Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Prevent Carbon Monoxide PoisoningBy: Louis Novak, U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Division

One of the appeals of boating is the freedom of the open water, the escape from the daily grind. It’s easy to “unplug” from stress. Unfortunately, it’s also easy to “unplug” from important safety precautions. Several common boating scenarios are actually potentially fatal due to the high risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas produced by the burning of any carbon- based fuel. It is invisible and has no taste or smell. Carbon monoxide from the exhaust pipes of inboard engines, outboard engines and generators can build up inside and outside boats in areas near exhaust vents, such as the swim platform. People should never congregate or swim in these areas when the motor or generator is operating.

Blockage of exhaust outlets can cause carbon monoxide to accumulate in the cabin and cockpit area of a boat, even when hatches, windows, portholes and doors are closed. Boaters should avoid anchoring in areas where outlets could be blocked.

Exhaust from other boats is another serious danger. A boat that is docked, beached or anchored alongside another boat is vulnerable to carbon monoxide intrusion from its neighbors in the cabin and cockpit.

Backdrafting, otherwise known as “the station wagon effect,” often occurs when a boat is operating at a high bow angle, traveling under 4 knots, or has been improperly loaded. This also may cause carbon monoxide to accumulate inside the cabin, cockpit and bridge even when protective coverings are used and the boat is under way.

Teak surfing – an activity where a person holds onto the swim deck while the boat is under way – can be fatal, as can any other watersport that puts the skier less than 20 feet from the back of the boat.

Knowing how to spot and avoid dangerous situations can help save lives. Boaters should do their part to educate others about common causes of carbon monoxide poisoning. Too many people have died needlessly.


  • Make sure all exhaust hose ends are double clamped and securely in place.
  • Look for exhaust leaking from exhaust system components, indicated by rust and/or black streaking, water leaks, or corroded or cracked fittings.
  • Inspect rubber exhaust hoses for burned or cracked sections.
  • Confirm that water flows from the exhaust outlet when the engines and generator are started.
  • Listen for any change in exhaust sound that could indicate an exhaust component failure.
  • Schedule a vessel safety check.

Educate Yourself to Educate Others

  • Carbon monoxide is a quick and silent killer. It is colorless and odorless.
  • Circulating fresh air and staying away from exhaust are the best ways to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Experts recommend installing marine-rated carbon monoxide detectors to alert boaters when the CO concentration on board is too high.
  • Life jackets save lives. Many who are overcome by carbon monoxide fumes slip silently beneath the water. Fellow boaters often report that a person was “there one second and gone the next.” Life jackets provide a better chance of being saved even if the person is overcome by carbon monoxide.

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