a coast guard helicopter
a coast guard helicopter

Avoiding Accidents

The best way to minimize damage from a grounding is, of course, NOT TO GROUND YOUR BOAT. Here are a few tips to help make the topic of grounding not apply to you.

  1. Know where you are - Sounds easy enough, but things happen. A weather front or fog comes through making it difficult to see. You decide to travel to new places. Many things can put your boat where it doesn't belong. Having an UP TO DATE chart and compass, a navigation system such as a GPS, and a good dose of common sense will help you avoid putting your boat on the ground.
  2. Be observant - Part of knowing where you are is to observe the waters that you are on. Do the buoys you just passed match the ones on the chart? Is the tide high or low? Does your crew know what to look for and what to avoid?
  3. Be smart - The key to avoiding any unpleasant situation in life is to be careful and to be prepared. When you are on your boat, always operate in a manner that is safe for the conditions you are encountering. If you are in a new area, slow down--it will give you time to orient yourself, and it will give you time to react. Best of all, hitting something at low speed is usually less painful than hitting something at high speed. Get as much information as you can about where you are going. What's the weather like? What are the water conditions? Will there be many boats on the water with you? Knowledge is power - and safety.


Sometimes things happen on the water no matter how hard you work to prevent an accident. Accident preparation begins before you leave the dock, and involves everyone aboard the vessel. You should always consult with your pre-departure or safety "checklist" and discuss it with everyone aboard prior to departure. Whether you or someone aboard has a minor accident such as a cut or a bump, or you are involved in a major accident such as a collision, the things you do to prepare you and your crew can mean the difference between life and death.


When your guests first arrive, particularly if they are new to the boat, you should take a few moments to go over the following.

  • Show everyone where the emergency equipment is--the fire extinguishers, the first aid kit, flares, the horn.
  • Fit everyone in a life jacket, and let them hold on to it. Better yet, have them wear it.
  • Show everyone how to operate the bilge pump, the VHF radio, the GPS and all other electronic equipment.
  • Go over your trip plan, and show them where you are on a chart, and where you are going on the chart.
  • Show them where the anchor is, and how to use it.
  • Show everyone where extra lines are, and how to tie the boat up.

Other things to instruct your guests on is how the boat handles in rough water, particularly if you are out on a busy day, or the weather may get nasty. Also show people how to use the head, and how to dispose of garbage.

Giving your guests as much information on how to be a good boater will make them--and you safer, and help them to have a more enjoyable time on the water.


One type of accident that occurs more frequently than you may realize is capsizing. A boat is "capsized" when it is knocked down so it lies on its side in the water or turns over - a frequent occurrence among small sailboats that are especially sensitive to sudden changes in the wind. Most small boats will remain in that position, unless righted, and will float enough to support you.

Having capsized or swamped, it is important to remain calm and conserve energy. After the boat capsizes, you should immediately do a head count to make sure everyone is with the boat. The general rule is to ensure that all crew members are wearing PFDs and that they stay with the boat; there may be possibilities of righting it, and rescuers will be able to find you more easily. Leave the boat only if it is headed toward a hazard.

If you do lose the boat, try and use anything you can to help you stay above water. An empty cooler is a great floatation aid--even empty soda bottles stuffed in your jacket will help. The higher you are in the water, the easier it will be to find you. The easier it is for you to float, the easier it will be for you to conserve energy.

If the capsized boat is a small centerboard sailboat, improve your chances of recovery by trying to keep it from turning over. Get into the water immediately and stand of the centerboard, providing lever action; this is a technique taught in most basic sailing courses.

If possible, have a crew member attach a life jacket or other flotation device to the end of the mast. If you can, remove all sails before attempting to right the boat.

If you have lost your boat, or can't right it, your next step is to try and get help. Signaling for help takes a great deal of restraint--if you do too much you may tire yourself out, or run out of signals such as flares. Try and make sure that when you do signal, there is a good chance that someone will see or hear you. Having signal flares, smoke flares, whistles, or a horn (which you should have on your boat) are great, but if all you have is an upside down boat, the crew and you, your options are limited.

