What to do if you’re involved in a boat crash

boat crash Photo by Artem Zavarzin/Shutterstock

For most cottagers, boating is an essential part of the experience. And while the vast majority of boat trips end with everyone safe on dry land, unfortunately, not everyone makes it back to shore. 

According to the Lifesaving Society, powerboating activities account for roughly 10 per cent of the 160 or so drowning deaths that occur in Ontario every year. Here’s what you need to know if you’re involved in a crash with another watercraft, land, or some other stationary object.

In the immediate aftermath of an impact, your two main concerns will be determining the safety of any passengers and assessing the condition of your boat. 

First, do a head count to make sure no one has been ejected, assess if anyone needs immediate medical attention, and have everyone don their lifejacket if they aren’t already wearing them. 

Next, turn off the engine if it’s still running and determine if you are taking on water, there’s a fire, or anything else threatening your boat’s seaworthiness. If you can’t bring the situation under control with your fire extinguisher and/or bailing buckets you’ll have to consider abandoning ship. 

After your passengers and vessel are secure you have a legal obligation to assist the people on the other boat (if that’s what you collided with) provided that doing so doesn’t put you in danger. 

Once both crews are accounted for, it’s time to contact the authorities, and the best tool for doing so is to use a marine radio tuned to emergency channel 16. “If you’re in a collision a maritime radio becomes your best buddy,” says Joe Gatfield, chair of the board for the Canadian Safe Boating Council. Any distress call broadcast over a marine radio will be picked up by the Coast Guard, local police, and any other boaters in the area listening to channel 16. 

If your boat is imperiled, you’ll want to put out an emergency call: “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” Fun fact: the internationally recognized distress signal is an Anglicization of the French word “m’aider” meaning “help me.”

If you’re not sinking or in any imminent danger but do need assistance, place an urgency call by saying, “Pan, pan, pan.” Once you’ve made either distress call provide your location, explain the situation, describe your craft, and identify how many people you have on board. 

The problem with relying on a cellphone for emergency communication is that cottage country is notorious for cellular dead zones. And, as Gatfield points out, even if you get reception, you’re reaching out to someone on land who has to figure out a way to get to you, rather than connecting with nearby boaters who are monitoring the emergency channel. 

As soon as it’s safe to do so, exchange contact information with the other boat operator, including their vessel ID number and insurance provider, and contact your own insurer with the details. If intoxication on the part of either operator is suspected as a cause of the crash, you should immediately notify police. 

Post-collision, you should monitor for whiplash or other injuries that may not immediately show symptoms and seek medical care as needed. 

Surviving a boat crash often relies on having the required safety gear on board, including Canadian-certified life jackets, a buoyant heaving line, a paddle or anchor, noisemakers, and flares. When Gatfield conducts safety gear inspections he says, “the biggest problem we find is insufficient or expired flares.” Flares have a shelf life of four years from the date of manufacture, which is printed on each one. 

If your boat sinks, you’re legally responsible for salvaging it and repairing any environmental damage. These costs can be exorbitant, which is why it’s wise to have a boat insurance policy. Jared Chartrand, principal broker with Northstar Marine Insurance, says you need to ensure your coverage includes pollution liability and wreck removal to cover these costs. 

Finally, the number one way to improve the odds that you won’t be involved in a boat collision: don’t drink or imbibe before you get your hands on the throttle. 

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