddlecraft vessel safety check

The U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Safety Check Manual, used by all USCG-approved vessel examiners, includes a chapter dedicated to paddlecraft. Chapter 5 provides the necessary information for any vessel examiner to conduct a paddlecraft vessel safety check even if they aren’t paddlers.

Vessel examiners can provide owners and operators with the latest boating safety information while performing paddlecraft vessel safety checks. Here’s a review of what you need to know.

A vessel examiner records the hull number on a kayak.

While a hull identification number isn’t required on paddlecraft, most canoes and kayaks have HINs. Usually found on the exterior starboard side stern, either on the hull or on top of the deck, most use the standard 12-digit format. Even companies that offer paddlecraft construction kits include HIN plates in the materials package.

Occasionally, you will find the HIN elsewhere on the boat. One of my sea kayaks, made in Estonia, has a HIN that doesn’t follow the standard 12-digit format, and it’s located inside the cockpit beside the seat. When doing a paddlecraft vessel safety check, you may have to search a little, but you can usually find a HIN unless it is a scratch-built boat or a stand-up paddleboard. Some SUP brands display a HIN while others do not.

Paddlecraft have fewer minimum requirements than power- or sailboats, making a paddlecraft vessel safety check easier to perform. Besides ensuring that the boat and paddle(s) are in safe, seaworthy condition, the minimum required safety equipment includes a USCG-approved life jacket and a whistle, the minimum required sound device.

Paddlers operating at night must display navigation lights following Rule 25 of the Navigation Rules. (A white flashlight that can be shown in sufficient time to prevent collision meets this requirement.) If operating at night in open water, the paddler must carry the required visual distress signals.

A vessel examiner checks a life jacket and whistle while performing a vessel safety check on a canoe.

Vessel examiners should pay particular attention to the life jacket to ensure that it is USCG-approved. Several popular PFDs being marketed to the paddle racing community are not USCG-approved. Manufactured outside of the U.S., these life jackets are popular with surf ski racers. Although marketed as being “approved,” closer inspection reveals that they are approved by various international racing associations, not the U.S. Coast Guard. These Level 50-range devices provide about 11 pounds of lift and aren’t USCG-approved for use on recreational vessels.

The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 33, Part 175.17(b) exempts paddlers using racing shells, rowing sculls, racing canoes and racing kayaks from PFD carriage requirements under Part 175.15. Part 175.3 defines racing paddlecraft as a “vessel that is recognized by a national or international racing association for use in competitive racing.” Unfortunately, more and more paddlers are wearing unapproved racing PFDs when operating regular non-racing paddlecraft. Most don’t know they’re carrying an unapproved life jacket that could subject them to a citation if inspected by law enforcement.

The remaining portions of the paddlecraft vessel safety check review recommended equipment and subjects all paddlers should consider. This area offers the best opportunity for vessel examiners to provide paddlecraft operators with useful education and free educational handouts. Subjects listed in the recommendations include dewatering, dressing for immersion, basic navigation, and rescues, among others. One important subject on the recommended list is marine VHF. More paddlers are carrying marine VHF radios, but due to a lack of education, many don’t understand operating procedures and may operate on unauthorized channels.

After completing an exam, the vessel examiner provides the owner/operator with a completed copy of the VSC 7012A form, which contains educational information on the reverse side, as well as a copy of the USCG brochure “A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats.” I highly recommend that all paddlers read this booklet. If paddlers study the information in this booklet, their knowledge of boating safety rules and regulations will surpass that of most other paddlers. Additional handouts can be offered regarding state law, Aids to Navigation (ATONS), marine VHF, and the new PFD labeling system. Vessel examiners should also carry a stock of the orange USCG paddlecraft ID stickers and Paddle Tip Reflector Kits for paddlers who don’t have them.

Each year the U.S. Coast Guard spends a great deal of time and money on search and rescue missions for empty or adrift paddlecraft. A Vessel Identification Sticker, properly filled out with a name and two telephone numbers, allows the Coast Guard to immediately contact the vessel’s owner, preventing an unnecessary search and rescue mission. It can also help owners retrieve their boats much faster.

Vessel Identification Stickers can help prevent unnecesssary search and rescue operations and get you reunited with your wayward canoe or kayak much faster.
Paddle Tip Reflectors increase paddlers' visibility in open water.

The Paddle Tip Reflector Kit is a set of four Mylar reflectors. When applied to the tips of both sides of a paddle blade, they create a reflective glint from the sun to increase a paddler’s visibility. By making paddlers more visible to other boaters, they increase their safety in open water. In optimal light conditions, the reflectors flash like strobes and can be seen as far away as the horizon. In shallow water, they take quite a beating and should be reserved for use on paddles used in open water.

Get a vessel safety check

All paddlers can take advantage of the free education offered through the Vessel Safety Check Program. You can schedule a vessel exam today at

Become an examiner

The Vessel Safety Check Program is a great way to bring boating safety education to paddlers who don’t see themselves as boaters and are unaware of boating rules and regulations. If you want to become a USCG-approved vessel examiner and get involved in this interesting and important educational program, please contact your squadron’s Vessel Safety Check Committee or the national Safety Committee. Additional help is always welcome.

Jim Greenhalgh

Jim Greenhalgh of St. Petersburg Sail & Power Squadron/22 is a senior navigator, vessel examiner, and instructor, having taught boating safety and navigation since 1991. He draws on his vast sail and powerboating experience as a lifelong boater and avid sea kayaker. Jim leads trips for the Kayak Adventure Group, a sea kayaking club based on Florida’s west coast that he co-founded. He also wrote Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft, a must-read for all paddlers.

United States Power Squadrons, America's Boating Club logo

The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.

Paddler? Know the rules

Download your free copy of Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft and make the most of every minute you spend on the water.

Download Navigation Rules for Paddlecraft PDF