Indeed, so many variables and circumstances come into play when deciding if a vessel should be abandoned that no hard rules govern the choices.
Lieutenant Bob Kirk, inspector for the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Miami, is not aware of any regulations that spell out what recreational boaters must do.
"If the vessel is in distress, such as on fire or sinking, then your options are limited by the amount of time you have to act," he says. "A fire that's out of control can quickly reach the fuel, so a prompt evacuation is a must. And if you're taking on water faster than you can get rid of it, then you of course have to leave the boat before it sinks."
Kirk says you should never leave a boat voluntarily unless the boat's about to leave you - i.e., lives are threatened due to fire or sinking. The Coast Guard requires that all small boats float even when turned over or full of water. It's usually best to remain with the boat unless it will carry you into a more dangerous area, or is on fire and might explode.
Once you decide to abandon ship, Kirk recommends taking the following steps if possible:
1. Make sure everyone puts on a PFD.
2. Notify the Coast Guard by VHF radio or cellular phone. Most radios have an emergency button that immediately puts you on channel 16.
3. Throw items into the water that can be used for flotation, such as coolers, seat cushions and extra PFDs. These extra items also make it easier for rescuers to spot you.
4. If you have a life raft, have someone inflate it. Tie the raft to your vessel while you and others try to save the sinking/burning vessel.
5. If your boat is dead in the water and for some reason cannot be towed, toss the anchor and mark it with a light or distress flag before leaving the scene in a rescue vessel.
6. Plug any fuel tank vents if there's time to do so.
7. Keep everyone together. If necessary, connect the life vests with rope or belts.
If your boat sinks, the Coast Guard must know the precise location, particularly if it will be a hazard to navigation. If it's a congested area, they can put out a broadcast to notify other mariners to stay clear. In rare cases, a Coast Guard vessel can remain at the site to ward off boats.
"Keep in mind that the owner is responsible for raising the vessel in U.S. waters, and off many other countries too," Kirk adds. "If fire guts the vessel or it's damaged too badly to salvage, the fuel tank must still be safely removed. The owner is liable for any pollution that occurs because of gas or oil leakage. That's why it sometimes helps to plug the vents before abandoning the vessel."
Capt. Mike McCormack, a helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard's Search and Rescue division in Washington, D.C., agrees that it all boils down to common sense.
"The skipper has the best knowledge about the boat's sink rate and approximately how much time is available to abandon the vessel," McCormack says. "You have differences in boat size and weight, sea conditions and the type of distress the vessel is under. It's pointless to have specific rules on what to do unless you can cover every possible situation, and that's not feasible."
When the Coast Guard receives a mayday call, the boater is asked his or her position, the nature of the problem, the number of people on board, what kind of safety equipment is on the vessel, any characteristics about the boat that can help identify it and whether there are special problems such as people aboard who can't swim.
Capt. Bob Petko, chief of the Coast Guard's Office of Shore Activities in Washington D.C., recommends that boaters take the Skipper's Safe Boating Course that is offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary in many communities. The course includes a manual that touches briefly on emergency procedures if a vessel must be abandoned.
"Once you've abandoned ship, the best thing to do is make sure everyone stays together," says Petko. "If anyone panics, do your best to calm them; if anyone is injured or suffering from hypothermia, do the best you can with whatever resources are available, such as a first aid kit or a blanket. Use a distress signal if you have one, but save it for when you think that there's a good chance somebody will see it. When help arrives, the skipper should help everyone else get rescued first, starting with those in most need."
Fire Down Below
Kim Ellison was making lunch in the galley when she smelled smoke. She ran out to the cockpit and screamed to Andy, her husband, but by the time he scurried down the bridge ladder and grabbed the fire extinguisher, it was too late.
"The deck was hot and I knew the fire had engulfed the bilge," says Andy. Fortunately, they had previously discussed what to do if something like this should happen. As the flame took over the cabin, Kim and Andy had already donned PFDs, and their life raft was inflated and in the water. Kim grabbed the portable cooler strapped next to the gunwale, and the couple got into the raft and paddled away as fast as they could.
Four minutes later, a double explosion thundered across the water as shrapnel blew skyward. Their 35-foot sport-fishing boat was gutted and smoldering, but the Ellisons - though shaken by the ordeal - were high and dry. Andy took out a hand-held VHF radio and got a response to his mayday, and their hand-held GPS provided the coordinates needed to locate them. If no one had been available on the radio, the cooler also contained an EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon), flares and a packet containing a plastic streamer that unfurls on the water to provide high visibility. They also had stocked the raft with drinking water and crackers, hand line and lures, medical kit, space blankets, sun screen and motion-sickness pills and other items.
"We often think of the consequences had we been unprepared," says Kim.
An Involuntary Exit
Sometimes nature doesn't offer a choice. Roger Collins was fishing off Alabama when a bolt of lightning zapped his ungrounded boat. The fuel tank exploded, and Collins, who wasn't wearing a PFD, was catapulted into the water. Fortunately, the console buffered him from the fuel tank and he swam to a floating section of the boat and hung on until help arrived.
Other boat exits don't fit the category of abandoning a vessel in distress either, such as accidentally falling overboard or wading to shore from a boat grounded on a flat. But if you anticipate what you might face if that fateful day comes when your boat is sinking or is ablaze, you'll be ahead of the game.
Just imagine how much money you would give for an EPIRB or life raft if your family's life were at stake, and recognize that you'll spend a fraction of that amount to properly equip your boat.