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Capsizing/Falls Overboard

The U.S. Coast Guard Boating Statistics-2004 rated drowning as the number one cause of recreational boating fatalities, stating that this represents 70% of all boating fatalities. In fact, in nearly half of the capsizing emergencies, at least one person died. Overloading and passenger movement on smaller craft contribute to most of the capsizing and falls overboard accidents. You obviously want to do everything possible to make sure it never happens to you. Encourage everyone to wear their PFDs at all times so they have the PFD on if the boat does capsize.

Capsizing Prevention

Balance the Load

When you load your boat, don't take any more weight on the boat than it was designed to carry. Make sure the load is balanced. As you travel through the water, even if you see a whale on the side of your boat, make sure everyone doesn't run over to the same side of the boat and unbalance the load.

Maneuver Safely

Maneuvering your boat safely includes all the following:

  • Obey all Navigation Rules.
  • Turn your boat at a safe angle and speed.
  • Stay away from any danger zones.
  • Avoid taking your boat out in bad weather.
  • Anchor from the bow rather than the stern of the boat, as described in Chapter 4.

Moving around on the boat includes all the following:

  • Stand only when necessary and avoid sudden moves.
  • Stay low and keep as close as possible to the center of the boat.
  • Always maintain three points of contact, either with two hands and one foot or both feet and one hand.
  • Move slowly and carefully.

Taking on Water

Avoid any activity that would cause your boat to take on water:

  • Don't let your boat turn sideways to a strong current or large seas.
  • Avoid leaning over the side of the boat.
  • Make sure the hull and drain plugs are securely in place.
  • Get to safer waters immediately if high waves threaten to swamp your boat
  • Keep your boat clear of any obstacles in the water that could crack or put a hole in the hull of your boat.
  • Regularly inspect all water intake hoses and fittings.

If you do take on water, bail out the water before it becomes a problem.

In the Water

At the first sign of your boat taking on water or of severe weather, tell everyone to put on their PFD if they don't already have one on. When sailing at night, always have everyone wear their PFD. The PFD should have a strobe light and whistle.

 If the boat does capsize, stay calm.

  • Count heads to make sure everyone is safe.
  • Tell everyone to swim over to the hull of the boat and hang on if it is still floating. Assist anyone who needs help.
  • Help everyone get as much of their body out of the water as possible. Stay with the boat whenever possible.
  • Grab onto any piece of floating debris if the boat sinks. Make sure everyone has something to hold onto.
  • Use signaling devices if they are available, (such as Personal Locator Beacon-PLB, EPIRB, whistles, flares, strobe lights, radios or mirrors), to get help, but save one or two until you actually see help approaching. If you can find any shiny objects, give one to everybody to use to reflect the light of the sun and attract attention. If you have a whistle attached to your PFD, start blowing it to attract attention.
  • Stay with the boat as long as it is floating, capsized or not. Even if the shore appears close by, never attempt to swim to the shore. The boat is a larger target and is far more noticeable, than an individual swimming in the water.
  • Deploy the life raft if one is available and have everyone get into it. Keep the raft tied to the boat with a quickly releasable knot. This is necessary since, should the boat begin to sink rapidly, you need to quickly disconnect the life raft from the sinking boat or the life raft will be drawn underwater as well. Every vessel and the life raft should contain a ditch bag that contains flares, food, water, hand-held radio, and first aid kit.
  • Use the H.E.L.P position — Heat Escape Lessening Posture — if you cannot get your body out of the water.

    Pull your knees into your chest, cross your feet, cross your arms over your chest and float.. If you are not wearing a PFD and you cannot find any floating debris to hold on to, then remove your shirt or pants, tie off the ends, and inflate them to provide some floatation.
  • If you capsize in an area with a strong current and cannot stay with the boat, float on your back and keep your feet downstream.

Falling Overboard

Falls overboard are another leading cause of boating fatalities. About 30% of all boating fatalities result from someone falling overboard.

Prevention

To prevent anyone on your boat from falling overboard, make sure everyone follows your rules and stays seated unless they have an important reason to move around. And just like the prevention for capsizing, don't overload your boat or unbalance the load, which would make the boat less stable in the water.

Other ways to keep your boat safer:

  • Designate a man overboard (MOB) observer (and backup person), and explain that if someone goes overboard, their only job is to constantly keep their eyes on the person overboard. In open water, the vessel driver can easily get turned around and lose sight of the person in the water. This is especially true in a sail boat, because it can take quite some time and distance to get back to the MOB position. If you have a GPS, learn how to use the MOB feature.
  • Wear non-skid deck shoes and tell everyone to keep their shoes on.
  • Encourage your passengers to wear layered clothing for insulation if you know that you will be boating in cold water.
  • Make sure everyone is wearing their PFD. Wearing a PFD won't keep someone from falling overboard, but it will significantly improve their chances of surviving the fall.
  • Do not sit on the gunwales of powerboats.
  • Make sure your boat has some way (a ladder, for example) for passengers to get back into the boat if they fall overboard.
  • Review the MOB procedure with the crew before leaving the dock on a sailboat. Sailboats should all have a MOB life sling, rescue throw bag, MOB pole and line or some other means of easily towing and lifting a MOB back onto a moving sailboat.

Safely Approaching Swimmers

Safety is always of utmost concern whenever your boat is approaching or near people in the water. Regardless of the reason for people being in the water (fallen overboard, swimmers, divers, skiers, etc.), err on the side of caution as you approach them for pick-up.

Always approach from downwind/current and be certain to turn your engine off when you are at least a boat's length away. The U.S. Coast Guard is considering a new regulation that would require the use of engine "kill-switches" to prevent accidents. The most common method in use is the kill switch attached to a lanyard which in turn is attached to the operator. Should the operator for any reason need to leave the wheel, the kill-switch immediately causes engine cut-off.

Man Overboard (MOB)

If you see someone fall into the water and you are in a power boat:

  • Shout, "Man overboard!" This lets everyone on the boat know to look for the person in the water, and the person in the water will know someone saw him fall in.
  • Throw him a throwable PFD immediately.
  • Reduce the speed of your boat.
  • Appoint someone (if not already done before leaving the dock, as recommended) to keep their eyes on the person in the water, constantly pointing toward the MOB.
  • Turn the boat around immediately and head back toward the person in the water.
  • Turn off the propeller as you approach the person when you are at least one boat length away.
  • Get close enough to the person to throw him a line if you are not confident in your boating skills, and then pull him up to the boat.
  • Pull the person into the boat, being careful not to unbalance the boat.

If you are in a sailboat, the following procedure will take you on a figure-eight path. You should:

  • Shout, "Man overboard!"
  • Hit the MOB button on the GPS if available.
  • Appoint one specific person to keep the MOB within his/her sight.
  • Throw him a throwable PFD immediately. You or your crew can also throw cushions, an MOB marker (if available), and anything else that floats. Throw them while the sailboat is upwind so the floatables will drift toward the MOB. This will provide him with several options for flotation as well as help the observer(s) know where to look.
  • Sail on a beam reach and let the jib fly.
  • Sail until you have enough room to maneuver and enough speed to tack.
  • Tack back toward the MOB.
  • Sail on a broad reach and start heading downwind toward the MOB.
  • Let the mainsail out and stop with the MOB on the windward side if possible. You must take into consideration the size of your boat and the wind strength to determine whether a leeward or windward rescue is best. The USCG recommends a windward rescue in a larger boat and a leeward rescue in a small boat or dinghy.
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