This is the ninth and final post of our series on small boat safety offshore. Past posts have covered “Getting Out & Back“, “Staying Afloat“, “Man Overboard“, “Fishing Safety“, “First Aid Issues“, “Being Seen“, “Being Heard“, and “Being Found“. This post covers:

Planning and Preparation

We’ve come to the conclusion that most accidents happen because of carelessness, not equipment failure. Given that premise, careful planning and preparation can help avoid problems. Most of your efforts should be focused on the boat and trailer. However, staying organized and preparing your passengers is almost as important, and often overlooked..

Keeping It Together

Everybody going offshore should consider putting together a “ditch bag” or “abandon ship bag“: a sturdy, clearly-marked bag containing all of the really critical safety and survival gear.  It does not have to be a specialized ditch bag, but specialized ditch bags have some nifty features, such as foam flotation and organizer pockets to kept different items immediately available. They are also more water-resistant than your average duffel bag.

Planning and Preparation - AC Rapid ditch bag

AC/Artex Rapid ditch bag

We put the following items in our ditch bag:

  • Handheld VHF
  • Flares
  • Signal mirror
  • First aid kit
  • Life vest rearming kit
  • Extra flashlights and batteries
  • 30′ of parachute cord
  • Folding  knife
  • Hand compass
  • Space blankets
  • Air horn

We usually toss our cell phone, wallet and car keys into a Ziplock® plastic bag, and put the Ziplock® into the ditch bag as well. Either that, or we put the Ziplock® into a zippered jacket or pants pocket.  Why? Because if we have to get out of the boat, we want to make sure that we have the car keys and our driver’s license when we get back to the docks….

Planning and Preparation - Franklin Day Planner

Franklin Covey Day Planner – Classic size (5.5″ x 8″ pages)

Keeping a Record

With Toy Boat 2, we started keeping a Captain’s log. Everything currently fits in a Franklin Covey DayPlanner (Classic size, page size: 5.5 x 8.5″). This is a convenient size, because we can print things in landscape mode on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, fold it in half, and it fits.

This size DayPlanner is not too intrusive, and we carry it around every time we’re on the boat. We ditched most of the original filler pages, and replaced them with pages of our own design.

The log maintains notes on water conditions, tide/moon phases, estimated motor hours, fishing data, and maintenance notes. We also use it to hold checklists and emergency procedure (more below), fishing charts, temperature maps, and other reference documents (see below).

You can download an example vessel log from the Resources section of this website, filed under “Documents, Forms and Templates

Keeping It All Straight

After we launched Toy Boat 2, we quickly realized that it was going to be tough to keep track of everything in our head. We started using checklists before, during and after a trip to keep track of things, and make sure everything is done at the right time, in the right order.

Here’s what our checklists cover:

  • Pre-trip Checklist

    We run a series of safety checks on the boat before we go out, including battery water level and charge, nav lights, bilge pump and alarm, EPIRB self-test, trailer bearing grease levels, and the radio.

    We keep track of things that require long lead-time items to address, like license and permit renewals, EPIRB service, or complicated repairs, and also keep a list of things that can be done just before we leave, such as replacing expired flares, replenishing fishing supplies, etc. We also have an equipment list to make sure we take everything we need.

    Many of the things on the list are show-stoppers – if they don’t get done, we don’t go – so we want to make sure they’re taken care of. The checklist puts these things onto one sheet of paper, where we can put due dates on them and tick them off as they are completed.

    You can download example checklists from the Resources section of this website, filed under “Documents, Forms and Templates

  • Trip Day Checklist

    At 3:00am, things are a blur, even after a couple of cups of coffee. We started using checklists to make sure we took care of a number of minor item that would disastrous if overlooked:

    When leaving home: Inserting the shear pins in the folding trailer tongue, unblocking the trailer wheels, tilting the motor up before we pull out of the driveway, hooking up the trailer lights

    At launch: Putting in the drain plug, doing a radio check, turning off our headlights and locking the SUV before we leave the dock

    After the trip: Tilting the motor up before pulling off the ramp, lowering the outriggers and VHF antenna before driving off, and putting the bow tie-down strap on

    (Note: We’re not too proud – or embarrassed – to admit that we’ve done all of the above, plus more over the last 30 years.)

    You can download example checklists from the Resources section of this website, filed under “Documents, Forms and Templates

Float Plans

Most people have heard of flight plans for aircraft – they describe the aircraft, record where you are leaving from, where you are going, expected departure and arrival times, planned route, and contain a passenger manifest. Float plans are a similar thing for boats . We leave a copy at home with the wife, so she’ll have all the necessary information if she has to call the Coast Guard.

