boating emergency

What Type of Boating Emergency Causes the Most Fatalities?

Did you know that in 2020 there were 767 boating-related deaths and 3,191 injuries? Statistics for 2021 haven’t been recorded yet, but the Coast Guard has been working on preliminary data. Unfortunately, the projected numbers seem to be even higher than the previous year.

While boating is a popular summer activity, it can also be dangerous. When it comes to boating emergencies, most people think about things like engine failures and broken propellers.

Several things can lead to boating accidents and deaths that are often preventable. There are also boating emergencies that span well beyond mechanical issues.

So, what are the most common causes of boating fatalities? How can you prepare for and prevent a boating emergency? That’s what we’re going to uncover so keep reading.

Types Of Boating Emergencies

Various types of boating emergencies could take place. So, we’re going to take a detailed look at some of the most common emergencies that you might experience.


One of the leading causes of boating fatalities is overturning. This can happen when the boat hits a wave and tips over. It can also happen when the wind catches the sail and blows the boat in the opposite direction that it was intended to go.

In either case, if you’re not wearing a life jacket and end up in the water, you’re likely to drown. This is especially true if you suffered an injury that might prevent you from being able to swim.

Capsizing and Going Overboard

This happens when the boat flips over and sinks, often due to strong winds or waves. This can happen to any sized boat. This can also happen at any time in inclement weather or strong waters and yes, large vessels can capsize if a wave is big enough.

Try keeping the bow in the waves to help prevent the vessel from actually rolling. Sometimes a capsized vessel will fix itself, so in some cases waiting it out could be helpful.

Make sure that you know where your passengers are and the condition they are in. If you’re able to stay with the boat, do so. Try not to panic and don’t make the mistake of trying to swim to shore right away.

Remain calm, assess your situation, activate your boating safety measures, and call for help.


A boat can also sink due to several reasons such as a hole that’s been drilled in the hull, a broken propeller, or a faulty engine. If a hose slips or a packing gland is leaking, this could cause a boat to sink as well. Keep in mind that your vessel doesn’t have to be on open water to sink.

It could sink just as easily right at the dock for those same reasons. Being prepared to float in open water by having life jackets can help, but try not to fully abandon ship if it’s not completely submerged. Always aim for land if you need to and remain prepared.

Running Aground

Running aground often happens when the boat hits a sandbar or rocks and gets stuck. If you’re not wearing a life jacket and end up in the water, you could put yourself at risk of hypothermia or even drowning.


You can become stranded when the boat becomes stuck in mud or sand, or when it runs out of fuel. Always be prepared by having enough survival supplies to last a certain amount of time. This may be a time to call for help.


A fire on a boat can also be deadly. This often happens when the boat is refueling and the gas vapors ignite. Keep in mind that you can suffer from burns or smoke inhalation.

If the fire is bad enough that it’s not extinguishable right away, be prepared to abandon the vessel and tread water. Always have floatation devices, and having an inflatable raft attached to the side is always a good idea.

Electric Shock

Getting shocked by electricity while boating is another potential danger. This can lead to electric-shock drowning (ESD). This can happen when you’re using an electric trolling motor, or if there’s a short circuit in the boat’s wiring.

If you make contact with any energized metal while immersed in water or wet in general, this could happen.

CO Poisoning

Yes, this can happen and it often happens when the boat’s exhaust system is faulty and carbon monoxide gas leaks into the boat. Dying from carbon monoxide poisoning is very possible on a boat.

This can be an issue with cabin cruisers meaning if you have living space on your vessel. Seek fresh air immediately if you experience this problem and always have carbon monoxide detectors on board.

What Type of Boating Emergency Is Most Fatal?

The leading cause of death in boating accidents is a combination of collisions with another watercraft as well as with stationary objects. So, in short, collisions are the most common cause of death. However, keep in mind that collisions can result in multiple hazards.

Whether that’s being thrown overboard, drowning, dying from prolonged hypothermia, or suffering injuries from a blunt force type of trauma from the collision, collisions can result in multiple things with drowning being the number one leading cause of death in boating accidents.

You should know that lack of awareness and poor judgment on the operator, or even faulty mechanics can lead to these types of collisions so remain aware of your surroundings.

How Can You Prepare For and Prevent Different Emergencies?

There are various things that you can do to help prevent these types of emergencies. Always ensure that you have the proper equipment on your vessel. You can do pre-inventory checks before going out on the water as well.

Ensure that you have operational navigational lights, as well as an emergency kit with all materials being fully functional. Ensure that you have personal flotation devices for every single passenger that will be onboard and having different types of flotation devices won’t hurt either.

Your vessel should always have a fire extinguisher that’s operational and your navigation system should be working as well. With that, you should keep maps and charts on your vessel at all times in case your navigation system stops working.

This often goes overlooked, but pay attention to the condition of boaters, and make sure that no one is operating the vessel while being under the influence of alcohol or anything else that could alter their ability to drive.

In Case You Need to Issue a MAYDAY Call

Sometimes it’s necessary to call for help. This means that your boat should always have a fully functional communication system onboard. MAYDAY is the word that’s used to make distress calls via radio communications.

Don’t worry, this is a globally understood term. You should send out a MAYDAY signal when you’re experiencing a life-threatening emergency. This is almost always associated with emergencies concerning boats, or aircraft.

The first rule of thumb is to know that the word MAYDAY needs to be said three times in a row. Following transmitting MAYDAY three times, you’ll want to mention the name of your vessel three times as well. Call out the letters in the name of your boat at least once.

Repeat MAYDAY once more as well as the name of your vessel. After the initial transmission, make sure to report your location as well as the nature of your emergency and mention the type of assistance you need. Always report the number of people that are on board and include the condition they are in.

The Key Things To Remember When Calling For Help

The key here is to provide any pertinent information that can help rescue teams. You want them to be able to identify your vessel and your location. They also need the information to be able to coordinate the care that you will need once they arrive.

Ensure that you’re describing the condition of your vessel as well, and wait for a response. You should also know that if you don’t receive a response, continue repeating the message until you do.

Keep in mind that sending out distress signals by day and by night will be different. For a nighttime distress signal make sure that you have SOS signal lights and red signal flares. And by day, ensure that you have an orange signal flag as well as orange smoke flares.

Orange is the international color/symbol that represents distress on the water. So, always make sure you have the correct color flag to show that you’re in distress.

Do Recreation the Right Way

Whether you’re a general outdoor enthusiast, or you’re a pro looking to perfect your survival skills, is the resource for you. We’re all about the outdoors, so we work hard to provide you with tips, tricks, and reviews that could help make the best camping trip, boating trip, or hiking trail the best that you’ve embarked on.

Whether you want to make sure you’re prepared for a boating emergency or you want to learn more emergency preparedness skills, we stay on top of common issues of interest regarding everything outdoors.

Found this information helpful? Check out our other content for more useful information.