At sea, a potential life-threatening situation is treated as an emergency with successful corrective action downgrading it to an event, but any unsuccessful action will result in the need for help. Be prepared for any emergency by practicing the following yacht emergency drill procedures.
Marine Emergency and Survival Equipment
The sudden onset of an marine emergency can be a mind-numbing experience. Dealing with the emergency should be methodical requiring all crew members to know where the emergency and survival equipment is stowed and its use. A detailed marine emergency and survival equipment stowage plan must be displayed in the saloon or available in some conspicuous place and a drill of responses to emergencies carried out beforehand. A Panic Bag containing essential survival equipment, that supplements the life-raft's provisions, should be stowed in the companionway.
Marine VHF Radio and Mayday Call Procedure
The VHF radio operation is prominent in marine emergency drills and the accepted method of alerting other boats or agencies to an emergency. 'Pan' and 'Securite' are advisory emergency calls, alerting the outside world that there is a problem with the boat but a request has not been made for help. While the third call Mayday is the call for immediate outside assistance.
The standard practice is to alert rescue agencies to a possible Mayday situation as the emergency develops, rather than a frantic Mayday call when the situation is out of control. The purpose of both the ‘Pan’ and ‘Securite’ calls puts others on standby enabling them to fix your position prior to what may be a Mayday call.
If a Mayday call is given it is usually at the last resort and when there is insufficient time to give the essential information on who, where and what is involved. The likely emergencies are man overboard, being holed or running aground, fire, and medical emergencies.
Man Overboard Procedure
- The priority when a person falls overboard is alerting the crew with a cry of "man overboard".
- The seriousness requires every crew member to do and use everything - including daytime orange smoke, night time white flares or strobe (flashing) lights or dye marker - to locate and rescue the person in the water.
- An essential requirement is to mark the position of the man overboard with a [ dan buoy assembly ] with an attached whistle, life ring, flare or strobe light and sea anchor, with an assigned crew member pointing at the man overboard.
- If possible, throw the life buoy assembly upwind of the casualty so that it drifts towards him.
- The skipper decides on a recovery procedure, and quickly briefs the crew.
- During the rescue, a spare crew should be delegated to issue a Securite’ call on Channel 16 on the VHF radio and activate the MoB position function on the GPS unit.
- If a visual contact is lost with the victim for more than a minute, issue a Mayday call for outside assistance. It can be cancelled if the man overboard is located.
Crash Stop Man Overboard Recovery Drill
This emergency drill method keeps the boat close to the casualty:
- The helmsman to push the tiller hard to leeward as soon as the alarm is raised.
- This action this results in the boat tacking, whatever the point of sailing.
- The jib sheet is left cleated as the boat tacks, with the boat ending up hove-to.
- Start the engine and leave it in neutral being ready if needed.
- Keep pushing the tiller to the leeward side keeping the boat stopped.
- There will temporary disorder sail wise, but the boat stops and lies steadily.
This method works even if sailing under spinnaker but the situation will be chaotic until the spinnaker is lowered, nevertheless, the boat will be close to the man overboard. It may be close enough to the casualty to throw him a line or work the boat closer by adjusting the sheets and tiller or lower the headsail, sheet the main in tight then use the engine to approach the person overboard.
Conventional Man Overboard Recovery Drill
The man overboard recovery drill for dinghies is taught for use in cruisers, requiring the boat to sail away from the casualty to gain sea room which has the risk of losing sight of the person. In rough conditions or at night, it is impossible to keep the casualty in sight among the waves.
- The boat is steered onto a beam reach for about ten boat-lengths.
- It is then tacked round onto a close reach bringing the boat back to the person in the water.
- Letting the headsail fly slows the boat down and then a heave-to to windward of the victim by letting the mainsail fly as well.
Whichever man overboard recovery drill is practiced, aim to make the final approach on a close reach allowing the adjustment of speed easily by easing or trimming the mainsail. All recovery situations require the lowering and lashing of the headsail and all ropes inboard before positioning the boat for the pickup.
- In moderate conditions, stop the boat with the bow to windward of the person so that the boat drifts to leeward as it slows down allowing the casualty to be grabbed and brought aft behind the leeward shrouds.
- Stop to leeward of the casualty in heavy conditions, so the boat is not pushed onto him by a wave causing injury.
