The sky was clear when the three men started bass fishing. But a few hours later, a storm moved in. Waves grew. Rain poured. No one wore a lifejacket. The 14-foot johnboat was overloaded with men and gear. A quarter-mile offshore, a wave washed over the boat and they capsized.
Although overturned, the boat didn’t sink. The men couldn’t upright the craft, however, and the icy water put them in a panic.
“We’ll have to swim to shore,” they agreed. Removing their boots and coats, they began the treacherous crossing.
All were strong swimmers, but only one made it. His companions were overcome by hypothermia. He was picked up by another fisherman who spotted the capsized boat.
It was a cold day, but the bass bite was good. The two anglers fished past sunset.
As they motored back to the ramp, their boat struck an unseen log and capsized.
Both men wore lifejackets and knew chances of being rescued were greater if they remained with the boat. Their wool clothing helped retain body heat, even in the freezing water.
One man blew a whistle pinned to his lifejacket. Someone on shore heard it sound and dialed 911. Rescuers arrived in minutes; the men signaled them with a waterproof flashlight. Although suffering from mild hypothermia, neither man had lasting effects from the ordeal. Being prepared saved their lives.
***These stories are true and show the need for bass club members to understand the potential dangers of capsizing when boating. Avoiding the causes of capsizing can keep you and your friends alive. Failing to observe precautions can have tragic consequences.
Capsizing is a top cause of boating-accident injuries and deaths. According to U.S. Coast Guard’s 2009 data, 642 accidents that year involved capsizing, resulting in 373 injuries and 280 deaths and nearly $2.7 million in property damages.
Capsize means to overturn accidentally and refers to a boat tipped on its side or inverted. It happens most often with open motorboats under 26 feet long, a category that includes most bass boats. These low-profile boats are the most vulnerable to bad weather or rough waters and the easiest to overturn. It’s also easy to overload these vessels unintentionally, and an overloaded boat is more likely to capsize.
Most inexperienced boaters use small, open motorboats as well, and operational errors by these people account for many capsizing incidents.
Many factors can lead to capsizing, but following common-sense precautions can prevent such accidents.
One common cause of capsizing is overloading or overpowering a boat, a problem we can sidestep by checking the maximum capacity plate found on the transom of most fishing boats. This indicates a boat’s maximum weight capacity (the combined weight of passengers, gear and motors), the number of people the boat can safely carry and the boat’s horsepower rating. Do not exceed the stated ratings and you’ll greatly reduce the likelihood of capsizing.
If a capacity plate isn’t present, one formula for calculating the number of persons (weighing 150 pounds each, on average) a small mono-hull boat can carry is to multiply the boat’s length times its width and divide by 15. For example, if a boat is 18 feet long and 6 feet wide, the number of persons is 18 times 6 divided by 15, which equals seven 150-pound persons (or a total person weight of 7 x 150, or 1,050 pounds).
These capacities apply only when operating a boat under “normal” conditions. In rough water, bad weather or when operating in congested areas, carry a lighter load.
Improper loading often leads to capsizing. Too much weight on one side or the other will cause the boat to list and increase chances of taking on water. Too much weight in the bow causes the boat to plow through the water. Too much weight in the stern creates a large wake. These situations make a boat difficult to handle and susceptible to capsizing.
Keep everything in the boat balanced, including people, coolers, tackle, etc. Don’t let passengers sit together on one side. Secure gear so it doesn’t slide to one side if the boat lists.
Boating in Dangerous Waters
Boating in unsafe waters is another cause of capsizing. Even experienced boaters sometimes fail to realize how quickly a lake or river can turn ugly under adverse conditions. Gusts of wind in a sudden squall can quickly capsize a small boat. Boating in fog or rain obscures vision and can lead to dangerous collisions. Venturing into rough waters near dams or bridges can lead to problems if you can’t control your boat safely.
To avoid these situations, always check weather forecasts and read tide tables before heading out, monitor radio reports when boating and obtain information about unfamiliar waters to avoid straying into unsafe areas. Stay off the water during inclement weather. And if conditions change and bad weather threatens, leave immediately.
Collisions with unseen obstacles also account for many capsize accidents. This often occurs when boating at night without proper lighting. But if you’re running lights work, and you carry a light to watch for obstacles and signal other boats, you can avoid problems. Day or night, the boat operator should focus on the water ahead, operate at safe speeds and, if necessary, use a lookout to avoid stumps, rocks or other obstacles. Be especially careful when motoring into the sun; don’t let passengers block the operator’s view.
