Sports boat safety

23 June 2010 - A sailors view of the sports boat scene by David Lush and Hugh Styles for Towergate Mardon.

Before going for a sail, you have to know certain things; and make certain decisions; such as the wind direction, forecast, and strength, the state of the tide, and where you are going in order to get home. However it would be possible drive a sports boat without any such knowledge.

In November 2007 a 24-foot Bayliner, left Whitby harbour in a near gale, the boat was almost instantly overwhelmed, and all three crew were lost. The subsequent investigation found that the skipper had neither, qualification or training, and that the boat was unsuitable. What are the factors in ensuring sports boat safety, and will any of these inform your buying decisions?


As can be seen from the example of the 24’ Bayliner, and the death in the Solent of a businessman thrown from a seven metre, 225 HP Rib in 2006, size will not guarantee safety.

What you are looking for as a prospective purchaser are inherent characteristics that will make your new sports boat safe. Some things are obvious; such as freeboard and transom height others need further investigation.

A common cause of accidents in small sports boats is flooding, throttle back or attempt to go up a beach in a large swell can easily fill the boat from a following wave, so try and choose a high transom and long or extra long shaft motor.

Ask the seller about bilge pumps and the construction of the hull, many boats are unsinkable because, like a Boston Whaler, they are foam filled. Or unsinkable because they have several enclosed hull sections, such as Cheetah catamarans.

Some earlier attempts at foam filling have left boats with heavy soggy foam, often evidenced by wavy hulls and cracked floors where the foam has expanded when the frozen water expanded.

Most small aluminium boats normally have closed cell foam in the seats and these boats feel very safe, as they are both light and buoyant.

Auxiliary power in the form of a small outboard, or even oars and paddles will give peace of mind, and many motorboat users choose to do longer journeys in company.

Fuel safety

There are reports every year of fires in boats, and these are mostly sports boats, where either electrical systems and petrol systems malfunction, or human error when refuelling.

But fuel is also a problem for sports boat safety with contamination and low fuel levels. Diesel can easily be contaminated and affected by bugs, so clean tanks and filters are essential, is there evidence of this in a recent service or survey?

Petrol also suffers from water contamination, often caused by condensation when tanks are left nearly empty. Removable tanks are great as you can keep one as a spare, and they are easy to clean out, but the only safe gauge on a remote tank is picking it up and seeing how heavy it is, the float type gauges are very inaccurate. However changing tanks in a rough sea can be difficult, and if the tank is very full, and the day quite hot, petrol can spurt out from the connectors under enormous pressure, so never allow smoking when refuelling. Most sports boat insurance policies insist on a fire extinguisher, check its type and date, a simple car extinguisher will be adequate for most small boats, but they do need careful wrapping in sealed plastic, such as a zip top freezer bag to stop them rusting. Always carry a couple of fire extinguishers in accessible places.


Before going out tell someone where you plan to go and when you will be back, and make sure that you have a radio and adequate training to use it properly. Hand held radios are great, and unlike a mobile ‘phone they do not rely upon proximity to land to keep their signal. Modern ‘phones are not very water resistant, and touch screen mobiles don’t work well with cold wet fingers, and mine have even failed with condensation in the screen after being left in a waterproof jacket pocket.


There are two phases to this, before the day and on the day; Before going out in a sports boat, think about training, the RYA have level one and two sports boat qualifications and a two day helmsman course, and there are schools offering this in most locations. Your sports boat insurance provider may even expect these qualifications, and they will always help you get the most out of your boat. On the day, use the internet to get wind, tides and weather, the admiralty have a tide site, and the Met office have accurate gust forecasts, but other resources are ‘winguru’ and links from local Clubs and Marinas. Print these off, as it’s easy to forget timings, and your crew, particularly children, will appreciate being involved in the planning.

Always wear a kill cord and buoyancy aid

Every sports boat helm should wear a kill cord where appropriate, as a sudden wave or turn could prove, literally, fatal. It is a great discipline to turn the motor off near swimmers, or when you have crew in the water jumping on and off ringos and wakeboards. The US Coastguard has published a report of sports boat accidents, and 70 % of all fatalities are drowning, and of those, 85% were not wearing a buoyancy aid. So the lesson for sports boat safety is to wear a personal flotation device; a dinghy buoyancy aid can look and act like a gillet and keep the user warm, and inflatable life jackets are small and comfortable, so neither are much trouble to wear. Try companies such as Magic Marine for these clever new safety gillets.


Many boats have small cuddies or coach houses, most will have consoles and screens, and there is always the option to have a folding spray hood of some description, so sports boats are very civilized, but the problem of wind chill is much greater at 30 knots than 5 knots, or nothing if going downwind in a sailing boat. The sight of freezing people in wet sports boats was the enduring memory of last summer, so every passenger needs sensible clothing and some way of staying dry. Unfortunately our climate changes quickly, so dry stowage is essential, a cool box seat such as a Coleman from the USA can be fitted to sports boats and double up as great storage. Boxes like this come with corner fittings for the hull and shock cord tie downs, and can even make the boat look more modern. It is also important to carry sun protection, and hats, as even the most overcast day on the water will have a lot of reflected light, and good quality wrap around sunglasses are essential, turn your head at speed in open sided glasses and they will disappear over the transom! In fact keeping a good lookout is obviously vital at speed, in 2009 5 people were killed in Florida when a sports boat ran into a tug, and someone died in the UK last year when his Rib ran aground at speed.

Drinking and driving

One shocking statistic in the US Coastguard report on sports boat accidents was that, in 2002 there were a massive 758 fatalities involving motorboats, and 23% of these involved alcohol. There have been plenty of ‘drunks ahoy’ headlines since 2007, when the government proposed a new drink drive law for leisure mariners; The then Transport Minister Stephen Ladyman said the alcohol limit for "non-professional mariners" will be 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood, 35 microgrammes of alcohol in 100ml of breath or 107 milligrammes in 100ml of urine. The limit, which already applies to professional seafarers and motorists, equates roughly to a pint and a half or two pints of ordinary strength beer or three pub- size measures of wine. It would apply to anyone navigating a vessel more than seven metres (22.9ft) long and/or capable of a maximum speed of more than seven knots (about 8mph). So although this has yet to become law, the sensible sports boat safety advice is not to drink and use a sports boat, as even without the law a drunken sports boater could still be prosecuted for manslaughter if the worst were to occur, and motorboats can easily become difficult to control.

Man overboard, often on purpose!

There are some great ladders and swim platforms on modern sports boats, and these are essential when using wakeboards, skis and ringos, but they are also a useful sports boat safety device for a man overboard. They can be retro fitted and will add value to any boat, so they are very high on the option list.

But sports boats are safe

Every sailing event relies upon Ribs and sports boats to provide safety cover, and the simple fact is, that a well equipped, sensibly used sports boat is a great way to introduce the family to the water, none of the tacking all over the place and noisy, flappy sails, less of the heeling and none of the being becalmed. So whilst discussing sports boat safety may be rather gloomy, it will help a new buyer chose the right sports boat for them, and give years of safe pleasure.