Disclaimer: I am not a spokesperson for the US Coast Guard or ABYC. For an official interpretation of regulations or standards you must contact the US Coast Guard or other organization referenced..   More.....

Boating Safety

Seamanship: page 6

1. Navigation

2. Boat Handling

3. Weather

4.  Communications

5.  Sailing

6.  Emergencies

7.  Courtesy On the Water


Prevention: Keep your boat in tip top physical and mechanical condition.  Take a boating course and learn how to deal with emergencies. Take a First Aid course and learn CPR and other emergency medical techniques. Practice. Hold drills for man overboard, fire, towing and other procedures.  Insist that everyone on your boat wear a lifejacket. If they won't, then they don't go.  Be alert. Have a lookout that watches other boats and tells you what they are doing.  Slow down especially in bad conditions such as rain, fog, winds, or darkness.  In other words, be prudent. Learn all you can about using your boat.  The best prevention is to be prepared! 

Man Overboard (man, woman, child,  pet).  This is one of the more common boating accidents and is easily prevented.  Wear your lifejacket and make sure everyone on your boat wears theirs.  Don't make sudden or high speed turns.  Don't allow guests to bow ride or sit on gunwales or the transom. It is not only dangerous and can cause fatalities, it can also get you a big fine for negligent boating.   In small boats such as canoes, kayaks, dinghies, rowboats, don't stand up or make sudden movements. Keep low in the boat and if you must move, do it slowly and carefully. Make sure you have ahold of the boat with a firm grip on a gunwale, railing, seat back or other fixed part of the boat.  On any boat, when the boat is moving at speed, no one should be moving around unless it is absolutely necessary. On large boats this may be ok but always remember the old sailor's rule, "One hand for yourself, One hand for the boat."  Always have one hand holding onto the boat.  This is a rule even professional seaman follow.

On boats with pedestal type seats for fishing, do not sit in them when the boat is under way.  Most boat manufacturers now put a label on the seats that says exactly that. Do not sit in this seat when the boat is underway!  Newer boats also have a label saying where you can safely sit.  Pay attention to what it says.  Just because your boat is a bow rider does not necessarily mean it is safe to sit in the bow area when the boat is going fast.  Pontoon boats may have seats everywhere but some may be unsafe to sit in when the boat is moving at speed. Use caution.

If someone falls over board DO NOT GO IN AFTER THEM. Reach, Throw, Don't Go! On small boats. immediately stop the boat. Shut off the engine. Throw them a life ring or seat cushion. Better yet, make sure there is a long line tied to the ring or cushion so you can pull them back in.  If you can reach them by hand do so, or use a boat hook, oar or paddle.   Getting them back into the boat may be a problem especially on very small boats, canoes and kayaks.  They may have to hang onto the boat and be pulled to shore where they can stand or be helped out of the water.  If it is winter and the water is very cold, you may have to treat them for hypothermia or call for help to get them treatment.  If they are hypothermic do not give them anything to drink, especially alcohol.  Do not let them smoke. All of these will make them go deeper into hypothermia and may kill them.

On large boats turn toward the side the person fell from and then turn the other way completely 180 deg. This turns the propellers away from the person in the water and then brings you back to them .   Have someone on the boat, from the moment the person goes into the water, point at the person and continue to point at them until you are back and approaching them.  Approach them from downwind.  (you have the wind in your face). Do not hit them. Pass them slightly upwind and then cut the engine and drift back to them.

BOATUS on preparing for a man overboard.

Pets:  If a pet goes overboard the rules are the same, Do not go in after them. Most dogs and cats can swim far better than you can. If you are fishing and have a net get as close as possible and pick them up with the net. If they have a collar use a boat hook to snag them and get them aboard. If you are close to shore, let them swim to shore. Many pet owners have drowned trying to save a pet, and the pets almost always survive.  Get your pet a pet lifejacket. Many pet lifejackets have a loop or strap that can be used for lifting them out of the water.  There are harnesses for pets that can be used for this as well. But, I repeat DO NOT go into the water after the pet.

