Don’t Go Overboard This Summer

Dear Black Bag Confidential Reader,

Summer is here and temperatures are rising, which means more and more people will be spending time on the water boating. Be it a small craft, sailboat, powerboat, larger fishing/touring vessel or a cruise ship, you need to remember — IF IT FLOATS, IT CAN SINK!

Tens of thousands of boats go under every year — this number includes at least four large ships every week. So before you decide to cast off, there are several things you should do to ensure your safety and increase your chances of surviving a nautical emergency.

Before You Head Out

I truly believe that the key to survival is preparation! This couldn’t be truer when it comes to boating activities. As always, situational awareness is key:

1. Inventory safety equipment. Are there enough life vests and/or life preservers so that everyone on board will have access to one? Are they in proper working order or have they seen better days? Water (especially salt water) is very tough on ALL equipment. You DON’T want to find out the life vests are totally worthless when you most need them. Additional items that should be on every boat are fire extinguishers, flares or some kind of signaling device and a VHF marine radio. And I always say IF it takes a battery, it’s going to take a sh*t exactly when you need it, so have backups.

2. Locate the emergency supplies. Are they under seats or in compartments? Are they easily accessible? Are you on a larger vessel that has lifeboats or rafts? Where are they located? You should identify at least two locations for these lifeboats, preferably in different parts of the ship to give you options if you can’t get to one of them.

3. Know your exits/evacuation route. If you are on the interior of a ship, be sure to plan your evacuation route. Again, have at least two options, preferably in opposite directions. Realize that one of the most dangerous and common boating accidents is an engine fire. Since the engines are located at the stern (rear) of the boat, avoid going that direction when you evacuate.

It Happened: You Are Taking on Water or the Boat Is on Fire

Time for a “threat assessment.” Immediately abandoning the vessel you’re on isn’t necessarily the right answer:

1. Do you think you can keep the vessel afloat by plugging the breach? Often, this will be enough to get you back to shore/dock. This can be done with patch kits or you can improvise using wetsuits, life jackets, etc. Your only goal is to stop the leak or at least slow the flow of water so you can remove it (manually or using bilge pumps) faster than it is entering the vessel. This is key because most shipwrecks (nearly 64%) take place within sight of a dock or land.

2. If there is a fire, can you extinguish it rapidly? Remember that boats have fuel on board and this situation can turn very bad very quickly.

3. If abandoning ship is the best option, remember that you are now going to be dealing with issues like possible drowning, exposure (hypothermia or heat stroke), dehydration and starvation on the open water. Not to mention wildlife.

You’ve Decided to Get off: Before Hitting the Water

Before you jump into the water, there are several things you should do to improve your chances of survival:

1. Ensure you have properly donned your life jacket. ALL straps should be buckled or tied.

2. Try to communicate to anyone you can reach with the VHF marine radio about your situation. In U.S. waters, channel 16 communicates directly with the Coast Guard as well as other boats in the area to send out a MAYDAY. Give the following information. Repeat it THREE TIMES:

  • Who you are
  • Where you are
  • The condition of the vessel
  • And what you plan to do.

3. Get any supplies that are buoyant and will not hinder you in the water, including bottled water and signaling devices — basically, anything that will aid your survival efforts.

Abandon Ship

Once you decide to leave the ship, you should first attempt to do so in a life raft or boat. Your priority is to get away from the sinking vessel as quickly as possible. A large, sinking ship creates powerful downward suction that has the ability to pull you under if you are still nearby.

If you are going into the water and a life boat isn’t an option, be sure to:

1. Put on several layers of clothing, which will provide additional thermal protection.

2. Find a clear landing zone. If you can, enter upwind to keep clear of smoke, fumes and fire.

3. Keep your feet and knees together, cross your arms over your chest and tuck your chin.

And most importantly… never enter the water headfirst!

Be a survivor… not a statistic,

Cade Courtley

Cade Courtley

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