Boating Safety: Accidents & Risks

Posted: 8th September 2022

Boating is not only an enjoyable way to travel, it’s also one of the safest ways! But while accidents and injuries are rare, a small amount of people do get hurt annually which is why it’s so important to stay safe and aware no matter how experienced you are. This guide compiles important safety information from the Canal & River Trust to identify the causes of accidents and how to prevent them, so you can enjoy your waterways adventure as safely as possible. If you do have an accident or near-miss, you should report it to the navigation authority office or member of staff on the bank, because your report could help to keep others safe. To voice any safety concerns you may have, please feel free to speak to a member of the team at any of our marinas.

Table of Contents (click to jump)

Boating Safety: Falls

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Over half of all accidents to boaters are caused by falling from the boat, towpath, bank or jetty. Many happen even when the boat is tied up. Those accidents can be more serious when you fall into the water, which comes with the danger of drowning, hitting your head or being injured by boats and debris. There’s also the small risk of getting an infection from the water itself. Surfaces on watersides can be slippery or uneven and littered with bollards, rings and ropes, so it’s important to be alert and aware when walking on the waterside. Falls can happen especially when inexperienced boaters try to moor their boat, which is why it’s important to be knowledgeable about the boating basics before you set sail. For advice on how to moor safely, see our Basics of Boat Handling guide or visit the Canal & River Trust.

To avoid falls:

  • Look out for collisions and warn your crew and passengers to brace themselves before a collision happens.
  • Walk through the inside of the boat to get to the front or the back. If you must walk around the outside, steady yourself with the grab rail.
  • Keep your decks tidy and clear of clutter.
  • When mooring, do not jump off the boat onto the waterside. Wait until the boat is next to the bank and then safely step off.
  • Wear non-slip deck shoes.
  • Take extra care when walking along towpaths at night. Use a torch to look out for ropes, rings, bollards and mooring pins that might obstruct your path. As a boater, try to keep your own ropes and mooring pins away from pathways to prevent others falling.
  • Always be careful, no matter how experienced you are!

Boating Safety: Fires and Explosions


Although very rare, boat fires and explosions can be fatal. There are some specific risks to be aware of. Petrol vapour and bottled gas are heavier than air and highly flammable, so they’ll build up in the bottom of the boat if a leak occurs and any spark will ignite them. You should also be cautious of fumes from cookers, cabin heaters, water heaters, or the engine exhaust building up in the boat.

To avoid fires and explosions:

  • Boat appliances and their fuel systems must meet the Boat Safety Scheme requirements. Our hire boats at Saul Junction and Tattenhall Marina are regularly checked and professionally serviced in accordance with this.
  • Learn how to safely refuel your own boat and avoid refueling portable tanks on board. Take it to the bank away from any boats or any potential source of ignition.
  • Never store petrol, diesel or gas containers inside the cabin or engine space at any time.
  • Ensure all electrical circuits are protected by appropriate fuses or circuit breakers, and make sure electrical appliances aren’t faulty. Look and listen for any signs of overheating in electrical cables.
  • Keep ventilators open and free of obstructions.
  • Fit a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm suitable for boats, and regularly test them.
  • Never lock or bolt doors and hatches on the outside while you are on board.
  • Have a fire action plan and make sure you and your crew are well aware of it so you can all escape safely if the worst should happen. Ensure everybody knows where to find the fire blankets and extinguishers and how to use them.


  • If you can smell fumes, immediately close the shut-off valve, turn off the engine and open any windows, doors and hatches to air out the boat as much as possible. Put out any naked flames, cigarettes, cookers etc. and evacuate the boat if you can.
  • Don’t switch on or off any electricals until you’re certain the gas or petrol has been ventilated out. Find the source of the problem and fix it before you turn on anything that uses fuel again.
  • Act quickly! Use a fire blanket on pan fires and an extinguisher on other fires! Always know where to find them and that they are in working condition.
  • If that doesn’t work immediately and the fire is taking hold call 999. If the fire is inside the engine space, do NOT open the main access as the air will only feed it.
  • If somebody’s clothes catch alight, call 999 and lie them face down so that the flames rise away from their face, and smother the flames with a blanket or wet jacket.

Have your boat’s electrical systems installed and maintained by a professional, know where to find your main switch, test your circuit breakers and never ignore the warning signs of burning smells or scorch marks. Your boat’s different sources of electrical power should never be connected to each other or the same wiring, this is only possible due to negligent or incompetent electrical work. And never let water come into contact with your electric equipment or wiring.

Boating Safety: Collisions

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Collisions are another more common cause of injury on the waterways, which can lead to falls both on the deck and into the water. There’s also a risk of getting scalded or burnt if you’re cooking in the galley when a collision occurs. Collisions are caused by either cruising too fast, not paying enough attention to the waterway or general lack of boat handling experience.

Collisions lead to crushing – never put yourself between the oncoming object to try and prevent the collision! You may end up with crushed fingers or legs or even more serious bodily injuries. Keep within the boat, pay attention, and be aware of the size and momentum of your vessel.

