What to Do If Things Go Wrong on the Water
Sep 17, 2019 | 4 minute read
Reading Time: 4 minutes

When you head out day after day during peak season, you’ve got a million and one things to think about. The last thing you need is a problem outside of your control. But, while accidents can happen to anyone, the least you can do is be prepared.

Man with son in lifejackets, smiling

We spoke to a member of the US Coast Guard to find out more about reporting and dealing with trouble at sea. These are our top tips so you can stay safe and operate within the law.


It’s no surprise that the health and safety of everyone on the boat is your top priority in an emergency. First, make the boat as secure as possible. Then, administer first aid to anyone who needs it.

All licensed captains in the US will have completed a first aid course and a CPR certification. But this isn’t just there for the paperwork! Make sure to keep your knowledge topped up and attend a refresher course if necessary.

Once you’re sure that everyone’s safe, you can get in touch with the Coast Guard to report the accident.

Report Your Problem As Soon As Possible

Once you’re sure everyone’s safe, it’s time to notify the nearest Sector Office, Marine Inspection Office, or Coast Guard Group Office. Get in touch at Channel 16 VHF/FM or call your local branch of the USCG. You must notify the Coast Guard by the fastest means possible, after addressing any safety concerns.

Be ready to provide:

  • The name and identification number of the boat.
  • The names of the people on board.
  • Any other information they ask for.

When you return to land, you may need to submit a written report. You’ll send this to the Coast Guard Sector Office, Marine Inspection Office, or the State Marine Department, depending on how your boat is registered. The best thing is to call the Coast Guard – they’ll tell you what you need to do.

Man talking on boat radio
Once the area’s secured and you’ve administered first aid, call the Coast Guard

As Paul Ledoux, Chief of Investigations Division at the U.S. Coast Guard Hampton Roads Sector puts it: “I know it is a little confusing, that is why I always say call the Coast Guard – we will help them figure it out and try to make a bad day better.”

Come Prepared

If you’re involved in a Serious Marine Incident, you will need to submit to drug and alcohol testing. Alcohol testing has to happen within 2 hours of the incident. So if you think it’s possible you won’t be able to get back to land in time, you should carry alcohol testing devices on board at all times. Otherwise, you could face a considerable fine.

Serious Marine Incidents include accidents where someone’s injured and needs urgent medical care beyond first aid, as well as anything that caused damage to property worth over $200,000. So make sure you’re prepared. You never know what will happen. And you don’t want to make a bad situation worse by not having the right equipment on your boat!

Find out more about what counts as a Serious Marine Incident and how to report them here.

As well as carrying alcohol testing devices on board, make sure to check that all your emergency equipment is up to date. The USCG noticed that small passenger vessels commonly carry first aid medication that’s out of date and EPIRBs whose releases have expired.

Make Sure Your Boat Is Safe

The Coast Guard identified a few easily preventable problems that come up time and again with small vessels. Print out their leaflet to make sure you don’t get into trouble that could have been prevented!

You can make sure your boat is safe and show your customers you care by taking the Coast Guard’s free Uninspected Passenger Vessel Exam. As well as keeping you up to date with any new regulations and checking your boat for safety issues, this will give you a safety decal to attach to your boat and show your customers.

Keeping your head and having a plan is the best way to deal with any problem. With that in mind, we’ve put together a step by step guide to handling problems at sea. Feel free to save or print it so you don’t miss a beat when the pressure is high:

Infographic showing steps you need to take if you're in an accident at sea

No one wants to plan for an accident. But with good preparation and a solid understanding of what to do if things go wrong, you can make a bad day more bearable. And as you’re going out on the water more frequently, this is just the time to check in on your safety features and make sure you’re ready for the unexpected.

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