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What can you do after falling overboard?

When you go out on your boat, you are there to enjoy friends and the freedom of the open water. One of the last things you or other Rhode Island boaters would expect is to fall overboard. Unfortunately, many people fall off boats or ships each year, resulting in one of the commonest and deadliest types of maritime accidents in the country. Knowing what to do if you find yourself in the water can mean the difference between life and death.

What might cause you to go in the water? Those who regularly work in the maritime industry report several factors that commonly result in a man overboard situation. Choppy waves or poor weather could make the deck unsteady or slippery, in turn causing you to topple over the rail. You might find yourself unexpectedly seasick, and a sudden swell could make you lose your balance as you are leaning over the rail. Alcohol is another common factor for unsafe behavior and horseplay resulting in a fall from the boat. It is less common, but it does happen, for a boater to become the victim of foul play or to deliberately jump overboard.

If you go overboard, your first worry is not sharks - instead, cold water is your main concern. Upon initially hitting the water, a reaction called "cold shock" may cause you to involuntarily gasp, raising your risk of drowning if you gasp while underwater. The longer you float in cold water without being rescued, the less coordinated you will become and hypothermia - when your body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit - can set in.

The following steps are crucial to your survival if you fall overboard:

  • Do not panic. Float on your back to keep your face above water and conserve your energy. If you can still see the boat, call out, "man overboard."
  • Avoid moving about to keep warm, which could expend more body heat. Pull your knees to your chest or assume a fetal position to conserve your body heat.
  • Try to keep a positive attitude. Many survivors reported that while awaiting rescue, they stayed alive by keeping calm and not giving up.

Fortunately, the chances are high that your friends or family would notice your absence soon after you fall off the boat and quickly begin rescue attempts.

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