Chapter 5: Boating Emergencies—What To Do
Most boating fatalities don't have anything to do with bad weather or hazardous sea conditions. They typically occur in smaller, open boats on inland waters during daylight hours when weather and visibility are good, the winds are light, and the water is calm. Despite these ideal conditions, passengers fall overboard and many boats capsize, causing over half of all boating fatalities.
Capsizing, Swamping, or Falling Overboard
Capsizing is when a boat turns on its side or turns completely over. Swamping occurs when a boat stays upright and fills with water. Sometimes a person falling overboard from a boat causes the boat to capsize or swamp. Regardless, the outcome is the same—people are in the water unexpectedly.
To help prevent and prepare for capsizing, swamping, or someone falling overboard, follow these guidelines.
- Make sure that you and your passengers are wearing life jackets while the boat is underway.
- Attach the ignition safety switch lanyard to your wrist, clothes, or life jacket.
- Don't allow anyone to sit on the gunwale, bow– Front of a vessel, seat backs, motor cover, or any other area not designed for seating. Also, don't let anyone sit on pedestal seats when operating at a speed greater than idle speed.
- Don't overload your boat. Balance the load of all passengers and gear.
- Keep your center of gravity low by not allowing people to stand up or move around while underway, especially in smaller, less-stable boats.
- In a small boat, don't allow anyone to lean a shoulder beyond the gunwale– Upper edge of vessel's side (generally pronounced gunnel).
- Slow your boat appropriately when turning.
- Don't risk boating in rough water conditions or in bad weather.
- When anchoring, secure the anchor line to the bow, never to the stern– Rear of a vessel.
If you should capsize or swamp your boat, or if you have fallen overboard and can't get back in, stay with the boat if possible. Your swamped boat is easier to see and will signal that you are in trouble. Also signal for help using other devices available (visual distress signals, whistle, mirror).
- If you made the mistake of not wearing a life jacket, find one and put it on. If you can't put it on, hold onto it. Have your passengers do the same.
- Take a head count. Reach, throw, row, or go, if needed.
- If your boat remains afloat, try to reboard or climb onto it in order to get as much of your body out of the cold water as possible. Treading water will cause you to lose body heat faster, so try to use the boat for support.
If your boat sinks or floats away, don't panic.
- If you are wearing a life jacket, make sure that it is securely fastened, remain calm, and wait for help.
- If you aren't wearing a life jacket, look for one floating in the water or other floating items (coolers, oars or paddles, decoys, etc.) to help you stay afloat. Do your best to help your passengers find something to help them float and stay together.
- If you have nothing to support you, you may have to tread water or simply float. In cold water, float rather than tread to reduce hypothermia.
If someone on your boat falls overboard, you need to immediately:
- Reduce speed and toss the victim a PFD—preferably a throwable type—unless you know he or she is already wearing a life jacket.
- Turn your boat around and slowly pull alongside the victim, approaching the victim from downwind– In the direction the wind is blowing or into the current, whichever is stronger.
- Stop the engine. Pull the victim on board over the stern, keeping the weight in the boat balanced, especially in small boats.
Sitting on the gunwale– Upper edge of vessel's side (generally pronounced gunnel), bow– Front of a vessel, seat backs, or any other area not designed for seating is risky behavior and can result in falling overboard– Over the side or out of the vessel. It is illegal in many states. Chapter
4 has the legal requirements for your state.
A collision occurs when your boat or PWC collides with another vessel or with a fixed or floating object such as a rock, log, bridge, or dock. Collisions can cause very serious damage, injury, or even death. It is every vessel operator's responsibility to avoid a collision.
To prevent a collision, boat and PWC operators should:
- Follow the rules of navigation found in Chapter 3.
- Pay attention to navigational aids.
- Keep a sharp watch and appoint one person to be the "lookout."
- Maintain a safe speed, especially in congested traffic and at night.
- Look in all directions before making any turn.
- Use caution if you are traveling directly into the sun's glare on the water.
- Never operate when fatigued, stressed, or consuming alcohol.
- Be aware that floating debris is more common after heavy rainfall.
Dealing With Fire Emergencies
Many boats and PWCs have burned to the water line needlessly.
To help prevent a fire:
- Don't mix the three ingredients required to ignite a fire—fuel, oxygen, and heat.
- Make sure ventilation systems have been installed and are used properly.
- Maintain the fuel system to avoid leaks, and keep the bilges clean.
- Follow the safe fueling procedures outlined in Chapter 2.
If fire erupts on your boat:
- If underway, stop the boat. Have everyone who is not wearing a PFD put one on in case you must abandon the boat.
- Position the boat so that the fire is downwind– In the direction the wind is blowing.
- If the fire is at the back of the boat, head into the wind. If the engine must be shut off, use a paddle to keep the bow into the wind.
- If the fire is at the front of the boat, put the stern into the wind.
- If the fire is in an engine space, shut off the fuel supply.
- Aim the fire extinguisher at the base of the flames, and sweep back and forth (remember P.A.S.S.).
- Never use water on a gasoline, oil, grease, or electrical fire.
- Summon help with your VHF marine radio.
If you run aground– Touching or stuck on the bottom while traveling at a high speed, the impact not only can cause damage to your boat but also can cause injury to you and your passengers.
Knowing your environment is the best way to prevent running aground.
- Become familiar with the locations of shallow water and submerged objects before you go out. Be aware that the location of shallow hazards will change as the water level rises and falls.
- Learn to read a chart– Map used for navigation to determine your position and the water depth.
If you run aground, make sure no one is injured and then check for leaks. If the impact did not cause a leak, follow these steps to try to get loose.
- Don't put the boat in reverse. Instead, stop the engine and lift the outdrive.
- Shift the weight to the area farthest away from the point of impact.
- Try to shove off from the rock, bottom, or reef with a paddle or boathook.
- Check to make sure your boat is not taking on water.
If you can't get loose, summon help using your visual
distress signals. Chapter
4 has the legal requirements for your state. Call for assistance using your VHF