  • Take turns being the designated "signaler" who yells at a regular interval, or waves at passersby.
  • Try and make everyone as "big" as possible (put on what you can, pull floating debris near you, etc.), and try to contrast with the background by wearing light clothing (or vice versa).
  • If you do have appropriate signaling devices, use them when you think they will be seen or heard.

Getting rescued starts with letting people know where you are going, and when you should be back. Filing a float plan will ensure that people will be looking for you. Carrying proper signaling devices such as flares or smoke will help you get found--we've even heard of people painting the hull of their boat florescent orange to make it visible if they ever capsize. Even the clothes you wear can help you survive longer and get rescued faster.

Take precautions against swamping and capsizing: Watch that loaded items do not shift from side to side; guard against too much power or speed on turns, and the wash of large boats. Take waves head on, or fine on the bow, at low speeds, giving the hull a chance to ride over rather than dive into them.

Crew Overboard

Another type of accident that can occur on the water is having someone fall overboard. Crew-overboard (COB) victims face a number of dangers, including panic, injury during the fall and hypothermia. For those aboard the boat, quick thinking and coordinated action are essential to an effective rescue.

Control of the situation is most likely to be maintained by those who have prepared themselves with regular drills.

However, not many people ever consider how to handle this situation, let alone actually practice COB procedures with the crew. Before you even leave the dock there are several things you can do to increase the chances of you or your crew should someone fall overboard even without practicing COB procedures.

Have lifejackets equipped with whistles and waterproof flashlights.

For less than ten dollars you can increase someone's chances of quick pick up (especially at night). Better yet, wear your life jacket! In cold or heavy weather and at night, you are much better off wearing your life jacket.

Practice throwing a life ring or cushion.

They are quite a bit harder to throw than you might think! You can easily practice on your dock to check your range and accuracy-you will probably be very surprised by the results.

Show everyone where life saving gear is located, and how to use it.

Knowing how to use equipment will save valuable time when it counts.

While on the water your first priority is to not panic. The best way to do that is by practicing your COB procedure regularly. Pick a rescue technique such as the "quick-stop" or "figure eight" (described in great detail in many seamanship books). Acting on instinct and acting immediately will save time and reduce panic for you and your crew.

Some Tips

  • Stop the boat's forward progress. Every second that you move away from the COB will make it harder for you to get back to them.
  • Take a head count to see who fell overboard. Knowing who (or how many) fell overboard will help you plan the rescue. For instance, if the largest person on the boat fell overboard, it might take more equipment or people to bring that person back aboard. Knowing who you are going after will help you decide who needs to do what in the rescue.
  • Assign roles to crewmembers. Such as having a lookout, to keep people involved in the rescue.
  • Get floatation to the person. Items such as a Lifesling will help keep the swimmer afloat and help you get them into the boat.
  • Get the boat next to the COB. Placing your boat between the swimmer and the wind (upwind) will give a lee to the person and will give them flatter seas, but you run the risk of floating over them, which will take away your ability to steer due to the danger of the propeller.
  • The better way is to have the swimmer between the boat and the wind by approaching the swimmer from downwind. This will increase your ability to maneuver, and will take less time to get the person to the boat.
  • Get the person on the boat. This can be very difficult, especially if the person is hurt, weak, or unconscious. Lifeslings, swim platforms, ladders, and brute strength are all methods of bringing someone on board. Practice all and pick the best one for your boat and crew. For further reading on COB rescue equipment, check out Foundation Findings articles.
  • Never have anyone go into the water. They will just be another person that needs to be rescued. If someone needs to go over to help a week or injured person, make sure they have floatation and a lifeline secured to them.

Preventing Crew-Overboard Accidents

Slipping and Falling

Even in calm, dry weather, decks can be slippery- salt incrustations attract moisture. Plastic decks can be especially dangerous because they are smooth and do not absorb moisture; the molded anti-skid pattern traps evaporated salt in the indentations.

