NSBC BoatBeat Blog: Carbon Monoxide

Photo Credit: National Safe Boating Council

Exposure to carbon monoxide (CO) in large amounts or even small amounts for a long duration often results in death. CO is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas in the exhaust produced in gasoline engines. Boats release CO through the exhaust ports of vessels that are either idling or underway or running generators. When inhaled, CO rapidly replaces oxygen in tissues. People are surprised they can get CO poisoning when their activity is outdoors but it is a silent killer.

What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

Symptoms of CO poisoning may include nausea, dizziness, confusion, headache and fainting; however, people often mistakenly attribute these symptoms to too much alcohol, sun, and noise, or to motion sickness from the water or exhaustion.

How are people exposed to CO in a marine environment?

Traditionally, CO poisonings have occurred on houseboats, vessels with overhead canopies or other vessels that have poor ventilation. CO also accumulates onboard a vessel through a process known as the ‘station wagon effect.’ This occurs as air moves around a boat and forms a low pressure area immediately behind the broad, flat transom. CO from the exhaust system enters the low-pressure area and is fed back into the cockpit and into the cabin.

Many cases of CO inhalation have involved a recreational activity known as ‘teak surfing.’ ‘Teak surfing’ involves holding onto the swim platform or transom of an underway vessel to bodysurf on the wake of the vessel. This is illegal now in many jurisdictions.

How common is CO poisoning in a marine environment?

According to the USCG 2019 statistics, there were 31 reported boating-related CO poisonings, including 5 deaths (U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics). CO poisoning is only recently receiving attention – it is likely that many other deaths have been attributed to drowning or heart attack in years past that may have been caused by CO poisoning.

How can I protect from CO poisoning?

  • Use a marine carbon monoxide detector
  • Ensure proper ventilation
  • Inspect exhaust system regularly
  • Avoid the transom/no ‘teak surfing’
  • Educate children
  • Avoid other idling vessels, especially in coves or rafting (several boats tied together)

More Information

NIOSH Engineering Reports on Carbon Monoxide

The Center for Disease Control

Download PDF

Related Content

Emergency Boarding Ladder

3 Boating Safety Tips Just Right for Fall Boating

Annapolis, Md., Sept. 07, 2022 – Fall boating season has arrived, and with it come different types of risks that cold water and air temperatures bring. Here are three boating safety tips from the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water just right for leaf peeping season. A float plan is needed: A float […]

Read More
Kayak Rescue

Recreational Boating Instruction Standards Updated

The American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC) in July published updated American National Standards for sailing, paddling and on-water instruction in human-propelled boating. The ABYC published an updated standard for on-water instruction in entry-level powerboat operation in December. The standards maintenance process takes place every five years to ensure standards remain current and relevant. Two […]

Read More

Boating Safety Has Improved Nationally Says Water Sports Foundation, Resulting in Fewer Incidents and Fatalities

U.S. Coast Guard reports boating safety figure improvements in 2021 despite historic growth in new boat ownership. WSF credits increased safety course enrollment.   ORLANDO, Fla., August 16, 2022 – The U.S. Coast Guard’s latest 2021 Recreational Boating Statistics Report revealed boating safety improved with a 15.4% drop in the fatality rate per 100,000 registered […]

Read More