When you boat as much as I have, you end up seeing how a joyful day of boating can quickly turn into a nightmare due to an overboard situation. The circumstances that cause someone to fall overboard can be as diverse as the watercraft populating our shores, but they all share a common cause: a lack of awareness about boat safety.
So what is most likely to cause someone to fall overboard?
Whether it’s a kayak bobbing in the bay or a larger vessel cruising the open sea, the risk of someone falling overboard is ever-present.
And it’s not always rough water that sends an overboard passenger into the deep blue. Often, it’s something benign and unexpected.
Here’s a common reason why overboarding happens: a leisurely walk around the boat becomes a life-threatening situation; someone slips on a wet deck while positioned too close to the edge–they only have one hand on the boat while it’s swaying, and they tumble into the water.
I’ve seen it happen before.
People rush to the edge of the boat, which causes another person to fall in the water.
If we know what’s likely to cause someone to fall overboard, we can take steps to make sure everyone stays safe. That’s what this article is about.
Table of Contents
Understanding the Risk of Falling Overboard (And Avoiding a Dangerous Overboard Situation)
When a person falls into the water, the consequences can be dire. If someone falls overboard while the boat is in motion or in rough water, they might struggle to resurface.
It’s not the fall in the water that’s the most dangerous part–it’s the aftermath. Immersion in very cold water can shock the system, causing disorientation or unconsciousness. This is where a drysuit would come in handy.
(For more information on drysuits, see our article “Wetsuits vs Drysuits (Which Is Better?)”.)
Even in warmer waters, there’s always the risk of drowning or (gulp) being attacked from below.
There’s also the psychological trauma for both the fallen passenger and the people on the boat. Seeing a friend or loved one struggle in the water can leave a lasting imprint and turn a leisurely boat trip into a haunting memory.
The more we know about why people fall overboard and how to prevent it, the safer our boating experiences will be.
Common Reasons Why People Fall Overboard From Motorboats
If you’re on a boat, keep in mind that someone could fall overboard at all times. Remember that most likely that person is not prepared to be submerged in cold water.
Here are few reasons why this might happen:
Weather can be a significant cause for someone to fall overboard, especially if your boat is caught in a downpour.
Rough seas will make the boat sway and disturb the balance of everyone onboard. Rain can cause the decks to become slippery, which increases the risk of a slip and fall situation.
Standing up or moving around the boat when it’s in motion can cause you to lose your balance.
I recall a time when a friend, eager to capture the perfect sunset shot, stood up with his camera on a moving boat. The boat hit a wave, he lost his balance, and just like that, he fell overboard.
Thankfully, we were able to quickly rescue him because the water was relatively calm. But it was a lesson learned the hard way: stay seated and away from the edge while the boat is moving.
Loose toe rails, inadequate boat shoes, or even having one hand on the boat when you should have two, can all lead to an overboard situation.
One should never underestimate the power of momentum. A boat can turn or lurch suddenly, making it easy for someone close to the edge to fall into the water.
Maybe your girlfriend is leaning too far over the edge to retrieve some autumn leaves from the water. Bad idea.
Perhaps your brother lost his footing while fishing barefoot (always invest in proper footwear) and now he’s moss-covered and resembles the Swamp Thing. He’s in trouble.
Maybe you’re jogging after a seagull on a cruise ship and fall flat on your back with your head badly injured; maybe afterward you roll into the ocean. For what? Because the seagull stole your sandwich? That’s ridiculous.
The most likely cause for someone to fall overboard is one you’re not keeping in mind often enough: people, even highly intelligent people, make bad decisions and end up wet. Try to avoid this.
What Would Cause Someone To Fall Overboard From Kayaks and Canoes?
I’m a kayak lover and I’ve fallen overboard plenty of times, and I can tell you: it’s never fun.
Kayaks and canoes present a different kind of risk for falling overboard. Smaller boats can tip or flip easily for a plethora of reasons.
Water conditions are relevant here and should be examined. A series of huge waves in the Arctic Ocean could cause plenty of problems for a kayaker; a calm pond is a different story. Whitewater junkies frequently find themselves in the water; they dress themselves accordingly.
