Vessels with drop bows - reflecting on good practice

The MAIB’s investigation into a trip on a Wheelyboat (aluminium Mk III) on Roadford Lake is complete and an interim report has been published. A full report for consultation is expected in due course, and reflections can then start on any learnings involved.

The RYA will review the findings and recommendations of the interim report, working with deliverers of activity to implement the learnings

We are also committed to working with key stakeholders to consider further guidance in this area, highlighting good practice and supporting safe delivery of activity.

Powerboating with accessibly designed vessels is a valuable way to be safe and active on the water. For some people, it’s one of the only ways they can go boating.

We also know there is much good practice and safety advice emerging from manufacturers and organisations that use powerboats, particularly vessels with bow doors.

While the considerations discussed below are not exhaustive, our intention is to highlight areas where we know people have questions. For example, bow doors, personal flotation, and the securing of people in place on the vessel, so that you can make good decisions about ongoing operations and activity.

Bow doors, water ingress and loading

Water moving freely across the deck is going to impact stability through a phenomenon known as “free surface effect”. Sudden stops and sharp turns will exacerbate the issue.

Therefore, vessels should be carefully checked before launch to ensure there is no water accumulated either on deck or in the bilges. The vessel should be monitored throughout operation and bailed out immediately in the event of any water ingress.

Bilge pumps should be in good working order and tested regularly, and bailers also provided or an alternative back up available. Any bungs and buoyancy compartments should be checked to ensure they fit well and do the job intended. Regular pressure testing of buoyancy compartments can give assurance about their integrity.

Bow doors should be regularly checked to ensure they do not allow ingress of water:

  • Seals should be free from cracks, splits and debris.
  • Leaving the bow door ajar when not in use can prolong the life of the seals.
  • Winches, securing devices and safety clips should all be in good working order.
  • Hinges should have no play at all.

Always use the boat as intended and as laid out in the owner’s manual. Pay particular attention to loading capacity of the vessel and the way the boat is loaded.

Consider the fore and aft trim – avoid bow down trim. The vessel should be balanced when loaded to ensure there is no list one way or the other. Crew and passengers should be briefed about the risks of moving about the boat whilst under way, particularly the impact this may have on the stability of the vessel. Wheelchair weights can vary considerably so it may be worth gathering information about this and assessing how the weight impacts balance and stability.

If there is an issue (from engine failure, to needing to recover people from the water) is there plan for what to do, do people know their part in the plan and have you practiced it?

Personal flotation

It’s important to make the right choice when it comes to personal flotation, particularly if the wearer is unable to assist in their own recovery. Lifejackets and buoyancy aids have different levels of buoyancy and for self-inflating lifejackets, there will be different mechanisms to trigger auto-inflation. This will influence the choice you make.

Generally, buoyancy aids are for activities where the wearer might reasonably expect to end up in the water (dinghies, personal watercraft etc). Lifejackets are suitable on open boats such as powerboats and ribs, where you do not plan or expect to enter the water.

Personal flotation is not designed to keep equipment such as wheelchairs afloat.

Where people have limited mobility and may not be able to participate in their own self-righting, it’s important to plan for situations where people may end up in the water. Key points for consideration include but are not limited to:

  • Briefing those responsible for safety on who is afloat, the assistance they may require, and familiarisation with procedures,
  • Procedures to deal with use of personal flotation and its interaction with any strapping or harnesses,
  • The area of operation and thresholds for stopping activity.

Strapping and harnesses

Strapping and harnesses are used to maintain posture and improve independence and control. They may be used day to day through waist, chest or leg straps as part of a wheelchair, or they may be a specific part of boating.

If it can be avoided, participants should not be strapped to their chair while on a vessel, pontoon. slipway or anywhere where this is a risk of falling into the water.

If a person needs to use strapping to maintain posture and for their own safety, it should be very carefully risk assessed and procedures put in place because of the increased risk of entrapment. The risk assessment will be person centred and case specific. The procedures will outline the steps to be followed if the person ends up in the water and needs to float free from the vessel and the wheelchair in order to be recovered.

Consideration should be given to:

  • Vessel access, the construction, size and capability of the vessel.
  • The weight of the wheelchair and its securing arrangements.
  • What the individual can do and the support they need.
  • How any wheelchair straps interact with personal flotation.
  • Whether wheelchairs need to be secured to the deck of the vessel (to avoid sudden weight shifts and prevent sinking in the event of capsize / foundering).

It should be clear who has responsibility for assisting with the person’s release. They should also not be assigned additional tasks which may distract them from this responsibility.

Even so, in any emergency there is always the risk any crew or support person is thrown off balance, or otherwise unable to assist as expected. Therefore, all crew should be familiar with the operation of personal flotation, quick release buckles and their location.

Methods for securing should be quick release, and all those responsible for safety should be familiar with the release mechanism.

Getting to know the person

Getting to know the person and their specific needs is at the heart of getting the experience right.

It’s a dynamic process as the person knows themselves and the support they need, whilst you know the activity, equipment, and the environment you operate in.

The risks associated with the activity will also vary from one person to another, more where that person requires additional support for their safety and wellbeing.

It’s about decision making and having a plan to ensure safe outcomes for each person and creating ways for them to fully participate in and learn from the activity.

Delivering adventurous activities often means assessing people, equipment and the environment in which we operate. While the environment changes and can be unpredictable there is plenty we can do to really get to know the people taking part and be familiar with the equipment.


If you want to talk through any of the issues discussed in this blog, or to reflect on how they apply to your operations, please contact

Further reading