Grounding:  In small boats grounding is a rather common occurrence and is usually solved by simply pushing off with a paddle, oar, or boat hook. This is one of the few instances where going in the water may be the solution because usually on a small boat the water is only a few inches to a few feet deep.  Put on your lifejacket, tie a line to it and the boat and shove it off. Removing your weight from the boat will probably lift the boat enough to move it into slightly deeper water, Immediately get back in the boat.  Pushing off to deep water may mean there is a sudden drop off.  So make sure you can get back in and check with an oar or pole for deep water around the boat before you get out.  Do not do this on a boat that draws more than a few feet of water. 

If the boat is a sailboat with a center or dagger board, just pull up the board and you will be free, but make sure that when you do this the boat moves to deeper water. Pulling up the board will allow the boat to drift sideways, and if the wind is pushing you onshore, you will just go aground again.  You may have to take down the sail, and paddle (or if you have an engine, motor) to deeper water.   If your boat has an engine you may be able to motor away.  But be careful doing this.  If you are on a bigger sailboat with its' own dinghy,  take an anchor out to deeper water and lower it.  First make sure the anchor line is tied to the boat!  Then use the anchor to pull your self off the ground. If you have a windlass or winch it will help. Even a sail winch can give you a lot of extra force to help you pull the boat off.  This is called kedging or warping. see wikipedia.

On large motor boats, if you are not too hard aground you may be able to simply reverse engines and motor off.  However, be careful doing this.  If there is a muddy or weedy bottom, the mud and weeds could get sucked into the cooling water intakes and overheat your engine or destroy the impeller.  Only do this if you are very lightly aground and sure of the bottom. 

If you are hard aground you will probably need assistance getting the boat off.  Do not let just anyone attempt this unless it is a life and death emergency. This requires professionals that are trained and know what they are doing. An amateur can end up causing serious damage to your boat and even bodily injury to you. Towing off of ground is a very dangerous operation.  Even professionals have trouble doing this.  Call the Coast Guard or a towing service. 

All of the above depends entirely on whether you are on tidal waters or not.  If you go aground on an outgoing tide you may be stuck there until the tide comes back in. If you are on an incoming tide just wait a few minutes and it will float you off.  If it is not tidal waters then you do not have to worry about the water falling or rising. Your Starring Role In Going Aground.

Capsize.    Stay with the boat.  Capsize is when, for some reason, the boat turns over. This is common in small sailing dinghies, and most people who have taken sailing classes are taught how to recover from a capsize.  In a powerboat it is a whole different situation.  Capsize almost always results in everyone being thrown into the water.  Wear Your Lifejacket!  On most small boats under 20 feet in length (6 meters), the boat is built with flotation material so the boat will right itself, or you may be able to right it, and continue to float. Even if it doesn't right itself it should float upside down, and on outboard boats and rowboats it should float level.  See Flotation,   You can then get out of the water by getting in the boat or climbing onto the bottom of the boat. Stay with the boat.  People who try to swim to shore very often do not make it.  It is far easier for rescuers to see your boat than it is to see you in the water.  Stay with the boat.  It provides a safe place and a good rescue platform.
Boating Regulations -v Documents

BoatingHandbookChapter5.pdf (see page 39)

Swamping (or Flooding)   Stay with the boat.  The message here is the same. The boat should continue to float.  Bail it.  A bucket is an essential item of safety equipment.  Try to bail out the boat. On some outboard powered boats with level flotation the engine can actually be started and get you moving.  If the boat has a self bailing cockpit the water will run out. If it doesn't have a self bailing cockpit, use a bucket or other container to bail the water out.

Collision (and allision) A Collision is striking a moving object such as another boat. An allision is striking a fixed object such as a pier, buoy, or other fixed structure.   Most people call both of these a collision.

The first thing to do about a collision is avoid it.  Take whatever action is necessary to avoid a collision even if you have to break the rules of the road to do it.  No one will fault you for it.  That's what the Navigation Rules are for, avoiding collisions. See Navrules

If a collision is unavoidable, there are some actions you can take to minimize the damage.

