Staying safe swimming around boats

It’s a scorching hot summer day. You’re swimming at a lake with your friends, or having a great time in the ocean. All of a sudden, a boat starts reversing towards you – and doesn’t stop. The motor is loud, so no-one can hear you yelling. Before long, someone’s been hit, and now the day includes a trip to the hospital. 

Unfortunately, incidents like this happen all the time. In fact, one recent case saw a swimmer lose both legs after a motorboat reversed without warning. The two are now embroiled in a legal battle.

Accidents around speedboats and other watercraft are common. In 2011, the Medical Journal of Australia even issued a warning after multiple injuries occurred over a 10-day period one summer. In fact, between 2006 and 2010, seven of the 72 boat and watercraft injuries recorded in Western Australia were caused by propellers.

Boat safety isn’t something that should be taken lightly. However, people swimming in the vicinity of boats often don’t follow the mandatory safety precautions. If you’re planning on swimming around boats, understanding the rules and keeping your eyes peeled could save you from a tragic accident.

Know how to stay safe

It wouldn’t take more than a second.

You’re watching one of your kids playing in the water. But without realising, they’ve drifted too close to a boating ramp – and an accident happens before they’re able to move away.

It’s crucial whenever you’re swimming around boats that you adhere to a few basic rules:

  • avoid swimming near boat ramps or in boating areas
  • be mindful of weather, water vessels and other visitors
  • wear a lifejacket if necessary
  • be aware of submerged objects (branches, rocks, etc.)
  • beware of boats using a waterway.

Trust the locals on where to swim

One tip that many swimmers tend to forget is to ask for advice about the safest places to swim. Local boating clubs will be able to point out areas that are particularly busy with boats.

It’s always a good idea to swim with a friend, especially if you’re around boats. Another person could save your life by attracting the attention of a boat coming towards you. 

Additionally, you should always:

  • swim where there are lifeguards
  • swim between the flags
  • check the weather frequently
  • be aware that calm waters can suddenly move rapidly and become dangerous
  • enter the water carefully, feet first, because it may be deeper than it appears.

Be sure to follow these guidelines, as weather and other variables can affect where boats move throughout the day. Keep an eye on how conditions change and adjust your swimming plans accordingly.

Know and follow local laws

Australia’s states and territories have different laws when it comes to swimming around boats and maintaining a safe distance. Check the laws in your local area to make sure you’re following the rules.

For instance, in Victoria there are swimming-only zones at several beaches from Port Melbourne to St Kilda, while the St Kilda Marina entrance is a 'boat only' zone – swimming in this area is prohibited.

In New South Wales, personal watercraft are not allowed in the 'exclusion zone' in Sydney Harbour. They’re also not allowed to be used for 'irregular driving' within 200 metres of a riverbank or shore while they’re in restriction zones.

In Queensland, boats must stay at just six knots if they are within 60 metres of either the shore or people in the water. If they can’t reduce their speed, they need to stay at least 60 metres away from anyone.

Swimming is great fun, but remember that you’ll often share the water with motorised vessels. Follow the appropriate guidelines, stay safe, and watch out for boat operators who may not be able to see you.

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Dimi Ioannou

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne

Dimi Ioannou is a Principal Lawyer and Practice Group Leader at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in charge of the firm’s Public and Product Liability team in Melbourne. Dimi is an accredited specialist in personal injury law.

Dimi works in the area of public liability and represents clients in a wide range of consumer law litigation involving different product liability claims.

Dimi also represents families at coronial inquests, acti…

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