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What to do in case of emergency when boating on Lake Superior.

Jan 28, 2018 12:41PM ● By Editor

What to do in case of emergency when boating on Lake Superior.

If you are in a current emergency situation, Dial 911 or call the U.S. Coast Guard on your marine radio on Channel 16.

In time of emergency, a good marine band, VHF-FM two-way radio is worth every penny of your investment. But if you don't own a radio, there are several accepted methods for seeking help such as shooting off emergency flares or blowing rapid blasts of a horn or whistle. Another method is to stand in the bow of the boat, stretch your arms out to the sides and raise and lower them as if flapping. (Don't just wave; you may only get a friendly wave in return.)

Engine Breakdown 

One of the most common emergencies is engine failure and most breakdowns result from lack of proper preventive maintenance. Attempt to make repairs yourself or seek assistance from craft around you. After exhausting these possibilities, signal for help.

Boat Sinking 

If your boat swamps or springs a leak, in most cases it will still float even when full of water, so stay with it. (You should know your boat's flotation capabilities before venturing out; check with the manufacturer or dealer.)

First, find out where the water is coming from. Attempt to plug leaks with anything handy - a towel, shirt or cushion - and begin to pump or bail. If this fails, signal for help. Most boats today have built-in flotation, so staying with it makes sense. You will be easier to spot by search teams and will be able to keep more of your body out of the cold water. Researchers have found that cold water saps body heat about 25 times faster than air of the same temperature so keep as much of your body out of the water as possible.

Hypothermia (exposure) is an ever-present danger on Lake Superior. It is a lowering of the body's core temperature caused by immersion in cold water (less than 70 degrees F.) or, out of the water, by a combination of wet, cold and windy weather. If your inner core temperature drops more than 20 degrees F., death will soon follow.

Except for shallow bays and beaches, the water temperature in the lake seldom reaches 55 degrees F, (13 C) even during the hottest summer weather. Should you fall in, even at this temperature, your survival time without a life jacket would, on the average, be less than two hours. There are certain steps you can take to increase survival time:

  • Wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket when you are on the lake. We can't overemphasize that wearing a life jacket will give you a better chance of survival after an accident. (Life jackets are now designed to be practical and stylish, some as fishing vests and full-sleeved float coats.) If you do fall in, a life jacket will not only float you, but will help retain body heat, particularly the vest and full-sleeved models using polyvinyl foam for flotation. Brightly colored life jackets, especially yellow and orange, are much easier to spot from the air or from a distance than more muted colors.
  • If you do fall into the water, try to climb back in or on top of your craft. The more of your body you can get out of the water the better off you are. Water saps body heat much more quickly than air of the same temperature. In addition, you will be easier to spot by anyone searching for you if you are on a large object floating in the water.
  • If you can't climb back in your boat and you are wearing a life jacket, curl your body by tucking your knees and keeping your arms closer to your sides. This will decrease loss from the three highest heat loss areas of the body, the head, ribcage and groin, and double your survival time.
  • Do not swim unless there is no hope of help arriving and you are less than a mile from shore. The average swimmer wearing a life vest isn't capable of swimming much more than a mile in 50-degree water before succumbing to hypothermia.

Treatment for Hypothermia
If you rescue someone who has been in the water for any length of time, use care in rescue to avoid being pulled in yourself. Seek treatment for them immediately unless they have only been in the water for a few minutes. Replace their wet clothing with dry.

If the victim is conscious, give hot, sweet drinks. Under no circumstances should alcohol be used, since it speeds up the heat loss of the body.

If semi-conscious or worse, try to keep the victim awake. If there is difficulty in breathing, insure an open-air passage. Administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if breathing stops altogether.

Treat hypothermia victims gently. Research reveals that rough handling can cause ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the heart's ventricles contract in rapid and unsynchronized rhythms and cannot pump blood into the body leading to death.

Re-warm the victim by the best possible method, utilizing body-to-body contact in a sleeping bag with several people to alternate as "re-warmers. If using body to body re-warming, there should be two re-warmers, making a "sandwich" with the victim as the middle. A heated room or boat cabin or, if possible, a warm (not hot) 105 degree-110 degree F bath, leaving the limbs out. The idea is to rewarm only the torso of the victim first. If the arms and legs are rewarmed at the same time, cold blood trapped in the extremities can rush back to the heart causing ventricular fibrillation. Seek immediate medical attention for all but the most minor cases of hypothermia.

If a storm hits and you are unable to reach shore, some emergency procedures to remember are:

  • Put on your life jacket (you should really wear it all the time).
  • Head for the closest shore.
  • The bow of the boat is designed to take waves, so head into them at an angle.
  • Reduce your speed to keep headway and lessen the pounding on the boat.
  • Seat all passengers as low and as close to the centerline of the boat as possible.
  • Keep the boat free from water by bailing or using a bilge pump.

If your motor fails, trail a sea anchor on a line from the bow to keep it headed into the waves. A bucket or a shirt with neck and sleeves knotted together will do in an emergency.

Use simple rescue techniques to avoid endangering yourself. Often a rope, life jacket, oar or the boat itself (be careful of the propeller) can be used to easily rescue someone who has fallen overboard. Only as a last resort should you enter the water to retrieve a victim and then only with when wearing a life jacket.
First put on your life jacket if you don't have them on already. Keep the fire downwind. If the fire is aft (to the rear), head the boat into the wind. If the fire is forward, put the stern or back of the boat into the wind. This keeps the fire from spreading. Act promptly to extinguish the flames. Aim the extinguisher at the base of the fire, while sweeping back and forth.
Float Plan
This plan for boaters is similar to the flight plan filed by airplane pilots. It need not be formal or lengthy, but should contain such items as name, boat number, whether you have a radio on board, where you're going and when you'll return. It is designed to help the Coast Guard or other search-and-rescue units locate you if you're overdue. Leave the plan with the marina operator, or relative or friend and tell them who to call if and when you are either overdue or an emergency arises.

Considering the number of persons involved and the fairly low rate of accidents, boating and fishing on the Great Lakes are basically safe pastimes. But that doesn't mean that you couldn't have an accident through your own or someone else's ignorance of these basic safety rules. As a boater or fisherman, you have an obligation to yourself, your passengers and other boaters to increase your basic knowledge through boating classes and other publications and programs.

Visual Distress Signals - Federal Requirement

*Lake Superior is the only body of water in Minnesota that requires Coast Guard approved Visual Distress Signals (VDS). There are a number of different types of VDS including pyrotechnics; smoke, hand held flares, aerial flares and parachute flares), electronic (flashing light that automatically signals "SOS" and flags.

Pyrotechnic devices must be Coast Guard approved, in serviceable condition and readily accessible. They are marked with an expiration date. After that date they may still be carried as extra equipment, but they are no longer counted toward meeting the visual distress signal requirement since they may be unreliable. Pyrotechnics are acceptable for both day and night use, and a minimum of three a required.

Non-pyrotechnic devices must be in serviceable condition, readily accessible and certified by the manufacturer as complying Coast Guard requirements. They include:

Electronic devices, which are acceptable for night use only, are basically a strobe light that automatically flashes the international distress signal of "SOS" (. . . - - - . . . ) and the orange distress flag which is good for day use only

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