Ensuring Safety with Open Hatches on Boats by ChatGPT

Title: Ensuring Safety with Open Hatches on Boats: A Guide for Mariners


When it comes to boating safety, one crucial aspect that often goes overlooked is the proper handling of open hatches. Open hatches can present serious risks to boaters if not managed with caution. Whether you’re an experienced sailor or a novice adventurer, understanding the importance of safety with open hatches is vital to prevent accidents, injuries, and potential damage to your vessel. This article aims to provide essential guidelines for maintaining a safe boating experience when dealing with open hatches.

  1. Recognize the Hazards

Open hatches on boats can pose various hazards that demand careful consideration. Here are a few key risks associated with open hatches:

a. Trip and Fall Accidents: Open hatches create an unexpected change in floor level, making it easy for individuals to trip and fall, potentially resulting in injuries.

b. Water Intrusion: Leaving hatches open during rough weather or while cruising at high speeds can lead to water entering the boat, causing damage to both the vessel and its occupants.

c. Obstructed Emergency Exits: Failing to secure open hatches can obstruct emergency escape routes, hindering swift evacuation in critical situations.

2. Maintain Clear Communication

Clear communication among the crew members is essential to ensure everyone’s safety while dealing with open hatches. Establishing and enforcing effective communication protocols can help minimize the risks associated with open hatches. Consider the following practices:

a. Communicate Open Hatch Status: Maintain open lines of communication regarding the status of open hatches. Use clear and concise language to notify others about the open hatches and their locations.

b. Secure Warning Signs: Place visible warning signs near open hatches to alert individuals of potential hazards and remind them to exercise caution.

c. Establish an Emergency Protocol: Define a clear emergency protocol in case someone falls through an open hatch or encounters a hazardous situation. Ensure everyone on board understands the steps to be taken in such emergencies.

3. Secure Open Hatches Properly

Properly securing open hatches is crucial for maintaining the safety of all on board. Follow these guidelines to ensure open hatches are secured effectively:

a. Use Adequate Hatch Covers: Invest in sturdy hatch covers that fit properly and provide a secure seal. Ensure they are suitable for the specific hatch size and are capable of withstanding harsh weather conditions.

b. Install Safety Latches or Rails: Implement safety latches or rails around hatches to prevent accidental opening. These features can help minimize the risk of hatches opening unexpectedly due to sudden movements or vibrations.

c. Regularly Inspect Hatch Hardware: Perform routine inspections to check the condition of hatch hardware such as hinges, handles, and locking mechanisms. Replace any worn-out or faulty parts promptly to maintain the integrity of the hatches.

4. Educate and Train Crew Members

Proper education and training are essential to ensure all crew members understand the significance of handling open hatches safely. Consider the following steps:

a. Safety Briefings: Conduct regular safety briefings to educate crew members about the potential hazards associated with open hatches. Emphasize the importance of staying vigilant and adhering to safety protocols.

b. Demonstrate Correct Handling Techniques: Provide hands-on training sessions to demonstrate how to properly secure and handle open hatches. Train crew members on the use of safety equipment, such as harnesses or tethers, when working near open hatches in challenging conditions.

c. Encourage Reporting and Feedback: Establish an environment where crew members feel comfortable reporting any concerns or incidents related to open hatches. Encourage feedback to continuously improve safety practices on board.


Maintaining safety with open hatches on boats is a critical aspect of responsible boating.

Vessel Hatch Safety

Our client, a potential boat buyer, fell through an open hatch, hit his head and had to get stiches.
Anyone who has attended one of our surveys has heard our warning about open hatches. The client heard the warning before stepping through the hatch. We all make mistakes, luckily stiches were all he needed.
Hatches have to be open for various reasons, ideally nobody will be aboard to fall through the hole. But will somebody come aboard while you are in the engine room, how can you be sure?
On commercial vessels we often post a hatch watch when a hatch is opened, the hatch watch prevents people from falling through the open hatch. We usually survey with one person, and we cannot be the hatch watch and crawl through the engine room simultaneously. Thus, we give verbal warnings to everyone aboard and can only hope that new people do not come aboard while we are crawling in the below deck space. First point, make sure you announce to everyone aboard if you open a hatch, it usually works!
Another option is to provide a hatch barrier, the hatch itself can be left over the opening, sometimes it is shaped in such a way. I have seen utility companies bring their own barriers to install around open manholes, though I have not seen that done in our industry.
Hatches should be reinserted or closed after each use, even if it is more effort.
Additionally, the hatch itself should be stored with consideration of how it will move if the boat rocks. Hatches which are stored improperly can fall and cause harm or damage. Hatches on hinges should have ways to be secured in the open position. Hatches without hinges should not be set on edge where they can fall if the boat rocks and cause damage or harm, but rather in a secure way which can cause neither. The undersigned was once in the lazarette when the hatch he opened and was behind him, fell on its hinge and hit the back of his head. This impact was innocuous, but the flinch caused the front of the head to contact the hatch cut out and another trip to the urgent care to address a “boxer’s cut” above the eye. (I looked tough that night at a retirement party.)
The recent incident prompted this article and we hope this article prompts an increase in hatch safety on your boat.
In the age of easily accessible AI, I asked ChatGPT to write an article on vessel safety, we have attached a link to both articles if you are interested in the comparison.


