By Andrew Spaulding
One of the great pleasures of boating is getting a few boats full of friends together, and heading out to a favorite anchoring spot to raft up. Once the raft is set up everyone can enjoy swimming, cracking open a few cold ones, and setting up for a barbeque dinner. It is great fun to hang out with friends and enjoy the scene. While this is going on, you may find yourself running the engines or generator for extra electrical power. However, there is a real danger from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning that you have to be aware of any time you are operating the engines or generator.
CO is a colorless and odorless gas that is very poisonous. It is produced when carbon-based fuels are burned. The most common source on a boat is from the exhaust, but it is also generated by the propane or charcoal grill. CO can be present without the smell of exhaust fumes, and it certainly is present with the smell of exhaust.
There are many documented cases where carbon monoxide gases get trapped around boats which can lead to swimmers being overcome and drowning. The largest contributor to this problem is running the generator or engines when the boat is not moving. This effect can be magnified any time boats are in close proximity to each other in a raft-up or at the dock. When the boat isn’t moving, exhaust fumes containing CO can become trapped under the swim platform or become trapped between boats.
What are the symptoms of CO poisoning? Early symptoms of CO poisoning are irritated eyes, headache, nausea, and dizziness. Since these symptoms are similar to sea sickness and drunkenness, they may be ignored or not recognized as CO poisoning. If someone is showing these symptoms, be sure to get them to fresh air immediately and seek medical attention.
What can you as the boat owner do to be proactive about avoiding CO poisoning? The most effective thing to do is to install CO alarms in areas where CO is likely to accumulate. On most boats it makes sense to have at least one below and one in the cockpit if you leave your canvas up while boating. On a larger boat it makes sense to have one in each sleeping cabin if you will be running the generator overnight.
For more information, the USCG has an informative brochure that you can find by clicking here.