Sailing, like many other sports, grows its own set of necessary accompanying gear. It may start with a boat but you’ll soon find there’s other equipage that is useful to have aboard. Legally, the requirements for some of the safety items vary with the size of boat and where it sails. The other non-regulated items on our list of 20 things to have should be aboard most boats regardless of their size and use.
PFDs and throwables
Life jackets and wearable personal flotation devices (PFDs) must be aboard (Type I, II, or III) – one for each person. Children under 12 must wear a PFD whenever the boat is under way and you may need varied sizes depending on their ages. Throwable floating cushions to be tossed to a person who has fallen in the water are also mandated by the USCG so check the regulations.
Harnesses and jacklines
Because sailors are on deck and therefore exposed when operating the vessel, it’s good to have wearable harnesses as well as PFDs. When sailing singlehanded, in the dark or in inclement weather, it’s necessary stay connected to the boat. Harnesses hook to jack lines that run the length of the deck so you can move about but still be clipped in. Some inflatable PFDs have built in D-rings and serve as harnesses as well as lifejackets.
The number and type of fire extinguishers as well as their placement will vary with the size and type of vessel. It’s good to have a few extras on hand beyond the ones in the engine room and galley. Keep some accessible in the cockpit and in the staterooms.
All boats need tools and sailboats need some specialized versions. Check out our list of minimum sailboat tools here and remember, a mask and snorkel are a part of any complete tool kit so you can cut line off a wrap or remove kelp wrapped around the keel or rudder.
Medical kits can be basic or comprehensive depending on the type of sailing you do and where you go. Basic kits can be purchased at chandleries. Don’t overpay for large kits if you only sail with a few people. Most packaged medical kits just include more of the same items as they get bigger. You may want to pack your own kit depending on your health needs.
Smoke and light flares as well as a flare gun must be aboard per USCG regulations. The type and amount will vary. You can also opt for USCG certified lights which are considered to be electronic flares.
Visual and sound signaling devices
Signaling devices are meant to attract attention whether for a boat in distress or a boat sailing in fog. Beyond flares, visual signaling devices can include a daytime anchoring ball to be hung in the rigging, a smoke canister or an orange distress flag. Sound signaling devices include ship’s bells and horns and are to be sounded at various intervals depending on the conditions and whether the vessel is moving.
GPS and communications equipment
Navigation and communications equipment can be comprehensive or simple, depending on where and how you sail. For most outings a basic GPS unit and handheld VHF radio will suffice. At the very least however, you should carry your phone and check to see if there’s coverage where you’ll be sailing.
Cruising sailboats tend to explore farther, which is when weather can become an issue. An onboard barometer will be the first indicator of changing conditions and a clue to check a more comprehensive and extended forecast.
When the weather deteriorates, sailboats often reef or reduce sail area. Some carry a short, durable headsail called a storm jib to keep the boat pointing in a certain direction and making headway to create steerage. Since the sail is small, it won’t overpower a boat that is already working in strong winds and heavy seas.
Sailing off the wind can be frustrating. When running deep, or far off the wind, the mainsail can block the headsail and then the jib or genoa just ends up flogging or drooping. To get the most out of a headsail on downwind points of sail, a whisker pole will hold the clew of the sail out to capture the most wind.
Sometimes it’s necessary to ascend the mast to check on stuck halyards (lines used to lift sails), broken spreaders, non-working lights or bent VHF antennas. That’s when a bosun’s chair comes in handy. The “chair” can be a harness or a canvas/wooden bench that suspends a person from a halyard. The halyard is usually taken to a winch so the sailor can be hoisted up and down.
The first line of defense from going ashore unexpectedly is an anchor. If the engine quits or a storm forces a sailboat too close to the shoreline, deploying the anchor is the best and cheapest insurance.
Towing line and bridle
Sailboats need dinghies to ferry people to shore after the big boat has been anchored. Monohull and catamaran sailboats may be equipped with davits which carry the tender aloft but more often than not, dinghies get towed. You’ll need a tow line as well as a bridle to help the dinghy ride calmly behind the boat. Using polypropylene line that floats should help keep it out of the propeller of the towing boat.
Dinghy or liferaft
For larger sailboats that venture farther, a secondary floating platform may help save lives in case of disaster. Most boats will have a dinghy or tender to use to get to and from shore and some will have certified liferafts, especially when sailing offshore. Both of these will get people out of the water to await rescue but dinghies are not specifically designed for that purpose.
A bonus item for those sailing in rougher waters. If you’re heading offshore for a race or do a lot of passage making, consider carrying cable cutters in case the rig comes down. If dismasted, it’s usually necessary to cut away the mast before it does damage to the hull so the standing wire rigging will need to be severed.
Awning for the cockpit
Sailboats tend to be more exposed than powerboats so it’s good to be prepared with some form of makeshift shelter. A tarp or specifically designed awning can be slung over the boom when the boat is not sailing to provide relief from both rain and sun.
Because sailboat interiors are primarily down low, ventilation can be an issue as boats become hot or musty. Air scoops can be made or purchased that suspend from a halyard and drape fabric down through a hatch. This will catch extra air and funnel it into and through the interior.
Sailors tend to live in the cockpit or on deck where seating isn’t always convenient. Folding fabric seats with seatbacks can be set up anywhere to relax or comfortably read a book. These seats unfold completely so when not in use, they can be stored on end even in the compact spaces of small sailboats.
Hats, gloves and sunscreen
Because sailors spend so much time outside in the elements, they need to think about comfort and protection more than powerboaters. Always carry a good sun hat, a warm watch cap, gloves for long hours of holding the wheel or pulling on lines, and lots of sunscreen.