Report: River Swimmers Face Electrocution Risk

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
16 July 2012
By Megan Guza

Fresh-water swimmers are at risk for dangers other than drowning — they also face the danger of electrocution.

Boats and other machinery can leak electricity that can shock people or pets swimming nearby, the Coast Guard warns.

“When this report came across my desk, I thought, ‘That’s something we got to get out to the membership,’” said Jim Feeney, operations officer for Division 7 Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Authorities attribute at least three deaths to electric shock drowning in 2010 and know of at least six other instances.

“So many of these boats have shore power, mine included,” he said. “If there’s no isolation between the shore power and the vessel itself, this can happen.”

Electric shock drowning does not occur in saltwater, because salt is a better conductor of electricity than human bodies. However, fresh water does not conduct electricity, while mammals, such as people and pets, do.

According to the Coast Guard, surveys suggest that one in four vessels could leak electricity. Boats that leak as little as 6 amps can cause a jolt to swimmers similar to that of heart ventricular fibrillation.

Even seasoned boaters such as Feeney say they are unfamiliar with the risk of leaking electricity.

“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of it,” he said. “I’ve been boating since 1946, and I have never heard of anything like it. In hindsight, I’m amazed it hasn’t happened before.”

Currie Crookston, who has a degree in naval architecture and works at the Aspinwall Marina, said he’s never seen it, even during his time in the Navy.

He said circumstances would have to be ideal for electrical current to make it into the water.

“How it’s wired ­­­­– there’s a lot of things that would have to change and go wrong to get any voltage in the water,” he said.

To minimize risk, boaters should have an equipment leakage circuit interrupter installed on any vessel that might be leaking voltage, the Coast Guard says.

The device interrupts the electrical circuit and keeps electricity from leaking into the water.

In addition, boaters should check whether a marina to which the boat is headed is equipped with a ground fault circuit interrupter, the Coast Guard says. Just a small amount of electricity can trip the interrupter and stop electricity from entering the water.

Megan Guza is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5644 or