It’s Not How You Get into Trouble

Mariners love sea stories and writers love inspiration. We experienced two events in the recent past, only days apart, that provided both and they provided reminders and tips for boating safety.
The first occurred in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, during a pre-purchase survey for a relatively young couple, new to this type of boat. Aboard the 40 foot sailing catamaran for most of the day were two experienced brokers, the undersigned (marine surveyor), the two clients and one of the current owners. The event occurred while attempting to pull into the travel lift ways. We docked in the main channel and needed to make a 90 degree turn around the corner of the dock and into the ways. The wind was blowing briskly and pushing the vessel off the dock once it was oriented towards the travel lift. After the obligatory delay, we initiated the movement into travel lift ways, with neither of the brokers aboard. The yard crew attached the port stern line to a cleat on the corner of the dock, providing a “fool proof” way to bring the boat alongside. We simply needed to pivot on the line, super easy right?
The owner was unfamiliar with this maneuver and continued to try to operate the vessel as if it was untethered. He would look over at the stern line attached to the dock cleat and growl, as it prevented the vessel from operating normally. It was as if he had a pesky dog clamped to the bottom of his pant leg and he couldn’t shake it.
These situations are familiar and I simply offer to help if needed. He did not accept help and as he was unable to bring the vessel to the dock his anxiety level rose, quickly. Within a few moments it was decided to let the stern line go but he was rightfully concerned with wrapping the long line around a propeller. I assured him we could bring it aboard without a problem, but he would have to immediately assume control of the vessel and drive it quickly to the dock, as there was little room for error and no room for delay. He authorized the procedure.
The yard crew disconnected the stern line, it was brought aboard and the wind blew. The owner was unable to operate the vessel against the wind and the vessel was moments away from becoming pinned diagonally against the concrete travel lift ways. Thankfully the two buyers had been provided with loose fenders to insert between the vessel and any hard objects, the boat yard crew was experienced and properly positioned and the owner accepted a more assertive (and last moment) suggestion to stop using the engines.
The vessel landed softly against the concrete ways and was manually pulled out of its predicament, the owner was able to collect himself and the vessel was hauled with no further anxiety, and with only one small scrape.
On the return trip to the marina the owner allowed the broker to operate the vessel and the docking was so smooth that the undersigned, busy crawling the port hull, did not realize we were docked.
Lessons learned: know your limits, make plans and communicate them to the crew, be willing to accept help when necessary, learn how to use spring lines to your benefit (there are many tricks) and provide the deck crew with detached fenders (much more appropriate than body parts) in advance of any potential need for them. Know that eventually there will come a time when we all need to turn over the helm, so get your time in while you are still able.
A few days later while returning into Mission Bay, a second event occurred. The vessel was an 85 foot twin engine power vessel capable of speeds over 20 knots. During the haul out we noticed that the rudders were positioned outboard of the propellers, an extremely unusual position. This time a paid professional captain was in control. The waves were significant, approximately 6 to 8 feet and the vessel caught one as we attempted to enter Mission Bay. In a moment the vessel had turned 30 degrees, picked up speed and was headed towards the rock jetty on the port side of the entrance. I surf and was familiar with the take off, but had never surfed on a boat this close to a jetty.
The jetty was approximately 150 yards away when we first caught the wave but there was no doubt that we would need to turn out of the wave or we would hit the rocks. The captain tried to turn, but the vessel did not comply. Neither the captain nor I panicked but shortly after we dropped in on this “juicy left” I suggested that he use the transmissions in addition to the rudders. A mechanic aboard turned to see the jetties approaching quickly, and now only 70 yards away.
The mechanic screamed loudly, “Captain put this vessel into reverse now!”
The captain had already begun the process and was able to shift into reverse and throttle up the engines in time to avoid the collision, but perhaps only by 25 yards.
The captain calmly and professionally explained that screaming was not helpful and that he had chosen not to quickly shift into reverse to prevent killing the engines and losing all ability to maneuver.
One operational test on classed vessels is a “crash stop”, or a sudden change in direction of rotation of the propellers. This test is done to assure the machine systems are able to do handle this procedure without stalling. While this is an unusual and abnormal procedure, this event showed why it might be necessary and why some classification societies prescribe the test. A crash stop would be more common when encountering a mostly submerged object, but the stopping procedure is similar.
Lessons learned: act early to avoid any potential collision. Prevent the necessity of a perfect avoidance procedure by not getting into a close call situation. In this case as soon as it became apparent that we were not going to be able to steer out of the wave, initiating the use of the engines should have begun. Different angles to waves present different challenges. Following seas can present steering problems. Entry into a channel with a following sea can be tricky and unpredictable. Conditional awareness is always important and entering after the last wave of a set is a good way to reduce the potential problems. Handling stress appropriately will eventually be a useful trait to all mariners, calm is good. Making sound decisions in a calm and decisive manner is great. Avoiding a collision is of utmost importance. Screaming, well I’ll let you decide.

