Boating is a thrilling activity, but it’s essential to be prepared for unexpected situations on the water. Whether you’re a seasoned sailor or a novice boater, knowing how to respond to emergencies can mean the difference between a safe outing and a dangerous situation. Below are some emergency situations and things that you can do to prepare yourself and your boat to be ready for each case.

Man Overboard (MOB)

Imagine cruising across the water and suddenly, someone goes overboard! Time is important in this situation. You need to get the person back on board quickly and safely.

  • React immediately: Shout “Man overboard!” to alert others on the boat. Assign someone to keep their eyes on the person in the water. It is easy for the captain to lose sight of a person in the water while trying to handle the boat, especially in less than desirable conditions.
  • Throw a flotation device: Toss a lifebuoy, or any flotation device, toward the person overboard.
  • Initiate a rescue: If conditions allow, carefully turn the boat around and approach the person in the water slowly and safely so that they don’t encounter the boat, especially the propellers.

Engine Failure

I have experienced this before and it is not fun. Your engine dies and it leaves you floating helplessly at the mercy of the current and wind.

  • Drop anchor: This will prevent you from being pushed by the wind or current into a more dangerous situation. (Of course, if the water is too deep or if you are far away from land, it may not be possible to drop anchor.)
  • Assess the situation: Determine the cause of the engine failure, such as fuel issues or mechanical problems. If you have the skills and/or tools, you may be able to fix the problem yourself.
  • Call for help: Use your marine radio or cellphone to call for assistance if you can’t resolve the issue yourself. Having a membership with Tow Boat/US or Sea Tow is also a good resource.
  • Use sails or auxiliary power: If you have sails and/or a backup engine available you may be able to maintain control of your boat and maneuver it to a safe location.


There is a saying that you are not a real boater until you have run aground. Here is what you do if this happens.

  • Reduce speed: Do this immediately to minimize potential damage.
  • Check for damage: Assess the boat’s condition for problem areas.
  • Re-float the boat: Try shifting weight on the boat. Alternatively, if you are in an area affected by tides and the tide is low, you can wait for the next high tide to re-float the boat. If the boat is taking on water, you should not try to re-float it.
  • Call for assistance: If you can’t re-float the boat, call a professional for help.

Fire on Board

This is probably the scariest of things that can happen on a boat. I know it’s easier said than done, but the best thing to do is remain calm.

  • Alert everyone: Shout “Fire!” to alert all passengers.
  • Isolate the fire: If safe to do so, use a fire extinguisher to try and contain the fire.
  • Deploy flares/distress signals: Use these aids to signal for help.
  • Abandon ship: If the fire can’t be controlled, get everyone into life jackets and abandon the boat. Move away from the boat to avoid injury from an explosion. Having a ditch bag available is extremely important. Keep one on the boat that is prepped and ready to go. It should contain things like flares, hand held marine radio, emergency position indicating radio beacon and signaling devices.

Sinking Boat

This does not happen very often, but it can happen. Be prepared.

  • Assess the situation: Determine the cause of the water ingress, such as a leak or hull damage. See if the leak can be stopped.
  • Put on life jackets: Have everyone put on life jackets just in case.
  • Use bilge pumps: If available, use these to remove water from the boat.
  • Deploy life raft: In the event you are not able to stop your boat from sinking, grab your ditch bag, deploy the life raft (if equipped) and ensure everyone moves safely off the boat.

Remember, preparation and prevention are key to avoiding emergencies on the water. Conduct regular maintenance on your boat, stay informed about weather conditions, and equip your boat with essential safety equipment. Additionally, take boating safety courses to enhance your knowledge and readiness. Atlanta’s Boating Club and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary both offer boating safety classes to the public.

In the end, your safety and the safety of your passengers should always be the top priority when  boating. Stay vigilant, stay prepared, and may your journeys on the water be safe and enjoyable.