Vessel Assist / Boat US used to allow you to file an on-line float plan with them. If you didn’t show up at the recorded time, they would dispatch the Coast Guard. This service is no longer offered through the national organization, but some of their local franchises will accept float plans. See their website for current information. If you use these services, make sure you contact them quickly when you get back or if you are late, otherwise they’ll call out the troops to look for you.

Your Significant Other probably knows better than that, and will be expecting you to be late, or in a bar somewhere having a drink…

You can download an example float plan from the Resources section of this website, filed under “Documents, Forms and Templates“. This float plan is an example of what we do for Toy Boat 2, you will probably want to change it to match what you want to do on your boat.

Briefing Your Passengers

Do your passengers have a clue on what to do in the event of an emergency? They’re probably relying on you, as the captain, to take care of things. This, of course, can be potentially deadly. If you are incapacitated for any reason, would your passengers:

  • Know how to start the motor?
  • Know how to navigate back to port?
  • Know how to call for help on the radio?
  • Know where the First Aid kit is?
  • Know where the life jackets or flares are?

If the answer to any of these things is “No”, then you need to do something to educate them. Don’t assume that they know, even if you think they are experienced boaters. They may not even know what to ask.

On Toy Boat 2, we maintain a written section in the Captain’s log with some brief operating instructions for the boat, motor, and radio, as well as the location of various pieces of emergency gear. You can download an example of our emergency operating instructions from the Resources section of this website, filed under “Documents, Forms and Templates“.  You will need to edit it to match your requirements, of course.

Every trip, we remind our passengers of the procedures in the Log, and run over where things are. This is especially important on Toy Boat 2, because things are constantly changing.

Other Procedural Items

In order to avoid shouting matches and impromptu knife-fights, you should brief your passengers ahead of time if you expect them to help launch and dock your boat . Every boat owner has a different set of rules for where to place fenders, how to tie off the boat, and how far to back the trailer in, among other things. Your passengers aren’t mind readers – tell them up front, and avoid situations that could be dangerous as well as embarrassing.

The same thing goes for cockpit procedures on fishing and landing fish . Every captain is a little different, and everybody gets a little crabby about where rods go, who sets the trolling pattern, where to place the bait net, and especially what to do with dangerous or green fish (among any of a number of other points). Again, if you’re going to be demanding, make sure your passengers known what’s expected of them, including getting out of the way if needed.

Other Reference Materials

We carry several other items in the boat:

  • Navigation light reference chart – Our home port of San Diego sees a lot of traffic, including all types of Naval vessels, research vessels, cruise ships, fishing vessels, and freighters. Can you remember the light configuration for a submarine?
  • Calculator – A high-tech fuel flow meter and a GPS won’t help you if you can’t do the math. If Johnny is 48.3 miles from home, is travelling at 18.2 MPH, has 19.3 gallons of gas, and is burning 7.4 GPH, will he be able to get back home? Every smart phone has a calculator, or get a small, thin sunlight-powered calculator to tuck in the log book
  • Fish and Game regulations for both California and Mexico – not a safety item, but obviously useful. We always get California and Mexican regulations confused. Another reason for catch-and-release…
  • California DFW Game Import form – California requires that you complete a Game Import form if returning with fish from Mexican waters, and either give it to a game warden, or mail it to them. Most people don’t bother, but if you get stopped by a warden, they will probably ask for it if you say you are returning from Mexican waters. We keep a couple of blank forms in the log book. A copy of the form can be downloaded from the California DFW website.
  • Passport – Some form of citizenship paper work is now required for reentry into the US from Mexican waters
  • World record matrix – We’re not record hunters, but we keep a printout in the log of local species and their world-record weights ” just in case”.


This series of posts turned out to be a lot longer than we thought they would be. But there was a lot of stuff to cover, and we hope you think they were worth the time. We also hope that you learned something new, got reminded to do something, or were inspired to do things better.

The main thing to remember is that no fish or voyage is worth endangering your crew, your vessel or yourself. If you find yourself at the dock wondering if you should go out or not, the correct answer is “DON’T GO!” If you find yourself 40 miles offshore with worsening weather, wondering if you have enough gas to get back, you have made a horrible mistake.

There will always be some risk when fishing offshore. Nothing we can do will eliminate the risk entirely. But advancements in boat technology and marine services have given offshore skiff fishermen a lot of make that risk acceptable. We just need to make sure we take full advantage of what’s out there!