Recreational Boating Safety – A Fatal Boating Accident

Bob CurrieBy Bob Currie, Recreational Boating Safety Specialist
U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Station Galveston Flotilla
When a vessel makes violent contact with an object in the water, and that contact causes damage to the vessel or the object that was struck, then the first question to be answered is whether the vessel and the struck object were both moving or whether one was stationary. If both objects were moving, the proper term for the accident is collision. If one object was stationary, then the proper term is allision. In many cases both a collision and an allision are between one vessel and another. Sometimes a collision can be between a moving vessel and another moving object such as a marine animal, while an allision can be between a moving vessel and a fixed object such as a navigation marker. In either case the Coast Guard is often called to respond to a vessel taking on water due to a collision or an allision.

Earlier this month a 29-foot center console boat struck an Intracoastal Waterway channel marker and capsized, sending 14 people into the water, killing one person and seriously injuring others. The passengers were mostly young girls celebrating a birthday. They were on their way back to port late in the afternoon when the accident occurred. The boat operator reported that a larger boat had come too close to his boat and the wake created by the larger boat rocked his boat, and when he turned around to see if the girls were okay after the boat passed, he hit the channel marker. To make matters worse, emergency help was delayed by 30 minutes due to the accident being reported by cell phone rather than by making direct contact with the Coast Guard by VHF/FM marine radio. This article will look at possible contributing factors that could cause an accident such as this and measures you can take to avoid a similar accident.

The Boat
The boat was a 29-foot Robalo center console fishing boat, pictured below after salvage. The boat struck the channel marker on its starboard side, doing serious damage to the hull below the waterline.

The Passengers
There were two adults and 12 juvenile females aboard. As reported, the boat operator turned around to see if the girls were okay after the boat was reportedly rocked by a larger boat that came too close to the Robalo. An instant later he struck the channel marker, capsizing his boat and throwing everyone aboard into the water.

How to Keep This from Happening to You
The best way to avoid a similar accident is to learn and follow the Rules of the Road, also known as the Navigation Rules. Knowing and following the rules listed below would certainly lower the risk of collision or allision for the prudent safe boater:

  • Rule 5 – Look-Out
  • Rule 6 – Safe Speed
  • Rule 7 – Risk of Collision
  • Rule 8 – Action to Avoid Collision
  • Rule 19 – Narrow Channels

Rule 5 – Look-Out
The only position on a boat that is required by law is the lookout. Rule 5 of the Rules of the Road says that you must designate someone to watch for dangers that may come from any direction. “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.” Although you may have the latest electronic innovations such as GPS, radar, and infrared, your primary means of avoiding a collision remain your eyes and ears. That said, the rules also state that you must use all means available to avoid a collision, and that includes those electronic devices mentioned above. If you have operational radar aboard your boat, that radar must be utilized to help prevent a collision with another vessel. Rule 5 applies in all types of visibility, but you can see where it is most important when visibility is restricted. Hearing plays an enhanced part in a lookout’s job whenever visibility is restricted.

Rule 6: Safe Speed
Excessive speed was the number 5 contributing factor in recreational boating accidents. In 2018 there were 276 accidents involving excessive speed, with 25 deaths and 231 injuries reported. Operating at a safe speed becomes even more critical when visibility is restricted. Reducing your speed also reduces your engine noise, thus allowing you to better hear sound signals such as fog horns, whistles, and bells. If you see a possible collision situation developing, reducing speed is one of your first safe courses of action. Slowing down gives you more time to maneuver and avoid a collision.

Rule 6 says in part, “Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.”

Rule 7: Risk of Collision
Rule 7 comes into play whenever another vessel is detected, whether by sight, hearing, Automatic Identification System (AIS), or radar. Below is the wording of the rule:

  1. Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists. If there is any doubt such risk shall be deemed to exist.
  2. Proper use shall be made of radar equipment if fitted and operational, including long-range scanning to obtain early warning of risk of collision and radar plotting or equivalent systematic observation of detected objects.
  3. Assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information.
  4. In determining if risk of collision exists the following considerations shall be among those taken into account:
    1. Such risk shall be deemed to exist if the compass bearing of an approaching vessel does not appreciably change.
    2. Such risk may sometimes exist even when an appreciable bearing change is evident, particularly when approaching a very large vessel or a tow or when approaching a vessel at close range.

As you can see from this rule, just detecting an object is not enough; you must plot an object’s course to determine if a risk of collision exists early enough to alter course if necessary to avoid a collision.

Rule 8: Action to Avoid Collision
According to the report, the boat operator was trying to avoid a collision with another vessel when he struck the channel marker. Rule 8 says, in part:

“Any action taken to avoid a collision … shall be positive, made in ample time and with due regard to the observance of good seamanship. Any alteration of course and/or speed to avoid collision shall… be large enough to be readily apparent to another vessel…. If necessary to avoid collision or allow more time to assess the situation, a vessel shall slacken her speed or take all way off by stopping or reversing her means of propulsion.”

The boat operator said that he was momentarily distracted by turning around to check on his passengers after the close call and that is when he struck the channel marker. There is nothing in the record to show that he reduced speed at any time.

Rule 9: Narrow Channels
In this case the operator was moving within a defined navigation channel, as evidenced by the fact that he actually struck a channel marker. Rule 9 begins, “A vessel proceeding along the course of a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as near to the outer limit of the channel or fairway which lies on her starboard side as is safe and practicable.” In this case it is apparent that the boat operator moved too close to the starboard side of the channel.

Rule 14: Head-on Situation
Rule 14 says, in part, “Unless otherwise agreed when two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of each other.” If you are already at the starboard side of the channel, then your choices change from having a simple meet with another vessel to avoiding a collision. In many cases that will mean coming to a complete stop or even reversing direction to avoid the collision. The important thing to do is to recognize the situation early enough that emergency procedures are not required.

Additional Considerations
We don’t have the full story on this accident yet, but we can certainly make some recommendations that might prevent you from getting into the same situation. The following recommendations apply to any trip on the water:

  • Don’t overload your boat (look at the picture an imagine where 14 persons would have been distributed in the available seating)
  • Have assigned seating and instruct your passengers not to move about the boat while the boat is underway unless they get permission from the operator to move
  • Slow down in narrow channels and watch for developing situations such as a head-on meet or a passing or a crossing situation
  • Post a lookout and make sure they know what their duties are
  • Avoid heading into the sun during the later part of the day; head back sooner so that the sun won’t block your vision as you head for the dock
  • Have your passenger wear their life jackets when underway

Whether it is the risk of collision with another vessel underway or allision with a fixed object, the prudent mariner will follow the Rules of the Road to avoid such circumstances. The most important things you can do to prevent collision or allision are to post a proper look-out and operate at a speed that is safe for the present conditions. Be sure to ensure that you have the required visual distress signals, and make sure you have a means of contacting the Coast Guard in an emergency. There is no phone booth on the jetties.

For more information on boating safety, please visit the Official Website of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division at Questions about the US Coast Guard Auxiliary or our free Vessel Safety Check program may be directed to me at [email protected] SAFE BOATING!


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