Collection of procedures to use on a sailing boat.
Of course, the hope is that none of us ever need to put any of this information to use. That being said, it never hurts to be prepared. Sir John Harvey-Jones, erstwhile chairman of ICI, once said, “Planning is an unnatural process; the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and doubt.” If things start to go wrong, it is too late to start planning. So, make some prior thought and basic preparation before you head out to sea to keep the heart rate near normal and, vitally, you and your crew safe.
Rembember that in emergency situations, the crew of a vessel looks to their leader to determine their own level of anxiety. If the captain is prepared and projects a calm and confident attitude, the crew will be reassured and will remain effective.
You should practice the procedure regularly with the crew but remember that your first and foremost priority should be to prevent it.
Keep one hand for yourself, one hand for the shop
Ensure steady footing
Wear life jacket and clip on tether (lifeline) to a secure attachment point or a jackstay (in bad weather, at night, and whenever you feel unstable or want to)
Don’t drink alcohol en route and be sober before you set out
Don’t dangle off the backstay or head for the leeward shrouds to have a pee, use heads
Shout “Man Overboard”
Press the MOB button on the GPS and check that you have a track running
Assign spotter that will keep pointing at MOB
Immediately disengage autopilot and crash tack (heave-to)
(before making the turn alert everyone to hold on; if running with engine, stop the prop and turn toward the side the MOB went over)
Toss buoyancy (e.g. lifering) and dan buoy
Send DSC distress alert and Mayday on channel 16, if you have any doubts that you can handle this
Check there are no lines overboard and start the engine
Make recovery decision and prepare recovery equipment
Final approach and retrieving:
Drop the foresail(s)
If the MOB is conscious, approach the MOB upwind (1-2 boat lengths) and toss a retrieving line (lifesling or floating heaving line with a bowline). Watch out for any lines in the water and disengage propeller when in doubt. If under sails, approach with the mainsail and control the speed using spill and fill method (let the main out until it depowers and then before you lose all way, pull it back again in to maintain steerage)
If the MOB is unconscious you will have to approach closer so that you can reach the causality
Recover the MOB: pull the retrieving line until the mob is close to the boat, tie a loop on the line (3-4m up from the mob), attach a halyard to the loop and lift the mob onboard.
Alternatively, tie a bowline at the end of the halyard and lasso the mob.
The decision to abandon ship is usually very difficult. In some instances, people have perished in their liferaft while their abandoned vessel managed to stay afloat. Other cases indicate that people waited too long to successfully get clear of a floundering boat.
Abandoning ship should only be considered if your boat sinks or catches fire that cannot be controlled. Do not leave the yacht until it leaves you! Stay on board if there is no grave danger. Even a battered, damaged yacht will be a better shelter than a rubber raft.
(Captain) Announce abandoning the ship
All crew to put on all available waterproof clothing, don lifejackets, and attach safety harnesses
Nominated person sends Mayday and notes present position (A)
Nominated person activates EPIRB (B)
Nominated person exits with the Grab Bag and be responsible for it (A)
Nominated person collects other grab bag items previously agreed upon (B)
Nominated person checks the presence of all crew and grab bags (A & B)
Nominated person prepare liferaft for deployment (B)
Bring the life raft on deck and deploy the liferaft to leeward (downwind) side of boat (A & B). Secure the painter (rope) prior to launching. After the liferaft is thrown, pull the painter sharp until it inflates. Launch dinghy attached to the liferaft if you have time. Do not launch the liferaft earlier than you need it because it is difficult to hold it alongside in a rough sea
Try to enter the liferaft directly from the boat, do not jump. If impossible, secure yourself to the painter and swim to the liferaft
Get to a safe distance from the vessel and cut the painter (if the boat sinks or there is a risk of explosion)
Use VHF and other means of communication (e.g. sat com) and follow distress procedure. Take seasickness pills. Inflate the raft floor. Keep warm and dry. Stream a sea anchor and arrange lookout watches. Arrange for collecting rainwater. Ration water, after 24h, to maximum half-litre per person per day, issued in small increments. Do not drink seawater or urine, this will only make you sick. Use flares only when there is a real chance of them being seen
The fact that on a cruising vessel there may be only two people on board does not invalidate the necessity to have the above responsibilities clearly defined. A suggested sample of this is presented above, with the two crew shown as A and B.
Fire on board
Fire is an infrequent but terrifying occurrence on board a boat. Because of the environment and potential distances involved, firefighting assistance may take awhile to arrive on the scene. Plus, unlike fires on shore, there may be no place to evacuate except into the water. It is important to make every effort to prevent fires. There are many potential causes of fire on board. Fire damage caused by flammable gases in the engine compartment is particularly common. Engine compartments on ships are usually closed systems, and vapours can quickly collect and compress here. Mixed with oxygen, a highly ignitable gas mixture can be formed.
