Distribution of Vessel Occupants and Loads Expert Article

Failure to properly distribute the weight load on boats, including where your occupants are located, can have catastrophic consequences. Overloading, or improperly loading, a boat may lead to dangerous conditions and personal injury. In the case of a recreational boat, improper loading may be failing to adequately distribute occupants to ensure that their weight is well balanced.

In this article, Marine Operations expert Hendrik Keijer addresses the standard of care for vessel operators and owners as it relates to load/passenger distribution.

Boat occupant loading expert witness

An overloaded or improperly loaded boat, coupled with challenging circumstances, may adversely affect boat handling characteristics with resultant undesired consequences. According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2018 Recreational Boating Statistics, there were 87 accidents, 42 fatalities and 41 injuries related to improper loading or overloading and 35 accidents, 12 fatalities and 23 injuries related to occupants positioned at a boat’s gunwales [sides], bow [front] or transom [back]. The USCG states that non-fatal accident statistics are severely under-reported because of reporting requirement unawareness or unwillingness.

Distribution of Occupants and Loads on Boats

The U.S. Coast Guard, defines Overloading as, “Excessive loading of the vessel causing instability, limited maneuverability, dangerously reduced freeboard, etc.” and Improper Loading as, “Loading, including weight shifting, of the vessel causing instability, limited maneuverability, or dangerously reduced freeboard.” [Freeboard is the height of the upper edge of the side of a small boat and the water.]

Boats are designed to perform with weight distribution within the geometrical and physical properties of the boat. A well designed and properly balanced vessel will display reliable and predictable handling characteristics under reasonable conditions; however, as vessels become overloaded or imbalanced, their handling may become erratic, potentially exposing the craft to the risk of swamping and/or capsizing.

Whether the vessel is a cruise ship, cargo vessel, ferry, yacht, charter boat, recreational boat or personal watercraft, a prudent vessel operator can control the level of risk by adhering to maximum load capacities and properly managing the distribution of passengers, gear, and cargo.

Occupant and Load Limitations

Vessels are subject to limitations regarding the number of persons and/or load (in weight) they may carry. The occupant limit may be displayed on a capacity label, which is either displayed on the boat or possibly mentioned in the owner’s manual.

Vessel occupant capacity label

Federal law requires a capacity label on power boats less than 20 feet in length. Additionally, the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) requires a capacity plate on boats less than 26 feet in order to be certified by NMMA.

Occupant Distribution

Standard of care in the industry calls for boat operators to take into account where his or her occupants are positioned dependent on the vessel’s speed and environmental factors. For recreational boats, the owner’s manual may outline the “designated occupant positions.” There are also standards that discuss that occupants should be discouraged from riding on the gunnels (sides), or transom (back) while traveling at speed and/or during hazardous conditions. Riding in these positions is known throughout the industry to expose occupants to a variety of hazards such as falling overboard in rough conditions or from the typical roll caused by steering maneuvers.

In addition to the concept of a designated occupant position, riding in the bow (front) of a vessel can be much rougher than riding in the stern (back). In rough conditions or at speed, the bow slams into waves and may be subject to vertical movement. The movement of the vessel over and through waves is a known cause of occupants being violently jostled, bounced from their seats, or being thrown overboard. The below figure is one hypothetical example of a designated occupant positioning diagram. Each make and model boat may have their own specific seating arrangement diagram for certain conditions.

Figure 1: Typical Occupant Positioning Diagram

Maintaining a safe speed of travel and ensuring that occupants are positioned in the appropriate areas of the vessel is vital to preventing personal injury. Whenever occupants place themselves and/or the vessel in danger, good seamanship requires operator intervention.

Maritime Incident Investigations

The Maritime practice at Robson Forensic is made up of experts from every facet of the industry, from navigators to marine engineers, to experts in operations both on board and in marina settings. They are frequently retained to investigate collisions and other mishaps that occur on and around the water. From commercial shipping to recreational boating and everything in between, the maritime industry is multi-faceted and diverse. Our experts have the education, training, and hands-on experience to investigate the matter at hand.

For more information, submit an inquiry or contact the author of this article.

Featured Expert

Hendrik J. Keijer, Marine Operations Expert

Hendrik J. Keijer

Marine Operations Expert
Captain Henk Keijer is a retired Master Mariner and Marine Engineer. For more than 30 years Captain Keijer operated a variety of vessels ranging from cruise ships to cargo ships and smaller boats. He… read more.


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