Standing in a small boat also can lead to problems. Too often someone reaches out to net a fish or retrieve a paddle, or stands at the gunwale to relieve himself, then loses his balance, falls and causes a boat to tip over. The boat may initially stay upright, but if an angler in the water tries climbing back in, capsizing may occur. Similar problems often happen when passengers sit on the gunwales or seat backs, or on a pedestal seat while underway. A raised center of gravity means a wave, wake or sudden turn can result in a person falling overboard or the boat being capsized. Be aware of these possibilities and avoid them.
Contributing Factors: The Big 4
Additional factors contributing to many capsizing accidents are what the Coast Guard calls the Big 4: excessive speed, reckless operation, operator inattention/inexperience and boating under the influence. Obviously we should never operate a boat at speeds exceeding safe limits. Slow down when making sharp turns. Use caution when crossing wakes. And never combine boating and alcohol consumption.
Inexperienced boaters also should consider taking a boating-safety course. Those who complete them are far less likely to be involved in accidents. Your state fisheries agency or the U.S. Coast Guard can provide details on classes near you.
Wear Your Life Jacket
One final note of precaution: wear a life jacket when on the water and insist passengers do likewise. We all hope we can avoid accidents, but despite our best precautions, it can happen when we least expect it. Should your boat capsize, and you find yourself in the water fighting for your life, your chances of survival are far greater if you’re wearing the proper personal flotation device.
By following these rules of boating safety and preparing yourself for emergencies, you safeguard yourself, your family and your fellow club members. That’s important for all of us.
What To Do If You Capsize
The Boat Owners Association of the U.S. (www.boatus.com) suggests doing these things should your boat capsize:
- Remain calm and conserve energy.
- Do a head count to make sure everyone is with the boat. Be sure all are wearing PFDs and stay with the boat. Leave the boat only if it is headed toward a hazard.
- If you lose the boat, use anything you can (an empty cooler, empty soda bottles stuffed in your jacket, etc.) to help you stay above water. The higher you are in the water, the easier it will be to find you. The easier it is for you to float, the easier it will be to conserve energy.
- If you can’t right your boat, try to get help. Take turns being the designated “signaler” who yells at a regular interval or waves at passersby. Try and make everyone as “big” as possible (put on what you can, pull floating debris near you, etc.), and try to contrast with the background by wearing light clothing (or vice versa). If you have appropriate signaling devices (whistle, flares, waterproof flashlight, etc.), use them when you think they will be seen or heard.
Improper Anchoring Can Lead To Capsizing
Anchoring a boat from the stern also can cause capsizing, a fact many inexperienced boaters are unaware of. Boats are designed to be anchored with a line running from the bow, but some small-craft owners find it more convenient to sit by the outboard, tie the anchor line to a stern cleat and drop anchor there. If you do, however, you may capsize as a result. Your boat’s stern will point into the wind or face into the current when anchored this way. Then a wave could slop over the outboard cutout and suddenly capsize your boat. Or, if the current is heavy, the lever action created with a stern anchor increases tension on the line, pulling the stern deeper into the water. When the line is retrieved, the added pull can capsize the craft. And should the operator try to remove a stuck stern anchor by gunning the motor, capsizing also is likely to occur.
Anchor your boat properly from the bow. Never anchor in swift or exceedingly choppy waters. Consider using a quick-release hitch or tie that allows dropping the anchor immediately in case of emergency.
Complete this Pre-Departure Checklist
To make sure your bass boat is “seaworthy” and all essentials are on board, set aside 15 minutes for a quick inspection before launching.
- Check the operating condition of your boat: motor, steering, battery, hoses, clamps, bilge pumps, wiring, fuel tanks, lines, float switches and lights.
- Make sure you have a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket of correct size and type for you and every passenger, and, on the water, make sure they are worn, not just stowed.
- If your boat is greater than 16 feet in length, be sure you also have a Coast Guard-approved throwable flotation device—such as a buoyant cushion, ring buoy or horseshoe buoy.
- Check for other safety equipment appropriate to the size of your boat and the area where it will be operating; for example, flashlight, tool kit, first-aid kit, sunscreen, paddles, binoculars, anchor and anchor line, fire extinguisher, spare battery, visual distress signals, charts of the local area and a VHF-FM marine radio.
- Check the capacity plate or calculate the maximum load to make sure you don’t overload the boat with passengers and gear.
- You can also download a Pre-Departure Checklist from the U.S. Coast Guard at http://uscgboating.org/safety/fedreqs/saf_prechecklist.htm.