Fit smoke detectors with alarms
Inspect electrical system regularly (the source of most boat fires)
A clean boat is a safe boat. Keep electrical and mechanical areas clean and away from objects that could interfere with normal systems. This includes cleaning up any spilt oil (engine compartment, stove) or fuel
If you have gas onboard, turn it off at the source when not in use. Make sure the gas storage area is vented and your saloon is fitted with a gas alarm serviced regularly. All crew should be trained to use the gas system. If gasoline or propane leaks into the bilge, the boat is a floating bomb ready to explode when the engine is started
Check for wear, damage, and leaks in burners, hoses, fittings, blowers and vents. A boat with a gasoline engine must have a bilge blower: one with a diesel engine should have one
Fit an automatic fire extinguisher system in the engine compartment, one large portable extinguisher near the stove and several portable extinguishers in living areas
Keep extinguishers charged and have them inspected as per the label. Twice a year turn the extinguishers upside down and shake them to loosen dry chemical
Don’t smoke onboard. If you must, make sure it’s on deck away from flammable items
Check and maintain all fire control equipment regularly
Shout “Fire Fire Fire” and point at the location
Immediately start extinguishing the fire with available means: fire extinguisher, fire blanket, water from bucket (never on electrical or oil fire). Fires can double in size in less than 10 seconds, two minutes may well be the maximum time you have to put out a fire before it spreads through the boat. It’s not just the flames you should worry about. Older foam cushions give of hydrogen cyanide when burning – just a single lungful can kill. The quantity of the extinguishing agent is everything – a 2kg extinguisher will be twice as effective as 1kg so use everything you have available
Pull the fire extinguisher pin, aim at the base of the fire, squeeze the trigger, and sweep the fire with a side-to-side motion. Aim well. You will only have 10-30 seconds before the extinguisher is discharged
While one crew member fights the fire, others should be preparing to abandon ship if necessary
After the fire is extinguished, carefully inspect the entire boat for embers at least twice
Depending on the fire development:
Isolate the fire by closing ventilation system, skylights, doors etc.
If engine is on fire, turn off the engine and shut off the fuel and electrics to avoid explosion. Do not open up the engine space. If the engine does not have an automatic extinguishing system, Try and discharge extinguishers into the engine space through a dedicated port, vent or hole
Close the gas cylinder. Optionally throw all gas cylinders into the sea to avoid explosion
Steer the boat so that the fire does not spread (go into the wind if the fire broke out at the stern and downwind if the fire broke out in the bow)
If the fire cannot be contained, call for help and abandon the ship
Check regularly: water bearing fittings (hoses, clamps and valves, logger and sonar) - porous hoses and corroded clamps should be replaced, and the clamps should be tightened from time to time
Close seawater valves when you leave the boat in the marina
Lash a tapered, soft-wood plugs (bunks) to a through-hull fittings, pipes and seacocks. In an emergency, you can drive the tapered end to plug a leak
Alarm everyone that the ship is taking water
Turn on the electric bilge pumps if not started automatically
Check if you are dealing with fresh or salt water (salt water usually indicates leakage in the hull, loose keel bolts, or leakage of the propeller shaft flange through stuffing boxes – they should leak only very slightly)
Turn off all taps and valves (heads, restrooms, wash basins, water tank)
Immediately start locating the source of the leak
If the hull is holed, heel it as far as you can in the other direction while preparing a patch
If the leak is small pump the bilges on a regular, frequent schedule so as not to be caught by surprise by a new leak. Keep track of regular log entries
If the water is coming through the deck, check the partners (the deck hole around the mast), window frames, and fastening for deck fittings, such as cleats
Fother (fill) the leak if possible, e.g. tapered wooden plugs, Marine-Tex or another easy-to-use repair putty, mattress or sail stretched around the hull from outside so water pressure plugs the hole. Plug holes from the inside with cushions or other objects or multipurpose waterproof adhesive
Meanwhile, keep pumping and bailing with manual bilge pump(s) and other means (e.g. buckets, bailers, sponges, heads). Amongst these a simple bucket is still considered the most effective. You can also try to use freshwater pump alongside the bilge pump. Keep the bilge free of small objects that might clog the pumps
If you cannot stop the flow or reduce it enough to safely get underway to a safe location, call for help and prepare to abandon the ship
Hole in the hull
Being holed below the waterline presents a number of problems in a variety of scenarios, depending on the size and location of the hole. It is possible to save the boat if you respond quickly. Just to give some perspective: a 5cm hole 30cm below the waterline will leak 300 litres per minute. A 10cm hole at the same depth leaks 1100 litres per minute, enough to sink a 30ft yacht in 12 minutes.
