Dealing with boat emergencies onboard
Not all onboard problems become emergencies, but you should know how to prepare for and deal with common boat emergencies just in case. Most boat accidents can be prevented if the skipper, crew and passengers pay attention, make good decisions, and have proper boating skills. Likewise, many equipment-related boat emergencies can be prevented by proper equipment inspection and maintenance.
Get a vessel examination at the beginning of each boating season. Doing so ensures that you have the minimum required safety equipment aboard your boat. Most squadrons and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary offer complimentary vessel examinations. (Request a vessel exam.)
Loss of engine power
Losing engine power can be extremely dangerous, particularly on a single-engine powerboat, in rough seas, shallow water, shipping lanes or commercial channels. Even the best-maintained boats encounter mechanical problems from time to time.
If you lose engine power, drop anchor outside of a channel as soon as possible. Be careful when anchoring in a current. If the anchor catches on the bottom while the boat is moving in the current, it could result in broken equipment, injuries from snapping lines or even a capsized vessel. Anchoring gives you time to develop your options. If you’re in very deep water, you can deploy a sea anchor off the bow or a drogue from the stern to keep the bow to the seas and slow the boat’s a drift toward shallow water.
Keep enough spare parts and tools. onboard to repair common engine malfunctions. To do so, you need to know about engines in general and your boat’s engine(s). (To learn the fundamentals of gas and diesel engines, how to diagnose problems and more, take our Engine Maintenance course.) And don’t forget to control and clean up any leaked fuel or oil.
Notifying the U.S. Coast Guard or other authority that your engine is dead and you’re beginning repairs, allows them to monitor your situation in case conditions worsen. Generally, the Coast Guard will not tow you in, but they will assist you in contacting help, monitor the situation, and step in if conditions worsen.
Loss of electrical power
If you have a gas engine, losing electrical power will have an immediate impact. Depending on the failure, the engine may stop suddenly or lose power gradually as the spark plugs and fuel pump lack enough voltage to operate. However, with diesel, the engine will continue to run, but other electrical devices will lose power.
You’ll need to call for assistance with a handheld VHF radio or an EPIRB. Have all portable electronic devices charged and ready. If you shut off the engine, you won’t be able to restart it. While you might be able to make it to a nearby port without electrical power, you could also drop anchor and troubleshoot if possible. The cause is usually poor batteries, a loose wire or a malfunctioning alternator. If you cannot make repairs, call for assistance or a tow.
Crab and lobster pots and fishing lines can stop a boat. Even when you make every effort to avoid floating objects, pots and lines may frequently drift into channels, creating an obstacle course for recreational boaters. If you notice a loss of power or your engine begins to overheat, you may have a fouled propeller.
First, stop the engine to investigate. Next, anchor the boat and prepare to go over the side. Then, cut away all line, and examine the propeller for other damage. You can purchase a handheld device that can reach an inboard engine propeller from the cockpit. You can also affix line cutters to the shaft of an inboard to cut away entangled line.
When boats aren’t used for long periods of time, barnacles develop on the bottom and propeller. Just a few well-developed barnacles on a propeller can severely impair performance. Clean the propeller and bottom regularly. Most marinas will have the names of divers willing to scrape hulls and clean props.
Stay safe on the water
Learn how to handle common emergencies while underway. Take our Emergencies on Board seminar to keep yourself and your crew safe.