That’s a good question. You should start with a checklist and a self inspection of your boat. Then you should contact your local Coast Guard Auxiliary for a free courtesy inspection. Here’s how to begin.
1. Gather information. The easiest way to get free information is to attend a boat show and visit the Coast Guard Auxiliary booth, the U.S. Coast Guard booth, and the Customs and Border Protection booth. Between them, you can get brochures that explain the various equipment and operating requirements. If you missed the boat shows the best thing to do is visit various websites.
a. Federal Requirements: Start with the U.S. Coast Guard. For Federal Requirements & Safety Tips go to www.uscgboating.org. From that web page you can get all the information you need about federal requirements.
An easier way to do your own inspection is to visit the USCG Auxilliary National Dept. of Vessel Safety Checks. www.vesselsafetycheck.org. This is a great resource. You can download a form to do a vessel safety check from http://forms.cgaux.org/archive/a7012.pdf. This 2 page form has an easy to use checklist with information and instructions. You can also review a list of questions and answers. www.vesselsafetycheck.org/pub_qanda.asp.
b. State Requirements. Individual states may have requirements in addition to the federal rules. Washington State boating regulations are enforced by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Boating information is at www.parks.wa.gov/boating. The Commission provides a booklet titled “Adventures in Boating Washington”. This booklet is also good to keep on board your boat for easy reference. You can read it at www.boat-ed.com/wa/handbook/. On page 48 there is a “Required Equipment Checklist” showing regulations for various size boats. You can print this checklist and keep it on your boat. For an excellent online summary of Washington State requirements visit BOAT US. http://www.boatus.org/onlinecourse/statelaws/Washington.html
2. Do a self inspection. Once you have reviewed the various requirements it’s time for a self inspection. Use the USCG Vessel Safety Check form and the Washington required checklist to do your self inspection. You may find a variety of things to repair or replace. For example, many boats lack the state required carbon monoxide sticker . For more info go to the following: www.dol.wa.gov/vehicleregistration/costicker.html. Other frequent violations are failure to have registration or documentation papers on board, expired or missing visual distress signals (flares), and lack of one or more placards (oil pollution, MARPOL trash disposal).
3. Have a Coast Guard Auxiliary courtesy inspection. Once you have done your own inspection and remedied any defects it’s best to have an inspection by the Coast Guard Auxiliary. You can locate a volunteer near you by using the search system at the safety check web-page. www.vesselsafetycheck.org/GetVSC/. Go to the web-page and use your zip code to find a volunteer in your area.