- Have a rope ready to throw and another ready to tie the person to the boat when making contact.
Man Overboard Recovery under Power
- If motoring when a person falls overboard, immediately turn the boat towards him swinging the stern away as he passes down the side preventing him being caught by the propeller.
- When the person clears the stern, put the helm hard over the opposite way which starts the boat turning back towards the casualty and approach upwind.
- Stop the boat with the person just forward of the shrouds, keeping him away from the propeller.
- When the casualty has been secured to the boat with a line, stop the engine and bring him aboard.
Lifting Person Onboard
- Once you are alongside the casualty, immediately secure him to the boat with a line tied under his armpits using a bowline knot.
- To get the casualty aboard depends on his ability to help himself (if conscious), the height of the deck out of the water, and crew strength.
- It is easier to recover a man overboard when under sail on the leeward side where the boat's heel reduces the freeboard.
- It is impossible to physically pull a wet, heavy, and unconscious person out of the water, so employ some form of lifting tackle. Have a sling and tackle ready for this purpose and stow it where it can be quickly reached.
- This tackle can be attached to a spare halyard or to the end of the main boom so find an arrangement appropriate for your boat, and practice using the system.
- If no tackle is available, use a sheet or two halyards around two different winches.
Holing and Leaks in Yachts
In the sea frequently floating debris such as drums or huge containers, pose a passive hazard to holing a hull. A hole six inches in diameter will sink a keelboat quickly, giving no time to issue a Mayday call on the VHF radio. First priority of the emergency drill to gather essential survival gear, don life jackets and launch the life raft.
If the hull is holed above the waterline, such as a collision, there is time to assess the situation and take action. If below the waterline immediate action is required to prevent the boat from sinking. The priorities are to eliminate or minimize the ingress of water and to commence pumping.
- With most yachts' batteries being placed down low, it is advisable a Securite’ call be made on the VHF radio, alerting the coastguard to a possible emergency, before the batteries become immersed.
- Turn on all electric bilge pumps, work the manual pump. The source of the water may not be obvious so suspect a broken engine-cooling water hose or toilet hose, or a failed sea cock or through-hull fitting.
- If water is from a hose, turn off the [ sea cock ] and be prepared by having a wooden plug tied to the sea cock. If the sea cock fails, use the tapered plug to block the hole.
- If water is coming in from a hole in the hull skin, it is easy to locate unless it is behind panelling requiring ripping interior furniture away to expose the source of the leak.
- The objective is to block the hole by whatever means available. A hole in a GRP hull will be a split or jagged fracture, so try to plug it with bunk cushions, clothing or sails and held in position with a brace.
- As part of emergency equipment, purchase an umbrella-like piece of equipment that is pushed through the hole, opening on the outside with water pressure sealing it against the hull and stopping the leak.
When the hole is blocked from the inside, it may be possible to lower a sail on the outside over the hole by securing it to the hull to hold it down.
The depth below the waterline of the hole determines the water pressure, so a hole low down creates a high-pressure jet of water and is difficult to stop. A hole near the waterline may be able to be controlled by heeling the boat and raising the hole out of the water or reducing the pressure.
Holed Yacht Going Aground
If the yacht goes aground and as a result the boat is holed, it is not necessarily lost. If there is an ebbing tide, a temporary repair may be make with a GPP repair kit, plywood fixed with self tappers or plastic sheet and duct tape.
The greatest damage occurs when the boat settles onto rocks as the tide recedes requiring the of use fenders, bunk cushions, even bagged sails to protect the hull from damage.
- Before inflating either the dinghy or life raft for use in a hull protection solution, consider whether they may be needed if the situation develops into an emergency.
- Use a Securite’ call on the VHF radio, advising the coastguard of your problem, but be wary in accepting offers of professional assistance to tow the boat off unless there is a need and an agreement has been made under insurance terms or a specified fee. As this is deemed to be salvage and maritime laws concerning salvage stipulate how much of the yacht's value the salvage vessel can claim.
- If the flow is unable to be stemmed, and pumps fail to prevent the water level rising, it must be accepted that sooner rather than later it will sink. A decision to abandon the boat should be instigated with a Mayday call on the VHF radio giving who, where and what together with a description of the action taken to ensure that rescue services or local ships will locate and come to your aid.
