10 Emergency Boat Safety Drills & Procedures You Should Know

Emergency preparedness is an essential part of being a boat owner. Because even with careful planning and proper boat maintenance, problems and emergencies can happen. In this high-level guide, we're sharing some of the most important procedures and emergency boat safety drills every owner should know.

1. Overboard & Recovery Drills

Did you know that nearly 40 percent of all boating fatalities are the direct result of people falling overboard? Because of this, it's crucial that you understand how to safely recover someone who has fallen over the side of your boat. As a boat owner, the following procedures should be memorized and practiced on a regular basis to ensure the safety of everyone on board.

  1. In the event that someone falls overboard, whoever sees the accident occur needs to shout "Overboard!"
  2. Next, throw a life ring buoy or lifejacket into the water to help mark the spot and assist the overboard passenger.
  3. If you have other passengers on board, assign one of them to keep sight of the person in the water. If it's nighttime, ensure they have a flashlight.
  4. You'll want to then turn the boat and approach the overboard passenger with the watercraft facing upwind, so you can better maneuver the boat and not run over the person. Plus, the wind can actually help blow the overboard passenger toward you. Once you've shifted the boat's position, make sure you totally turn off the engine.
  5. Then, calmly instruct your overboard passenger to re-board the boat using the attached ladder or swim platform. All boats must have a reboarding device if the freeboard is more than 0.5 meters (1 foot 8 inches).

2. Sinking & Capsizing Drills

As safe as you are and as prepared as you can be, accidents do happen. It is often difficult to get people to practice abandoning a boat in the event it capsizes or sinks because most believe they'll never have to actually do it. But it's of the utmost importance that, as a boat owner, you know what to do in an emergency. Boat owners should be able to calmly and confidently take charge in a situation and help guide passengers to safety.

So, what should you do first when a vessel capsizes? If your boat is beginning to sink, the situation can be chaotic. Remain calm. As they're sinking, most boats will remain at least partially afloat. You need to stay focused on getting everyone to safety.

Overall, what should you do if your boat capsizes? You'll want to practice and memorize the following steps:

  1. First, ensure everyone is wearing their life jackets or personal flotation devices (PFDs) and make sure to account for everyone on board.
  2. As you begin to abandon ship, take your boat emergency equipment, including any emergency signaling devices and other items that may float.
  3. Try to stay with the watercraft as long as safely possible. There's a much better chance that rescuers will spot you if you're near the wreckage. Plus, it'll be easier to find floating debris to get yourself up out of the water if needed.
  4. Then, use your emergency signals to try to attract attention.

3. Collision Drills

As a boat owner, it's your responsibility to maintain a proper lookout at all times to avoid collisions and running aground. But in the event of a collision, it's important to know the proper procedures to ensure all passengers are safe.

  1. All passengers, including yourself, should have their lifejackets on and properly secured.
  2. Check the boat's bilge for water and inspect the hull for any damage.
  3. Prepare to use your emergency signals if needed to attract the attention of local harbor patrols, the Coast Guard or nearby boaters.

4. Hull Leak Drills

A small hole in a boat can quickly turn into a major problem if it isn't addressed quickly. You would be surprised how much water a small hole can let into the hull of a boat. Your boat emergency equipment should include a supply of items that can be used to plug leaks in the case of a crisis. The following are the proper procedures for dealing with a leak in your boat's hull:

  1. First, you always want to be sure you and your passenger are wearing proper life jackets or PFDs. There's a reason it's part of most safety drills.
  2. Locate the source of the leak, checking the obvious culprits first: drain holes, through-hull fittings, defective bilge pumps, worn outdrive boots, loose engine hoses, etc. Once you've located the source, attempt to stop the leak or minimize the flow of water.
  3. Then, try to empty the boat of as much water as possible by whatever means necessary. This is when hand bailers and electric bilge pumps come in handy.
  4. If you're not able to stop the flow of water or reduce it enough to safely transport the boat to a secure location, you'll want to use distress signals to attract attention and prepare to abandon the boat.

5. On-Board Fire Drills

Boats are incredibly safe if you know how to properly operate and maintain them. But there are many flammable materials and fire risks on board that boat owners need to be aware of. In the event of a fire, it's also important that you have a working fire extinguisher and fire alarm on board. Before setting sail, make sure everyone on board knows where the fire extinguishers are located and how to use them. It's also not a bad idea to go through this fire drill so that everyone is prepared. If a fire does break out on your watercraft, the following steps will help ensure the safety of you and your passengers.

  1. Immediately stop the watercraft and ensure everyone is properly wearing their life jackets or PFDs in the case that you have to abandon the boat.
  2. Next, try to position the boat so that the fire is downwind. What should you do if a fire breaks out in the back of your boat? Head into the wind. If the fire is coming from the engine, shut off the fuel supply immediately.
  3. Aim your fire extinguisher at the base of the flames to try to stop the fire, using a sweeping back-and-forth motion. If this is not possible, use it to at least open up a path of safety for you and your passengers.
  4. Reach out for help using your marine radio.
  5. If you have to abandon the boat, calmly help your passengers into the water. Or, if you have a lifeboat, quickly prepare it for deployment.