Vessel Engine Neutral Safety Switch

The basic idea of a neutral safety switch is to prevent starting a boat’s engine when its transmission is “in gear”.  This prevents the boat from moving suddenly and unexpectedly when an engine is started and is a good safety feature.  An unexpected sudden movement of a boat can be catastrophic.


Recently a 90’ motor vessel’s engine started in gear and damaged the dock to which it was secured.  Fortunately there were no injuries.  There were several contributing causes, including a new operator unfamiliar with the systems and either no neutral safety switch or one that didn’t work.


I polled a few mechanics and inquired if they test the neutral safety switch function during mechanical surveys.  Most do not.


The mechanics all mentioned that many boats don’t have these devices.  One mechanic/surveyor said that most sailboats don’t have them.  A Detroit Diesel specialist said that Jimmy’s usually don’t have them, but I was on a 118’ Hatteras at the moment that did have them on all three 12V92’s.  Most small boats with outboards, outdrives and gasoline inboards have a neutral safety switch in the engine control handle.  Some transmissions have the switch mounted on the shift lever.  Hydraulic and pneumatic controls (like the one in the 90’ MY) can have them, but many do not.  Most new electronically controlled engines do have them as part of the control system.


What this means to us as boaters is we can not assume our boat has a neutral safety switch and we should know so we can take proper actions to prevent an accident.  There is a way to safely test the neutral safety switch.  The basic idea is to find the switch’s wires, check for continuity in neutral and make sure continuity is broken when the transmission control is not in neutral.  For those interested in a bit more technical specifics see the following from Ricky at Advanced Marine Power:


“Safely checking the switch would entail using a voltmeter/multimeter with the ability to read resistance/ohms.  Place the two leads of the meter on each wire/terminal of the neural safety switch. Set the meter to read ohms; this will check for electrical continuity.  Turn the ignition key on, but do not start the engine.  There should be a resistance value on the meter, signifying that the electrical circuit has continuity. With the key still on, engine not running, shift the transmission into forward. Check the meter. There now should be no resistance value, or “OL”.  This signifies that the electrical circuit does not have continuity, and thus will not allow the engine to start.  Repeat the process by shifting into reverse.”


Then there is the layman’s method, put the transmission control in gear and try to start the engine.  If you are ready for it, you should be able to control throttle and dock lines so that if it does start, you don’t hurt anything.  You can also just bump the starter, versus starting the engine.


Either method will give you crucial information as to the function of your engine starting system and reduce the potential for surprises, boat or dock damage or worse.


Sea Story, a Close Call with Fire

This sea story originates from an insurance claim we were involved with and comes with a lesson.

The story beings with the purchase of a five year old 45’ motor vessel equipped with two diesel engines.  The buyer had a marine survey and a mechanical survey at the time of purchase.  She bought the vessel and hired a captain to train her in its operation.

Fifteen minutes into her fourth training session there was a change in the color of the engine exhaust smoke and subsequently they find the cabin thick with smoke.

A fire had started in the engine room.  The fire was extinguished by a fixed, automatic fire extinguisher.

Damaged Sea Water Pump Impeller

Our investigation found the fire was caused by a severely overheated engine exhaust system.  The raw water pump impeller had failed, and was the root cause of the engine and exhaust system overheat event.  The exhaust blew against combustible material and ignited the fire.


The captain stated that he had not been watching the engine instruments, but had heard no audible engine alarm.  The recently completed mechanical survey did not mention a problem with the audible alarm system, but further investigation revealed the mechanic had found the problem, but that finding did not make the report.  The mechanic had provided his handwritten notes to the report writer, but the inoperative engine alarm note was written the report on the back of his field notes and the report writer missed this note.

Burnt Exhaust Hose

Burnt Exhaust Hose

The overheating scenario is not uncommon.  It takes about fifteen minutes for a boat engine to severely overheat, in a normal usage situation.  Had the audible alarm alerted the captain or the owner to the engine overheating condition, the engine would have been turned off prior to catastrophic failure and prior to the fire.  Engines overheat all the time with very little consequential damage.

This story had a semi-happy ending.  Nobody was hurt, we got a job, the insurance company paid a total loss and another boat was purchased.  The boat broker sold two boats in a short period of time and was extremely happy.  We assume the boat owner went on to pursue her dream of boating and lived happily ever after.

Fire Damage

The lesson; audible engine alarms are critically important.  Automatic fire extinguishing systems save lives.  Boat fires are bad for you, bad for insurance companies but good for boat brokers and good for our business  :>)









Parade of Lights (and lack thereof)


Last night I found motivation for a new article.  I enjoyed the spectacular southern California sunset on my way to watch the San Diego Parade of lights on a motor vessel.  I always enjoy the view of the San Diego skyline as the sun goes down and the lights come up.  The view from the Shelter Island and Harbor Island areas always makes me grateful for where I live.

The parade of lights is an interesting event, allowing boaters to show creativity and holiday spirit.  The subject for this year’s parade was “Arrrgh! A Pirate’s Christmas”.  There will be a second parade December 17, 2017 starting at 5:00 p.m. at Shelter Island and ending at the Ferry Landing on Coronado around 7:00 p.m.

The bay was full of spectator boats and we took a lap around the bay after the last participant in the parade of lights passed us.  That’s when the motivation for this article came.

