Written by AGLCA member, Brian Adams
Boaters never plan to go into the water while underway, but it can and does happen to even the most seasoned among us. A rouge wave, a sudden change in course, docking, handling dock lines and fenders, overreaching, even a wake from another boat can throw you off balance and potentially into the water.
The title of the article is a famous quote from George David owner of RAMBLER 100 who lost their keel during the 2011 Fastnet race. After the entire crew was safely rescued some of whom were in the water for 2.5 hours, ALL crew were wearing PFDs. Think about this the next time you are underway, what if I fell off the boat right now, what do I have to work with? How can I help rescuers find and retrieve me? Can I handle being in the water for some amount of time until I am rescued?
So let’s get personal about your safety on the water. This article will touch on your personal safety, equipment and techniques to handle yourself, if you would happen to go overboard in any conditions.
How to Stay in the Boat
Prevention is the first defense to keep you on the boat. Know your center of gravity. On almost all of the boats we travel on there are times when our center of gravity is above lifelines and hand rails. If the boat would take an unexpected roll, what do I grab to keep myself on board? At any time moving around the boat there should be a hand hold. Practice using hand holds even if you are just docked. Being able to grab a handrail while underway should be second nature. When docking or locking be prepared for a sudden bump or change in direction which can throw you off balance. Avoid overreaching, be patient the boat will get there. Always be aware of other boaters passing around you and let your crew know if they will have an effect on your boat. Many times when we are coming into a harbor I will call out “WAVE” to crew who are talking, preparing lines, or below - meaning to hold on we are about to get rolled. Talk about the areas of your vessel where you may be prone to falling over, such as the bow while docking or setting an anchor, handling dock lines amidships, attaching fenders, and even carrying lunch up to the bridge while underway.
Make Sure to Wear Your PFD
In the unfortunate event you find yourself completely wet and without a boat, your goals are to stay afloat and to be found. While most of us can tread water or body float it can be very tiring. So you are going to need flotation until help arrives. 2017 USCG statistics show 85% of drowning victims were not wearing any type of PFD.
Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) have come a long way since the May West type jackets or the orange horseshoe type. These are uncomfortable and are not very fashionable at best. The modern day wearables are very comfortable even in the warmer climates. There are many styles, fit types and colors to choose from. Manufacturers are even designing inflatables for women to fit for comfort. There are at least 10 different colors to choose from pink, green, light blue and tie dye.
What is the best PFD?
Answer: The one you are going to wear. Find a PFD which you are comfortable in. Try them on in the store. I do not recommend any particular brand or style over another, but a couple of features to look for: is the vest USCG Approved? If not then you will have to carry an approved one to meet state and federal regulations. The vest should have enough buoyancy to turn you over if you are face down in the water. This rating is a minimum of 33lbs or 150 newtons. How expensive are the rearm kits? All PFDs should have a whistle and a light attached to them. These simple low cost, low tech, and low maintenance items have aided in multiple rescues.
Belt packs (also known as fanny packs) are a popular alternative. These are less intrusive and may be a good alternative for guests who are not involved in the operation of the boat. At a minimum they are better than nothing to keep you afloat.
Know your personal safety equipment, visually inspect it each time you put it on, and perform an annual inflation check.
How to do an annual check:
Place the PFD on, adjust the waist straps to a comfortable sung fit. The back of the PFD should also be adjusted so the waist strap is around the rib cage. This is done to prevent damage to spine during inflation and rescues. Open the enclosure and find the oral inflation tube. Fill the bladder by blowing into the tube until fully inflated. Oral inflation saves the need to purchase a rearm kit and is less stressful on the plastic welded seams of the bladder. If you are uncomfortable it’s easy to release some of the pressure by depressing the valve at the top end of the tube, much like you let the air out of your car tires. If you let too much out it’s easy to add some back in with a puff from the lungs. How does the PFD feel? Can you lift it over your head? If so you will need to tighten the waist strap so it becomes sung, but not uncomfortable. This will be your adjustment when wearing it underway. Next check for your whistle, give it a little toot. Consider upgrading your whistle to a louder higher pitched model. Check that your safety light is working. Replace the battery. Fully fill and set the inflated PFD aside for 24 hours. When you check it again the PFD should have the same fullness as when you first filled it. If not, you should discard it. The units are not repairable.
OK, so now you have found yourself in the water as your boat becomes smaller on the horizon. What can you do? First, stay calm. Rescuers will come back for you. It may take them some time to get the boat turned around and maneuver into position. Stay put. This is the point of the Man Overboard. Try not to swim, you are only burning energy needed to reboard and accelerating heat loss which could lead to hypothermia even in warmer waters.
Now it’s your job when in the water to be found. Think Bigger, Brighter and Different than your surroundings. Bigger, grab anything you can find in the water to become a bigger target. Brighter, inflatable PFDs today contain bright florescent colors for the bladder. You have a personal light which is effective even in the daylight. Different, look different from your surroundings. When you are sure someone is looking wave arms or slap the water around you creating a moving visual target. Avoid wasting energy if no one is looking.
Think about your personal safety when underway. Do you have the tools and techniques to survive in the water until help arrives? And remember, “YOU GO IN AS YOU ARE.” So the next time you set out on the next leg of your trip ask yourself, “What if I fell in right now?”