A shift in the wind, an unexpected swell, a deck made slippery from spray: any of these can sweep an inattentive passenger off the boat and into the water. Even the most experienced boaters need to have a practiced plan for passenger overboard.
Your first defense is to ensure that everyone on the boat knows how to swim. The second is to ensure that everyone is briefed in the procedure for when a passenger falls overboard into the water. Quick and proper action can mean the difference between life and death.
It's the law-according to the United States Coast Guard, everyone aboard a boat needs to have a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) aboard available for them. If they don't wear it at all times, they at least need to know where it is on the boat so they can get to it quickly. It is particularly important for children and is recommended that they be worn at all times, including when they are on the dock. PFDs should be fitted to the person they are intended for.
Each device should be tested in water before taking it aboard the boat. When testing a PFD, pull the straps snuggly around you so the device does not move when you do. When in the water, the device should not rise up above the shoulders. When testing, the person wearing the PFD should experiment with falling into the water to a dead man's float. The PFD should encourage the body to float face up rather than face down. This will protect the person from drowning should they be unconscious when they fall into the water.
Children's PFDs should have a crotch strap in addition to the waist and chest straps and should come up around the neck more than an adult preserver will. This is to raise them up out of the water more when floating. This will help them stay clear of the water better and make them easier for rescuers to see.
In the case of infants, be sure the life preserver fits very well. It can sometimes be difficult to find a PFD to fit small infants well. If you cannot find one that fits properly, it is recommended to not take the infant aboard the boat. Several companies make PFDs particularly for infants. Be sure to test it before you entrust the child's life to it.
Attaching whistles or waterproof flashlights to your PFDs can greatly increase your chances of finding the person overboard, especially at night. Be sure to instruct small children in use of the whistle or flashlight.
Boating tends to be a fair-weather sport. However, it is important to know that even when it is warm outside, the water below can still be quite cold. Waters off the northern coasts never reach temperatures of more than fifty degrees. A body can get hypothermia in less than two hours in fifty-degree water.
There are some facts that can help you survive longer in cold water. The more energy you expend, either in swimming or treading water, the quicker your body loses heat. If you have a PFD on, you should hug your body as close as possible and tuck your knees into your chest. This will allow your body to centralize your heat and be more efficient. If there are other people in the water, huddle together in a circle to share heat. Put any children in the middle of the huddle so they gain the maximum heat from the adults. In this manner, you may be able to double the time you can safely remain in the water.
Getting your body out of the water as much as possible is your best bet to conserve your heat. Even if it is very cold outside, water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, so you will get colder much faster in the water than you will in the air. If there's anything to climb onto, do it! Also, covering your head or keeping your head warm with anything, will conserve your heat-about 50 percent of heat is lost from the head.
Proper Rescue Technique
All boats are required to be equipped with throwable floatation devices. Once someone has fallen in the water, stop the forward progress of the boat. Look behind the boat to visually locate the person overboard. Turn around with caution-ensuring the boat does not collide with the person you are attempting to rescue. For best maneuverability and easiest rescue, it is recommended to place the boat downwind of the person in the water-in other words, keeping the person in the water between the wind and the boat. Once you are within throwing distance, toss the floatation device to the person overboard. You can then tow the person back the boat and help them aboard.
Helping aboard a person who could be injured or unconscious may not be easy. There are products available such as the Lifesling that can assist in getting a person back in the boat. Whatever you do, do not jump into the water to help-there isn't an effective way to help the person who's fallen overboard get into the boat when you're in the water, and you're putting your own life at risk in the process.
If the boat has been in motion some time before it is realized that a person is missing, do not change course. Call the Coast Guard immediately and hold your present course. The Coast Guard will be able to help ascertain from your current position and direction of travel approximately where the person fell overboard. If you change course and do not have that information to provide to them, their search area could potentially be very large, lessening the chances that your lost passenger will be found in a timely manner.
Avoiding alcohol when operating a boat is just as important as when operating a motor vehicle. In addition to the hazards involved in drunk driving, if you fall overboard into cold waters, the alcohol will thin your blood and make you more susceptible to hypothermia.
Proper footwear aboard the boat will keep your feet from slipping on wet decks. Non-skid patterns will help, but wearing at least sneakers and at best deck shoes will keep your feet in place on the deck. Never wear socks without shoes on the boat.
Practice makes perfect. Practice throwing the flotation rings or cushions-they can be unwieldy. Be sure to also practice the procedure for rescuing a person overboard. If everyone aboard has an assigned role in the rescue process, it can reduce the panic effect when it actually occurs.
Disclaimer: The information in this article was obtained from various sources. This content is offered for educational purposes only and does not represent contractual agreements, nor is it intended to replace manuals or instructions provided by the manufacturer or the advice of a qualified professional. The definitions, terms and coverage in a given policy may be different than those suggested here and such policy will be governed by the language contained therein. No warranty or appropriateness for a specific purpose is expressed or implied.