I saw dozens of boats with improper navigational lights displayed.  Some were missing a light, some displayed their anchor lights along with their running lights, but several had no lights on whatsoever.

I suppose it’s a matter of numbers, a certain percentage of boaters will fail to illuminate their lights, but the percentage seemed extra ordinarily high last night.

Many commercial vessels are now using LED lights which are illuminated whenever the vessel is operating, day or night.  The electrical draw is negligible compared to the certainty of displaying the proper lights and additional safety.  Remember lights need to be displayed in times of limited visibility, sun down, fog, or smoke.

I thought about driving a car without lights.  The environment reminds you because you cannot see the road.  Other cars can flash their lights as a reminder.  But navigational lights are not head lights.  And another boat blinking at you is unlikely to cause you to think about your own lights.  I certainly have been guilty of forgetting to turn on my lights.

So I wrote this short reminder to you and to me.  When I see another boat with their lights on, I will check my lights, make sure they are properly functional and the proper lights are illuminated.

Remember if your operating your vessel and you see any lights, on the shore, on a buoy or on other boats, check and make sure your lights are functional and illuminated. See the lights, check the lights.


Marelon vs Bronze

The owner of a 16 year old Tartan 3500 was told by a couple of his know-it-all friends to replace his Marelon through hulls and valves ASAP or the world could end.  He went online and found forums to be inconclusive.  No, really? Everyone on the internet doesn’t agree with each other?  He asked for my opinion of the decades old boaters’ debate, Marelon vs. Bronze.
For this article I evolved into a “real journalist”.  I spoke with Mr. Gerry Douglas, of Catalina Yachts and Mr. Bill Hanna of Forespar, the distributors of Marelon through hulls and valves.
Forespar purchased a bankrupt R.C. Marine (New Zealand) in 1983 after several years of purchasing and distributing R.C. Marine made Marelon. Marelon (pronounced “mar – i – lawn”) is a carbon reinforced plastic, or per their web site “Marelon® is a proprietary formulation of polymar [sic] composite compounds using composite reinforced polymer and additives” and Marelon is:
  • U.L. and A.B.Y.C. approved
  • Forespar “93” series valves and thru-hull fittings meet all design criteria and exceed all mechanical property requirements specified by the International Standards Organization
Mr. Hanna refers to the material as glass reinforced nylon and calls it a true engineering plastic.  Forespar purchases material from DuPont, having tried other suppliers.  They have tried various combinations of material and tweaked their materials over time.  They currently sell through hulls and valves to 325 boat builders worldwide.


Forespar’s website includes ASTM testing results for Marelon (http://www.forespar.com/what-is-marelon.shtml) showing the material is very resistant to corrosion, UV degradation and marring.  It also shows the tensile strength and flexural modulus compared to bronze.
Mr. Gerry Douglas admitted to early skepticism but said Catalina was an early convert to Marelon, having switched from bronze almost 25 years ago.  He has been through several generations of the product, and a few problems, but the Marelon products do not corrode, require no bonding and he is a believer.  Most importantly he reports happy customers.
Like Gerry, I was initially skeptical.  I was use to bronze through hulls and valves.  I preferred seacocks (valves mounted directly to the hull) over ball valves (valves mounted on the stem of the through hull away from the hull) and, with my pen, prohibited the use of gate valves below the waterline (with a few commercial exceptions).  Then I began seeing the Marelon products.
I have seen in many less expensive and cheaper plastic through hulls fail.  Many are susceptible to UV damage, crack around the inside of the mounting flange and fall into the hull, turning a bilge pump into a recirculating pump.  But I have also broken more bronze through hulls and valves than I have Marelon; I twist a lot of through hull valves.  Both types of through hulls and valves require maintenance.  Forespar sells Marelube to prevent valve seizing and both types of valves should be exercised regularly.
The forums are full of stories of failing plastic through hulls and valves and old salts who don’t want to change.  I respect these experiences but have converted to believing in Marelon, primarily for the lack of corrosion.  Corrosion is what I see as the most common cause of through hull failure and the plastic through hulls and valves don’t corrode.  
The strength of the Marelon components is less than bronze.  So use bronze in high traffic or exposed areas, otherwise I choose plastic.
In the interest of coming together and showing that we can all get along, here is a link to using Marelon valves on bronze through hulls.
Mr. Hanna said he has never had a broken plastic fitting returned to them that ended up being one of their products, ever.  They manufacture their products in Orange County, California and have done so since 1983.  The Marlon threads are manufactured to marine industry standards and Mr. Hanna is proud of their customer service and end user support.  He promises that Forespar answers all inquiries.  Mr. Hanna has nothing bad to say about quality bronze through hulls and valves but does warn against the use of “household” bronze and brass components.
Marine Distress Signals

Marine Distress Signals

th[5]There are numerous types of distress signals, they include pyrotechnic aerial/parachute and hand held, smoke signals, various types of lights, including man overboard strobes, lasers, radio signals, E.P.I.R.B., V.H.F. /radio signals, dye markers, U.S. and International flags, waving arms, sounding a continuous horn, firing a gun at one minute intervals and of course S.O.S. in Morse Code.

