Don’t be a statistic

Doug King | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 5

We review the top six boating scenarios that can ruin a fun day on the water.

A review of Australian boating incident statistics makes sobering reading. Across the different states, the types of incidents are strikingly similar and do not change much from year to year. This indicates that risks in boating don’t markedly change and that the same errors occur year in, year out. Generally, recreational vessel incidents are declining each year, however fatalities have remained fairly steady over the last 10 years.

While the pain and anguish of injury or loss of life aren’t reflected in the statistics’ black and white tables, these statistics are necessary as they reveal areas that all skippers need to constantly watch and review.

Human factors, such as inattention, inexperience, navigation error and operational errors account for almost 70 per cent of incident causes. Breakdown, capsize, man overboard, collisions, grounding and flooding are the standout incidents, with many leading to injury and capsizing and too often resulting in the loss of life.


According to a friend at the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard, one of their busiest times is the first day of good weather after the football season, when mechanical failures, flat batteries and the odd sinking keep them busy. With the football over, thoughts turn to getting the boat out for the summer … but while the boat has been sitting idle over the winter, things may have slowly deteriorated.

If care is not taken to check over your boat and trailer before using it after a long period of downtime, you stand a good chance of seeing a tow truck or a rescue boat’s stern as it tows you back to shore.

To avoid trailer breakdowns, inspect it for general wear and tear, paying particular attention to the hitch, safety chains and winch. Apply a light lubricant, such as Lanox, on moving parts. Have the wheel bearings checked and test the lights for proper operation.

Service your engine if it’s due and if it isn’t, ask your technician for a pre-season check. At the very least, inspect the engine and mechanical components thoroughly. Rubber and plastic seals often stiffen or crack with lack of use and steering components can seize up if not properly maintained.

Inspect and check the bilge pumps and the boat’s electrics and wiring. Have the battery tested – technicians can test for voltage, cold cranking amps (particularly important for starting the engine) and internal resistance. Replace the battery if there is any doubt.

Defective fuel systems are dangerous. Examine the tank along with its connections and fuel lines, looking for leaks and loose connections. Fuel can degrade over time and condensation may also occur – ask your marine dealer to refresh the fuel if it has been in the tank for more than two months, as stale fuel can damage engines or cause poor running.

If you do have the misfortune to experience a breakdown while on the water, some basic rules apply. The first is to get everyone to wear a PFD (in some states, this is mandatory when a breakdown occurs). If it’s possible and safe to do so, anchor the boat – this brings the bow into the wind and waves and stops drift. Calmly assess the situation and run through logical steps to find the cause. If the problem cannot be rectified, summon assistance.


Capsizing and falling overboard are the greatest dangers to life, with vessels less than six metres at most risk of capsize. There are some simple rules to help maintain good stability on a smaller boat.

Don’t overload. The boat’s Australian Builders Plate or capacity plate will show its maximum capacity in a number of formats, including in total weight allowance and number of persons. The maximum horsepower rating is also shown.

Take into account the weight of safety equipment, personal effects, fishing gear and your fishing catch. Irrespective of your boat’s load allowance, reduce load in less than perfect conditions. Keep weight low and evenly distributed and trim the boat so it rides slightly bow up.

As the skipper you have a duty to reduce risks to safety on your boat. Brief your passengers before you go out and advise them to keep a handhold at all times. Look for trip hazards and warn about slippery surfaces. Non-swimmers should wear a PFD – depending on the boat size, it may be a legal requirement for all persons to wear one (check with your local marine authority).

Capsizes in coastal waters are often attributed to ‘freak’ waves. While there is a lot of discussion regarding this topic, waves rising up suddenly are a normal occurrence and usually form in areas where the seabed rises steeply or near shorelines. Quite often these areas are shown on marine charts, so it’s worth doing a little homework before heading out.

Leading into summer, water temperatures may still be quite cold, particularly in inland waterways. Cold shock from falling into the water causes immediate physiological problems – for the first minute, rapid-rate breathing leads to the ingestion of water and, in some cases, more serious problems. Longer periods of immersion can lead to swim failure, a condition where muscles cannot move properly, followed by hypothermia.

