Boating would have to be one of the most enjoyable pastimes on earth but unfortunately it is not always smooth sailing.

Over the years, I have spent many thousands of hours on the water and have seen first-hand the consequences when something unforeseen does go wrong. The hard facts are that thousands of people around the world every year drown or are severely injured in boating accidents. There are many different scenarios and unfortunately many could be avoided.

Whether it is a swamping, capsize, rapid sinking, collision, engine fire, grounding, a simple mechanical failure or running out of fuel. All of these can be disastrous on any given day. 

Here are a few simple tips to keep you safe on the water….

Swamping or Capsize

Check weather and sea conditions every time you take to the water. As we all know the wind can change in an instant and sea conditions can deteriorate rapidly. Even enclosed waters such as bays or lakes can turn very ugly, very quickly.  A common scenario is when the boat broaches or veers erratically down a wave or swell. This is very difficult to correct, if not impossible, when crossing bars.

  • If you find yourself in the path of an oncoming wave never turn sideways hit the wave or white water bow first
  • Never cross a bar in rough conditions
  • Lifejackets must be worn by law when crossing a bar
  • When coming back through a bar, ride on the back of the swell as this will put more water under the propeller and will not allow your boat to broach and possibly capsize
  • Inexperienced boaters should avoid bar crossings altogether


It is still very clear in my mind the moment my bow rail disappeared under the water. Just a flat spot on the ocean, with not as much as a bubble, was left in its place. It was a very surreal feeling to say the least, especially when it happened 10kms off the coast with my 11 year-old son on board.

I think most people are under the impression that their boat won’t sink, or boats sink slowly and they will have ample time to grab their life jackets and safety equipment. Unfortunately, this is not the case; once a boat fills up with water the majority will sink like a stone.

In my case there was nothing I could have done to prevent our situation. I think we hit something in a big following sea and tore the rudder stock away from the hull. The result was no boat in less than 50 seconds. There are however some simple checks that may prevent a boat from sinking.

  • Check all though hull fittings
  • Replace all hose clamps at any sign of rust or deterioration
  • Always keep shafts and packing glands well maintained.
  • Double check the bungs are in, this simple procedure has bought many vessels undone.


If you take your eyes off the road whilst driving a car the consequences can be catastrophic, this is the same whilst driving a boat. When out on the water having fun it is easy to get distracted and unfortunately this is the major contributor in collisions. So “Stay Alert”.

Steering failure is also a contributing factor to collisions. In one such instance, a mate’s steering cable snapped in his 19ft boat and it turned 90 degrees in a split second and hit a break wall at a speed of 35knots. This destroyed the boat and resulting in severe injuries including badly broken ribs. They were lucky to survive.

  • Maintain steering if steering becomes tight, this is a tell tale sign that cable may need replacing.

Engine Fire

Short circuits in wiring combined with fuel or fumes or mechanical issues can all contribute to engine fires. A boat can burn to the water line very quickly. Explosions and toxic smoke are all killers. If a fire can not be put out by using your extinguisher on board, exiting the boat may be your only option.

  • Check wiring
  • Make sure fuel tanks a properly ventilated
  • Keep extinguisher and safety equipment very accessible


Most groundings are disastrous. One common scenario is hitting an unseen sand bar at speed. This can result in severe injury or worse. A mate of mine knocked all his teeth out in one such incident.

  • Make sure you know the channels and the tide height when operating your boat

Engine Failure or Loss of Power

Even engine failure or something as simple as running out of fuel can result in tragedy. Whether drifting into an impact zone around rocks or beaches, or simply drifting at sea with no way of raising an alarm.

  • Check radio is in good working order
  • Signalling equipment is essential in this situation
  • If you do lose power and you can anchor safety, you should do so
  • V-Sheets can be seen from very long distances and are considered to be the international signal of distress.

Remember your safety equipment is key to your survival in a boating incident. Equipment must be well maintained and very accessible. If you can't put your hands on it in a few seconds it can cost you your life.

A few simple pre departure checks may just make your day a whole lot more enjoyable.

Have fun and Safe Boating.

This article was written by Scott Smiles and originally appeared in the Oct/Nov 2017 Issue of Nautilus Magazine.