Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Water Safety: How to Avoid Capsizing

Well here's another fine mess I've got myself into!

Keep Your Boat From Capsizing

Most boating accidents and injuries in the United States happen because someone's boat capsizes. In fact, capsizing is the number one cause of boating injuries in the summer. It's June and people all over the nation are hitting the water in small boats. People simply over-speed, over-control, overload and over-estimate their skills.  

For some reason when people get around water, especially in the summer, their brains take a kind of holiday from thinking. Perhaps it's because no one is wearing much in the way of clothing. I don't know, but this chronic lack of thinking can lead to tragedy.  Capsizing is the most common sort of tragedy. You see guys out in little fishing boats standing up with a load of fishing gear, maybe wearing waders and a jacket in cooler weather. You see them lumbering around in their boats and then later, when you pass the spot again there are game wardens, cops and county divers searching the water. When they finally do drag them up off the bottom, they always look surprised!

There are some simple common sense rules that will help you prevent your boat from capsizing. If your boat is in danger of capsizing, you need to be prepared in advance to do some quick thinking and even quicker acting. You need a cool head and a thorough understanding of the physics of watercraft. You need to understand buoyancy and balance and the elements of how a boat floats.

Preventing your boat from capsizing happens before you even take your boat out on the water. I know most of us slept through physics class in high school, but boats, whether we like it or not, obey the laws of physics. We may disobey the fish and game laws, but boats obey those physical laws to the letter. It's critical that you understand the basic principles of the physics of small boats and even more crucial that you practice what to do in an emergency in advance.

There are four basic threats that cause boats to capsize. You need to react to them quickly to prevent turning your boat over:
Excessive speed, too little experience.
  1. Overloading - There are two ways to overload your boat. One is by exceeding the weight limit of the boat. Usually, for commercially purchased boats, there's a metal plate on it somewhere that tells you how much weight the boat can carry. They're serious about that.  But total weight is only part of the threat. If you set the weight in the boat too high, you can also overbalance your boat.  Get any weight you are carrying down and centered in the boat. It doesn't matter if you’re in a yacht, a canoe, sailboat, or motorboat, weight that is being carried too high in the boat is most likely to be the cause of your boat capsizing. Especially in rough seas and high winds, get any loose weight in the boat as low as you can, especially if you are in a small boat or canoe. If things get lively have your passengers sit on the floor with their knees low and the weight centered. You don't want all the weight shifting, so tie down any loose heavy object as close to the bottom and center as you can. Fishermen should get down off those tall fishing chairs in a high wind, especially if you're moving the boat. If the boat rocks excessively, sit flat on the bottom of the boat. If you can lower your boat's center of gravity, it makes it much more difficult to capsize.
  2. Excessive speed - Going too fast will kill you quick. If you've ever done a belly flop off the high dive, you know how hard the water feels if you hit it at speed. It can knock the wind out of you and even knock you unconscious. When you are turning or maneuvering or trying to move in a sudden wind, slow Down! Taking off a little speed reduces your chances of capsizing significantly. If you get caught in a sudden squall and heavy waves, don't push it. Maintain enough speed to keep your bows pointed into the waves, but resist the urge to try and jump out of the water. The wind can flip you while you're airborne, given the aerodynamic shape of the hull of a powerboat. In high waves, you want to head roughly into the wind to find shelter. If you move sideways to the wind, the waves can push your boat sideways and cause it to heel over. If you run a gunwale under the water, a sudden high wave can flip you over in a heartbeat. If you're in a sailboat, pay out the mainsheet and allow the sails to spill wind. Pull in the sails just enough to maintain headway, but not enough that the wind can flip you. In very high winds, you may need to drop the mainsail and proceed on your jib if you have one. If you're an accomplished sailor, you may be able to make your way downwind under bare poles if you're good with the tiller.  In any case, reduce sail enough to take the pressure off the sail. You can lower the sail halfway down and tie the loose sail to the mast with bungees and reduce your speed that way. In any case, you need to get to safety, so don’t stop moving. Watch your speed. Keep it down to where you can react fast enough to prevent the boat turning over, but are continually moving toward safe harbor.
  3. Striking an object - The secret to avoiding striking an object is first and foremost, watching where you are going. People get out on the water and thing that because there aren't any trees around, that they can watch the girls in the bikinis in the back of the boat and only have to look ahead once in a while.  Tain't necessarily so. Floating debris can pop up in the blink of an eye. Fallen trees can find their way into your path and they may barely show above water. Lakes often have whole sections where tree stumps left from submerged wooded areas still stick up below the surface.  Know where you are going and if you're not sure how safe an area is, slow down.  Save the speed for when you are in the old river channel or in open sea where there aren't any sandbars. Most such areas are marked on charts of lakes and seashores, but things can change, so don't bet your life. There's a sandbar shallows out in the South Pacific that isn't near an island and doesn't stick up. A ship captain paying attention might spot the rollers over the spot, but they do miss it. The place is a ship's graveyard going back 300 years. It looked like clear seas and then suddenly the ships ran aground.  That can happen in almost any body of water. It's better to be careful till you learn the water, than to get cocky and wind up with a hole in your boat and yourself sailing over the windshield landing headfirst into a stump.
  4. Wind and waves -  Weather has a nasty way of biting you on your nether regions when you least expect it. Check the weather before you go out on the water - always! You have no excuse these days. Smart phones can pull up weather forecasts, complete with radar so you can see storms rolling in before they even cross the horizon. Stay off the water when the wind is high. Your sailboat doesn't need that much wind. Your canoe will get blown away and your power boat can be flipped in the chop. If bad weather approaches, get off the lake. Getting cocky can get you drowned. Worse it can get the people in the boat with you drowned.
Even the dog needs a lifejacket!

