There are a handful of safety improvements we made to Iris since we bought her, but the biggest has to be learning. I am of the opinion that no preparation is more important than mental preparation when it comes to emergencies, and knowing how to respond, keep your cool, and handle a situation is critical whenever things go wrong.
To that end, SWMBO and I both took CYA Sailing courses before we got a boat. We both have some degree of First Aid Training (SWMBO beats me in that department), I got marine band (VHF) radio training and passed along the essentials. We have both been to navigation workshops and learned what dead reckoning and triangulation are. We at least have the theory to set out on some pretty cool adventures if we decide to.
If and when we do set out, we will dead reckon, triangulate, and carry paper charts, but we will also carry a GPS to get our position instantly. The beauty of a GPS is that at the push of a button you can get a pile of work done without pulling out a pencil (which may take an hour to find in the first place). What is even better is that if you build a patch cord between the GPS and a Digital Selective Calling (DSC) enabled radio, you can share your position with anyone you want.
As a safety measure, one of the first things I bought for Iris was a DSC radio. Sadly, our batteries kept draining themselves and I never got it hooked up. This spring we got the GPS hooked up to the radio, but without registering our radio as being aboard the boat, the best the radio could do was to tell the world that some boat was at our position, and if needed sound an alarm.
A couple weeks ago I decided it was time to get the system fully functional aboard Iris. The process to register a radio as the equipment aboard a given boat is pretty simple. You can download a form for registering the radio in Canada from page 5 and 6 of this PDF: http://tinyurl.com/MMSI-App. Filling out the form didn't take long, and we sent a PDF of it with our handwritten notes off to the folks at Spectrum Information, Canada.
Once a Mobile Maritime Service Identity (MMSI) has been assigned to your boat, you can program the radio with the number, and a few really cool things will be activated. First, you can report your position to other vessels. Lets say you are travelling with friends in a fleet, and one boat gets separated. If he has DSC and has registered an MMSI, you can plug his MMSI number into your radio and get his position, and vice versa.
Another cool feature is that if you receive a call from a DSC enabled radio, your radio can identify who the caller is if it is one of your friends, before you even hear their voice. You can also use the radio to "secretly" tell another radio to go to a given channel to avoid eavesdroppers from following your conversation.
A more important feature though is the Distress calling feature. A DSC enabled radio can, at the push of a button radio the coastguard, give your position and send out a mayday. A second set of keystrokes can send the nature of the emergency. The radio will then automatically go to channel 16 to process the emergency. All other boats in the vicinity with a DSC radio will be given the location of the emergency, and on some GPS units, the location will appear as an icon. This greatly helps others assist in the situation.
Yesterday I got an email back from Spectrum Information saying our radio is now registered to our boat. Maybe I'll sneak down to the marina later this week and program the MMSI into it, and then we'll be officially official yet another way!