Swimming near boat docks can be deadly; tips for avoiding electrocution

Recent fatalities by electrocution are bringing scrutiny to an age-old summer ritual that’s common on waterfronts across America: swimming near boat docks.

Electrocution can happen when swimmers make contact with energized metal dock fittings, boats or other structures due to faulty alternating current (AC) wiring.

Electric shock drowning (ESD) occurs when AC gets into freshwater from faulty wiring and passes through a swimmer, causing paralysis or even sudden death. Unlike electrocution, with ESD a swimmer does not need to be touching a boat or dock structure, and even tiny amounts of electricity can be incapacitating and lead to drowning.

The risk of ESD is greatest in fresh- or brackish water, so some areas such as estuaries or rivers may only be in the danger zone after heavy rains. Tingling in the swimmer’s body is one of the early warning signs of ESD.

The BoatUS Foundation, the boating-safety arm of the nations’ largest recreational boat owners group, has some tips to prevent an electrocution tragedy.

  1. Never swim around boat docks that use electricity.
  2. Post “no swimming” signs.
  3. Have a qualified electrician with experience in dock electrical service inspect your private dock annually.
  4. Install ground-fault protection on your boat and private dock.
  5. Ask your marina if they have installed ground-fault protection and if the electrical system is inspected and tested annually, just in case someone falls overboard. No one should ever swim in a marina.
  6. Periodically test your boat for electrical leakage into the water.

If you see a distressed person in the water near a boat dock, first shut off power to the dock at the breaker panel, and if equipped, disconnect any power cable to the vessel. If power cannot be shut down, follow the “reach, throw, row, but don’t go” mantra by using an oar, boat hook or throw a floatation device to reach the stricken person.

For more information, go to the BoatUS Electric Shock Drowning Resource Center at www.BoatUS.com/Seaworthy/ESD.

– BoatUS Foundation

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