You need some things in your boat before you go out.  First of all you need enough lifejackets for everyone. People who can't swim should wear them. If you're hot-rodding around at speed, everyone needs to wear one. If you're thrown out of the boat and knocked silly without one, you can drown in a very short time.  Your life jackets should have tags showing they are Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices. The game warden or Coast Guard will check. Everyone needs at least a Type II PFD.

You need something to bail with.  Don't go out unless you have something with which you can quickly bail out your boat. A couple of old gallon bleach bottles with the bottoms cut out make great bailers. They have handles and you can secure them in the boat under a seat. Be sure to tie them to something with a long enough rope that you can bail without having to untie them. It helps in a hurry. Tie them with a bowline knot so they won't jam when wet in case you do need to untie them quickly.

Secure any loose objects in the boat. A supply of bungee cords is useful for doing that. Having coolers and tackle boxes sliding around the boat can overbalance you suddenly if you're leaning over the side or reeling in a heavy fish and next thing you know you're over the side or lying across the gunwale with water pouring in.

Keep the boat bailed out.  Water sloshing around in the boat is very heavy and the shifting weight of all that H2O can swamp you in a big hurry.  If you start taking on water, Every free hand needs to join in and bail.  Make sure everyone is throwing water over the side. In a panic, I've seen people scoop up water from the front of the boat and pitch it over their shoulder into the back of the boat. While it might feel good to be moving that much water, it's probably not helping much if it's still in the boat.  When your crew is bailing water, make sure they stay low in the boat while they are doing it. People sometimes get excited when water is coming into the boat and try to stand up in the boat. If there's a lot of water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat, standing up can lead to disaster. Always bail water from a kneeling or sitting position if at all possible.

If you’ve struck something and knocked a hole in your boat, you want to close the hole as quickly as you can.  A rag or shirt stuffed into the hole can slow the leak enough so that combined with bailing by the crew, you can make it to safety.

Head for cover as quickly as you can while maintaining a safe speed. Try to spot a sheltered cove or bay, especially if you are facing high winds and heavy seas. In a sudden squall, you'll have to crab your way toward where you want to go, keeping the bow of the boat into the wind and waves while slipping sideways in the troughs to prevent the waves from capsizing you. Angle our way across the fronts of waves turning your bow into the wave as you crest the wave. As you come down the backside you'll angle in the direction you want to go, then turn again into the wave as you rise back up on the next wave. This requires some skill at steering, but you should have already practiced your steering before you ever go out, especially with passengers. Always familiarize yourself with the how your boat responds to the tiller. If you're in a canoe, know how to steer with efficient paddle strokes. Do your practicing in calm weather in a sheltered place before you venture out into waters that can suddenly become choppy or into strong currents.

DON'T PANIC as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy recommends in big friendly letters on the cover. If you know your boat and you've practiced with it and take the precautions we've suggested above, you should be okay. The two deadliest things, that will kill you out on the water, are arrogance and ignorance.  Be smart and be skilled and know your boat.

Have fun out there on the blue water!

© 2017 by Tom King


Andrew Kim Law Firm: Common Causes of Capsizing Boats

The Bass Report; Preventing Capsizing

The Florida Course – Boater Education: Boating Emergencies - What to Do

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