Tack the boat so that the hole is above waterline (could help if the hole is near the waterline)
Options if you can get to the hole:
Fothering the hole with whatever you can find to buy more time, e.g. stamp a pillow or cushion
Lash plywood board from inside (e.g. engine room hatch with sound-proofing sponge, floor boards, bunkboard, bosuns chair):
Screw the board (you might need to drill holes with manual drill for underwater repair)
Lash plywood board from outside:
Push a loop of line out through the hole from inside the boat (e.g. with coat hanger) and snag it on deck with boathook (hanging outside the boat not recommended)
Insert a line through a pre-drilled board, knotting the end to hold it in place
Haul and tension the line from inside the boat
Options if you cannot get into the whole:
Fother a sail or use purpose-made collision mat (wrapping it around the hull) – difficult to setup
Breaking portholes or hatches might not flood your boat but it could make your life on board hard.
Close hatches on the sea: they can be thrown overboard by running rigging and can flood the boat in rough seas
Avoid heavy weather if possible. If the vessel is knocked down or rolled it can cause hatches and portholes to be blown out due to wave pressure. The larger the area of window, the greater the risk of failure particularly for many production vessels constructed from materials that are more susceptible to flexing under pressure
Lash storm coverings to prevent windows from being compromised, both by heavy seas and loose items on the deck, such as flogging blocks and eyes
Options if it breaks:
Tack the boat so that the broken porthole is above waterline
Lash a pillow or cushion against the hole to minimize water ingress
Lash plywood board from inside (e.g. engine room hatch with sound-proofing sponge, floor boards, bunkboard, bosuns chair):
Drill holes in the hull and screw the board
Lash plywood board from outside:
Insert a line through a pre-drilled board, knotting the end to hold it in place
Haul and tension the line from inside the boat
Many engine failures at sea are caused by lack of maintenance, resulting in filter blockages, engine pump failures, overheating and then breakdown. It is worth remembering that one of the most common reasons for marine rescue service call outs is for boats running out of fuel.
Keep the engine regularly maintained
Always do engine checks before setting out
Daily in use:
Check fuel, crankcase oil levels (don’t rely 100% on gauges!)
Look out for oil, fuel and coolant leaks
Check fresh water coolant level
Check that discharge of cooling water coming out from the exhaust pipe is rhythmic and the gas is colourless and almost invisible
Weekly when in use:
Check drive belts for wear and tightness
Check gearbox oil level
Check fuel racor filter for water and dirt. Drain off any contaminants until the fuel in the clear glass bowl is clear
Check for water or sediment in the fuel tank. Drain off a sample from the bottom of the tank
Check raw water strainer and clear if necessary
Check battery electrolyte levels. Top up if low
Check cooling system anodes, replacing as necessary
Closely inspect all hoses for cracking or other signs of deterioration. Check all hose clips for tightness
Check the air filter, wash or replace as appropriate
Check the exhaust elbow for corrosion. Ideally you should detach the exhaust so you can have a look inside
Check engine mounts for deterioration. Look for loose fastenings and separation between rubber and metal components
Check the shaft coupling and make sure all bolts are properly tightened
Replace oil and oil filters every 100 to 150 operational hours or at the end of each season, whichever comes first
Change gearbox oil every 150 hours or annually, whichever comes first
Replace fuel filters every 300 hours
Replace saildrive diaphragms after seven years
Change the engine and gearbox lubrication oil, replacing any filters
Darin the freshwater cooling system and refill with a fresh solution of antifreeze
Flush the raw water system through with fresh water if possible
Check the raw water filter. Clean if necessary
Remove the pump impeller. Pop it into a plastic bag and tie it to the keys so you won’t forget to refit it
Drain any water or sediment from the fuel tank and fill the tank if possible
Also drain any contaminants from the pre-filter. Replace the filter elements
If possible, squirt a little oil into the air intake and turn over the engine (don’t start it!) to distribute it over the cylinder walls. Some manufacturers recommend removing the injectors and introducing the oil that way – refitting the injectors once you have done so
Change the air filter and stuff an oily rag into the intake. Do the same to the exhaust. Then hand a notice on the engine to remind you they are there!
Relax and remove all belts
Rinse out the anti-siphon valve with fresh water. Reassemble if you’ve taken it apart
Check the engine over thoroughly: engine mounts, hoses and their clamps (need to be tightened from time to time), exhaust and the exhaust elbow, and the electrical wiring
Remove the batteries and charge them fully
Diagnostics and troubleshooting
Engine cannot crank at all:
Low motor battery voltage
Switch to domestic batteries if they still hold the power
Older engines can be started by opening decompression level and cranking by hand
Another trick employed by Vendee Globe champion Micheal Desjoyeaux is to wrap a line around the engine pulley at one end with the other end connected to the end of the boom. A quick gybe might have enough power to crank the engine
Loose or corroded connections
Battery switch is off or defective
Circuit breaker is tripped
Solenoid or starter motor are defective
Faulty key type switch
Engine surges or dies:
Out of fuel. Either bad planning or fuel gauges are faulty
Fuel cock shut – perhaps partially
Blocked or partially blocked filters
Fuel line blocked. Suspect the diesel bug!
