Mike is a marine systems engineer and technical writer for Nordhavn Yachts, an ABYC Master Technician and a longtime boating journalist.
At least eight deaths were attributed to faulty boat and dockside wiring in 2012. Many more fatalities were listed as drowning, though many were likely caused by electric shock drowning (ESD), some revealed as such by subsequent investigation. While ESD remains a persistent threat, heroic efforts are being made to encourage boaters and the industry to help prevent these needless fatalities. Here, through the lens of a boating family’s first-hand account, we explore the danger, causes and cures for this deadly phenomenon.
Young men and women who grow up boating often have a confident, mature presence. Kevin and Sheryl Ritz were eager to give their children that experience, until an August afternoon of boating in 1999 turned deadly. They lost their 8-year-old son, Lucas, who became one of the first fully understood fatalities caused by what’s become known as ESD.
“One minute he was laughing and playing,” Kevin Ritz says. “The next minute he was gone.” In the 14 years since, Ritz has devoted his life to preventing others from knowing his pain. Insidious and silent killer are terms he uses to describe ESD.
“It was a hot summer day,” the story begins as Ritz, now 50, tells of the marina on the freshwater Multnomah Channel of the Willamette River north of Portland, Oregon, where he lived aboard with his wife and three young children, Ian, Lucas and Kyra. Ritz’s own childhood was full of faraway foreign ports and life aboard boats. “We were going to live aboard, teach our kids school aboard and give them that amazing experience,” he says.
When his two boys got in the water on that fateful August day, they were wearing Type II life jackets. They let the current carry them downstream as Sheryl kept watch on the dock — an activity kids and adults had been enjoying for years. As Lucas approached a dock to get out, he let out a gasp and rolled onto his back, apparently unconscious.
Ritz, working on his boat, rushed to the scene. “I checked for a pulse and didn’t find one,” he recalls. “I checked for breathing — Lucas was not breathing. I immediately started CPR. I was encouraged that Lucas’ color was good — I’d seen drowning victims before and their color was always so dull and gray. But I was very disturbed as I looked into his eyes while doing mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions — I kept looking into his eyes and there was nobody home.”
The coroner’s report called it drowning. That didn’t compute for Ritz. “At no time was Lucas’ face in the water,” he says. “He was wearing a life jacket that will keep your face out of the water, even if you’re unconscious.”
The next day, after hearing his older son and wife use words like tingle and numbness to describe how the water felt, Ritz began looking for electricity in the water. He found it. An electrical fault aboard a boat was flowing electricity into the water. The death certificate was changed from drowning to “electrocuted in water while swimming.”
“I’d been around boats my whole life and I’d never, ever heard of such a thing,” Ritz says. “We felt we were being as safe as we possibly could. We were completely ignorant about this.” He wasn’t alone. In his journey to understand what happened to his son, Ritz discovered that most in the boating industry were as unfamiliar with ESD as he was.