Swimming Hazards in Marinas Published by Marina Dock Age Expert Article

In this article, originally published by Marina Dock Age, Marina & Boatyard Expert, Carl Wolf discusses many of the hazards that threaten swimmers in marinas.

The experts at Robson Forensic have investigated many devastating injuries that occurred in the space where swimmers interface with boats and docks. Investigation of these incidents can involve experts specializing in marine accident reconstruction, recreational boating and rules of the road, or experts like Carl who specialize in marina and boatyard operations.

“no Swimming” Is a Nonnegotiable Rule - Swimming Hazards in Marinas

By Carl F. Wolf, CMM
September/October 2016, Marina Dock Age

“No Swimming” is a Nonnegotiable Rule

Everyone remembers the “good ole days” when they would head down to the boat tied up alongside a dock and jump off the boat into the refreshing water. This image brings up fond memories, but at what cost? As marina operators, we want our boaters to enjoy themselves. But as professionals who are responsible for the safe operation of a marina facility, we now realize that swimming in marinas may not have been as safe we thought. Being an avid boater, a marina operator and a 2nd Class Boatswain Mate and Coxswain who did four-year in the U.S. Coast Guard, I know better.

The “No Swimming” issue is very personal to me also. It was a beautiful mid-summer day in the early 1990’s when my parents had moored their boat at a dock in the Lake Erie Islands. After my parents had tied up their boat, they left to grab a bite to eat and to take a short walk on the island. When they returned to the dock, they noticed first responders near the boat. An individual had been swimming in an attempt to retrieve a pair of sunglasses that had fallen into the water. The swimmer had entered into an area of water that was energized with a fatal electrical charge.

Deadly Consequences

In the past, accidental injuries and deaths in the water in or near marinas happened because of the unknown. Unknown conditions to the swimmer are hidden and masked by the uplifting beauty that often lures swimmers into the water.

Over the past few decades, experts have sadly become familiar with the term “Electrical Shock Drowning” (ESD). In the early years, many had believed swimmers simply drowned without knowing the circumstances of what had actually caused the drowning. As more of these unfortunate incidents occurred, experts started to look in the water and the surrounding conditions to find the cause. Sometimes they found an electrical charge in the water, oftentimes they were unable to find a source. Now, the experts, through recreating the conditions present at the time of the incident, are usually able to find the cause of the evasive electrical current in the water that created the unsafe condition.

Boats with engines running and swimmers simply do not mix. Boat operators have trouble seeing swimmers due to obstructions in and around the water, and poor visibility of the small fraction of the swimmer that is above the water’s surface. A boat’s moving propeller(s) will cause severe or fatal injuries if contact is made. Exhaust fumes from boat engines or generators can have a deliberating effect to swimmers exposed to the harmful exhaust.

Other Dangers

A seemingly calm water’s surface may mask unseen hazardous conditions. Many marinas experience strong currents caused by tidal changes, flowing rivers, wind produced seiches or heavy rains. These currents can sweep away even strong swimmers. Swimming in the cold waters of the North can cause shortness of breath or hypothermia in a short period of time.

When a swimmer dives off a boat or dock into the murky waters of a marina, do they have any idea what the marina basin bottom is like? The waters in the marina could only be a few feet deep, have a steep drop-off or be littered with items or trash. Rebuilt marinas attempt to remove all the old pilings, cables and docks that have sunk over time, however, a few items may have been missed.

While pollution may not cause immediate injuries, it can also have an effect over an extended period of time. Marinas are becoming more proactive on boat pump-outs and gray water collection. But what happens to the waters of communities that cannot treat storm-water runoff that discharges near a marina?

Marinas are adapting to the “No Swimming” issues facing our waterfront. Life-rings are being made available on the docks and rescue ladders are being installed in strategic locations in and around the piers and bulkheads of a marina.

Posting Signs

Signs are an important communication tool between the marina and the visiting patrons. Legislation is either working its way or has passed in certain states regulating “No Swimming” in marinas, including the appropriate signage required at marinas.

The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) 303 Fire Protection Standard for Marinas and Boatyards 2016 Edition has addressed the ESD problem. Quoting from the 2016 edition of NFPA 303, page 303-2: “The user of the 2016 edition of NFPA 303 will be directed to the National Electric Code, Article 555.3, for the installation of ground fault protection at marinas and boatyards.”

Signage, legislation and new recommendations and standards are a tremendous step in protecting those who visit our marinas. Unfortunate past accidents and incidents have led the direction to these changes. It is up to the marina operators to learn from the past, to educate our employees and boaters, and to enforce through an educational process when someone ignores the “No Swimming” policy of the marina.

Marina & Boatyard Forensic Investigations

The marina is a dynamic environment where vehicles pulling boat trailers interface with pedestrians, cyclists, other motorists, and watercraft. In addition to the roads, walkways, and buildings involved at most other facilities, the marina introduces a waterfront and great expanses of open water. Investigating injuries and other life threatening incidents in this unique environment requires industry experience and decades of relevant experience. Robson Forensic offers the nation’s foremost experts in marina and boatyard safety.

Submit an inquiry or contact the author of this article to discuss your case.

Featured Expert

Carl F. Wolf, Marina & Boatyard Expert

Carl F. Wolf, CMM, CMI

Marina & Boatyard Expert
Carl is an expert in the operations and management of marinas, boatyards, and dry-stack boat storage facilities. Throughout his career, since 1976, Carl owned his own marina related businesses,… read more.

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