Water in fuel
Fuel lift pump defective – perhaps a split diaphragm
Air in the fuel. Suspect a loose connection or leaking seal somewhere
Learn how to bleed the fuel system if air gets into it
Tank air vent crushed or blocked. There’s a partial vacuum in the tank
Split fuel line
Shake, rattle and vibration of the engine:
Bent prop shaft
Damaged or fouled propeller. Prime suspects if the prop has recently been seriously fouled by flotsam. Possibly a lost blade, particularly likely with folding and feathering props
Broken engine mount
Loose shaft coupling
Loose shaft anode
Cutless bearing failure
Gearbox failure. If so, you should be able to hear it if you can get close enough
Internal engine failure, such as big end bearings, main bearings or valves. This should be clearly audible
Smoke signals – black or grey:
Too much load on the engine. If black smoke emerges when moving from a standstill but clears very quickly, you may simply open the throttle too much.
A dirty, weed hull will cause lots of extra drag. So will towing another boat
Thermostat stuck closed and the engine cannot cool down. As an emergency, you could remove it completely or better remove valve’s moving parts (thermostat’s innards) and reassemble the housing (empty carcase)
Too large or over-pitched prop. The engine is simply struggling to turn it
A fouled prop. If boat speed suddenly slows this is a very likely cause
Dirty air filters. The engine isn’t breathing deeply enough
Engine space ventilation has been reduced. Look for items that might be blocking the air’s path forward the engine
Turbo failure – not enough air is getting into the cylinders
Constriction of the exhaust system causing high back pressure. Perhaps a collapsed exhaust hose or a partially closed seacock
Faulty injectors or injection pump
Smoke signals – blue:
Thermostat stuck open and the engine is running too cool. The engine is running at below its normal operating temperature. You have to replace the thermostat
Worn valve guides
Worn or seized piston rings
Turbo oil seal failure. Lubricating oil is escaping into the hot exhaust gases
Crankcase has been overfilled
High crankcase pressure due to blocked breather
Smoke signals – white (should not persist for more than few seconds, normal when the engine starts due to water vapour):
Water in the fuel – most probable if the engine runs erratically
Cracked cylinder head casting
Blown head gasket. Cooling water is escaping from the galleries and entering a combustion chamber
Cracked exhaust manifold
Overheating alarm sounds:
Reduce the revs and check the exhaust outlet for raw water flow and stop the engine
If there is no or little water spurting from the exhaust it could be:
Seacock partially or completely shut
Close the seacock
Check that no objects (e.g. plastic bag) are obstructing the seacock
Re-open the seacock
Blocked, or partially blocked, raw water inlet or strainer
Plastic bag over sail drive leg or seacock
Air leak in the strainer seal – the suction is being lost
Damaged water pump impeller. Check the rubber impeller is slightly flexible, not hard, and replace if necessary
Split hose somewhere
But if there’s a good flow of water from the exhaust it could be:
Thermostat failed in the closed position
Loss of freshwater coolant. This could be a hose, the heat exchanger or even a calorifier
Slack or broken drive belt. If the belt also drives the alternator, you would also expect the batter light or alarm to be activated
Oil warning light or alarm activated
Shut the engine down immediately
Check for engine oil leaks, crankcase oil level, pressure relief valve, defective sender unit or wiring
Alternator charge alarm sound:
Stop the engine and investigate
Broken or slack drive belt. If it’s also driving the raw water pump, the engine will rapidly overheat and the exhaust system could be seriously damaged by uncooled gases
Power to alternator field coils interrupted
Wiring fault or short circuit
Glow plug remaining on (if fitted)
General lack of performance:
Marine growths on hull or prop
Damaged prop – possibly a bent blade
Turbo failure or accumulated dirt
Blockage to the fuel system. Check the pre-filter first to make sure it’s clear
Cable not opening the throttle fully. It could be broken or frayed or the holding clamp could have vibrated loose
On stern drives and sail drives the propeller bush could be slipping
Lack of engine pressure in the cylinders – the engine in need of an overhaul
If you cannot repair the engine
Sail to a marina where you can repair the engine or get it repaired
In right conditions and place, you could berth using sails alone, otherwise send Pan Pan alert with VHF on channel 16 to get an assistance
Almost everything on board a yacht relies on the rig, and yet, often, it is not given the attention it deserves. Any rigging is only as strong as its weakest link and, for sailors, a broken mast is probably the worst thing that can happen. Nevertheless, the rigging is often neglected because of time pressure and lack of technical knowledge. The most common rig failure has been documented by Pantaenius.