The most commonly thought of marine visual distress signal is the pyrotechnic flare.

In 1859 Martha Coston was granted a U.S. patent for a pyrotechnic night signal and code system. Today, recreational boaters in the U.S. are legally required to carry three day and three night distress signal flares. The flares must be labeled U.S.C.G. approved and must be current, they have 42 month service lives.

Pyrotechnic flares approved by the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) are much better than U.S.C.G. approved flares without a SOLAS designation. They shoot higher, last longer, have higher candela and cost much more.

Since most of us have never shot a parachute flare or ignited a hand held flare, smoke signal or dye marker, consider checking them out on YouTube.

Boaters can learn how and when to use the various types of distress signals. There are also many videos about laser flares or electronic visual detection signaling device (EVDSD). These devices are a no brainer in my opinion, not as a replacement for pyrotechnic flares, as they are not legal replacements, but as a supplement. They can be used for a much longer period of time and thus not necessarily only when another vessel or a plane is in sight. EVDSDs do not create as much pollution as pyrotechnic devices which are considered to be explosives and are hazardous material.

Never throw pyrotechnic flares overboard, in the trash or activate them in an area considered to be regulated water. In an interesting research experiment I contacted three local authorities and a large marine retailer and asked how to dispose of expired flares. Two provided the correct answer, but one provided the number for a local small retail company that is now defunct and the large retailer provided incorrect information, in fact the individual said the local fire department would not take the flares. In my area, Shelter Island, San Diego, fire station #22 (1055 Catalina Blvd.) will accept expired flares and most fire stations will do so.

Keeping older distress signal flares is common and a common recommendation on our survey reports. Most people just forget about them, but they are a legal requirement and expired flares do not meet the requirement. Many of us believe that expired flares will work and they may, however I once read an article in a non-commercial magazine (like Practical Sailor) that found the cheaper flares’ performance significantly decreased after their expiration date.

In my opinion, keeping a few extra flares (even if expired) is a good idea, but new SOLAS flares, an EVDSD and a few minutes of education on YouTube will increase our chance of both getting rescued and rescuing others in distress.

Flotation devices

Flotation devices

flotation“Nine out of ten drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket”, California Boating & Waterways sign. In my trade we often deal with tragedies, many of which were preventable by flotation devices. As in all safety systems, it is good to take a moment to reflect, maintain, and plan for events that may involve flotation devices.

U.S. Federal law requires one approved flotation device to be aboard for each passenger and the flotation device to be suitably sized. Logic dictates they should be easily accessible in situations when they may be required. Think flybridge, cockpit or an easily accessible locker on a small boat. Remember small boats can tip and life jackets can fall out. A sure way to keep the life jacket with you is to wear it.

Inflatable type flotation devices are much likely to be worn. Remember to maintain them per the manufacturers’ recommendations. And pull out those old PFD’s and discard the deteriorated ones (if you can rip a strap off, throw it away).

In times of flooding emergencies it is easy to get your passengers to wear a life jacket. Consider other risky activities like gathering fenders, lines, anchoring, launching tenders, heavy weather, etc… Remember to don life jackets in advance, the more it gets done, the more likely it will be on when needed. If the passengers or kids see the captain wearing a PFD, they will be more likely to wear one as well (it becomes like a seat belt if you start kids early).

Remember to discuss the location, type and proper use of personal flotation devices to all passengers at the onset of any outing. Know that some passengers feel safer wearing a life jacket at all times, particularly non-swimmers. Make sure all passengers know how to use the PFDs.

Remember throwable flotation devices are extremely useful, particularly for the accidental swimmer. Throw rings, throw ropes, horseshoe buoys, Life Slings, Man Overboard Modules, lights, whistles and man overboard poles help in different weather and lighting conditions. Does your boat have a reboarding device that is deployable by the accidental swimmer? Could you get back aboard if you fell in now?

The ultimate inflatable, the life raft, requires maintenance. If you are betting your life on it, it is worth the cost to maintain.

Don’t forget to consider other risks such as cold water and for boaters in freshwater marinas the possibility of electric shock, know how to spot this condition and learn how to react. The first rule of life saving is to not lose another person while trying to save one.


This article was edited on February 29, 2016.

Carbon Monoxide Danger

Carbon Monoxide Danger

Carbon Monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in America, according the Journal of the American Medical Association. Boaters are only a small percentage of these, but much remains to be done to reduce the approximately 1,500 deaths (and 10,000 seeking medical attention) per year in the U.S.carbon_monoxide

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, toxic gas produced during the incomplete combustion of fuel, including gasoline, diesel, propane, CNG, charcoal, kerosene, wood, etc. It is a common misconception that diesel engines do not produce CO. Virtually any incomplete combustion process can produce CO. This includes heating and cooking appliances. Charcoal is one of the highest CO producing cooking fuels.

The danger from CO is that it attaches to hemoglobin and replaces oxygen in our blood. It is poisonous to all warm blooded animals. CO poisoning symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, dizziness, confusion, fainting, coughing, watering eyes and at higher levels can lead to fainting and death. CO poisoning is often confused with the flu, sea (motion) sickness, colds or allergies, due to similar symptoms. Children, elderly people, people with respiratory problems or cardiovascular illnesses are more susceptible. First aid should include breathing fresh air immediately , followed by medical attention. If you suspect CO poisoning, be sure to mention it to your doctor, to prevent mis-diagnosis.