[ Dismasting on a yacht] occurs when a piece of rigging or a terminal fitting gives way and usually happens in rough conditions. The mast falls roughly downwind with the sails pulling it over the side. When this happens, the boat motion changes dramatically as it loses the inertia of the rig high above the hull. The motion is quick and jerky making it difficult to stand and work on deck.
- The priority is to prevent broken pieces of mast, which are still attached to the boat, from damaging the hull or decks. Try to recover as much of the broken mast for use in constructing a jury rig.
- Recovery is impossible in rough weather so cut away the rig to prevent it from holing the hull with a large pair of bolt cutters or disconnect the standing rigging at the chainplates which is a difficult task in these conditions.
- Assess the situation and the probability to reach port under power if there is sufficient fuel. Do not start the engine until a check has been made ensuring that there are no ropes in the water that will foul the propeller.
- If this is not an option, then improvise a [ jury rig ] such as spinnaker pole and a storm jib that allows sailing downwind.
Yacht Steering Failure
Yacht steering failure occurs mostly aboard wheel-steered boats as a result of a steering-cable failure whereas tiller-steered boats are simpler systems with less to malfunction but a spare tiller onboard is useful in case of a breakage.
Rudder hangings or bearings rarely fail so an emergency tiller system should be available in a wheel-steered yacht. The use of relieving tackles to control the [ makeshift tiller ] should be incorporated in the deck layout with the knowledge of how to rig and use such a system.
If the rudder or its fittings fail, an emergency [ steering sweep ] can be constructed by bolting the spinnaker pole to a floorboard and lashing it to the pushpit or stern rail. It may be possible to tow a [ drogue ] at the stern with adjustment a bridle to steer the boat. The boat balance under sail determines whether it is able to be steered this way and reducing the sail area may keep the boat under control.
Fouled propellers are a common occurrence in busy sailing areas with moorings, fishing nets, and lobster-pot lines present. Propellers are fouled by rope caught and wrapped around the propeller shaft. Synthetic ropes melt and fuse with the heat generated by friction creating a solid mass around the propeller and shaft stopping the engine. Be alert to ropes in the water, and the ropes falling from the boat over the side.
A preventative measure is to fit a shaft cutter which is mounted ahead of the propeller with a serrated edge that catches and cut any rope or plastic that comes near the propeller.
If the engine was turning at low speed and the end of the rope is able to be reached, it may be freed it by turning the engine slowly by hand in the opposite direction while pulling on the rope. The only other remedy is to cut the tangled material away requiring someone going over the side with a sharp knife which is both difficult and hazardous to do at sea. This is attempted only in calm weather by someone wearing a wet suit and with a safety line.
In harbour dry out with the tide or heel the boat, or trim the bow down sufficiently where the prop is able to be reached from a dinghy.
Fire Fighting and Fire Extinguishers
Fire on board is typically the result of a cooking accident, an electrical fault, or an explosion in the gas or fuel supply. Prevent such a risk by fitting and maintaining gas and fuel supplies to appropriate standards and install a gas detector with a warning bell. Avoid naked flames around gas appliances, and turn the engine off when re-fuelling.
Mount a foam or dry powder fire extinguisher close by the galley and engine compartment. Fit enclosed engine compartments with a remote carbon-dioxide (C02) fore extinguisher.
Pressure test all [ fire extinguishers ] on a regular basis and invert dry powder extinguishers on a monthly basis preventing the powder inside compacting in the bottom. Know [ how and when ] to use each of the different fire extinguishers then include this information in briefings of the emergency drill to the crew.
- Combat the fire as soon as it starts, increases the chances of it being brought under control with the minimum of damage.
- Try to fight the fire in its confined space limiting the oxygen feeding the fire.
- For a combustible material fire, a foam or dry powder fire extinguisher is aimed at the base of the fire.
- With an engine fire use a CO2, foam, or dry powder fire extinguisher and try to turn off fuel supply at tank.
- For electrical fires use a CO2 or dry powder fire extinguisher and turn off battery system at isolating switch.
- A cooking fire should be controlled with a foam, dry powder or fire blanket to smother flames.
Consider making a Mayday call on the VHF radio before the fire makes it impossible to stay below. When deciding to abandon ship, get away quickly and only turn off gas or fuel cocks if safe to do so.