Inspect rig periodically (also underway) for damage and defects: yacht inspection checklist. It also makes sense to have a rig check carried out by a trusted rigger on a regular basis as well. Their trained eyes can detect potential faults or areas that could fail at an early stage
Plan passages to avoid bad weather and hurricane season. With modern forecasting, a true storm will rarely arrive unannounced, but as you venture further offshore the chances of being caught out increase.
Most important, be prepared and have tools and spare parts on board, and know how to use them. At a minimum, you should have tools to cut your rig loose and to make minor repairs. The attached rigging spares checklist from Rigworks contains a comprehensive list of items that you might want to have on board. Before heading to sea, think through any other methods you could use to detach stays and shrouds other than cutting, for example removing pins, unscrewing bottle screws, removing a furler from the deck etc.
Protect the crew as much as possible. If the mast is going to come down there is less risk in having one person on deck than full crew.
If a stay, shroud or spreader fails, but your mast is still standing, you may be able to use a halyard, topping lift or spare line to support your rig. This may buy you a little time while you secure the line and transfer the load.
Dismasting (the mast comes down)
Ensure that the crew is safe. Put on life jacket and harness
Designated person sends Pan Pan alert with VHF on channel 16. But note that as soon as you lose your rig you are also likely to lose your VHF aerial and radio communications. You should have a portable VHF and a satellite phone offshore
Check the boat for structural damage to ensure for example that you are not taking water
Get your liferaft and grab bags ready to deploy
Decide whether the mast can be safely secured to the boat or needs to be cut loose. If you are in rough conditions, and the mast is likely to sink the boat, don’t hesitate. Cut it loose
If you can safely save the mast, secure it tightly to the deck. Pad any contact points to minimize further damage to the boat and rig
After clearing all lines from over the side, start the engine and motor to a port if you are within the motoring range. However, if you are outside motoring range, you might need to setup a jury rig with the remains of the broken mast or the boom and spinnaker pole
Unless you have a strong inner forestay, you probably don’t have much time here. Warn your crew that the mast will probably come down
Cast off all sheets to luff the sails and alter course downwind to reduce the load on the forestay
Support the rig be setting up a jury forestay with a spinnaker halyard or spare line somewhere around the anchor fittings. However, this is just to support the mast, you won’t be able to sail with it
If the forestay failed at the base, you can try to reconnect
Head upwind immediately to reduce the load on the backstay
If you have running backstays, tighten them up and reef the main sail below the point where the running backstays connect to the mast (main sail will provide some support for the mast)
Support the rig by setting up a jury backstay with a main halyard, topping lift or spare line. However, this is just to support the mast, you won’t be able to sail with it
Shrouds or spreaders failure
Quickly ease the load on your sails and tack the boat so that the failed components are on the leeward side. Shrouds and spreaders usually fail on the windward side
Support the rig by setting up a jury shroud with a halyard or spare line to the chain plate or turnbuckle. However, this is just to support the mast, you won’t be able to sail with it
Rig cutting options
Hacksaws and multiple spare blades – highly effective on rod rigging
High quality bolt croppers – effective on Dyform, but not effective on rods
Hydraulic bolt croppers – effective on Dyform and rods
High quality angle grinder – potentially useful for cutting rods and Dyform
Sharp, deck mounted safety knives
High quality scissors
Steering tends to be one of those things taken for granted until it no longer works. Many boats are abandoned each season due to failed steering systems because the skippers cannot make them head in the direction they need to go. Planning for steering problems involves two main pursuits. The first is inspecting and maintaining the steering system, and the second is planning for what to do should that system fail while underway.
You should regularly perform a proper maintenance and inspections of a steering system before heading out to sea. Proper maintenance means mechanical inspection, tension tests and lubrication. Anyone with basic mechanical skills can do the maintenance, both quickly and relatively inexpensively:
Make sure you carry spares for your system as well. Having a few simple spare parts can make a big difference should a failure occur. For mechanical systems, make sure you have spares for items likely to wear and break such as the chain and cable. A few spare pulleys and clamps could be helpful as well. For hydraulic systems, make sure there is a good supply of fluid of the right type and a few spare hydraulic fittings
Loss of control of the rudder
This may be due to a breakage in the steering linkage or the rudder breaking loose from the shaft and just spinning on the shaft.
Engage autopilot. Autopilots ram is attached to the rudder post with its own tiller arm so you can use autopilot for emergency steering
Prepare emergency tiller in case of issues with the autopilot
Loss of the rudder
It is usually the result of the rudder shaft breaking and the rudder simply falling away. It is best to give this some thought while at the dock, put together a kit of parts to use it when needed, and practice to make sure it works for you.
Setup a jury rudder (difficult but has been successfully used by many sailors). Most boats do not carry such a piece of gear aboard so something will have to be fabricated and deployed while at sea. Use materials that may already be aboard that can be used to put together an emergency rudder (e.g. spinnaker or whisker pole, rudder head, plywood panels like small cabinet doors, gangway). The emergency rudder should be about half the size of the original rudder to make it easier to deploy and use.
