What to Do If You Fall Out of a Small Fishing Boat

And How to Be Prepared for This Circumstance

Young couple enjoy playful rowing on river
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Falling out of a fishing boat happens to many anglers, and for a variety of reasons: colliding with objects, losing balance, slipping, lunging for something that gets knocked overboard, and even urinating. To avoid this, be mindful of the circumstances that make falling out more likely. Accidents happen, however, so here are things to consider in case you take an unplanned trip over the side from a small fishing boat (21 feet long or less).

Safety Steps to Take If You Fall out of a Boat

  1. Learn to swim. If you’re comfortable being in the water, you’re less likely to panic if you unexpectedly fall out of a boat.
  2. Get wet fully clothed. It’s one thing to be in the water when you’re wearing a bathing suit. Chances are that if you fall in while fishing, you’ll be wearing clothes and shoes or boots. It’s hard to swim in shoes, and harder in boots as well as heavy wet clothing, which weighs you down. If you jump into a pool sometime with your fishing clothes on you’ll have a better idea of what it feels like; better yet, practice getting back into your boat with fully wet clothes.
  3. Get wet wearing a PFD. Few people have ever practiced swimming with a PFD, with or without being fully clothed, to make sure that it fits right and that they can move in it. Of course, you have to be wearing it when you go into the water to do any good. Re-entering a boat while wearing a PFD is much different than doing it without.
  4. Stow a change of clothes in your boat in case you or someone else goes over when the air or water is cold. This can help prevent or counter hypothermia.
  5. Consider wearing a survival suit if you regularly fish in cold water. Survival suits provide warmth and flotation and are used by all rescue and Coast Guard personnel.
  6. Always use the ignition safety cutoff switch (aka “kill switch”) on the outboard motor when under power. This shuts the motor off, preventing the boat from circling back to run you over. Attach the lanyard from the switch securely to your body.
  7. Be especially careful after dark, when you can readily get disoriented and can’t see well.
  8. Don’t lean over the gunwale to urinate if you can’t swim, the water is rough or cold, or you’re near objects in the water. Use a bucket instead, then dump the bucket contents overboard. (Note: small boats are not required to have a latrine.)
  9. Get hold of the boat immediately and stay with it. If you go in and you’re alone and the boat drifts away, you may not be able to get back to it.
  10. Kick off your boots if you have to swim, especially if they’re waders. They are hard to swim in and will drag you down.
  11. Adjust your PFD if you’re wearing it. A proper fit means that the PFD is snug on your body and does not rise up around your neck and face.
  12. Stop a moving boat immediately. If the person in the water can’t get to the boat, maneuver it to them, approaching from an upwind position and keeping the person in the water away from any motor.
  13. Toss out a rescue buoy if the situation is dire. Boats over 16 feet are required to have a Type IV throw-able lifesaving ring or buoy. Throw this to the person in the water if the circumstances warrant (like the person overboard is hurt, weak, or unconscious).
  14. Hold onto the boat while a companion slowly maneuvers it to shallow water or shore. The easiest re-entry is from a stable location like a dock, shore, or shallow water.
  15. In deep water, have a companion assist you with re-entry. A person getting into a boat can be helped a great deal if one or two companions grab their belt buckle and pull them up, being careful not to tip the boat and cause themselves to go overboard or the boat to capsize.
  16. In deep water by yourself, if the boat does not have a ladder, use the outboard motor for re-entry. The transom sits lowest in the water, and the way to get in from the transom by yourself when the motor is off is to step on the anti-ventilation plate (just above the propeller), pull yourself upright, and step on or flop over the transom. This is not easy if you are weak, fatigued, hurt, or heavily clothed.
  17. Use the Man Overboard function on your GPS if necessary. Many anglers have a GPS unit with a Man Overboard (MOB) key that can be used to pinpoint a specific location, which is especially useful at night, in rough water, and in bad weather. On large boats and in big-water circumstances, there are more specific man-overboard (also called crew overboard) procedures to follow.