By Vincent Pica
Commodore, First District, Southern Region (D1SR)
United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

While we still have a ways to go to “splashing the boat,” I would say that getting the “gilt-edged” United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Vessel Safety Check – better known as the Vessel Exam – is always a great idea. Oh, and it’s free.

What It is Not!

USCGAux vessel safety checks are not a regulatory event. If your boat doesn’t pass all components of the exam, no one “turns you in.” The examiner will explain exactly what needs to be brought back into line to conform to Federal standards and, most likely, will also give you his or her cell phone number. “Call me when you’ve addressed the issue. I’ll come over and we’ll get this boat decal’d as having passed the USCGAux Vessel Safety Check.”

What Does The Decal Mean?

It says something very simple. This boat meets, at least, Federal minimums for 15 specific safety or regulatory features. Can USCG active-duty members still come alongside and board you? Of course. They need no reason whatsoever. But experience tells me that when the regulars are faced with two boats, and one has passed our exam and the other hasn’t, the other guy had better hope that he has no reason to worry.

How Do I Get One?

In an outreach program started a few years ago, the USCGAux flotillas “Out East” have created “Vessel Exam Days” with a number of marinas and dock masters. Some throw BBQs for their customers. Some set up tables with fresh flares (the most common reason for a boat not to get its decal) and other necessary items like fire extinguishers, air-horns, etc. So, check with your dock master and, if he or she isn’t planning to sponsor a “VE Day,” email me below and I’ll follow up directly. Or, you can go online to and click on ‘Vessel Safety Checks.’ Follow a few simple prompts and you’ll be connected via email to a USCGAux-trained Vessel Examiner for scheduling. Or just email me below and we’ll get it set up for you.

What Will The Examiner Check?

Believe it or not, the first thing the Examiner will ask for is your registration. The registration, not a copy, is required by law to be on the boat. If it isn’t, the examiner will still conduct the exam, but the VSC decal cannot be awarded without a valid registration aboard. It can be in your wallet, as long as you are on the boat!

An important reason for the registration to be in hand is that right on it is the boat’s length as it is known to DMV. USCG safety standards are size-dependent. For example, a boat over 39.4 feet shall (must!) have a copy of the Navigation Rules (the COLREGs you’ve seen so much on here) on the boat. Twenty-six feet or more? Where’s your Pollution placard? Trash placard? At least two “B-1” fire extinguishers aboard?

Why Typically Don’t All Boats Pass?

Well, as I noted above, the most common reason is expired flares. Your flares come from the factory with 40 months of “life” and that date is stamped on the side of the flare. Why 40? So, after shipping and sitting on a shelf, hopefully you have 36 months of coverage. Are the flares still good after the expiration date? Almost without a doubt, they are. But the Examiner cannot give you your decal unless you have at least three day and three night “pyrotechnic devices” aboard in an un-expired state.

What else can go wrong? Well, 75% of all boats pass the first time, and it’s not a regulatory event if yours doesn’t. You get specific advice from the Examiner on what you need, and likely a phone number to schedule the re-exam. And, oh yes, it’s free…both times.

Does every boat need to pass every item? Not at all. If you don’t have a marine sanitation device aboard, the Examiner just checks “N/A.” If you do, it must meet Federal standards for safe and secure operation. Does your 20’ Seahunt need a set of Nav Rules aboard? Nope. But that 46’ Ocean yacht of yours does! You get the picture.

So, let’s be sure we go to sea with a vessel that meets the gold standard and increase the safety of life at sea – yours! Oh, and it’s free…

If you are interested in being part of the USCG Forces, email me at or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at and we will help you “get in this thing.” ■

Captain Kevin Reed is the Captain of the Port and Sector Commander for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. CAPT Reed is responsible for all active-duty, reservist and auxiliary Coast Guard personnel within the Sector. As a Commodore of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary First District, Southern Region, Vin Pica works closely with CAPT Reed and his staff to promote boating safety in the waters between Connecticut, Long Island and 200 nautical miles offshore. Sector Long Island Sound Command Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 203-468-4401.