6. Watercraft Breakdown Drills

A regularly well-maintained boat should never experience sudden breakdowns. But it's important to always be prepared and ensure your boat is always equipped with spare parts and instruction manuals for every piece of equipment. Things do happen. Once you notice a breakdown, it's of the utmost importance that you immediately attempt to repair the issue before it becomes an emergency.

  1. As soon as you notice an issue, slow the speed of your boat or lower the anchor.
  2. Investigate the issue and consult your manual as needed.
  3. Repair the problem to the best of your ability.
  4. If, however, the issue cannot be repaired out at sea, you'll want to utilize emergency signals in order to get help.

7. Poor Visibility Drills

Low or limited visibility can creep up in an instant when you're out on the water. When boating with poor visibility, it's critical to operate your boat with caution and follow the proper procedures.

  1. Turn on your LED boat lights and navigational lights. You'll also want to raise your radar reflector and use the required sound signals.
  2. Proceed at a low and safe speed if possible, keeping a lookout for obstructions or other watercraft.
  3. Be prepared to leave the traffic lane at any point and anchor if visibility gets too low.

8. Hypothermia Drills

Hypothermia is a very real concern if you commonly boat in cold waters, so it's vital to conduct safety drills to prepare for the possibility. Hypothermia is defined as a drop in one's core body temperature that dips below normal. It is typically the result of being exposed to cold air, being immersed in cold water, experiencing wind while in water-soaked clothing or facing prolonged exposure to low water or air temperatures. If you notice someone on board shivering, slurring their speech, withdrawing, being irrational, becoming intermittently sleepy, and/or having a slow, weak or irregular pulse, you'll want to quickly conduct the following life-saving steps:

  1. Safely remove the person from the source of the cold and provide them with a dry shelter if possible.
  2. To prevent their body temperature dropping even more, begin to gradually warm the person's body. Remove their wet clothes and provide them with dry clothes. Then, wrap them in a blanket or with any dry coverings you may have on hand, making sure to cover their head and neck.
  3. If they ask, give them warm liquids, avoiding alcohol or hot stimulants.
  4. Avoid rubbing or massaging the person's extremities.
  5. Be aware of any possible signals that may indicate distress or need of assistance.

What Should You Do If You Fall Overboard into Cold Water?

It's critical that you always wear a lifejacket or other type of PFD when out on your boat. PFDs can help slow hypothermia if you happen to fall overboard. If this does happen, there are three ways you can further slow or stop the spread of hypothermia:

  1. If you are alone and fall overboard, attempt to climb on top of a nearby object in order to get yourself as far out of the water as possible.
  2. If you're alone and there aren't any objects nearby to get on top of, you'll want to get into the heat escape lessening position (HELP). Simply cross your arms tightly across your chest and draw your knees up into your chest.
  3. If you fall overboard with a group of people, huddle up together so that the sides of everyone's chests are as close together as possible and your arms and legs are intertwined.

9. Safety Drills for Disabled Passengers

If you have a person with low mobility or a physical disability on board, it is your responsibility as the operator of the watercraft to ensure their safety at all times. If at any point your passenger is causing concern, you'll want to follow these steps:

  1. Fully stop the boat in a safe location.
  2. Calmly remind them that, when out on the water, many things may affect their balance, coordination, eyesight, hearing, judgement, reflexes and response time, including motion, noise, sound, sun and wind.
  3. Next, advise your passenger that the most common on-board injuries are the direct result of falls. Remind them to not stand up while the boat is moving and to not move around without keeping their weight low and centered. They'll always want to hold onto the gunwales for support and security when moving about the boat.
  4. Make sure your passenger is wearing their life jacket properly and that it's secure.
  5. If your passenger still refuses to follow your directions or is inconsolable, abort the trip.

10. Safety Drills for Sudden Illnesses

Illnesses can come out of nowhere when out at sea, and when they do, they can hit a person hard. Because of this, it's good to be prepared and know the symptoms to look out for.

The symptoms of seasickness are typically impaired judgement and response time, loss of balance and coordination, nausea and/or hearing and vision problems.

If you're on a yacht or boat with a cabin, it's important to also be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning. Symptoms typically include headache, shortness of breath, a rosy complexion, dizziness, nausea and/or loss of consciousness.

You'll want to have a boat survival kit or first aid kit on board in case of sudden illness. In addition, it's not a bad idea to take a first aid training course when becoming a boat owner in the case of an emergency.

Stay Safe in a Boat Emergency with the Help of Boat & RV

As a boat owner, safety drills and other procedures should always be top priorities. At Boat & RV, we work hard to provide products that are not only reliable and durable, but that provide the safety and peace of mind you deserve when out on the water. We carry a massive selection of high-quality marine products and boat emergency equipment, including buoys, boat ladders and so much more. Have a question or need additional information regarding our selection of emergency boat supplies? Reach out today.

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