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Safe at Sea: Electric Shock Drowning and how to avoid it

By PAT SCHMIDT - | Sep 1, 2020


Mid-summer, national news covered the story of an Arizona drowning that should be required reading for every boater. This was one of those “but that would never happen to me” type of boating disasters. The headlines read: “1 Missing, 4 Injured in Arizona Marina.”

What had been initially thought to be a drowning turned out to be an electrocution.

About 40 miles northwest of Phoenix, firefighters were dispatched for a call of a drowning; however, they received additional information while en route that suggested the incident could have been electrocution or electric shock drowning. Upon arrival, the firefighters were forced to wait nearly 10 minutes before they could enter the water in an effort to save the lives of the boaters/swimmers.

Electric Shock Drowning (ESD) is the result of the passage of a typically low level AC current through the body with sufficient force to cause skeletal muscular paralysis, rendering the victim unable to help himself or herself, while immersed in fresh water, eventually resulting in drowning of the victim. Higher levels of AC current in the water will also result in electrocution. ESD has become the catch all phrase that encompasses all in-water shock casualties and fatalities.

Although ESD can occur virtually in any location where electricity is provided near water, the majority of the deaths have occurred in public and private marinas and docks. The typical victim of ESD is a child swimming in or around a marina or dock where electricity is present. The electricity that enters the water and causes ESD originates from the wiring of the dock or marina, or from boats that are connected to the marina’s or dock’s power supply.

Incidents like this are the reason why the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association was formed — to raise awareness about ESD. The organization’s Website (electricshockdrowning.org) presents guidelines and recommendations for boaters and for marinas.

The most dramatic problem with ESD is that there is no warning of the potential danger of electric current in the water. Then the problem becomes exacerbated because the natural reaction is to jump in to assist, placing more people in the life-threatening waters.

The Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association urges people to:

– If a person can swim after jumping in, he or she should be directed to head away from the boat or the dock.

– Rescuers can use a non-metallic boat and try to pull the victim away from the source of the current until the electricity is turned off.

More and more marinas are posting warning signs for boaters regarding ESD. The safest strategy is to avoid all swimming in proximity to any docks with electricity present and, especially, at marinas.

Pat Schmidt is a member of America’s Boating Club of Sanibel-Captiva. For more about the chapter and its boating education courses, visit www.sancapboating.club or contact education@sanibelcaptivasps.org or 612-987-2125.