Watch out for catching waves badly in a dinghy: you can fracture a vertebrae

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Inflatable boat in navigation

A woman who was spending a day at sea aboard an inflatable boat ended up with a compression fracture. Here’s what happened. Every year in the United Kingdom, the “Safety Digest” is released. What is it all about? Of a volume edited by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, a government agency tasked with investigating accidents at sea to use them as inspiration for safety lessons. Many of the cases discussed, which really happened around the world, involve recreational boating such as this one.

Catching bad waves in dinghy

A woman found herself with severe back pain after a dinghy outing in southern England. On board with her was a group of eight people with whom she was conducting a corporate team building day. The accident occurred when the nearly 9-meter-long rib faced waves from a passing boat.

Before leaving, the skipper made all passengers put on life jackets and told them what actions to take in case of emergency. He then concluded the briefing by reading a statement from the company with a warning about the physical risks that can occur when sailing in fast inflatable boats.

The dynamics

The rib was structured with two parallel rows of 6 “leapfrog” seats, in which one sits astride, behind the skipper’s wheelhouse. The woman, in this case, was seated in one of the two furthest aft since it was judged to be a more comfortable area under sail.

Image source: MAIB

After about an hour of sailing, the dinghy encountered the wake of a passing ship. Aware of the potential effect on passengers, the skipper first decelerated and then crossed the wake at a 90-degree angle to the direction of the waves. The first wave was passed without incident, while on the second wave the boat jumped and then landed heavily. The woman immediately after the impact screamed, making it immediately clear that she may have suffered a serious injury.

At that point the skipper alerted via VHF a colleague and made the decision to proceed at low speed to the nearby marina, without calling the coast guard. Despite a double call to ambulance rescue, there was no one at the port upon arrival. The woman was then transported by her husband to her car, where she discovered that she had suffered a compression fracture in her T12 vertebra.

Image source: MAIB

Mistakes and how to avoid them with MAIB tips

Compression fractures in the lower back can occur when a dinghy passenger lands heavily on their seat after being lifted into the air when the dinghy jumps over a wave. Those who are helming the boat should be aware that when a large wave is encountered, the boat’s speed must be reduced a great deal to prevent the boat from coming off the water too much and “falling back” with risk of injury to its occupants.

2. Commanders must ensure that all crew and passengers understand safety instructions and are aware of what risks and physical stress levels are being encountered. A demonstration of the correct posture to adopt and how to hold yourself can help passengers.

3. If an emergency occurs aboard any vessel, the coast guard should be notified as soon as possible. This is because rescue workers know how to act and what the extent of the injury may be. In this case, although a back injury was clear, the injured man was moved, had to walk and was even transported by car to the hospital. The Nice, (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recommends the following:

a. Protect the person’s cervical spine
b. Avoid movements that involve the spine

Excerpted from MAIB’s Safety Digest 2019

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