U.S. Coast Guard Division of Boating Safety
As with any emergency, prevention, preparation and presence of mind are the keys to surviving. While boating accidents and emergencies occur on every type of waterway, trips offshore call for extra planning and preparation.
Mechanical failure, grounding, swamping, capsizing. A boating emergency that leaves you adrift — or, worse, in the water — can have many causes. While not every situation is avoidable, many common factors in boating accidents and mishaps are preventable.
Key preventive activities include the following:
Be an educated boater. Complete boating-safety and operation courses, understand the boating rules of the road and know your craft — including how to complete routine repairs.
Complete pre-trip inspections of the boat, its equipment, and your safety and communications equipment. Take advantage of a free vessel safety check at the beginning of each boating season (visit cgaux.org/vsc/). Avoid simple oversights such as a missing drain plug or cooling system leaks.
Keep a close eye on weather conditions and take prompt action to cancel a trip, find a safe harbor or ride out the storm as the conditions dictate.
Have the tools and skills to navigate safely if GPS fails. Complete a basic navigation course, carry a compass and have current charts for the area.
Ensure that the captain and crew are in good sailing form. Fatigue, illness, medications and alcohol use can all severely impact coordination, attention, judgment and reaction time. If the boat operator is feeling under the weather, stay ashore.
Evenly distribute your gear and passengers, to avoid making the boat unstable.
Key preparatory steps include the following:
File a detailed float plan with friends or family — and ensure they understand what to do and who to contact if you are late returning.
If you’re traveling in unfamiliar waters, learn as much as you can about the area and your route. Talk to local authorities or boaters about hazards and boating challenges.
Assemble a ditch bag or an abandon-ship bag (see sidebar), label it clearly, keep it readily accessible and inspect the contents before every trip to make sure everything is present, in good condition and operable.
Prepare passengers with basic emergency information/instructions. Ensure that all aboard know how to use safety equipment, know where the ditch bag is and how to use the radio for emergency communications.
Have everyone aboard wear life jackets throughout the trip. In an emergency, they may not be able to put them on fast enough.
Have all passengers equipped with a whistle, a waterproof flashlight, a signal mirror and a knife attached to their life jacket.
Ensure all boaters are dressed for water temperature rather than air temperature — think wetsuit or dry-suit for frigid waters, non-cotton clothing and layers. Wool offers good insulation, even when wet.
Invest in the right optional safety equipment, particularly communications equipment. Relying on a cellphone offshore can be very risky. At a minimum, have a VHF-FM marine radio. An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and/or a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB) are smart investments for any boater who frequents a large body of water.
If something does happen, keep the following in mind:
Stay calm, focused and determined to survive. Be aware that the biggest threats are drowning, hypothermia and dehydration.
Make sure everyone has a life jacket on.
Radio for help with your exact location, keep tuned to the emergency channel and continue to communicate as long as possible, to help rescuers establish location. Activate your EPIRB, if you have one.
Get the ditch bag and keep it at hand.
Stay in the boat as long as possible, even if it is taking on water, and even if you have a lifeboat or raft.
If you don’t have a lifeboat or life raft, stay on the boat, if capsized, as long as possible. Keeping every part of your body out of the water helps slow heat loss — water conducts body heat 20 times faster than air.
Don’t strike out for shore; it is easy to underestimate distance and overestimate swimming ability, particularly in cold and/or rough water.
Stay together. A group is more visible than an individual, and huddling can help retain body heat.
Be strategic in signaling. Use flares and other signaling devices when they are most likely to be seen and when there is most likely to be boat traffic.
Assembling a Ditch Bag
The contents of a ditch bag will vary with the weather conditions, the area in which you are boating and other trip-specific factors. Choose a bag or other container that has positive floatation, is water resistant, is highly visible (yellow or international orange with reflective tape), is big enough to carry essentials but small enough to carry off the boat, clearly labeled and accessible. Load it with all your selected safety equipment and supplies — and then test its buoyancy.
The items below can be particularly valuable for survival. Make sure equipment is floatable when possible and has a lanyard or other means of attachment.
1. A marine handheld VHF radio and extra batteries — in a waterproof container.
2. An EPIRB, preferably with a built-in GPS receiver. The EPIRB must be registered with NOAA, and the registration must be updated at least every two years or whenever contact information changes.
3. A PLB is an excellent safety tool for individuals, but not a substitute for an EPIRB.
4. An assortment of signaling devices — whistle, horn, mirror, flares, smoke signals, dye packet, signal flag.
5. A waterproof strobe light and/or flashlight — combination is ideal — with extra batteries in a watertight container.
6. Water in individually sealed emergency water packets. A partially filled plastic water container will remain buoyant in salt water.
7. Emergency food rations, specially formulated to decrease thirst.
8. A solar still or a hand-operating desalinating water-maker.
9. A knife (rounded tip if in a raft).
10. Solar blankets.
12. A bailer.
13. Small binoculars.
14. A basic first-aid kit with seasickness medication and any essential prescription medicines.
15. A length of heavy cord or line.