With the risk of an explosion, make an effort get at least 100 metres away in the dingy or life raft. First aid for burns is having cold seawater poured over the wound to cool the flesh preventing further injury.
If an emergency situation develops with the decision to abandon ship it must be carefully considered because unless the yacht is in imminent danger of sinking it is safer staying aboard than taking to a life-raft.
The emergency drill is to prepare the life-raft for launching and ensure that the crew dresses in warm clothing, with oilskins, harnesses, and life jackets.
- Time permitting, the crew gathers items that are useful in the life-raft such as extra drinking water, and cans of food.
- A chart, compass, a hand¬held GPS, a portable VHF radio, extra red flares, a signalling torch, high energy food, a flare pack and a knife should be contained in a Panic Bag and kept close to the companionway.
- Once prepared, do not launch the raft, but do everything possible to save the yacht.
A life-raft should be of a style approved by a national authority for the type of sailing and large enough to hold every member of the crew. It is wise to take some instruction to be familiar with the action of inflating a life-raft. Life-rafts come packed in a solid container and contain the minimum emergency equipment to survive in the raft, so check what is contained and make up the deficiency with that contained in the Panic Bag.
Launching the Life-raft
- When you are ready to launch the raft, cut or untie its lashings but leave its painter tied to a strong point on the vessel as this is needed to inflate the raft.
- Launch the raft by throwing its container over the leeward side with a sharp tug on the painter which will set in process the inflation.
- The raft takes about 30 seconds to inflate and if it inflates upside down, right it before boarding.
- When as the raft is inflated, the first crew member boards to control it and in rough seas rigs an additional mooring line.
- Once all are aboard, release or cut both painters then bail out water and shut canopy openings.
- Stream the drogue as soon as you have boarded as trailing this mini-underwater parachute slows down its drift and prevents capsize.
- If close inshore depending on whether it is day or night let off smoke or a pattern of flares soon after abandoning the boat. Give rescue services time to reach the life raft while spacing out the flares - red and white at sensible intervals, saving the smoke for the final rescue.
- It is important that life-rafts are serviced regularly in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions.
Serious physical injuries involving broken bones or bleeding may need outside assistance. Once first aid is applied, the casualty should be made comfortable and Pan Medico call made. This will result in the evacuation of the casualty by rescue services.
Helicopters are frequently used for search and rescue operations if the boat is within flying distance from the coast. The helicopter rescue crew instructs on how to rescue the yacht's crew or casualty, and will try to communicate directly using marine VHF radio.
- Position the boat head-to wind with all sails lowered and motor slowly into the wind.
- If drifting, slow the rate of drift by [ streaming a drogue] or lowering the anchor from the bow.
- The helicopter does not hover directly over the yacht to avoid the danger of becoming entangled in the rig.
There are three ways to effect a rescue from a helicopter:
- From a dinghy towed behind the yacht connected with a long warp of about 30m with only one person in it at a time.
- From the water if no dinghy is available, or the conditions are too rough. Each crew member in turn is tied to a long warp and enters the water drifting astern to be retrieved by the helicopter.
- Using a Hi-Line technique where the helicopter lowers a lifting strop or sends a winchman down to assist the survivors.
- A long weighted nylon line, attached to the helicopter's recovery hook, is lowered across the yacht enabling the crew can grab it.
- The helicopter positions off to one side of the yacht once the crew has the line.
- The line is not made fast but pulled in as the helicopter lowers the winchman or lifting strop.
- If the line snags it is designed to break at the lifting hook.
- The line is pulled in until the winchman or lifting strop is within reach, and then flaked it down preventing a snag and free to run.
- Because of a build-up of static electricity, do not to touch the winch wire until it has been earthed by the sea or winchman.
- As the winchman and crewman are lifted off the yacht, the nylon line is fed out without releasing the end if further casualties are to be lifted.
In rough seas it is dangerous to come alongside another vessel and a lifeboat will come directly alongside, so be ready to board it quickly under instruction from the lifeboat crew.
A large ship in very rough seas will probably stop to windward of the yacht creating a smoother sea in the ship's lee but is hazardous as the ship drifts downwind rapidly. When boarding the main ship the crew lowers a ladder or scrambling net over the side. If having to jump for a ladder or net, wait until the yacht crests a wave which lessens the danger of being crushed between ship and yacht.