How to Keep Your Fingers in a Man Overboard Situation

By DAN Boater
Boat cleat
Boat cleat
Man loses his finger when his ring catches a cleat

How Did This Happen?

Imagine getting your ring or bracelet caught on a cleat as you're knocked off your feet or toppled overboard.

A DAN member reported that he was standing on the platform at the back of the boat, getting ready to join a friend who was already in the water waiting for him. A speedboat passed by, creating a wave that rocked the boat and unbalanced him. As he fell into the water, his left hand caught on the edge of the boat by the cleat. His finger was severed, torn off his hand by the ring he was wearing.

About This Type of Amputation Injury

This type of sudden accidental amputation is more commonly associated with manual occupations such as in the construction industry and the military where individuals are catching a digit or limb on something while jumping out of the back of trucks. Depending on the circumstances, this type of trauma can result in varying degrees of injury ranging from joint dislocations and severe sprains, to bone breaks, amputations, and, in rare cases, degloving injuries.

Boaters, even seasoned ones, are certainly not immune to getting knocked off their feet. Regularly. In fact, when you consider how often unexpected wakes and wet slippery decks conspire to trigger your instinct to grab the nearest object, you quickly realize that each time is a potential hazard to your safety to some degree. Even when the risk of falling overboard is low, there's still a chance you could get tangled in, or caught on, something while trying to steady yourself. And as this member's story graphically illustrates, skipping basic precautions could quite possibly cost you a finger in the process.

Tips for Prevention

The good news is there are some very simple precautions you and your guests can take while onboard to help prevent finger injuries like this.

  1. Take stock of your surroundings before you leave port.

    Think about the layout of your boat and where you and your guests will be spending their active time. Will the kids be on-and-off the boat all day, swimming and paddleboarding? Are you and your fishing buddies planning to run more rods off the gunwales this weekend with a few new rod holders?

    Take a close look at the cleats, rod holders, chains, ropes, and any other fixtures on the boat that someone could accidentally snag or become entangled in and then ask yourself: if you were in their place, on those areas of the boat, what's the best way to steady yourself -- without losing any fingers -- if you're suddenly knocked off your feet?
  2. Leave your rings, bracelets and other jewelry at home or make it a habit to remove these items before going out on deck.
  3. Wear a soft-rubber ring instead of a metal ring so it'll break if it snags on something.
  4. If you must keep your ring with you, wear it somewhere else such as on a thin chain around your neck, or from a string cord with a breakable link (like an O-ring) to reduce the risk of being garroted should the necklace get caught on something.

First-Aid Treatment for Finger Amputation

Here's what to do if you encounter an injury like this:

  1. Call emergency services immediately.
    Call DAN Boater if you need help identifying or contacting emergency services when you're traveling outside the US and Canadian 911 coverage area.
  2. Keep the injured area as clean as possible. Wash your hands thoroughly and put on the gloves from your first-aid kit. If you don’t have gloves, look for the cleanest material you have available to use between your hands and the wound. Several layers of clean cloth or even plastic bags will do.
  3. Ask the injured person to lie down and elevate the body part that is bleeding.
  4. Wrap or cover the wound in a sterile dressing or clean cloth.
  5. Apply direct pressure to the area for at least 15 minutes. Be careful not to cut off the blood flow to the injured area entirely. Mild bleeding typically slows to a trickle or stops on its own within that time. Moderate to severe bleeding may require you to continue direct pressure. Stick with it until the bleeding stops or medical help arrives.
  6. Watch for signs of shock and treat accordingly. Begin monitoring his/her vital signs, if possible. A documented series of measurements taken over time can be very helpful to the medical professionals who eventually take over the care of this person.

Recovery and Care of a Detached Finger

If the severed finger is recoverable, you should do so. Reattachment, or even partial reattachment, may be possible. When you recover the detached digit:

  1. Rinse it in clean water.
  2. Remove any obvious foreign material, as long as you can do so without causing any further tissue damage. Rinse again.
  3. Wrap it in a dry sterile dressing. If you don’t have sterile bandages on board, use the cleanest, driest material you can find.
  4. Place it in a plastic bag or waterproof container, and chill it. Do not freeze the body part or allow it to make direct contact with the ice as this could cause more damage.

What Happened to the Member?

Reattached finger has healed
The reattached finger has healed

When we followed up with him a year after the injury, we were delighted to learn that his physicians were able to successfully reattach his finger and, after healing and rehabilitation, he is back to doing what he loves best -- enjoying life in and on the water.


Learn more about DAN Boater Membership and how our Medical Emergency Hotline can help you and your family, wherever you travel.