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Capsized, Swamped, or Sinking

Capsized, swamped, or sinking, these are words no boat captain wants to envision.  Still, if you are a boater the possibility of being a active participant in a water survival situation is quite real.  Our southern coastal region is blessed with massive water ways.  From Sabine Lake to Pamlico Sound and all waters around, folks are out daily experiencing the joys of a boating life style.

Most boat captains are aware of the safety equipment required by state laws, such as life jackets and signaling devices.  But few captains can honestly say they are knowledgeable when it comes to a survival situation involving a capsized, swamped, or sinking boat.  Knowing what action to take becomes even more critical when help is not immediately available and one finds they are in open water with no retreat.

Any experienced Coast Guard boating instructor will acknowledge that the actions taken in the first few minutes of a boating emergency will often have a direct effect on survivability and how quickly rescue occurs.   A captain should never get so caught up in trying to save the boat that he fails to take steps that may save lives.  A captains first responsibility is to all those on board!

If a VHF radio is on board get a radio call out.  If time and circumstances permit a radio call should be made on channel 16.  Clearly say: MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!, followed by your location, the nature of the distress, your boat description, and souls on board.  Wait 10 seconds and repeat if no response is heard.  There is a strong probability the radio may be lost shortly after entering the water so do not waste time with unnecessary distractions.

If you find yourself suddenly capsized or swamped, gather your people together.  Take stock of the situation.  Is everyone present, do all have floatation devices on?  Are there any injuries, do the injuries require immediate attention?  What nearby items can be gathered up that may be useful such as coolers, water container, first aid kits and anything else that floats?  Can these items be tied together?  You as the boat captain can not do everything so use those who are able to help.

Most boats will not sink completely, and provided the vessel is not ablaze, stay with the boat.  By staying with the boat you remain a larger target, thus easier to spot.  Also, it may be possible to climb onto the boat.  Keep in mind hypothermia is a killer.  Removing even half of the body from the water can slow hypothermia’s effects.  One instructor suggested using the anchor rope or other line to help secure oneself onto the boat.  By throwing the rope over the hull and tying it to opposite-side cleats, a strong handhold may be provided to climb and hang on.

If signal flares are available and other boats are in the area, shoot two off.  Keep in mind the first will usual not get much attention.  On the second shot others will generally come to investigate.  Also, a common “pea less” whistle can make all the different.  A whistle can be heard much farther than someone yelling.  And no captain should be without the simplest of tools, “a knife”.  A knife can be used to cut rope or free someone from entanglement.  A knife has many unforeseen uses.

As things settle down try to keep everyone hydrated, avoid alcohol and caffeine, stick with fresh water or hydrating drinks.  Unless offshore or at night help will generally arrive quickly, “relatively speaking of course”.  A captain must remember that his first responsibility is to those on board and the actions of the captain in those first few minutes of a vessel that has capsized, swamped, or is sinking will make all the difference.


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