Tips on handling a boating emergency

March 2012 News

Here at PDB we generally focus on the good times we have on pontoons and deck boats, and that's fine. We read magazines to learn more about the things we love to do, and for a 'tooner, there's no better place to get that than right here. Think boating and you think about water skiing, the smell of the water, the feel of the sun on your face and your mood improves almost immediately.

But sometimes we need to take a more serious tone and discuss what can go wrong on a boating trip. Because as fun as it is to spend a weekend at the reservoir, if you don't know what to do when an emergency arises, a problem can quickly become a tragedy.

Being prepared for an emergency can be the difference between a close call and a life-altering disaster, so here are some scenarios that may arise for you in the future. Learn these tips and you will be ready to stave off a tragic ending and maybe even save a life.

Man Overboard

One problem that can arise is a passenger falling overboard, either while you are underway or anchored. Obviously, the easiest way to deal with this situation is by preventing it in the first place. Make sure everyone is seated while the deck boat is underway, and ensure gates are closed except when docked and entering or exiting the boat. Never allow passengers to lean over the edge, especially when moving, and keep an extra eye on children.

If someone has fallen overboard, the three priorities are stopping the engine, throwing the victim a PFD if they do not have one already and alerting others in the area to the situation. Get that orange flag in the air ASAP, and consider even yelling "man overboard!" if there are other vessels in shouting distance. Assign one person to do nothing but keep the victim in direct view, an especially important job if there are large waves or other treacherous conditions.

If you must maneuver your pontoon boat to a better position to retrieve the victim, be very aware of the spinning propeller in the aft. Angling the boat incorrectly may result in further injury to the person in the water or a rescuer.

Move the boat so the side with the lowest clearance is facing the victim. In a pontoon boat, this is often the port, while for a deck boat this may be anywhere from the bow to the stern.

Make sure anyone who enters the water to retrieve the victim is wearing a life jacket. Having panicked "rescuers" jump in immediately can result in even more people being in trouble, complicating the issue further.


Be aware that the victim will need assistance getting back into the boat. If he is unconscious, this is obvious, but if he fell into cold water, hypothermia can begin taking hold in minutes, causing him to lose sensation and control in their arms and legs. In addition, maneuvering in wet clothing is tough in even the warmest water.

A conscious and uninjured victim can usually climb the ladder on his own, and in boats with ladders at the port or bow, this is definitely preferable to clambering up at the stern, especially if the water is rough. An unconscious or otherwise incapacitated victim will need assistance from others onboard to get him back in the boat. Loop your hands under the victim's arms and pull firmly and smoothly, avoiding jerking motions. Immediately return to shore if the victim needs any kind of medical attention, including treatment for hypothermia.


Now, it takes some pretty strong forces to capsize a pontoon boat, but the circumstances can arise in a severe storm or if the craft strikes a large object. Some boats are designed to be self-righting, such as Safe Boats (, but these are generally designed for commercial or government application. If your boat has capsized, it is important not to panic. Stay with the boat; that shoreline is always farther away than you think it is. Try to get on the boat (pontoons, hull) to get out of the water if it is cold. Even if it doesn't feel cold, it may have a negative effect on you if you stay in the water long enough. If the boat floats away, remain calm and wait for rescue. If you do not have a lifejacket, look for buoyant materials or objects, like a cooler, to help you remain afloat until help arrives.

To prevent capsizing, always load your boat evenly and don't take corners too sharply. Know the limitations of your boat and do not exceed them.

Taking On Water

Generally, leaks are small enough that you can make it back to shore without being in any danger. But if you hit a submerged rock or other object at a high speed, you may tear a hole large enough that water will come in at an alarming rate. To remove water faster than it is coming in, you have a few options. First, a simple bailing tool can be created by cutting the top off a two-liter bottle. Attach it to a rope and tie it somewhere in the boat so it doesn't get lost and it may end up being very handy one day. Redden Marine Supply sells a boat bailing sponge, which absorbs 24 ounces of water (

You may also want to purchase a bailing pump, like the Rule 500, available at, which can remove 500 gallons of water per hour from your boat.

Running On Empty

You never want to be in the middle of the lake with no way to return to the dock, and the most embarrassing way to arrive in this predicament is by running out of fuel. I know, you told yourself you could make it out to Amazing Rock Formation Point and back without filling up, but you failed to account for the headwind and the extra weight of the in-laws who decided to tag along. And now you're floating free on the water with no way to get home again.

How about you use the spare fuel tank you purchased for just an event? Even a small canister, only large enough to hold two or three gallons, is usually enough to get you to shore again. And at that small size, it can be stored anywhere.

And when push comes to shove, having a few emergency paddles lying around doesn't hurt, either. Overton's mini telescoping paddle telescopes from 22 to 42 inches and is available at Maybe the soreness you'll feel from rowing home will be enough to convince you to take steps to be prepared the next time.

There you have it, tips and suggestions on how to make the best of a bad situation on the water. I hope you never run across any of these situations, but if you do, remember what you read in PDB and everything should turn out just fine.

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