Why are small boats required to have flotation, and why are there
Back in the 50's and 60's the old Boating Industry Association (now
NMMA) and the Yacht
Safety Bureau (now
ABYC) realized that
one of the main reasons people died in boat accidents was the boat sank
out from under them. Sounds obvious but it wasn't really. Then in
the 1970's a lot of research was done into hypothermia, and the two came
together. It was realized that if the boat did not sink, it would give the
people something to hang onto, that could be seen much better than just a
head sticking out of the water, and if the boat, although full of water,
did not sink, or roll over, then the people could actually stay in the
boat. Most of their torso would be out of the water reducing the effects
of hypothermia, and providing a much better rescue platform.
So work started on developing a standard for flotation. Through
testing and experiments techniques were developed that would provide
enough flotation to keep a small boat afloat, and floating relatively
level. However, this did not work well for inboard boats, because the size
and weight of the engines required far too much flotation material to
float the boat level.
Meanwhile the Federal Boat Safety Act passed in 1971 and went into effect
in 1972. The Coast Guard began collecting statistical data on boating
accidents. Analysis of this data revealed that the most significant
contributors to fatalities were capsize, sinking and falls overboard.
Flotation in a boat could eliminate the sinking, prevent capsizing, and
prevent some of the falls overboard. Many of the "falls overboard"
were actually the boat rolling over and dumping everyone in the
drink. Also analysis revealed that by far the majority of these accidents
occurred in monohulled boats under 20 feet in length, manually propelled
or with outboard power. The inboards contributed some.
So between NMMA, ABYC, and the Coast Guard it was determined that monohull
boats under 20 feet with outboard power or manually propelled should have
level flotation, and inboard boats basic flotation. Basic flotation
simply keeps the boat afloat with some of the boat sticking out of the
When the regulation was proposed many people in
the classic and wooden boat community felt that the standard was too rigid
to be applicable to small manually propelled boats or boats with tiny
engines. So after testing and consultation with persons building
these types of boats the standard was modified to allow some latitude in
achieving the same performance. That is, these boats have to float
level to the same degree as larger boats with bigger outboards, but the
method of achieving it is different. It was called modified level
flotation. Additionally this small boats are allowed to carry a greater
percentage of their weight capacity as persons, than larger boats
are. This seemed to satisfy everyone.
This particular standard has been a rousing success in preventing deaths.
It is not clear and probably not quantifiable just how many deaths have
been prevented but the fatalities have dropped dramatically since 1972,
from about 19 per 100,000 boat, or about 1300 people, to less than 6 per
100,000 boats, about 600, annually in 2005. At the same time the
boating population has grown to roughly 5 times what is was then. The drop
in fatalities is a combined result of education, engineering and
enforcement, so it is hard to say which has contributed more, but
certainly flotation standards have had an effect.