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Safe at Sea: Sound-signal device is a federal requirement

By PAT SCHMIDT - | Mar 2, 2021

The America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva offers all boat owners a free Vessel Safety Check. The 20-plus minute inspection determines whether the boat has all the required safety equipment in place and that the safety equipment is fully functional.

Time and again, an owner’s vessel will fail the inspection for one of two reasons: The vessel is not equipped with a portable sound-signal device, or the boat is not equipped with a throwable life-saving device (topic for a future column).

The following are the legal requirements for sound-signaling equipment:

– Vessels less than 12 meters (39.4 feet) must have an efficient sound-producing device such as an air horn or whistle.

– Vessels greater than 12 meters must, in addition to an airhorn/whistle, be equipped with a bell.

– Unpowered boat operators (kayaks, for example) are required to carry a device capable of sounding a prolonged blast that can be heard by another boat operator in time to avoid a collision.

– It is unlawful to use a sound-producing device on the water under any circumstance except a situation in which assistance is needed because of immediate or potential danger to the person(s) onboard or it is necessary to attract the attention of another boat.

Why would such regulations be in place? Quite simply, using a sound signal is one of the simplest ways to alert fellow boaters and first responders to a problem on the water. The choice of which signal to outfit the boat with is up to the captain; however, possessing a portable sound-signaling device is not.

Three popular choices are the signal air horn, the “tried-and-true” whistle, or an electronic handheld horn. There are pros and cons to each:


Sound carries a mile over water, and half a mile over land. At maximum capacity, it operates at 112 decibels. It is small, so a child can operate it (which may not be an advantage!?!) Also, its life span is finite: dependent on the aerosol gas.


Plastic never rusts. It works as long as you can inhale/exhale. Also, though inexpensive, it can operate up to 122 decibels.


It can be used for boat-to-boat hailing. It can produce a four-second blast at 112 decibels. Also, it runs on a nine-volt battery, which will need replacing and means it’s not submersible.

(FYI: A short blast is one second; a prolonged blast is four seconds.)

The next time you are onboard, double check your safety equipment and make sure your portable sound signal is operational.

Pat Schmidt is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more about the chapter and its boating education courses, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 612-987-2125.