Emergency situations while boating can be scary, and if you don’t know what to do things can quickly get out of your control. The best thing you can do to keep everyone safe while boating is to have safety plans in place and take preventive measures to avoid these situations. But because accidents can happen, it’s just as important to know how to react ahead of time so you can stay calm and take appropriate measures in the moment.
This blog covers what you need to do if a passenger on your boat falls overboard, what can cause someone to fall off a boat, and how you can prevent it from happening.
How to react if a passenger falls overboard
If a passenger falls off your boat, you need to be able to react quickly and calmly. Time is limited and there are life-threatening risks to the person overboard. This means you need to understand what you need to do before the situation arises.
Here are some necessary steps to take to help someone that falls overboard:
- Alert everyone. Yell “Man overboard!” so other passengers know there’s an emergency. If you have a crew, let them know which side of the boat the person fell overboard.
- Stop the boat. Propellers risk injury to the person in the water, and you need to stay close to help them.
- Throw the overboard person a personal flotation device (PFD) or life jacket immediately. Everyone on board should already be wearing a life jacket, but if the person in the water isn’t, then they need a life ring or a flotation device.
- Have someone signal other boaters. If there is someone else on board that can help, have them signal to other boaters in the area that you have a man overboard. This will alert them that you need help.
- Stay close and keep the person in sight. This is critical in rough waters. Bring the boat to the person as close as you can, but do so safely. The safest way to do this is usually downwind, as it naturally helps bring you closer together.
- Get the person back on the boat. Never get into the water to retrieve someone that falls overboard unless it is the only option. If someone needs to go into the water, they need to be a skilled swimmer, preferably trained in rescue, and be wearing a life jacket. The best way to rescue them is with a line. Toss them a line over the side of the boat and pull them in, but be careful and ask for assistance from other passengers to keep from falling overboard yourself. You should pull them in over the stern to keep the boat balanced. Once they are to the side of the boat, have them grasp your wrists and pull them from the water. This should be done by someone that is physically capable, and if possible, by multiple people working together. This part of the rescue is easier if it’s a passenger on a small boat that falls overboard. If the person is unconscious, use a sling or grab them under their armpits.
- Give the person medical attention. Once they are back on board, assess the situation. Wet clothes should be removed to prevent hypothermia. If they are conscious, give them a blanket for warmth. If they are unconscious, there’s a chance you need to perform CPR. Use a VHF radio to call the U.S. Coast Guard for help (channel 16).
What can cause someone to fall overboard?
The best way to keep yourself and passengers from falling overboard is understanding risk factors and what you can do to prevent them. Here are some common situations that may cause someone to go overboard:
- Alcohol. Just as you should never drink and drive, you should never drink while operating a boat, and alcohol consumption for those on board should be enjoyed responsibly.
- Health conditions. Some individuals may have balance or strength issues that can make them unsteady on a boat. Keep a careful eye on these passengers to ensure they are safe.
- Unsafe boating. Traveling at high speeds, on rough waters, in a storm, or with a messy boat can be dangerous. Always be aware of your surroundings, keep your boat clear of debris, and secure all loose belongings.
How to prevent people falling overboard
Your ultimate goal when boating should be safety first, so the best way to handle someone falling off a boat is to take every precaution possible to prevent it from happening. Here are some tips to help you prevent emergency situations and keep everyone safe when boating:
- Have protocols in place and make sure everyone on board knows and understands them. For example, every passenger should know how to get on and off the boat and where they can safely sit.
- Passengers should limit movement or stay seated while the boat is in motion. Rocking the boat can be dangerous, and passengers may not always have warning before the boat hits a wave.
- Keep your boat clean and maintained. Loose items and debris can be tripping hazards. Loose or damaged rails can break. By keeping the dock clean and regularly checking key areas of your boat, you can keep everyone on board safe.
- Know your environment. Check the weather before you head out and keep an eye on the skies and your weather radar. Consider going out another time if there’s any chance of storms, and head in once you become aware of one.
- Make sure everyone always wears a life jacket and have flotation devices on board. You are required to have at least one life jacket per person on board your boat.
Remember to keep calm!
It isn’t easy to keep calm in any emergency, but when someone falls overboard that is the best thing you can do for them. They are in immediate danger and will likely be in a panic, which means they are relying on you to bring them to safety.
Always be prepared before you leave the dock. Know CPR, take safety courses, and have every possible precaution in place. This will help keep everyone safe and ensure you’re as prepared as possible to do what you need to do if an emergency arises.