What to do in a boating emergency


The list of things that can go wrong on a boat trip is endless but you can be prepared by having an action plan to help you cope with the most likely problems. By thinking through the actions you can take and having them in the right order, you greatly increase your chance of coming home safely. In any unexpected situation the first natural reaction is to panic, which just makes things worse. Preparation prevents panic. If you find yourself in any sort of emergency, the law and common sense requires that everyone put on a life jacket. That’s if you weren’t already wearing one.

Then check quickly to see if anyone is hurt. In most cases you’ll send a mayday or pan-pan immediately, giving your position. If you later managed to control the situation a distress message can be easily cancelled.

There are four common life threatening emergencies.

  1. Capsize, or having a large volume of water suddenly entering the boat.
  2. Man overboard.
  3. Fire or explosion.
  4. Collision of the boat over rocks which is very dangerous.

Other serious emergencies include engine failure, medical problems or injury, running aground and taking on water due to a leak. After sending a mayday or pan-pan, putting on your life jackets and briefing your crew, your action plan needs to include the following;


Capsize is always a sudden event and often occurs after taking on very large amounts of water, often in rough conditions or in steep waves on a bar.

Most boats float and staying with the boat is always best unless the shore is very, very close. Don’t swim to shore unless you are wearing a life jacket. Remember, it is far easier to find an upturned boat than a bobbing head. If you have not seen by others on a nearby boat or a shore, then you have to send for help. By having a water proof VHF radio, flares, a locator beacon, or in some cases, a cellphone sealed in a plastic bag you have the means to get help. If you can’t call us, we can’t rescue you.

Man overboard

First throw a lifebuoy or anything that floats like an inflated fender to the person in the water. Slow right down. Make sure everyone on board knows that someone is in the water. Having them point continuously the person really helps to avoid loosing sight of them. Set the man overboard alarm on the GPS and unless you stay very close to the casualty, send out a Mayday. It can be easily be cancelled if you make the rescue yourself.

On a yacht, it is often best to drop headsails and start the motor so you have better control. Approach the casualty with the boat heading into the wind. Have a rope ready to throw to them. Positioning the boat precisely in waves is very difficult. As you get the casualty alongside, stop your engine. A turning propeller is a real danger. Bring the person on board the best way you can. If they have been in the water for more than a few minutes, try to to keep them as horizontal as possible. And always make them lie down as soon as they are onboard.


In case of fire, immediately position the boat so that heat and smoke blow away and not over the boat and people. Close any hatches to limit the spread. Shut off the fuel. Aim the extinguisher at the base of the fire. Or smother it with a fire blanket, wet blanket or wet towel. After the fire is extinguished, cool the area with water to prevent a further flare-up. If you caught inside the boat with fire, remember to drop and stay low where there is air to breath.


Collision could involve another boat, or it could be a rock or some structure. Immediately put the engine into neutral. If someone’s been thrown overboard, throw them floatation. Check everyone for injuries and then check the boat to make sure that water is not coming in. You need to prioritize your actions if someone is seriously injured or the boat is badly damaged. Give clear instructions to the crew and remember you have a duty to assist people on the other boat as well as on your own. If you are taking on water, you may be able to stem the flow with cushions or other objects.

The more time you can gain, the longer you have to be able to cope. By thinking ahead and discussing your plans with your crew, you will be in a much better position to cope when the unexpected happens. The two most common reasons for your engine failing to start are running out of fuel or a flat battery. Check the fuel lines and battery leads are properly connected. If your engine won’t start for some other reasons, check the troubleshooting guide in your engine handbook before calling for help. This may help to fix the problem yourself. If not, you need to seek assistance by radio or phone.

If you own a boat here will surely come a time when you have an emergency. How you cope, and in some cases whether you survive, will depend on how well you’ve prepared. Boating is a very safe pastime for those who well prepared and don’t simply rely on their own ability or luck. But it is dangerous for those who don’t prepare for the worst and those who assume it will never happen to them.

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