In contrast, unfinished teak absorbs moisture and presents one of the best non-skid surfaces, wet or dry. A number of aggressive non-skid patterns and coatings are uncomfortable for bare feet, remember one rule of thumb of the careful boater: Wear deck shoes at all times, especially when underway.

Relieving Over the Side

One of the most common causes of COB and subsequently drowning is a crew member relieving himself over the side of the boat in a standing position. Avoid this disaster; go below and use the head.

Safety Equipment Failure

When equipment is undersized, old or worn, it can be worse than no equipment at all: It provides a false sense of security. Lifelines, harness tethers, fittings and snaps should be inspected regularly for wear and corrosion, as well as proof-tested for 3,000 pounds- the shock load of a crew member projected in the lifelines, falling overboard and dragging in water.

The Importance of COB Drills

Unfortunately, despite all preventive efforts, accidents can still occur. The need for crew-overboard drills cannot be emphasized enough. Your entire crew should practice the maneuver until recovery is second nature.

Practice often first with a floating cushion, then with a swimmer and another boat standing by. These drills can often make the difference between a tragedy and a mishap on the water.

With practice and the right equipment, you can safely and quickly recover someone who has fallen overboard. Crew-Over-Board procedures should be practiced at the beginning of every boating season and from time to time over the course of the boating season. Doing so may save someone's life- even your own.

Reporting Boating Accidents

Should you find yourself involved in an accident, you must follow certain laws.

The operator or owner of any recreational boat is required to file a Boating Accident Report (BAR) if the boat is involved in an accident that results in:

  • Loss of life; or
  • Personal injury which requires medical treatment beyond first aid; or
  • Damage to the boat and other property damage of $2,000 or more; or
  • Complete loss of the boat.

Boat operators are required to report their accident to local authorities in the State where the accident occurred. Keep in mind that the $2000 dollars in property damage is a federal guideline--many states have reporting requirements that start at $500. Refer to the state boating law pages of this course for more information. Select your state and choose "State Requirements" on the resulting page.

Fatal Accidents

Immediate notification is required for fatal accidents. If a person dies or disappears as a result of a recreational boating accident, the nearest state boating authority must be notified without delay. The following information must be provided.

  • Date, time and exact location of the accident.
  • Name of each person who died or disappeared.

Reporting Timelines

  • If a person dies, disappears from the boat, or there are injuries requiring medical treatment beyond first aid, a formal report must be filed within 48 hours of the accident.
  • A formal report must be made within 10 days for accidents involving property damage of $2,000 or more, or complete loss of a vessel.

Note: State requirements for Reporting Boating Accidents may be more stringent than Federal (i.e. some States require ALL boating accidents to be reported immediately). Check with the Boating Law Administrator in the State where the accident occurred for proper reporting procedures.

Rendering Assistnace

Finding immediate help on the water is often not as easy as flagging down a passing motorist on a busy highway. As such, boaters should be aware of their surroundings and the possibility that a fellow boater may need assistance. In a true emergency, there may be no time for flares or other signaling devices – so the flailing of arms may be the only thing that alerts you to a potential problem.

  • As a boater, you are required to render assistance if you are involved in or witness an accident, or happen upon an emergency situation, as long as it does not endanger you, your crew or vessel, or further endanger those involved.
  • The law protects those that render assistance and protects the Good Samaritan from damages as a result of rendering assistance, as long as the individual acts as an ordinary, reasonable and prudent individual would under the circumstances.

What Can Go Wrong

Planning ahead means considering what could go wrong, and thinking of how you as the skipper will handle it--or how you crew will handle it if something happens to you.

Prudent skippers not only have a plan that they stick to, they also make sure the crew knows the plan, and can act accordingly in case of an emergency. When your guests come aboard, it's time to share information with them about your boat, and about your trip.

The information you need to share in this orientation will depend on your boat and how complicated things are. Try to establish a list of what can help your crew become better oriented to your boat.

Finally, make sure that someone ashore knows where you are going, and when to expect you back. Here is a simple float plan, provided to help you determine what information is helpful to rescue personnel. Leave your float plan with a responsible relative or friend - don't file your float plan with the Coast Guard.