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How to Prevent Boat Flooding

If You Spring a Leak, This Can Get You Safely Home
Boating Safety

…And taking effective action should it happen

If your vessel starts taking on water due to a leak, the amount of time you have to respond depends on the size of the hole and its location below the water line – the lower the hole, the greater the incoming pressure. A one-inch hole in the hull just one foot below the surface floods at a rate of about 20 gallons a minute. That same small hole six feet below the surface floods a nearly two and a half times that rate. You’ll need to think fast and move quickly.

•    If possible, locate the source of the leak and try to reduce the flooding.  In open boats this is relatively easy to do.  Larger vessels, such as cabin cruisers may be more difficult to find leaks due to their construction.

•    Activate the motorized bilge pump, if your vessel is so equipped, or have someone man the hand bailer or a manual bilge pump.  Make sure everyone on board is wearing their life jacket.  In an open boat, distribute persons on board as evenly as possible to prevent capsizing. 

•    Notify the Coast Guard or your local marine patrol and other boaters in the area that your boat is taking on water. Close watertight doors and hatches, shut down machinery that could make a flooded area hazardous, and close off drains and discharges that can siphon water into the boat if they sink below the water line.

•    If you don’t have plugs in your emergency repair kit, use anything that you can put into a hole to slow the flow of water.  Small pillows or foam cushions may work to reduce the flooding and give you time to get to safe mooring or until emergency help arrives. Believe it or not a commode plunger works well in some cases. Use your imagination.

•    If you’ve managed to get more water going out than coming in, reduce your speed, maintain steerageway and head for shallow water or to safe mooring.

•    If you can’t get the flooding under control, you may need to place a Mayday call for help.  Activate your EPIRB, if you have one aboard, or use your Visual Distress Signals to indicate that you are in distress and in need of assistance. In some cases you may be instructed to anchor until help arrives.

Simple Mistakes, Serious Complications       

Every year, the U.S Coast Guard sees incidents where simple mistakes put lives in jeopardy. 

Take the two retired buddies who set off from a California, marina on a warm day in April, heading for a favorite fishing spot five miles west of the harbor. They had already run into problems that morning. Their usual boat -- a 16 ft. aluminum skiff -- had to be left behind when the boat trailer developed mechanical problems. Instead, they brought the engine along and put it on a backup boat made of fiberglass over plywood that had been stored for years at the marina.

Trouble struck as they departed the outer harbor.  The transom of the boat – weakened by rot – suddenly separated. In less than 30 seconds, the remaining hull filled with seawater and sank – too fast to retrieve the life jackets stowed near the bow. 

One man, finding a cooler close at hand, had the presence of mind to dump the contents and use it for flotation. The other tried to swim to a buoy some 40 yards away, but began to founder in the cold water.  Luckily, an onlooker ashore dialed 911. A Coast Guard rescue vessel pulled both men aboard.

Failure to carefully examine a stored boat almost cost these friends their lives. For safety’s sake, keep your vessel well maintained and give it a thorough inspection prior to launch.

* * * * *

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit

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