Ritz and others studying ESD believe the most effective way to prevent fatalities is to keep people out of the water. One of the foremost authorities on ESD is retired Navy Capt. David Rifkin, who runs a marine safety business and was part of a team commissioned by the U.S. Coast Guard to investigate the causes of ESD. In Rifkin’s view, it’s time for everybody to accept a new way of thinking.
“The culture has always been to go swimming down at the docks,” he says. “Then we started electrifying the docks with lights and shore power — but we still kept swimming. It’s a tough nut to crack, but if the dock has electrical power, don’t swim around it.”
Ritz wants boaters to be part of the solution. “The number one thing boaters can do is pass this information to all their friends,” he says. “All those people who perished last Fourth of July — if any of them knew this was a possibility, I think some of them would not have been in the water.”
No amount of awareness is going to prevent people from falling in the water occasionally. This is where the safety standards of the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) come in.
The standards require an equipment leakage circuit interrupter (ELCI) — similar to ground fault current interrupter (GFCI) outlets required in residential bathrooms and kitchens — to be installed in the shore-power circuit. If an electrical fault develops and 30 mA (0.03 amps) or more try to take the wrong path back ashore (like through the water), the ELCI trips the breaker. These devices cost about $400, and Lucas Ritz and countless others would still be alive today had these devices been in place. Buyers of new boats should confirm shore-power ELCI devices are present.
The recommendation for older boats is to bring them up to current ABYC shore-power standards. Both Ritz and Rifkin are instructors for ABYC, and they have trained countless marine electrical technicians. These technicians should be called upon to inspect older boats and make the necessary fixes (a list of certified electrical technicians is available at abycinc.org). There have been many ESD fatalities caused by boaters and untrained workers making improper wiring modifications on boats.
There is also plenty that marina operators can do. Some are beginning to post no-swimming signs and install dockside ground fault protection (GFP) devices — especially in areas hard hit by ESD, like Lake of the Ozarks. Some also provide monitoring and require boats leaking electricity to fix the problem or leave. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and National Electric Code (NEC) offer guidance to prevent ESD at marinas, but awareness seems low. “Most marina operators don’t know these guidelines exist,” Rifkin says. “And the few who do know — most of them don’t follow the guidelines due to cost.”
Still, Ritz sees marinas as a battle worth fighting. “Ultimately, protection needs to be at the marina,” he says. “The European, Australian and New Zealand standards require ground fault protection on a marina’s main feeders and power pedestals. They’ve had zero ESD fatalities in the nearly 30 years they’ve had this in place.”