Tow a drogue (e.g. Seabreak drogue) to pull on one side of the boat or the other in order to steer (has been successfully used by many sailors). If you do not have a drogue, even a stout bucket should work. Depending on the size of the drogue this may slow the boat down considerably and be inefficient if you have to go against wind and high waves
Trim the sails to balance the boat (might only work on limited range of headings and generally does not work well for most sailboats)
Probably the most difficult to deal with is the rudder becoming jammed and stuck in one position.
Verify that the problem is not in the linkage or drive system: check that the autopilot is not holding the rudder over and gears in the lockers are not blocking moving parts of the steering. All it takes is a fender or dock line to jam a steering system
If it is clear that nothing inside the boat is blocking the travel, it will be that the rudder itself is stuck. It could be that the rudder jams against the hull or a result of something like a crab pot stuck in the rudder.
Try to break the rudder loose by using the emergency tiller
Dive to clear the rudder (only in calm see!)
Make a plan: assess your situation (shipping lanes, lee shore and shallows) and make a plan on how you want to ride the storm: escape to port of refuge, steer downwind etc.
Brief the crew: inform but do not frighten anyone, keep crew morale up, adjust watch rota if needed, take seasickness tablets, prepare warm clothes and stow any loose gear
Clear the deck and stow it well: remove bimini, deflate dinghy, close all hatches, washboards, and lockers, cover all large windows with shutters or plastic coverings, fake lines
Cook and eat a decent meal: make sure that everyone is well fed and watered and that some food is prepared before the bad weather hits (e.g. sandwiches, hot water in thermos)
Charge the batteries: may come in handy to start the engine or to run water pumps
Double check all safety gear
Reef sails: reduce sails early and hoist storm sails whilst you still can, and certainly before dark
Rig a sea anchor or a drogue: if that is your storm tactic
1. Head for safe harbour if you can reach it before the bad weather hits
2. Steer downwind course (run before) if you have enough sea room, a competent helmsman or very good autopilot. This active storm tactic is suitable for modern lightweight boats with flat bottom and wide beam.
Reef the sails early so that you can retain control of the boat
If you run too fast, even under bare poles, slow the boat by using a drag device (e.g. series drogue, towing warps) to avoid pitch poling or broaching
3. Heave-to if your boat can. This passive storm tactic is suitable for traditional voyagers with long/full keel:
Back the headsail to windward by trimming the windward sheet. If you have a big headsail, roll it up to handkerchief size or setup a storm jib. The very best method to roll a headsail is to steer a downwind course so that the headsail is shielded by the mainsail!
Ease the reefed mainsail until the boat stops all forward motion
Put your rudder over to windward and lash the helm well
Play with the mainsail trim until good angle (30-45 degree) to the wind and waves is achieved: still too much tendency to head up, drop/reef the mainsail; too much tendency to bear away, drop/reef the headsail
Crew can go below. Keep one watchkeeper inside ready to go on deck to make changes
4. Forereach if you don’t have enough see room. This active storm tactic works by keeping the boat moving forward to windward (45-60 degrees to the wind) at low speed:
Reef and sheet the jib amidships or drop it, reef and sheet in the mainsail
Preparing the boat for a hurricane in the harbour:
If possible, haul the boat. Put her as far away from the water and above the ground as possible to avoid the destructive effects of storm surge
Otherwise, leave the boat at a well-protected floating pier that will rise with the surge
Reduce windage: remove sails, sprayhood, bimini, sheets, snatch blocks, ventilators, lifesling, dinghy, deflate dinghy and stow it below or onshore etc.
Close all through-hull fittings
Set out as many fenders as you can find. To keep them in place, tie plastic bottles full of water (5L) to the bottom of each fender
Double-up mooring and docking lines and their chafe protection. Leave a spare line in the cockpit so a Good Samaritan can help
Get off the boat. There is little or nothing you can do on board at the height of a storm except endanger your life
Lightning is the thing that scares most of us at sea. The only really preventative measure to avoid lightning is to sail in the opposite direction and hope for the best. Lightning can strike up to ten miles away from the cloud that generated it. Just because you are in the midst of a thunderstorm doesn’t mean you will get hit – there are many sailors who reported lightning striking the water next to their boat but not touching them. Others that were struck reported varying damage to electrical equipment and none experienced structural damage or fire.
The boat should ideally provide a direct route “to ground” down which the lightning may conduct to minimise damage. Most modern boats have the mast bonded to the keel by manufacturers. The masthead unit will definitely be destroyed when lightning hits a mast but with a lightning protection system the remaining electronics may survive. A high-tech solution is Sertec CMCE system, which claims to reduce the probability of a lightning strike by 99% within the protected area. The system has been widely installed on airports, stadiums, hospitals and similar, but has now been adapted for small marine use.