1. Slow down or stop.
2. Tell everyone to hold on to something and brace themselves
3. Turn toward the vessel or object you are colliding with.  This is counterintuitive but the bow of the boat is stronger than the rest of the boat.  By turning into the collision the bow takes most of the force and minimizes the damage to your boat.

After the collision, immediately count heads and make sure everyone is on board and OK.  Send out an SOS or MAYDAY to the Coast Guard.  Get everyone into lifejackets if they weren't already wearing them. Give first aid if it is needed.  Quickly assess the damage to your boat to make sure it is not sinking or on fire.  Assist the other vessel if possible. Do not leave the scene unless it is absolutely essential to get medical assistance or to save some ones life, or your vessel is sinking and the only way to save it is to go ashore.  When the Coast Guard or other rescuers arrive and give the OK then you can leave.  Leaving the scene of an accident is crime so don't go until you are told you can go.

If you witness a collision (or other accident), assist as much as possible without endangering yourself or your passengers. You are protected from liability by what are called good samaritan laws.  If you acted in good faith to assist and did not do anything to make matters worse, you cannot be sued or charged.

The Federal Boat Safety Act of 1971 contains a "Good Samaritan" clause stating: "Any person who gratuitously and in good faith renders assistance at the scene of a vessel collision, accident, or other casualty without objection of any person assisted, shall not be held liable for any act or omission in providing or arranging salvage, towage, medical treatment, or other assistance where the assisting acts as an ordinary, reasonable prudent man would have acted under the same or similar circumstances."  

However even Good Samaritan laws have their limits. Prudence is the key word.

The good samaritan at sea. (scroll down)

This is true for all boating accidents.  One of the oldest and most fundamental rules on the water is to help when someone is in trouble.  But, you must be careful as well.  Your "duty" to help also requires you to be prudent and careful and not endanger your passengers or your boat, or the vessel you are assisting. If you make a mistake things can go bad fast.  Do not try to exceed your or your boat's capability.  If the other boat is not in imminent danger, standing by may be the best choice until professional help arrives. See getting help on the water.

If you are involved in a boating accident you are required by both Federal and State laws to report the accident. Call your state boating law administrator to determine the reporting requirements in your state.

State Boating Contacts

Boating Accident Reporting Requirements

Boating Accident Report form

Towing (Yourself or someone else) Towing is a very dangerous operation. It is best left to professionals. But if you find yourself in a situation where you must be towed, or must tow someone else there are some things you need to know, and equipment you need.  The first thing you need to do is put on lifejackets and insist that the people on the vessel being towed put on theirs. Have everyone move as far forward, away from the tow line on the towing boat, and on the towed boat they should move as far astern, away from the tow line as possible. Tow lines can snap like a giant rubber band. When they do they will fly violently toward the boat. This has the potential to cause severe bodily harm or death and can damage the boat as well.  So when the line is under strain stay as far away from it as possible.

Your tow line needs to be as long as possible.  On small boats even 100 feet may not be long enough.  It also needs to be a large diameter.  A 1/2 inch line may not be  large enough. A 3/4 or 1  inch line is better for towing boats in the  20 to 30 foot range and should be much larger for boats longer than that.  Do not use nylon line.  Nylon will stretch, but when it reaches its maximum stretch it will snap and fly like a rubber band.  Use Polypropylene. It floats and that helps to keep it out of your props.  If the boat is too big to tow with your  poly line then you should not even attempt to tow it.

You need to have something on the boat to secure the line to that will stand the strain without pulling out.  My boat has two U Bolts on either side of the transom.  They were put there for towing skiers, but they are through bolted and have backing plates so it would take a lot of force to pull them out.  Most cleats and fittings on recreational boats are not strong enough.  Cleats should be through bolted and have metal backing plates.  Other wise they will just rip right out of the fiberglass or wood.  The best method is a tow bridal that wraps around the boat and is fastened at at least three points, but most boaters don't have this. Most small power boats have a bow eye that has a backing plate.  This is a good point to fasten the tow line to on the boat being towed.  On sailboats you may need to use the mast to tie the tow line to, but only if it extends down to the keel.  A mast that is stepped on the deck or cabin top, or in a pulpit will not take the strain.

