Gennusa, Piacun, & Ruli

Admiralty / Maritime Law

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The danger of open water: Tips to survive if you fall overboard

On a boat, nothing is as dangerous as a man overboard scenario. These things can happen very quickly -- a rogue wave, a sudden storm -- and someone who gets washed into the sea may prove impossible to find.

Even a boat that is going "slowly" moves away from someone far faster than people expect. If you've ever jumped off of a sailboat intentionally, you know exactly how this feels. On the boat, it barely moves against the waves. As soon as you hit the water, it feels like the boat is cruising away from you, and it's all you can do to catch up with it.

Now throw in rough seas, an accidental immersion in the water, low visibility and much faster watercraft. If you do not get rescued immediately, your odds of survival plummet. Just locating you in the water is like searching for a nearly invisible dot in an endless, restless ocean. Getting to you in time to save you is even harder.

Survival tips

So, what can you do to increase your odds of survival? Here are a few tips that can help:

Use the Heat Escape Lessening Posture

This posture, known as H.E.L.P., is designed to help you stay warm in freezing water. You need to have a life jacket on for it to work. If you do, try to make your body as compact as you can. Cross your legs and your arms, and tuck them up as close as you can to your body. As much as possible, try to float and stay motionless, waiting for rescue.

Stay calm

It is hard not to panic, but it is crucial. Flailing and panicking burns energy that you need. It wears you out. You can hyperventilate. You may make poor, emotional choices. You need to stay calm and make careful, intentional decisions.

Unless you can reach land, do not swim

Of course, if you can swim to safety, you should. If you have no idea where to go and you're just swimming aimlessly in open water, though, it cools you down far faster. Hypothermia becomes a real risk. Stay still if you just need to wait for someone to find you.

Wear safety gear

The best way to help yourself is to plan in advance. In addition to life jackets, you can get safety gear like LED lights and whistles. These make it far easier for the boat to find you if you do go over.

Legal options after an incident

Even if you survive falling overboard, you could suffer serious injuries. Make sure you understand your legal options when facing lost wages, high medical bills and other costs.

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