There are two steps which all boaters should do to prevent CO poisoning. Purchase and install CO alarm(s) and service all the devices which can produce CO regularly to assure they are properly functional and installed correctly.

Significant developments in the technology for CO detection and advancements in their ability to “average” the level of CO (over time) have occurred in the past 10 – 15 years. Previous detectors signaled false alarms frequently and thus became a nuisance and were ignored or disconnected. This is no longer true! Most CO alarms are currently very accurate and economical. Some companies make combination CO and fire/smoke alarms. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has recently published a standard on marine CO detectors (#1524). It is important to use alarms rather than detectors, an alarm should provide visual and audible notification of dangerous levels of CO.

While researching for this article, I found no recommendations as to where to install CO detectors on a boat. The United States Consumer Protection Safety Commission (C.P.S.C.) recommends installation of CO alarms near the sleeping area, in the home. The International Association of Fire Chiefs also recommends installation of a CO alarm on every level of the home and in areas near combustion appliances. The proper location of CO alarms in a boat depends upon several factors. CO is about the same weight as air and will diffuse throughout a space. Most manufactures don’t specify installation near the top or bottom of a space. (Unlike smoke detectors which should be near the top of a space or propane detectors which should be low).
CO concentration is going to be highest near the source, thus it is logical to locate detectors in engine rooms of small boats (where the engine is the only source of combustion), but the alarm needs to sound where it will be heard. Some alarms/detectors have connections to allow for easy installation of remote alarms (bell, buzzer, etc.). Some environments will create more false alarms. You should read the instructions with your CO alarm. If the vessel has combustion appliances (heaters, stoves) a CO alarm should be installed near them. Since boats move and often moor next to other boats (with combustion devices), and a sleeping person remains in one space for many hours, a CO monitor in the normal living/sleeping spaces is also a good idea.

Of course a 30’ vessel with an engine, heater, and stove will not require three CO alarms, just one in the cabin should suffice, but use common sense as to its/their installation.
Most CO alarms cost only $35 – $40. Combination fire/smoke and CO alarms cost slightly more. The benefit outweighs the cost by such a large factor, that it is logical that every boat, which has an engine (or other combustion devices) and a cabin, or is ever moored or docked near other boats that have combustion devices should be equipped with a CO alarm.

There has been a recall of some CO alarms recently. In cooperation with the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (C.P.S.C.), Kidde Safety is recalling about one million units including Nighthawks and Lifesavers. For the manufacture dates of the recalled units or more information contact Ken Giles at C.P.S.C. (301) 504-0580 ext. 1184 or Quinn Hudson or Bill Crane at Kidde (800) 880-6788 ext. 777.

Most CO alarms have a test button, to test the electronics and the audible alarm, but there is no field test for actual CO detection. Some of the products have planned maintenance/testing sold with the units and described in the manufacturer’s literature. There are hard wired units, battery operated units and hard wired units with battery back-ups.

Maintenance of your boat’s combustion devices will reduce your chances for exposure to CO. Properly tuning your engine(s), checking and servicing the exhaust systems and providing proper ventilation for combustion appliances and for the living spaces will go a long way to preventing CO accumulation. Do not procrastinate repairs to a smoking engine or a leaking exhaust system. Be conscious of exhaust accumulating about a stationary boat (remember CO is odorless), particularly if there is no wind and the generator is running on your boat or on an adjacent boat. One expert describes CO as a ‘puddle’ collecting around the source. Exhaust from your boat or another combustion device can be blown into your boat as well. Some boats create a back draft or “station wagon effect”, while running, drawing exhaust fumes back into a vessel, over the transom. Heed warnings by the boat’s manufacturer regarding running the vessel with hatches and companionway doors closed (particularly on express cruisers and sport fishing boats) and ventilate the boat well. Ventilate the boat, when possible, by opening forward hatches to allow air to flow through the cabin.

Combustion appliances are also potential sources for CO. Most boaters are not going to have an annual service on their heater or stove, so be aware of a yellow flame (incomplete combustion) and be aware of possible symptoms of CO poisoning. Contact the gas company or an appliance manufacturer’s representative to service suspect devices. Immediately consult with a doctor if you have current illness(es) which have not been properly diagnosed and discuss possible CO poisoning, then find the source and eliminate it.

Near the beginning of my professional boating career, friends of mine, a couple, were enjoying their express cruiser. It was a normal day. The wife began to feel ill. She went below to lie down. By the time they reached the marina, she was unconscious. Tragically, she died. She was a friend of mine, the wife of a friend and the mother of a friend. Since then I have read of many boating deaths each year, resulting from carbon monoxide poisoning. As I survey boats, I rarely see CO detectors and I often see poorly tuned engines, exhaust leaks and improperly vented heaters.

The price of a CO alarm is low, pay it – stay alive and healthy, and live to enjoy your boat for many years to come. Remember that CO can be produced in your home, automobile and RV as well and CO alarms should be installed there too. Many more deaths and CO poisonings occur at home and from automobile exhaust than from boating incidents.