(For more information on this topic, see our article “What Should I Wear Kayaking?”)
But it’s not just about paddling mistakes or water conditions. Changing seating positions or turning around abruptly can also cause someone to fall overboard.
Awareness, caution, and proper preparation are key to avoiding flipping these smaller boats.
What is Most Likely to Cause Someone to Fall Overboard?
To reiterate those points we’ve already touched upon (and add a few more):
- Bad weather
- Not staying away from the edge of the boat (or leaning too far over the edge of the boat)
- Improper seating or standing (especially on the edge of the boat–don’t do it!)
- Slippery surfaces
- Lack of handrails or toe rails
- Boat is moving fast
- Too much weight
- To learn more about kayak weight capacities, see our article “Kayak Weight Limits (2023 Guide)”
Ways to Avoid Falling Overboard (Small Boat + Motorboat)
There are many ways to prevent overboarding.
If you own the vessel, start by equipping your boat decks with non-slip surfaces, secure handrails, and adequate lighting.
Wear boat shoes. They offer superior traction on slippery surfaces, a common cause for someone falling overboard.
Stay alert, don’t get too drunk, and don’t go boating in bad weather.
Don’t overload your boat and don’t go too fast.
The right preventative steps can mean the difference between a pleasant outing and a life-threatening situation.
How to Rescue an Overboard Passenger
If someone has fallen overboard, you need stop whatever you’re doing and help them right away.
Shout “man overboard” to alert others and slow the boat. Always maintain eyes on the person in the water to help monitor their condition and location.
Stop the boat and kill the engine. A man overboard rescue turn should be used to get back to the person as quickly as possible.
Throw a Type IV PFD (aka life ring or ring buoy) to the person in the water.
A VHF radio is a lifesaving tool that allows you to report the incident promptly. When alerting the authorities, be ready to provide essential information (like your boat’s location, a description of the person who fell overboard, and the weather and water conditions).
Assign someone to continue keeping eyes on the person in the water at all times. They should keep track of the fallen passenger’s location as the boat loops and approaches.
If you have one on hand, send a MOB boat to rescue the passenger.
Locate the person overboard and pull them from the water. Administer first aid.
Someone who falls overboard is likely to be injured, so check for those as well as shock and hypothermia.
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget these procedures. That’s why you should bookmark this page!
Overboard situations can be difficult to navigate, but knowing what to do and when to do it will go a long way in retrieving the person in danger and calming the other passengers.
We hope this article has helped you understand the necessary methods, and we’d like to offer one last piece of advice: Make sure everyone is wearing a properly fitted PFD!
What is the main cause of people falling overboard on a boat?
There is no one main cause of someone falling overboard, but most of the time it relates to bad weather, choppy waters (when the boat is swaying violently), too much speed, and not enough safety precautions.
What is the height of the fall when someone falls overboard on a boat?
The height of the fall refers to how far someone falls when they tumble overboard. It can range from a few feet to dozens of meters.
What’s the difference between wet and dry floors on a boat and how can this contribute to overboarding?
Wet floors are wet and because of the excess moisture they’re slippery, which means someone could easily slip and fall overboard.
What are the likely causes of falling overboard on a boat?
Unstable footing, lack of handrails, sudden movements, bad weather, carelessness, intoxication, standing suddenly, not paying attention.
How can I prevent falling overboard on a boat?
Be aware of your surroundings, avoid alcohol and drugs, maintain a firm grip on handrails, and be cautious when moving around the vessel.
What is would cause of someone to fall overboard while the boat is moving, and how might the “man overboard” situation be handled in the Arctic Ocean?
Usually lack of preparedness or carelessness whilst the boat is moving. If “man overboard” is declared, it’s important to turn the boat around and, with utmost caution, pull out the fallen passenger.
In the Arctic Ocean, the shock of the cold immersion could cause even a small amount of blood loss to be fatal, making it vital to get the person back onboard and flat on their back, minimizing blood loss, and then to a hospital as soon as possible
Is falling overboard from a boat a common cause of death in boating accidents?
Yes, it’s one of the leading causes of death in boating accidents. According to the US Coast Guard, falling overboard has a 65 percent fatality rate.