To avoid a collision:

  • Check headroom for bridges, remembering bridge shapes vary and water levels rise.
  • Look out for the warning signs of cross-wind – ripples on the water and swaying trees. Be prepared to steer at an angle into the wind to stay on course.
  • Anticipate that there will be strong flows at locks, weirs or any places where water is being taken in or out of the waterway.
  • When approaching a blind bend, bridge or junction, give a long blast with the horn to alert any vessels on the other side that you are coming.
  • Look out for canoes, dinghies and any other unpowered boats, as well as debris such as floating tree trunks.

Boating Safety: Capsize


Capsizing is when the boat is turned on its side or upside down in the water, and it happens when there is too much of an uneven weight distribution on board. This is especially dangerous as people on board can get stuck under the upturned boat and be at risk of drowning.

To avoid capsizing:

  • All boats have a limit to how many people can safely come aboard at one time, always adhere to this.
  • Be sensible when going onto the cabin roof, too many people on the roof can cause the boat to become top heavy and roll over.
  • Don’t let everybody stand together on the same side if it risks tipping the boat over.

Boating Safety: Man Overboard

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Make sure everyone aboard knows the drill when a member of your crew goes overboard. Everybody should know where to find the lifeline or life belt, and the crew should know how to steer the boat and stop the propeller in case your skipper is the one who’s fallen in. The first thing you need to do when someone goes overboard is stop, take a breath and think! Don’t panic and don’t jump in after them (even in summer you can go into cold shock in the water, which can be fatal). Keep sight of the person in the water at all times.

If you’re on a narrow canal or slow and shallow river, put your engine out of gear, throw a line or a lifebelt and tell them to try to stand up – if it’s a canal they might be able to walk out. Steer the boat slowly to the bank and get one of your passengers off to help the person get out of the water (don’t reverse the boat – the person in the water could be dragged into the propeller).

On wider and deeper waterways throw a lifebuoy to the person overboard and ensure your propeller stays well away from them (if they’re at risk of getting too close to it, stop the propeller immediately by switching into neutral gear). On a river you might need to turn to approach them slowly going against the stream. Pull them to the side of the boat and help them climb aboard with a rope, pole or ladder.

Boating Safety: Operating Injuries


Boating requires a lot of physical exercise! You’ll often be doing heavy work and using unfamiliar tools and techniques, which can lead to straining your muscles and back, getting cuts or worse. Operating injuries are caused by overstretching yourself, using equipment incorrectly, not preparing properly, and rushing the job in hand or not paying enough attention to it.

To avoid operating injuries:

  • Take it easy! Share the workload and don’t strain yourself.
  • Always correctly follow any instructions provided for tools and techniques you’re using.
  • Pay full attention to the task at hand and don’t rush.
  • Avoid crushed fingers and rope burns by keeping your fingers clear of ropes and avoiding wrapping the rope around any part of your body.

Boating Safety: Lock Safety


Moving through a lock is perhaps the trickiest part of boating. There’s a lot to think about all at once and a whole series of tasks to carry out. Essentially all the safety tips we’ve covered so far apply in this scenario, so make sure to stay alert. If your boat gets caught up, it could come crashing down into the lock. Accidents in locks are caused by rushing, not paying attention, or a lack of preparation or knowledge about the procedures.

To avoid accidents in locks:

  • Be aware of all the safety advice we’ve covered in this guide.
  • Make sure your whole crew knows their assigned task and sticks to it, paying attention and staying alert.
  • Be knowledgeable and prepared to pass through the lock. Make sure your boat is level, away from the cill and not caught on a gate or protection.
  • While letting children join in as part of the crew can be a great experience, only adults should be assisting with the locks.

Boating Safety: Strong Water Conditions

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You can expect calm conditions and smooth sailing in most canals, but rivers are less predictable. With strong streams, currents and tides, the usual risks are magnified and collisions are more likely. It takes special skill and good judgement to sail in fast flowing water conditions. Accidents are caused by lack of experience, poor communication and underestimating the challenge.

To avoid accidents in fast flowing water:

  • Only take on fast flowing rivers with an experienced skipper.
  • Update yourselves about the river conditions before setting sail.
  • Ensure your boat has enough power to handle the strength of the stream, and have a good anchor (preferably two) and chain ready for use.
  • Always be on the look out for large commercial boats and be prepared to give way.
  • In tidal waters, bring a VHF marine-band radio to check local radio channels when planning passage and wear life jackets. Your skipper should be aware of the tidal times and weather forecast to be prepared for the conditions ahead.
  • Don't cruise in strong stream conditions. Securely moor your boat, watch for changes in the water level and adjust your ropes accordingly.

Set Sail Safely

Now you know what to be aware of when you set sail on the British waterways. Boating is an incredibly fun and adventurous pastime but it's important to be safe, sensible and aware of your surroundings at all times. For further safety information:

The Environment Agency issues River Advice for Boaters (RAB) on the River Ancholme, River Nene and River Great Ouse between Bedford and Earith, to keep river users informed of the changing weather conditions and to alert them of locks being prepared or used to discharge flood water. Look out for notice boards and lights on the riverbanks that inform boaters of the status of the river. Flags are also raised at many boat clubs, marinas and some locks. Boaters are strongly advised not to navigate when the Water Level & Strong Stream Advice message is in force when some locks may be ‘reversed’ for flood control. Boaters are encouraged to sign up and receive free River Advice for Boaters messages when using the River Thames and Anglian Waterways.

Check the Canal & River Trust for warnings and advice.

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