Avoid That Sinking Feeling

How and Why Boats Capsize

FSF Staff June 25, 2015

Fishing and boating are enjoyable pastimes, but even with the proper safety precautions accidents happen. While it might seem straightforward, boats sink because water fills in faster than onboard pumps can handle and positive buoyancy quickly becomes negative buoyancy. Whether it’s hull damage from hitting a submerged object, taking waves over the bow, improper docking, forgetting to insert the drain plug, a faulty thru-hull fitting or clogged scuppers, a catastrophe can happen anywhere and at anytime.

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Photo: Downrite Marine Towing

Surprisingly, Boat US insurance statistics report that an astonishing 69% of sinking accidents in 2013 occurred at the dock or while mooring. Unfortunately, sinkings of this nature are almost always a direct result of operator error and equipment failure. With that being said, it is always a series of events that leads to the capsizing of a vessel. In addition to losing your personal effects and putting your passengers in danger, owners of capsized vessels are also at risk of hefty pollution fines and costly salvage bills.

…it is always a series of events that leads to the capsizing of a vessel.

When it comes to vessels capsizing, your bilge pumps are the first line of defense. For a product that is relatively inexpensive and easy to install and replace, bilge pumps are simply neglected by way too many boaters, both novice and professional. If you think a single 1100 gph pump is enough you are delusional, which is why most boats feature redundant systems to make sure they stay afloat if things tragically take a turn for the worse. As critical as bilge pumps are in emergency scenarios, it’s amazing the USCG doesn’t include and validate them as required safety equipment. In an emergency situation with water flooding the bilge, working pumps will likely be of more benefit to you than flares or a whistle. If your bilge pumps prevent you from having to jump ship, your approved flotation devices will be of no use. Remember that bilge pumps mostly fail because of faulty electrical connections, so it’s important you inspect routinely and replace when deemed necessary. If a wire or connection looks corroded, it is corroded!

Whether you neglected to tie the boat up properly and it got stuck under a dock during an incoming tide, failed to inspect your thru-hull fittings during the last haul out, or let your scuppers get clogged before a big storm, bilge pumps really only buy you time to find the root of the problem—which is almost always lack of maintenance.

While bilge pumps can save you from sinking in many situations, the series of events that lead to an emergency situation are usually completely avoidable. Beyond failed bilge pumps, boats often sink because of poor seamanship and navigation error. Think it’s too rough to head offshore? Your boat manufacturer may instill false pretenses claiming your newly purchased center console is unsinkable, so you take the small craft advisory with a grain of salt. Take two or three big waves over the bow and the flooded deck and added weight of seawater will greatly influence your boats running attitude. Reach a point where your self-bailing deck is below the waterline, and it will soon be a self-filling deck. You may think you are safe because your boat manufacturer utilizes foam filled cores and touts unsinkable performance, but even if your boat won’t fully sink it can still lead to a dangerous situation that requires you to abandon ship. Most don’t realize the little amount of water needed to change the attitude of your boat. We’ve all been there before and I’m as guilty as anyone, taking an 18-foot skiff sailfishing in crisp 4-foot seas. Fishing fever can cause anglers to do things they normally wouldn’t risk, but don’t push your limits too far or they might push back.

While the safety of your passengers should always be priority number one, repairing a salvaged boat can often cost more than the boat is actually worth. If anything, personal safety and the value of your most prized possession should be enough to make you practice routine preventative maintenance measures to ensure season after season of safe and trouble-free operation. With Florida’s enviable year-round weather, there’s no off season and boats are always in operation, so routine maintenance for boaters in the Sunshine State is critically important.

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