Enjoy the Off-Season, But Plan for Emergencies

By John M. Malatak
Chief, Program Operations | U.S. Coast Guard, Boating Safety Division

I love boating in the fall. The colors of the trees lining the shore of the Potomac River, where I do most of my boating, are bursting with bright yellows, brilliant oranges and deep reds. The slight nip in the air mixed with the aroma of coffee sitting in the cup holder next to my helm and the quiet coves coupled with the spectacular view easily convince me that there is nothing better than recreational boating. The waterways that bustle with activity in the summer often feel quite different in the off-season, which is why fall is a favorite time for many of us to explore along the waterfront or find a quiet place to drop anchor and take in the scenery.

However, boating in the off-season carries certain risks, and experienced boaters know to plan for every emergency before heading out. Although most boating accidents occur in mid-summer during the height of the boating season, the potential for serious injury rises dramatically in the off-season when fewer boaters and marine patrols are on the water to provide immediate assistance. U.S. Coast Guard 2010 national accident data show that approximately 1 in 10 July boating accidents involved a fatality; in December, it was 1 in 6.

In the off-season the sun sets early and temperatures drop fast. Depending on where you boat, icy water conditions can put anyone who ends up in the water in real trouble. Fewer boaters means fewer people to come to your aid or radio call for help. Carrying extra gear and knowing what to do if you encounter a problem could mean the difference between a bad day and a really bad day.

The steps outlined here can make accidents less likely and improve your chances of survival if something does go wrong.

Consider Worst-Case Scenarios

There’s little to no margin for error in the off-season, so consider every possible scenario, beginning with becoming stranded. Be sure you have enough fuel to get where you’re going and back again. The rule of thumb is one-third out, one-third back, and one-third for emergencies.

As a responsible boater you should always carry a first-aid kit, but in the off-season be sure you also have an on-board emergency kit that includes a dry change of clothes; calorie-dense snack food; fresh water; a thermos of coffee, cocoa, or other warm beverage; duct tape; a waterproof portable flashlight with extra batteries; flares and matches. Stow these items in a waterproof bag to protect them. Also, remember to stay away from alcohol when you’re out on the water. Not only does it impair your judgment, but it also hastens the onset of hypothermia.

Carry a mobile phone only as a backup to your VHF-FM marine radio. Mobile phones frequently lose signal and are unidirectional; only one person receives the phone call compared to many who may hear a VHF radio distress call. If your boating activity takes you far from shore, consider adding an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) as well. Rescue 21, the advanced command, control, and communications system created to improve search and rescue, is currently being deployed in stages across the United States. This new system enables the Coast Guard to pinpoint the location of a distress call from a DSC-VHF marine radio connected to a GPS receiver. If you get in trouble, especially during the chilly off-season, every minute counts.

Life jackets are essential boating equipment in any season. Lightweight inflatables are popular in the summer months; however, in cold weather, float coats and jackets will provide buoyancy and additional insulation. While the boat is underway, everyone should wear a life jacket at all times; there is rarely time to put one on during an emergency. To help rescuers find you more quickly, consider equipping your life jackets with devices such as whistles, strobe lights, signal mirrors and/or personal locator beacons. If you do fall in, stay with your boat where you can be more easily spotted.

Think about how you will retrieve anyone who falls overboard. Climbing back in can be next to impossible in heavy, cold, wet winter clothes—even for someone otherwise uninjured. Consider providing a sling if your boat has no boarding ladder. If you boat in cold weather often I would strongly recommend that you practice (under warmer conditions) how you would get back in your boat, as well as how you would bring passengers on board under cold weather conditions.

Know What to Do

In autumn, those occasional warm days can be deceiving because water temperature can be frigid. Simple steps may turn a worst-case scenario of a swamped or capsized boat into the best-case scenario for surviving cold-water immersion. To reduce the risk, do not to overload your boat, avoid those situations that put you at risk of going overboard, and make sure that everyone wears a life jacket.

Understanding the critical phases of cold-water immersion and some basic techniques for delaying their onset greatly increases your chance of survival. Cold shock is an initial deep and sudden gasp, followed by hyperventilation. Keeping your airway clear and wearing a life jacket greatly reduces drowning risk. Try to avoid panicking, and concentrate on your breathing. Cold shock normally passes in one minute.

Over the next 10 minutes you will lose the effective use of your extremities. Concentrate on self-rescue; if that’s not possible, keep your airway clear and wait for rescue. Remain calm. Don’t try to swim—the movements associated with swimming can cause body heat to escape 10 times faster.

Hypothermia means that a person is losing body heat faster than they can produce it, but even in ice water it may take an hour before a person becomes unconscious. (To learn more about surviving cold-water immersion, visit www.coldwaterbootcamp.com.) If you cannot get out of the water and help is not immediately available, draw your knees to your chest and wrap your arms across your chest, hugging your life jacket in the Heat Escape Lessening Posture (H.E.L.P.) and protecting the critical areas of heat loss. If others are in the water with you, huddle together with your arms around each other. Huddling in a group will help conserve body heat, keep everyone together, and make a larger target to spot in the water.

Don’t Boat Alone

With fewer boaters on the water, not boating alone is especially important. If you are injured or fall in the water, having one or two other people on board means someone can help you back in the boat or call for assistance.

As a matter of routine—in winter or summer—every boat operator should file a float plan listing a description of the boat, the number of persons on board, the area where you’ll be boating, and your anticipated return time. Leave it with a friend, family member or someone at the marina. Should you fail to return, a float plan containing this basic information can assist the local marine police or Coast Guard if they need to initiate a search. Just remember, if you’re delayed for reasons other than an emergency, inform those in possession of your float plan as soon as possible. Be sure to notify them when you do return so the float plan can be closed out. The Coast Guard makes float plan forms available online.

Before You Head Out:

• Take a boating safety course as well as a first aid and CPR course.

• Consult a chart and familiarize yourself with the area. Know where to wait for help and how to summon it, if you need it.

• Make sure your boat has enough fuel and is in good operating condition for winter weather. Ensure you have the required safety equipment on board, including flares or other visual distress signals, and that your running lights are in working order.

• Check the weather forecast. If it calls for rain, snow, fog or high winds, it is most likely not a good time to be on the water.

• File a float plan. Tell a friend, family member or someone at the marina exactly where you are going, who is boating with you, and when you plan to return. Don’t stray from the plan, and if you do, alert the person holding your float plan.

• Carry a VHS-FM marine band radio. In some inland waters a CB radio may be more appropriate. Use your mobile phone only as backup and put it in a waterproof container designed for cell phones.

• Take a GPS along with pre-set coordinates. If fog rolls in, you could become disoriented. Make sure you have extra batteries.

• Take along a well-stocked first-aid kit.

• Pack a basic survival kit including blankets, matches, disposable lighter, some dense-calorie food and warm beverages like coffee or cocoa in a waterproof bag. Do not drink alcohol while boating. It can impair your judgment and may speed up hypothermia should you fall in the water.

• Invite a friend. Boating with at least one additional person means that if someone is injured or falls in the water, the other can summon assistance or help them back into the boat.

What to Wear

• Dress in layers, and recognize that even slight changes in the weather can make hypothermia a threat.

• Take along extra dry clothing in a waterproof bag.

• Wear good quality, non-slip footwear; wear socks, even with sandals.

• Wear your lifejacket or float coat/jacket. Cold water quickly saps your strength. Life jackets provide added insulation. If you fall overboard, wearing a life jacket could give you the time you need to safely re-board the boat. The first reaction when hitting cold water is to gasp and suck in water. A life jacket can give you crucial minutes to regulate your breathing after the shock of falling in.

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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.