Weather forecasts are still not particularly good at predicting thunderstorms with increased potential for lightning. In particular, they are not very reliable in terms of predicting the exact area.
Sound travel at a speed of 5 seconds a nautical mile. So when you see a lightning flash, start counting and divide the seconds by 5 to get the distance to the lightning (5 seconds = 1 mile, 15 seconds = 3 miles etc.). Thunder claps can be heard for around 25 miles, so if the sky on the other side of the horizon is alive with light but you cannot hear claps then the storm is still a way off. Keep moving but be vigilant
Keep a 360° visual and radar look-out: due to the immense height of thunder clouds they are pushed along by upper atmosphere wind, not the sea-level breeze. This makes it difficult to predict which way a cloud is moving. They can sneak up behind you while you are sailing upwind
Reef to prepare for a squall: wind associated with thunderclouds can reach in excess of 40-90 knots in a matter of seconds, this will often be combined with torrential rain and drastically reduced visibility
Unplug all masthead units, including wind instruments and VHF antennas and ensure ends of leads are kept apart to avoid arcing
Put handheld or portable electronics (VHF, mobile phone, EPIRB, PLB, sat-com etc.) temporarily inside a metal oven. There is a theory that the oven on a yacht can act as a Faraday cage, protecting anything inside it from the effects of electrostatic discharge (ESD)
As the storm gets turn off all electronics and use traditional dead reckoning navigation. Modern kit has increasingly efficient internal protection, but manufacturers still advise turning it off
Turn on the engine. In case your batteries are fried and you can’t use your sails you will be able to keep full control over your vessel
Stay down below as much as possible
Avoid touching metal around the boat, such as shrouds and guardrails. Areas such as the base of the mast, below the steering pedestal and near the engine have the highest risk of injury
Take into consideration that you should take protective measures also in the harbour and at anchor. If lightning strikes a utility pole the current travels down the electricity cable looking for ground. It can enter a vessel through the shore power line or can pass through the water and flashover to a yacht at anchor.
After the boat is struck
Expect masthead units, VHF antennas and lights to be destroyed, so make sure you carry a good quality spare VHF antenna.
A nearby strike will be blindingly bright. Sit in the cockpit until your night vision returns
If you or a crew member is hit, they could suffer from cardiac arrest - if so, reanimate immediately
Check for any fires and put them out ASAP
Make sure the bilge is dry and there are no holes in the hull
If you have engine power, try to motor to safer waters
Inspect the boat, e.g. main mast wiring, navigation lights, electronics, autopilot etc.
Fluxgate compasses can lose calibration following a strike. Check all electronic compass readings with a handheld compass
Call for help if needed and head to the nearest harbour. Until the boat had been lifted, inspected and checked below the waterline, you could not consider it seaworthy
The severity of sailing injuries can range from small cuts or scrapes to violent blows to the head or a crew overboard in frigid waters. 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 Pan Medico call made. This will result in the evacuation of the casualty by rescue services.
Try to anticipate situations before they become emergencies. Many situations can often be prevented. Get the boat under control, prevent any additional injuries or boat damage and try to reduce further risks.
Taking a First Aid/Medical care course (ideally marine focused) is a good investment of money and time especially if you plan ocean passages:
Helicopters are frequently used for search and rescue operations if the boat is within flying distance from the coast (150-400 NM). 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.
Stow away all loose gear on the deck, or stow it below before the helicopter arrives. Unsecured covers, ropes, even unstowed bits of clothing, are easily lifted by the down-draught of the helicopter rotors
Put on life jackets and harness
Do whatever you can to attract the attention and signal your position: red hand-held flares (night or in bad visibility), orange smoke (daylight). If you do not have these, wave ensign or hi-vis life jacket. But do not fire parachute flares when helicopter is closed by!
If your engine is powerful and reliable, or if there’s very little wind, drop the mainsail and headsail. If you don’t trust your engine or are in any doubt about it, get ready to sail close-hauled on the port tack with the main sail up
Once VHF contact has been established, the helicopter pilot will give you instructions and outline intentions before reaching you. Closely follow any instructions you are given. Make sure that you understand them, it will be too noisy to hear your radio once the helicopter is overhead. The communication going forward, will most likely be done on VHF 67 (UK) and/or hand signals. If you have handheld VHF radio, use it. You won’t want to be down below, or going up and down the hatch. Make sure the rescuers know the extent of any injury or illness and what treatment has been administered
Steer absolutely straight in the direction the helicopter crew ask for. This will probably be upwind or close-hauled on the port tack, as fast as you can comfortably do
When the helicopter is in position, a weighted line will be lowered first (hi-line method). Allow it to touch the boat or the water to discharge any static electricity then take up the slack and stow the loose end in a bucket to avoid snagging. Do not tie the line to the boat
As the winchman is lowered on the wire, keep some tension on the line but only pull it in when told to do so - this may require the efforts of two people. Once the winchman is safely aboard, obey his instructions and let him look after the casualty
When the winchman and the casualty are being lifted off, keep enough tension on the line to prevent swinging and do not cast the hi-line clear until told to do so
In condition where it would be dangerous to use hi-lining the rescue could be done from a dinghy or even a liferaft towed behind the yacht connected with a long warp/painter of about 30 metres.
