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Unsinkable boats

The law that saved 21,000 lives

Potent but little-known life savers, Coast Guard rules that require boats smaller than 20 feet to float when swamped or capsized have prevented thousands of deaths over the last quarter-century.

The intent of the agency’s 1977 flotation regulations is that a small boat in distress stay afloat at least 18 hours, long enough for its occupants to hang onto until rescued, says Phil Cappel, chief of the Coast Guard’s recreational boating product assurance division.

“We can’t emphasize enough that people should stay with their boat [when it swamps or capsizes],” he says. “If it is under 20 feet, it is required by law to stay afloat. I don’t think people realize that.” Cappel says it is far easier for rescuers to spot boaters in distress when they stay with the boat than to find their heads bobbing in the water.

The level flotation rule requires all outboard boats smaller than 20 feet — except canoes, kayaks, inflatables, multihulls and sailboats — to float pretty much level and not heel beyond a certain angle when fully loaded. Inboards, I/Os and airboats also are required to float, but they can float with their stern sunk and bow sticking up because of the stern-heavy design characteristics of these types of vessels.

When adopted, the flotation rule was deemed sufficient to ensure a small boat stay afloat on a lake, river, bay and up to five miles offshore until help arrived, Cappel says. He says, however, that many now take small boats 30 to 40 miles offshore, where quick rescue is less likely and occupants may die of hypothermia before help arrives.

In 1977 the flotation rule and other rules for fuel, ventilation and electrical systems addressed two of the biggest causes of boating deaths: fires and small-boat sinkings. Cappel estimates that together those rules, along with federal funding for state boating education and enforcement, have saved more than 21,000 lives.

In the early ’70s, 1,500 people a year were dying in boating accidents in this country, he says. The number is about half that now.

“It’s done quite a bit of good,” Cappel says.

Enforcement of the flotation requirement requires vigilance. In any given year, the Coast Guard lists on its Web site two dozen to three dozen active recall campaigns for boats that fail to meet its flotation requirements. Cappel says the agency doesn’t have the resources to test every new model smaller than 20 feet that comes off production lines, but it does test 80 to 100 boats a year for flotation compliance. It buys some of the boats it tests, and builders submit many others to a voluntary compliance program that alerts the builder to flotation problems before it sells a lot of boats and has to launch a costly recall campaign to bring them in and fix them.

Cappel says most flotation problems arise in boats built by “mom and pops” that don’t have the engineering resources to get flotation right. Cappel says figuring out exactly how much flotation to put in a boat and where to put it can be difficult without a test tank, and small operations usually don’t have one. But even large boatbuilders sometimes make mistakes. A 2003 Laker 14 built by Tracker, a major boatbuilder, is listed among the Coast Guard’s current recalls.

Cappel often is asked why the Coast Guard doesn’t require flotation in bigger boats to save more lives. He says one of his jobs is to track boating-related deaths, and he doesn’t see that many fatalities resulting from larger boats sinking. The graph of deaths from sinkings forms a near-perfect bell-shaped curve, with its peak at about 16 feet of boat length.

“Once you get past 20 feet, the number [of deaths] is very low,” he says. “We’ve talked about taking it up to 26 feet, but we just don’t have the numbers to justify it.”