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Boat Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Accident


It may be hard to believe that a zipped-in cockpit enclosure allowed in so little fresh air that a couple almost succumbed to carbon-monoxide poisoning, but it happened.

A nippy weekend cruise with two other boats to the scenic island of Captiva, Florida, nearly turned deadly for an older couple who’d snapped tight their cockpit side curtains when the weather off the Florida coast turned chilly on December 10, 2010. Aboard Rojan, a 32-foot motor cruiser, Ron and Janie Ressel were taking turns at the wheel while they headed south at nine knots to Captiva Island Yacht Club. The wind was from the north. The temperature was 47 degrees.

Ron and Janie Ressel aboard Rojan on a more pleasant cruise.

Around noon Janie called to Ron to take his turn. When he didn’t answer, she turned to see him slumped in the chair behind her in the cockpit. She yelled to rouse him but then passed out herself. When she came to, and realized Rojan was out of the channel and she didn’t know where she was, Janie immediately got on the ship’s radio to call friends Marlene and Jim Stice aboard Happy Hour to help her. She focused on keeping the boat on a steady course and in minutes realized that she was fading in and out of consciousness. The Stices kept her on the radio. When they asked her position, she was able to see a marker ahead and told them, “Markers 45 & 46.” They told her to unsnap the curtains and put the boat in neutral. She managed to slow the boat, but one engine remained engaged, and the boat began to circle. Doing just one thing took more concentration than she had, while she suffered from the poisonous gases trapped in the cockpit of Rojan.

Happy Hour raced to Rojan’s location and saw Janie unsnapping the curtains on one side of the boat. Luck was with Ron and Janie. Jim pulled his boat in close and Marlene threw a line directly into Janie’s hands and she caught it. Jim and Marlene climbed aboard Rojan and radioed for help. The U.S. Coast Guard out of the Ft. Myers station, the Lee County Sheriff, and TowBoatUS all responded and headed toward the disabled couple. Meanwhile Marlene and Jim maneuvered Janie to a position on the transom and moved Ron into a sitting position.

The Coast Guard arrived with two EMTs who clamped oxygen masks on Janie and Ron and then tested their blood, which confirmed that both had carbon-monoxide poisoning — Janie’s more severe than Ron’s. They evacuated both Ressels into the Coast Guard boat and sped toward South Seas Plantation Marina — a very speedy 15- to 20-minute trip in an inflatable boat with three 300-hp Mercury outboard engines. At the marina on the northern tip of Captiva, a helicopter arrived to transport Janie to Lee Gulf Coast Medical Center, while Ron was transported to the same hospital by ambulance.

The Ressels get rescued by the Coast Guard.

Personnel in the Emergency Department of the hospital determined that Janie needed to be placed in a hyperbaric chamber, where she was brought up three atmospheres in order to force more oxygen into her blood. Meanwhile Ron was given a CAT scan and X-ray to determine if he had further injuries from falling when he lost consciousness. Within a few hours, he could coherently respond to questions and was released. With the help of his son Eric, Ron tracked down Janie’s location in another building, and was reunited with her. She was kept overnight for observation.

And the drifting boat? During his stay in the hospital, Ron and TowBoatUS made plans through the Lee County Sheriff by telephone, confirming to have Rojan towed 42 miles home. By nightfall, the boat was safely secured in its home berth.

How Much CO Is Too Much?
(In Parts Per Million (PPM)

Ron and Janie Ressel, now fully recovered, are grateful to be telling their story. Many boating friends have checked their carbon monoxide detectors to ensure they’re operational, replaced the batteries, or bought a new detector. Within a week the Ressels had a new CO detector mounted aboard Rojan and were making plans for more boating excursions while they celebrated Ron’s 87th birthday.

Purchasing And Installing A Carbon Monoxide Detector

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas and can come into your boat in countless ways. The BoatUS Marine Insurance claims files detail many deaths from CO poisoning, even on boats that weren’t running the engine or generator. Whether wind direction, the “station wagon effect,” a leaky exhaust fitting, or a neighboring boat is responsible, the bottom line is, the only way to know it’s there is if you have a CO detector aboard.

Most gas-powered, or gas generator-equipped boats built after 1998 that have enclosed quarters have CO detectors factory installed. If your boat has one, great, make sure it’s properly maintained and in working condition, they last about five years. If you don’t have one aboard, purchase and install one.

CO detectors for your boat are quite different than the detectors you can pick up for your house, primarily because of the sensitivity of the units, and how they’re constructed. Boats are far more confined than houses, and consequently need a different level of sensitivity. Installing a household unit in your boat will most likely lead to many, many false alarms. Also, household units simply aren’t designed for the marine environment. That’s why you need to buy a unit that’s approved by Underwriter’s Laboratories for “marine use”.

CO has about the same weight as oxygen and it tends to spread evenly throughout an area, so there’s no height installation that’s more beneficial than another. It’s better to avoid placing a unit next to a window, door, or hatch — any opening that can let in oxygen and distort the readings. Sleeping and enclosed areas are good places for a detector, and they should be mounted for easy monitoring.

The effects of CO are cumulative. It can be hours, or even days before CO levels in your blood stream reach a critical level. This is true even if the person breathes fresh air periodically; the CO remains in the bloodstream. How quickly the CO builds up depends on the concentration of the gas inhaled and the duration of the exposure. The half-life of CO is approximately five hours, which means that it takes five hours for the level of CO in the blood to drop to half its level when exposure was terminated.

Kathryn Ressel Seagle

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine