The American Boat & Yacht Council has been aware of and taken steps to mitigate electric shock drowning incidents since 2008. The United States Coast Guard sponsored grants to ensure ABYC's electrical document "E-11 AC & DC Electrical Systems On-Board Boats - 2008" included an "Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupter" device. This "interrupter" is similar in function to ground-fault outlets installed in homes. It responds to a potential fault by tripping the main circuit breaker and cutting power to the boat.
Electric shock drowning is the result of a typically low level alternating current passing through the body while immersed in fresh water. The force is sufficient enough to cause skeletal muscular paralysis, rendering the victim helpless and drowning. This type of fault can happen in any natural water but becomes fatal in fresh water due to lower water conductivity.
Kevin Ritz, an ABYC certification instructor who lost his 8-year old son Lucas in 1999 to electric shock drowning, serves as an education advocate. Learn from Ritz' "Hot Docks, Hot Boats, and Electric Shock Drowning" webinar above that is used by many companies to educate employees who work in the water.
How could a 36' sailboat with over three feet of freeboard be shoved under water by a few inches of snow? Because a plastic through-hull that was an inch or two above the waterline had cracked and the weight of the snow lowered the damaged fitting to just below the surface. Water then began entering through the crack and the boat gradually filled with water and sank. Plastic deteriorates quickly in sunlight, which is why ABYC's H-27 standard requires that through-hulls above the waterline must now pass a UV test. As a result, this sort of sinking is less common than it once was.
The boat to the right had just made the crossing from Miami to the Bahamas for a leisurely vacation cruise when the owner noticed the depth sounder acting erratically. Seconds later, he smelled smoke and immediately shut off the engine and raced below. Smoke was pouring out of the forward cabin. His friend, still on deck, yelled that she could see flames. The owner called a hasty mayday and then had everyone climb into the boat's inflatable. Fighting the fire proved futile; within minutes the $250,000 boat was engulfed in flames. Although the boat had burned to the waterline and sunk, investigators were able to determine that sometime during the boat's life, someone had used household "romex" wire for a circuit. Because romex — a wire typically used in homes — has a solid core, it eventually work-hardened and broke from constant motion. The resulting short had produced tremendous heat, which started the fire. Boat wire leads a hard life and must be able to resist heat, chemicals, salt water as well as constant motion and vibration. Marine grade boat cable can be tin-plated for corrosion resistance and even though the standards are silent on this issue, in my opinion should be the only type of wire used on a boat
Thanks to Bob Adriance, ABYC Technical Board and Member, BoatU.S. retired, for the above mentioned cases and photos.