Kells Christian is a marine surveyor and operates a marine surveying firm in San Diego, California. Kells is a graduate of the University of Florida and began surveying in Jacksonville, FL in 1990. Christian & Co. Marine Surveyors specializes in pre-purchase inspections and marine insurance claims on yachts and commercial vessels.


This article was edited on March 1, 2016.

Heavy Things

Heavy Things

I borrowed the title from the band Phish. Their song by that name begins “Things are falling down on me, heavy things I could not see”. Can you guess where this is going? The heavy thing was a boat and I could not see the risk.

The physician’s assistant at the Torrey Pines Urgent Care said the good news was I had no broken bones; the bad news was I should not play golf the next day to let the heavily bruised arm and shoulder begin to heal. My beloved Friday tee time was cancelled, but I would be fine.

On my way to meet my wife, I tried to squeeze in a pre-purchase survey on a 17’ Com-Pac sailboat, located on Harbor Island (San Diego) on a trailer. To facilitate the inspection, the broker raised the mast and hoisted the sail prior to my arrival. The boat is a gaff rigged cat boat*. At seventeen feet in length, the broker joked that I was really advancing in my career; I quickly responded that there were two detached sail slides and began inspecting the bottom.

I noticed resin had been applied to the bottom of the molded portion of the keel (centerboard trunk), and I crawled under to get a better look. The trailer collapsed with the boat and broker on top, and all of it on top of me.


I was close enough to the wheel to not get pinned, just hit hard on the shoulder. In survival mode, I scrambled with cat-like speed out from under the trailer. My body cushioned the fall so the broker hardly felt a thing, but he quickly became concerned and later said I had looked pale.

The trailer’s jack stand had swiveled up and collapsed. I had not checked the pin in the jack assembly to make sure it was inserted, I had not placed any support under the trailer itself nor had I secured the wheels. I was nonchalant and luckily paid only a small price.

Most boats we inspect are hauled out on a Travel Lift or supported with wood blocks (under the keel) and jack stands (on the chines). Boats that are out of the water can fall (see “A Fall Story” on our web site) and I know that. Don’t take safety lightly; another set of eyes and a few questions, though irritating to boat yard personnel, won’t hurt as bad as a falling boat.

Luckily this was a small boat and most of my body (including my small brain) was out of harm’s way when it fell. The lesson I learned again, be safe, block the boat securely.

Don’t forget small boat safety! Davits and davit cables can fail, don’t get under the tender when launching or retrieving. I have witnessed a boat fall when a davit’s cable broke, be careful.

My meeting with my wife was moved to the Urgent Care and the concerned broker thoughtfully insisted on driving me. Instead of golf, I finished the survey on the little sailboat the following day (10/5/12). I hope this story helps remind me, other boating professionals and perhaps you, to not become complacent and let this enjoyable hobby or vocation cause anything but smiles.

* Gaff rig is a sailing rig (configuration of sails) in which the sail is four-cornered, fore-and-aft rigged, controlled at its peak and, usually, its entire head by a spar (pole) called the gaff. The gaff enables a fore and aft sail to be four sided, rather than triangular, and as much as doubles the sail area that can be carried by that mast and boom (if a boom is used in the particular rig). Additionally, for any given area of sail, the gaff rig will have a lower heeling moment than a triangular sail. “Wikipedia”

* Catboat A cat-rigged vessel with a single mast mounted close to the bow, and only one sail, usually on a gaff. “Wikipedia”


This article was edited on February 29, 2016

Maritime Emergency, Immediate Response

Maritime Emergency, Immediate Response

The best way to learn how to get out of trouble is to get out of trouble. The problem is that you have to get into trouble first. Through the insurance claims we have assisted with, we have developed a sense of the initial responses that are effective versus those that are not. Time is often short in these situations and the first action is critical.

In order of importance, we need to preserve life, health and property. Our first response is governed by the type of emergency, our vessel’s location, resources and our personal knowledge. It is great if you are a doctor when a passenger has a stroke and it is great if you are a mechanic when your engine springs a leak. If you are not so fortunate, then use your brain, quickly and calmly assess the situation, decide what to do and delegate the jobs as possible.

Some immediate actions are common to most emergencies. Announce your emergency to the available trained assistance professionals as quickly as possible. The Coast Guard, Fire Department, Life Guards and even professional towing companies can be invaluable. Use the VHF versus your cell phone. Ideally, the most capable person should address the emergency while a capable alternate communicates the nature of the emergency to potential first responders. Several types of maritime emergencies will eventually lead to the inability to communicate a distress call, so get it out quickly.images

Your location and the natural resources available should be considered. If your transmission control fails and you are stuck in forward gear, operate towards the open water not towards a crowded mooring. If your boat is sinking, stay close to the soft sand beach versus the rock jetty. If a passenger is stricken with a serious sudden injury or illness, see if any medical assistance is available in your immediate vicinity. A doctor on a boat next door is more valuable than the one at the emergency room thirty minutes away. Send others in both directions down the dock, use all your personnel.

