Gilbert Park runs through essential marine safety gear, including flares, lifejackets, PLBs, personal AIS devices and other means of distress signalling

Having the right safety kit for watersports is essential. I kayak every day and I also have a small motorboat which I use for coastal sailing. Often I sail alone, but sometimes my wife or grandchildren come along.

Here’s a breakdown of the safety equipment I use on my boat, and also the distress signalling devices I attach to my lifejacket. These items are useful for all sorts of watersports – from boating to kayaking and paddleboarding, and especially for those singlehanding who may need to raise the alarm in an emergency.

PLB – personal locator beacon

In my grab bag I have a personal locator beacon (PLB). This is a small Emergency Position Indicating Beacon (EPIRB) that is registered to me, and not the boat. When activated it sends a distress message with my GPS position to the coastguard.


Gilbert Park’s kayaking kit with handheld VHF and yellow SPOT X satellite tracker attached securely to his buoyancy vest

Personal AIS unit

In my lifejacket I have a personal AIS beacon. When activated this sends a distress message and position to all boats within a 2-4 mile radius that are equipped with AIS receivers. Often this means help is more immediate than when using a PLB, but it’s important to understand the differences between AIS and PLB devices.

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Marine radio

I have a fixed DSC (Digital Selective Calling) marine radio on the boat as well as a handheld VHF radio for use in the cockpit, in the tender or liferaft. Handheld VHFs have undergone huge improvements in recent years with many of the same safety features available as on fixed marine radiosSafety features of handheld VHF radios now include frequency scanning, weather reports, GPS integration and an ability to automatically send distress signals.

LED distress flares

Electronic Visual Distress Signals (EVDS) are handheld, non-pyrotechnic devices that are an alternative to traditional flares. They produce a light pattern that is different to the intense burn of a conventional flare. PBO’s test of LED and laser flares in Poole Harbour makes an interesting read.

I have an Odeo Mk3 EVDS LED distress ‘flare’ to use at night and an Mk IV Odeo EVDS to go in my liferaft, which is even simpler to use than the Mk 3; just turn it on and off using the big rotating collar. With spare batteries it will go on for hours – unlike flares that are finished after one to two minutes of burn time.

Here’s why I won’t carry pyrotechnic flares onboard. They are difficult to dispose of and I don’t like the idea of my grandchildren accidentally handling them.

Buy the ODEO MkIV EVDS flare on Amazon

Sea dye or Marine dye marker

Sea dye is designed to raise the alert during the daytime and marks the position for the rescue vessel to find you. If in distress you can simply open the packet and scatter the dye on the water. It lasts for up to an hour and leaves an excellent visible trace which, in good visibility, can be seen by aircraft for over 10km away. Sea dye is ideal for all watersports – including diving, cold water swimming snorkelling, paddleboarding and kayaking. You can keep it in a lanyard around your neck.

Emergency heliograph

Another really simple, low-cost item to help with visibility is an old compact disc (CD). This reflects the sunlight and acts as a heliograph. You can also get a dedicated reflective emergency heliograph which comes with a lanyard and cost around £5. A distress flag is also useful to have.

LED strobe light

A strobe light is really good during low-light emergencies, and particularly if you plan to go boating at night – for example on passage, or fishing. This can be attached to a lifejacket with a clip or worn on a lanyard. The LED light flashes when it touches the water and floats.

Waterproof torch

A powerful torch and spare batteries is essential for use at night. Some boat owners – such as Alfie Moore, who rescued a dismasted yacht in the Atlantic – swear by diving or scuba torches. Alfie used the strobe setting on his scuba torch to communicate with the stricken vessel throughout the night in heavy squalls.

Emergency fog horn

To sound the alarm to any passing vessels, I carry a Trump emergency fog horn. It’s very loud – over 100db output – and you don’t need any batteries of gas. You simply blow into it. A whistle is another simple item you can carry round your neck or in your lifejacket. Many lifejackets will already be equipped with one.

RYA SafeTrx phone app

I always have my phone with me, and the boat is registered on the RYA SafeTrx app. This monitors your boat journeys and can alert an emergency contact should you fail to arrive on time. The app works on both Apple and Android phones and stores your boat details so you or your safety contact can inform the Coastguard if required and report your position. If you don’t want to use an app you can still register an account and vessel details on the RYA SafeTrx website.

SPOT X satellite tracker

For less than the cost of a mobile phone you can buy a satellite tracker that will send a distress signal to the FocusPoint International Emergency Response Coordination Centre in the US. You will get a response within minutes (depending on satellite connectivity) and resources are mobilised within four to 11 minutes of receipt, on average.



SPOT X provides reliable, two-way satellite communications so you can stay connected outside of terrestrial phone coverage

I have a SPOT X satellite tracker that looks like an overgrown Blackberry phone. It will send and receive text messages, as well as predefined messages and tracking. I use these features frequently, so I’m familiar with the device.

The reason I chose this over the other brands is it has a QWERTY keyboard, so it is easy to use and, like all my devices, is independent of the skipper. I have been disabled once and my crew was able to use the emergency equipment.

Because the SPOT X is waterproof and less expensive than a mobile phone I sometimes take this kayaking instead.

Buy the Globalstar SPOT X satellite tracker on Amazon

Lifejacket and buoyancy aid

I always wear a lifejacket or buoyancy aid when doing watersports. For kayaking, I wear a buoyancy vest with a handheld VHF and yellow SPOT X satellite tracker attached. For sailing I wear a lifejacket that automatically inflates. For sports such as paddleboarding, where you might want something less bulky than a buoyancy aid, you can get an Airbelt flotation device which goes around your waist.

Buoyancy aids for dog

There are many choices of buoyancy aids for dogs. You can see Red Original’s dog buoyancy aid in action as PBO tests a dog lifejacket on spaniel Tilly. When it comes to seadogs, there’s plenty of expert advice for equipping your boat for sailing with dogs.

Always test your electronic aids

It’s important to note that all of the electronic aids – such as my chartplotter, have a self-test function – something you can’t find on flares. Near the throttles is an electronic man overboard marker that flashes red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and has an inbuilt torch. On a sailing boat I would also have a danbuoy marker.

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