In the most extreme circumstances, such as abandoning ship, you might be instructed to get into the water with lifejacket. When directed by the rescue team, each crew member in turn is tied to a long warp and enters the water drifting astern to be retrieved.
Every Coast Guard helicopter has a trained swimmer, but the person is not a diver and may not go underwater unless they are trained as divers and are equipped with scuba gear. Diving under capsized boat is dangerous work, especially with sailboats, whose rigging, lines, and sails can entangle swimmers.
A large ship in very rough seas will probably stop to windward of the yacht creating a smoother sea in the ship’s lee. It is generally dangerous for a yacht and its crew to come alongside another vessel. In rough seas a lifeboat should be sent and come directly alongside.
All crew to put on lifejackets
Prepare and take a personal Grab Bag with you that should contain the most important items (bank cards, passport, ID, phone, keys, personal medications)
Be ready to board the lifeboat quickly under instruction from the lifeboat crew
In case you have to board directly, the ship’s crew will lower a ladder or a 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
The Collision Regulations state you must maintain a proper lookout at all times. Paying attention at all times should help you avoid collisions and groundings. The regulations “apply to all vessels upon the high seas and in all waters connected therewith navigable by seagoing vessels”. The ‘Rules of the Road’ are contained in The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs).
All crew to put on lifejackets
Check the bilge for water and inspect the hull for damage
Lay fenders, cushions, and other protection between the hull and the bottom to keep the topsides from being badly scratched
Put out an anchor and wait for the tide to rise unless a strong onshore wind is blowing, in which case you must call for help. A grounded boat should be allowed to lie on the side away from the water otherwise she may be flooded by the incoming tide
Try to heel and rock the boat or spin her away from the shore by backing the jib or kedging off. To induce heel, you can sit on opened boom or lead the main halyard to an anchor or moored boat
If needed use a Pan Pan call (or Mayday in case of imminent danger) on the VHF radio, advising the coastguard of your problem. 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. At best make a contact with the boat insurer
Don’t force a bot when towing and be cautious when pulling her off backward (the rudder might break)
Only request a tow when you really needed, e.g. running aground, leaking, entering a harbour with a broken engine or another emergency requiring that you get to shore quickly
Before getting under way, tell the tow how fast your boat will safely go, and, if she’s aground how deep into the bottom she’s imbedded. Agree on hand signals and VHF channel to be used to transmit instructions. If the other fellow appears to be careless or unseamanlike, you may decide to cast off the tow and fend for yourself
Handle towlines with the greatest care to avoid injuries
Attach the towline to the bow cleats. Do not tie it to the mast especially if it is stepped on deck
Keep the towline long with the towed boat riding easily in the through of a wave, not climbing up its back. Steer carefully and use hand signals or the radio to communicate between the two boats
Encountering orcas (killer whales)
If Orcas are sighted and begin to interact with your boat:
STOP the boat (turn off the engine and take down the sails), leave the wheel loose if sea conditions and pilotage allow it
Contact the authorities (by phone on 112 or by radio on VHF channel 16)
Take hands off the steering wheel and secure the boat for possible collision effects
Do not shout at the animals, do not touch them with anything or throw things at them, do not let yourself be seen unnecessarily. But if you have a camera phone, or other device, record the animals especially their dorsal fins, to help identify them. All information of this sort should be sent by email to: [email protected]
After a while check operation of the rudder, and if necessary, request assistance from the authorities through VHF channel 16 or phone on 112
Make notes of the interaction, record the date/time and your position
Assess damages (typically broken rudder) and call for assistance if needed
Get positions from a backup GPS, e.g. VHF with embedded GPS, USB GPS receiver that can be connected to a laptop
Use terrestrial navigation in sight of land
Use Dead Reckoning (DR) and celestial navigation offshore (you need to carry Sextant, Nautical Almanac and Sight Reduction tables)
If you don’t have a sextant and required tables you can either rely on DR alone or use approximate methods for which you only need a stick (for keeping a constant latitude) and watch (to get longitude from noon sun)
After an accident, assess damages and contact your insurer and/or boat owner
In the event of a collision, you are required to stop and identify yourself, your vessel, your home port, your ports of origin and destination and you are obligated to render assistance to people on board the other vessel, provided it can be done safely