As I said the tow line needs to be long enough that when you take up the slack the line still sags in the middle. This is called a catenary and allows the line to stretch without snapping. If the line is straight it will have no room to stretch.  Along with this you need to go slow.  Five miles per hour may be too fast.  You need to keep a lot of slack in the line to be safe.

Start at a very slow speed, with the engine just idling over and take up the line, Have someone slowly paying out the line to keep it out of your props.  Make sure you and the person helping have a large and very sharp knife.  On big boats have an axe handy. This is to cut the line if things go bad.  Make sure you don't get tangled up in the  line. 

As I said this is a very dangerous operation and should be left to a professional.  I strongly suggest you read the links below.  They explain in greater detail what is involved in towing.


Take a First Aid course and learn CPR and other emergency medical techniques.  Medical emergencies can happen even on the nicest days, and may not be a result of an accident.  But accidents do often result in more serious injuries.  Have a well equipped First Aid Kit.

Discoverboating on First Aid Kits

Captain Mike on small boat marine first aid kits.

If the injury is more than a fish hook, sunburn, sprains,  or minor bumps and scrapes, call for assistance and take the person ashore where they can be treated by emergency personnel. If the medical emergency or injury is critical and life threatening, the person may have to be taken off by helicopter or a rescue vessel with EMTs or Paramedics on board.

Fire  See Page on Fires

Weather  See Page on Weather

Calling for Help  See Communications.

Abandon Ship (The last resort)

The last thing you ever want to do is leave the safety of your boat.  Unfortunately people do it all the time and then their boat is found weeks, sometimes even months, later floating just fine.  The boat can take a lot of punishment. Stay with the boat. There are only a few instances where abandoning ship is justified: Out of control fire/explosion or the boat sinks.  I do mean sinks. A boat that just fills with water (swamps) but is still afloat is still safer than going in the water.  Once in the water stay together. Tie yourselves together.  Do not try to be a hero and swim for help.  They will survive and you won't.

You must have your lifejacket on,  Wear your lifejacket!. You life jacket should already have a strobe light and a whistle attached.  If there is time send out an SOS or MAYDAY giving your position, a description of your boat and the nature of your distress. If your radio has an automatic distress function activate it. If you have an EPIRB or a PLB activate it.  You should have a ditch kit.  Some call it a ditch bag but it is the same.  It needs to float. Tie it to you so it doesn't  drift away. You can buy ditch kits at marine stores, but make sure it has the necessary items for your situation.  If you ditch on a lake or river you need different items than if you ditch offshore.  What do you need in a ditch kit?  The following items are the bare minimum for inshore and inland lakes and rivers, that is, places close to shore or rescue.  The links below are primarily for offshore where rescue is not imminent.

Visual distress signals, 3 hand held flares, 3 smoke flares
Combo SOS and flashlight that floats. 
Signal Mirror
3 X 6 orange distress flag
waterproof whistle
Some small line to tie you and others together
Bottle of drinking water
Small First Aid Kit

Assembling a ditch bag by Boating Magazine

A paddling (Canoe, Kayak) ditch bag for paddlers.

Ditch Bags

Abandon Ship Bag A Guide to Small Boat Emergencies.

BOATUS Packing your own Ditch Kit

On-line resources:
Coming Back Alive

Tips For Handling Trouble At Sea

Emergency Situations Learn the rules.

Emergency: from Boater Licenses On-line course

Books available on Amazon:
Chapmans Piloting and Seamanship. Maloney

Boating Skills and Seamanship. (US Coast Guard Auxiliary)

The Annapolis Book Of Seamanship. Rousmanierre

What To Do When Everything Goes Wrong

On Board Medical Emergency Handbook:

A Guide To Small Boat Emergencies

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American Boat And Yacht Council  Boat Design Net  Wooden Boat Foundation

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