We enjoy ourselves on the water knowing full well there are risks attached. The same applies to most sporting activities and many leisure pursuits, but this does not put us off indulging in such fulfilling pastimes. A safe skipper will be mentally prepared for all kinds of potential emergencies happening at sea. Numerous mishaps can happen including medical emergencies, engine failure, fire, a holed hull, capsize and dismasting.
Training, preparation and experience
Knowing what to do in an emergency situation can save lives. That knowledge comes from training, preparation and experience. Through preparation and training we can learn to increase our chances of survival should things go badly wrong. Skippers can’t plan for every possible eventuality, but they can plan what they are going to do if any of the more common emergency scenarios occur. As well as being prepared and trained in the practicalities of boat handling, navigation, radio operation, first aid and more, it is their attitude and leadership skills that help skippers cope with difficult situations.
In an emergency it’s crucially important for everyone onboard, and especially the skipper, to be calm, collected and methodical. That is easier said than done and for the skipper there is added pressure because the crew will be looking to them for guidance and wise decision making. A competent skipper needs to be able to decide on the best course of action to protect their crew and vessel. Unfortunately, the adrenaline rush our bodies produce makes it very easy to go into a semi panic mode, in which we rush around doing too many things too soon, without adequate preparation and briefing.
In many emergency situations there are actions that must take place instantly and almost instinctively – shouting “Man overboard”, throwing a lifebuoy and pointing at the casualty in the water being obvious examples. But there’s also a need to buy a little time to identify the best solution to a problem, brief crew and prepare the boat. Often this is best done without the boat demanding your attention as it charges full speed towards the horizon.
Heaving-to is a very useful manoeuvre to carry out in an emergency. This calms the boat’s progress and can, quite literally, be a lifesaver as often more can be achieved in sixty seconds of calm than charging along in an adrenaline fuelled panic.
Skippers can do much to prevent accidents and emergencies happening at sea but they can’t prevent them altogether and however capable they are there may come a time when there is no option but to call for assistance, particularly following mechanical or structural failure.
Contacting rescue services
Without doubt, making contact with the rescue services early on is always a wise precaution, even if there is a chance that the situation can be handled without outside help. It is also wise to practise doing this with your crew, particularly if they are not qualified VHF radio operators.
Accidents can happen to anyone. When spending the best part of a year making sea safety films for the RNLI, we met many people who had got into difficulties at sea and needed to call the coastguard. Many had been caught out by bad weather, others had equipment failure, some had simply run out of fuel. Some were reluctant to tell their story but it soon became clear that accidents happen to people with all levels of experience, amateurs and professionals alike.
Whether we are going afloat for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks or longer, skippers of recreational vessels should always consider the margins of safety and ensure we are working within them. Good seamanship is an art that takes time to master. It calls for a combination of knowledge, experience, awareness, instinct and good working practices which are built up over a period of time, backed up with intensive training both ashore and afloat.
What is the secret of becoming a safe skipper? Partly this comes down to the mental attitude of the person responsible for their vessel and crew – a calm, confident personality who does not shout at their crew, reassures the inexperienced, anticipates problems and avoids unnecessary risks. All are great attributes but count for little if the fundamental skills of seamanship are lacking. Perhaps above all a safe skipper is someone who never underestimates the sea.