The Maritime New Zealand 2014/15 Annual Report says that for the recreational boating sector, the annual boating toll is not improving (based on actual numbers). However, the fact remains that the majority of the 32 fatalities in 2014/15 may have been avoided if lifejackets had been worn.

In Australia, the issue with wearing lifejackets is the same. The message is clear: wearing a lifejacket greatly increases the chance of survival if you fall overboard. PFDs save lives and it makes sense to wear them.

More details for man-overboard procedures, what to do if you are capsized or have to abandon ship can be found in the Club Marine App. Go to the Safety section and open the Safety tab, then click on Skipper’s Briefing followed by Emergency Planning.


Collisions with other vessels, swimmers and fixed objects feature prominently in the statistics and account for a high proportion of serious injuries. There are two main causes of collision: failing to keep a proper lookout, and not travelling at a safe speed. Both are legal requirements under the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (Colregs).

Keeping a proper lookout takes practice and discipline. Vessels can approach from any direction so your lookout should be done in segments, starting from looking over your shoulder, passing through the front and to behind the opposite shoulder. Clear the area by looking at the horizon and coming back to the boat. Regular checks behind you should also be made. How often you re-check will depend on the density of traffic, your speed, the visibility and the sea state. This leads to how a safe speed is determined: it’s the speed that allows you to assess the situation and take early action to avoid collisions.

Some tips to avoid collisions

• Scope out no-boating areas and speed-limit zones before you go. When engaging in towsports, survey the area well

• Slow down at night and when heading into a setting or rising sun

• Display the correct lights at night (no headlights or LED bars)

• Pass navigation marks and other fixtures at a safe distance

• If another vessel is approaching and the angle of approach is constant, it is likely you will collide. Apply the ‘road rules’ and take early action if you are required to give way.


Flooding and grounding are avoidable incidents that stand out in the statistics.

If you run aground you risk damaging your boat, and grounding at speed almost always results in injury. Local knowledge, the ability to interpret marine charts or plotters and a fair degree of prudence will reduce this risk. If you are not sure how deep the water is, travel slowly or stop to assess the situation.

Flooding is also a high risk. It could be the result of a collision or grounding, and is sometimes caused by the boat’s components failing, including propeller shafts, rudder stocks and other through-hull fittings. In smaller boats, don’t forget the bung! Treat yourself to a new one every year.

If you do experience water flooding the boat, the first thing to do is get PFDs on everyone and make a call for help. Bilge pumps alone may not remove incoming water. If you know the cause, try to stem the flow. Spare clothing, towels and seat cushions can be used to plug holes. Any water inside the boat will reduce stability, so be careful.

If the boat does get flooded, stay with the hull as it’s easier for rescuers to see and may provide some support. You’ll also have access to safety equipment. While level flotation is best, a boat with basic flotation may only float with a small portion above the water.

While you should huddle together to retain body heat, swimming to shore is not recommended. A safety grab-bag with flares, torch, EPIRB and other emergency gear is not a bad idea and specialised survival kits, such as the Life Cell floatation device with essential safety gear, are worth considering.

With the boating and holiday season fast approaching, now is a good time to check safety equipment. Particular emphasis should be on servicing inflatable PFDs, checking flares for expiry dates, checking fire extinguishers and renewing torch batteries.

You could also download the Club Marine App onto your smartphone. It’s a great start to pre-season safety and comes with checklists, safety briefings, emergency plans, weather information and much more.

As mentioned earlier, human factors play a large part in boating incidents. This means that with proper attention to risks and careful, prudent operation, you can minimise the chance of becoming a statistic. In the 2015 Maritime Safety Queensland Annual report, Neil Scales, the Director General, Department of Transport and Main Roads, said: “Everyone who has an interest in working or playing on our unique and diverse waterways has a part to play in fostering a boating culture that places safety first and foremost.”

He is absolutely correct – it is up to you! Are you willing to play your part?

How to-Safety