Your options depend on where your vessel is located, your slip, the bay, near coastal or offshore. If the transmission is stuck in gear, head away from the mooring areas, if you’re taking on water, head toward the soft sand beach and away from the rock jetty. Planning for emergencies should include safety and first aid components suitable for the intended area of usage and for the passengers, consider an oxygen bottle, EPIRB or life raft.

A fire aboard a boat demands a quick and efficient response. No matter how big the ship, you can’t run away from the fire. Fires aboard a boat are usually discovered by smoke. Make sure the smoke is being generated by an actual flame before deciding what action is required. Many boat “fires” are actually smoke escaping from the engine’s exhaust system. These “fires” can be stopped by turning off the engine. Discharging a fire extinguisher into the engine room, or the saloon, will not stop the smoke and increases the mess.

Before entering the engine room to determine the source, check the hatch for heat. Once the location of the fire is determined, decide if it can be safely extinguished and if so extinguish the fire by any means possible. Discharge all of your fire extinguishers at the base of the flame, delegate others to fill buckets of water (we know you have plenty of that), shut off power and fuel sources and don’t inhale the smoke. Discharge fixed extinguishers remotely if possible; use remote pulls for fixed systems or holes designed for discharging extinguishers is smaller engine spaces (many sailboats have these).

To avoid smoke inhalation stay low in any cabin filling with smoke.

[hint – maintain firefighting equipment, consider smoke alarms and escape hoods]

A quote from my favorite mentor is “Nothing, absolutely nothing good ever comes from water in the bilge”. At the first sign of water intrusion, every effort should be made to determine the source. If the water is warm, it is coming from the engine. Cold water is from the ocean and it can be tricky to find the source if it is already submerged. Check the obvious places, shaft seals, through hulls and sea water hoses. Isolating the area of the source reduces the possibilities. The next most important action is to begin the dewatering process. Again, a second capable person can attend to this action, after broadcasting the distress. Activate all bilge pumps in the manual/constant mode.

[hint – maintain the bilge pumps, shaft seals and seawater systems and install a high water alarm]

Occasionally, boats get in collisions; even boats not involved in a sailing race occasionally collide. As always, check for personal injuries. Immediately after the collision, start the engine, douse the sails (a little powerboat vs. sailboat joke), and have a competent operator take the helm. Triage the injury, is there water coming in, is an emergency patch or repair required? If the vessel is flooding quickly and it is clear no emergency patch or pumping action will save it, consider beaching the vessel, preferably on soft sand. Give the mast temporary support if the impact affected the shrouds or stays. Call for a tow if safety is questionable.

[hint – post a proper lookout at all times, use radar in limited visibility. avoid contact even if you have the right of way – unless you are making your living racing]

Striking a submerged object or running aground is an avoidable emergency. Once it happens, check for water and access the damage before deciding how to continue. Sailboats check the aft end of the keel box (keels hinge up and aft upon impact), power boats check propeller shafts/seals, struts’ connections and rudder ports. Follow the lead of the professional mariners, know your waters. Did you know that there is a charted submerged jetty on the east side of the main entrance into San Diego bay, near Ballast Point (de-gauzing station)? There is probably a similar charted hazard in your most common boating area. After the initial damage make sure no further damage is done by continuing to operate a damaged outdrive, transmission or engine. If in doubt, call for a tow.

[hint – read your chart]

Losing your engine/propulsion capabilities or electricity can lead to a nautical emergency. Sophisticated fire fighting systems on most yachts include an over ride. This allows the system to be disabled while the vessel enters a dangerous inlet. The thought is “let the fire burn” for the few minutes that it takes to transit safely past the dangerous rocks, especially in a heavy seaway. If your propulsion system does fail, assess your situation, ready your anchor, have crew members grab fenders (versus fending off with body parts) and if possible raise your sails. If offshore, prevent the vessel from reaching the waves. Deploy an anchor, and make sure it sets.

Losing the electrical power is often more frightening as the options for calling for help is reduced. First response to any loss of electrical power is to assure that no associated fire hazard exists.

Electrical and mechanical malfunctions are often repairable. Be calm, thoroughly assess the situation and use all available resources, (onboard and at the other end of your VHF or mobile phone) and you can likely keep boating that day. Diesel engines don’t lose compression or air quickly, it is a fuel problem. All the batteries don’t fail simultaneously and there are often various charging systems. Do you have a battery parallel device?

[hint – learn basic mechanical and electrical concepts and maintenance procedures, perform active preventative maintenance]

From an insurance claim standpoint most policies require the owner/operator to mitigate damage after any “event”. In other words, stop the damage from getting worse. This may be compensable, even if the claim is denied. In any event, prevention of further damage makes $ense, so wash off the salt water, air out the smoke and clean up that fire extinguisher you discharged into the saloon.

It is accepted in the maritime community that practicing for emergencies helps deals with real ones. Hopefully, this article has stimulated some thought about your emergency plans. If you have not done one of the following items in some time perhaps you should…

• Test, service or replace your alarms
• Perform a man overboard drill
• Test and prove your bilge pumps
• Replace your flares
• Service or replace your fire extinguishers
• Replace or update your first aid kit
• Buy a book about treating medical emergencies at sea


This article was edited on February 29, 2016.