Capsized! How to Avoid Becoming a Statistic

The number one cause of boating-accident injuries and deaths is capsizing. Following these boating safety tips can keep you and your friends alive

Capsized! How to Avoid Becoming a Statistic
Capsized! How to Avoid Becoming a Statistic

It was a beautiful, sunny December day when the three men arrived at the lake for some bass fishing. A few hours after they started, an unexpected storm moved in. Waves grew. Rain poured. None of the guys had a lifejacket. A quarter mile offshore, a big wave crashed over the boat, and they capsized.

Although overturned, the boat didn’t sink. The men couldn’t upright the craft, however, and the icy water caused them to panic.

“We’ll have to swim to shore,” they agreed. Removing their shoes and coats, they began the treacherous crossing.

All were strong swimmers, but only one made it. His companions were overcome by hypothermia. He was picked up by another fisherman who spotted the capsized boat.


***


It was a freezing January day, but the bass bite was good. The two friends fished until sunset and started motoring back to the boat ramp in the dark.

As they zipped across the water, the boat suddenly lurched, throwing them forward. They had struck an unseen log, and within seconds, the boat capsized.

Both men wore lifejackets and knew chances of being rescued were greater if they remained with the boat. Their wool clothing helped retain body heat, even in the freezing water.

One man blew a whistle pinned to his lifejacket. Someone on shore heard it and dialed 911. Rescuers arrived in minutes and quickly found the men who signaled them with a waterproof flashlight. Although suffering from mild hypothermia, neither man had lasting effects from the ordeal. Being prepared saved their lives.


***

These stories are true and show the need for anglers to understand the potential dangers of capsizing when boating. Avoiding the causes of capsizing can keep you and your friends alive. Failing to observe precautions can have tragic consequences.

Capsizing is a top cause of boating-accident injuries and deaths. According to U.S. Coast Guard’s 2014 data, 280 accidents that year involved capsizing, resulting in 148 injuries and 145 deaths and nearly $1.8 million in property damages.


“Capsize” means to overturn accidentally and refers to a boat tipped on its side or inverted. It happens most often with open motorboats under 26 feet long, a category that includes most bass boats and johnboats. These low-profile boats are the most vulnerable to bad weather or rough waters and the easiest to overturn. It’s also easy to overload these vessels unintentionally, and an overloaded boat is more likely to capsize.

Most inexperienced boaters use small, open motorboats as well, and operational errors by these people account for many capsizing incidents.

Many factors can lead to capsizing, but following common-sense precautions can prevent such accidents.

Overloading/Overpowering

One common cause of capsizing is overloading or overpowering a boat, a problem we can sidestep by checking the maximum capacity plate found on the transom of most fishing boats. This indicates a boat’s maximum weight capacity (the combined weight of passengers, gear and motors), the number of people the boat can safely carry and the boat’s horsepower rating. Do not exceed the stated ratings and you’ll greatly reduce the likelihood of capsizing.

If a capacity plate isn’t present, one formula for calculating the number of persons (weighing 150 pounds each, on average) a small mono-hull boat can carry is to multiply the boat’s length times its width and divide by 15. For example, if a boat is 18 feet long and 6 feet wide, the number of persons is 18 times 6 divided by 15, which equals seven 150-pound persons (or a total person weight of 7 x 150, or 1050 pounds).

These capacities apply only when operating a boat under “normal” conditions. In rough water, bad weather or when operating in congested areas, carry a lighter load.

Improper Loading

Improper loading often leads to capsizing. Too much weight on one side or the other will cause the boat to list and increase chances of taking on water. Too much weight in the bow causes the boat to plow through the water. Too much weight in the stern creates a large wake. These situations make a boat difficult to handle and susceptible to capsizing.

Keep everything in the boat balanced, including people, coolers, tackle, etc. Don’t let passengers sit together on one side. Secure gear so it doesn’t slide to one side if the boat lists.

Boating in Dangerous Waters

Boating in unsafe waters is another cause of capsizing. Even experienced boaters sometimes fail to realize how quickly a lake or river can turn ugly under adverse conditions. Gusts of wind in a sudden squall can quickly capsize a small boat. Boating in fog or rain obscures vision and can lead to dangerous collisions. Venturing into rough waters near dams or bridges can lead to problems if you can’t control your boat safely.

To avoid these situations, always check weather forecasts before heading out, monitor radio reports when boating and obtain information about unfamiliar waters to avoid straying into unsafe areas. Stay off the water during inclement weather. And if conditions change and bad weather threatens, leave immediately.

Hitting an Obstacle

Collisions with unseen obstacles also account for many capsize accidents. This often occurs when boating at night without proper lighting. But if your running lights work, and you carry a light to watch for obstacles and signal other boats, you can avoid problems. Day or night, the boat operator should focus on the water ahead, operate at safe speeds and, if necessary, use a lookout to avoid stumps, rocks or other obstacles. Be especially careful when motoring into the sun; don’t let passengers block the operator’s view.

Standing

Standing in a small boat also can lead to problems. Too often someone reaches out to net a fish or retrieve a paddle, or stands at the gunwale to relieve himself, then loses his balance, falls and causes a boat to tip over. The boat may initially stay upright, but if an angler in the water tries climbing back in, capsizing may occur. Similar problems often happen when passengers sit on the gunwales or seat backs, or on a pedestal seat while underway. A raised center of gravity means a wave, wake or sudden turn can result in a person falling overboard or the boat being capsized. Be aware of these possibilities and avoid them.

Contributing Factors: The Big 4

Additional factors contributing to many capsizing accidents are what the Coast Guard calls the Big 4: excessive speed, reckless operation, operator inattention/inexperience and boating under the influence. Obviously we should never operate a boat at speeds exceeding safe limits. Slow down when making sharp turns. Use caution when crossing wakes. And never combine boating and alcohol consumption.

Inexperienced boaters also should consider taking a boating-safety course. Those who complete them are far less likely to be involved in accidents.

Wear Your Life Jacket

One final note of precaution: wear a life jacket when on the water and insist passengers do likewise. We all hope we can avoid accidents, but despite our best precautions, it can happen when we least expect it. Should your boat capsize, and you find yourself in the water fighting for your life, your chances of survival are far greater if you’re wearing the proper personal flotation device.

By following these rules of boating safety and preparing yourself for emergencies, you safeguard yourself, your family and your friends. That’s important for all of us.

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