Thirteen people were killed in 1977 when a charter fishing boat, the Dixie Lee II, was caught in a violent storm in the Chesapeake Bay and capsized. The National Transportation Safety Board found that a flotation apparatus that might have saved some of the lives had drifted away. It recommended that the Coast Guard take steps to rectify the problem.

The Coast Guard has now issued a final rule requiring that the life floats and buoyant apparatus on commercial vessels be attached to the vessels by a "painter and a free float link." The buoyant apparatus could simply be a large piece of floating material that survivors could grab. The apparatus must be have a "painter," or rope, and the rope must be attached to the vessel by a "free float link," that is, a wire that is designed to break at a certain amount of tension so that the float will be cut free when the boat starts to sink.

The Coast Guard noted that most buoyant apparatus fail to provide protection from hypothermia or exposure, and thus it considered requiring life rafts on all vessels. But the agency concluded that would be too expensive. It said, however, that in the future it might consider requiring rafts for certain kinds of vessels. The Coast Guard also is requiring that new floats be equipped with special reflective material to make them more visible.

Tanks, commercial passenger vessels such as charter boats and tour boats, cargo and miscellaneous vessels and oceanographic vessels are covered by these rules. Private boats are not.