Falls Overboard

Mike Baron, U.S. Coast Guard, Office of Auxiliary and Boating Safety

As a young “coastie” reporting for duty on board U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Point Judith, one of the first rules I was taught was, when under way, “One hand for you, and one for the boat.” A boat under way is in near-constant motion — moving forward, arcing into a turn, bobbing up and down. All of this makes falls overboard a very real risk when you’re out on the water. Maybe you were also working with fishing gear, slipped on wet decking, got caught in heavy weather or had been drinking when you went over the side. If the water is frigid, and you were out on the boat alone and not wearing a life jacket, your chances of surviving are greatly reduced. Last year, 359 boaters fell overboard: More than half of them died, making falls one of the primary factors in boating fatalities.

Why are falls overboard such a concern? Obviously there is considerable potential for serious injury from the fall itself. Also, if a boat operator is thrown overboard without an installed engine cutoff switch, the boat could continue on, leaving him stranded in the water, perhaps miles from shore. Or, more typically, the boat could go into a tight turn and circle back toward the operator in the water, possibly running over him.

Look at what you can do to make your boating environment as physically safe as possible. This includes safety improvements, such as installing nonslip decking and raising the height of the railings, and taking steps to reduce risky onboard behavior, which can have unintended consequences.

For example, don’t boat alone, and make it a rule that no one goes up on deck alone. If anyone should go over the side, you want someone on hand to initiate a rescue. When moving about the boat, keep three points of contact at all times (i.e., both hands and one foot, or both feet and one hand) to maintain stability. Discourage passengers, especially children, from roughhousing or sitting on gunwales and seatbacks while the boat is under way, and set a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol or drug use on board.

Finally, consider what personal protection you and your passengers need if — despite your best efforts — someone falls overboard anyway. Make sure that you and your passengers wear a life jacket at all times on the water, and consider adding a whistle and a personal locator beacon (PLB) to each life jacket if you boat offshore.

Man overboard devices are another important item for your safety toolbox. Engine cutoff switches, which have been around for years, use a lanyard tethered to the boat operator to shut down the engine if the operator falls overboard. Newer tethers employ wireless technology with a host receiver to protect the boat operator and up to three passengers on the same boat. Because of wind and engine noise, it is possible for a passenger to fall overboard and the boat operator to be unaware of it. With a wireless tether for the operator and passengers, however, if anyone should take an unplanned plunge, the system sounds a piercing alarm and shuts down the engine.

Remember, prevention is the most desirable type of injury control, so before leaving the dock, take time out for a safety huddle with your passengers. Knowing what’s expected of them, where safety equipment is located and how to use it can greatly reduce the risk of falls overboard and, as important, make your passengers a critical asset in a boating emergency.

Keep Them in the Boat
Here are some measures to keep ­everyone in the boat:

– Raise the height of railings.
– Install nonslip decking.
– Attach an ignition safety switch lanyard to your wrist, clothes or life jacket.
– Consider installing an automated man overboard alarm system.
– Set a zero-tolerance policy for ­alcohol and drugs on board.
– Don’t boat alone, and make it a rule that no one goes out on deck alone.
– When moving about the boat, try to maintain three points of contact with the boat at all times.
– Keep passengers off gunwales and seatbacks while the boat is in motion.
– Make your turns at an appropriate speed, and let passengers know when you’re about to turn or make speed changes that could throw them off ­balance.
– Don’t allow horseplay on board while the boat is under way.
– Avoid boating in rough water ­conditions and bad weather.
– To be on the safe side, make sure everyone, pets included, wears a life jacket at all times on deck and, if you boat offshore, consider adding a ­whistle and personal locator beacon
– each life jacket.
– Be sure your boat is equipped with a ladder or sling to help anyone overboard get back in the boat.

Get Them Back in the Boat
Any number of events and situations can cause even an experienced boater to go overboard. If that happens, don’t panic, but do raise an alarm. As soon as someone notices a person falling into or flailing in the water, she should point to the individual and shout “Man overboard!” and follow that with “Port side!” or “Starboard side!” depending on whether the person is on the left (port) or right (starboard) side of the boat. This is essential in open water where it’s easy to lose track of a person’s location. Be sure someone keeps pointing until the person is rescued. Swing the stern and propeller away from the person in the water, then remember the maxim to Reach, Throw, Row or Go:

– Reach for the victim and pull him toward the boat. Too far to reach?
Throw the person something buoyant — a spare life jacket, an empty ice chest, seat cushions, anything that floats.

– Too far out for a thrown object?
Row or maneuver the vessel closer to the person in the water, being careful to keep the person in view at all times.

– Is the victim unconscious or otherwise unable to aid in the rescue?
Put on a life jacket, take along something buoyant and Go to the person in the water. Consider this a last resort.

If there’s any doubt about safety, call the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance on your VHF-FM marine radio.


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