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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.


Keeping calm

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.

Good seamanship

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.

Wooden Hulls – Part 2

It is important to ensure the essential hull maintenance of a wooden boat is done, even if you are paying others to look after your boat for you. The priority is to prevent rot from taking hold. The protective layers of paint and varnish over wood are far more critical than on GRP boats, where the topsides are painted more for cosmetic reasons.

Propeller care and maintenance

Propellers are complicated and repairs should be done by specialists but owners can carry out checks and some routine maintenance themselves when the boat is in the boatyard. A propeller is critical to a boat’s performance, fuel consumption and ride, so it makes sense to keep a propeller in good working order.

Antifouling for leisure boats – Part 1

Boats that are kept afloat can very quickly become a home for small marine organisms such as barnacles, weed and slime. Applying an antifouling paint to your hull is necessary to protect it from these micro-organisms, as a fouled hull can cause problems and will slow down a boat’s maximum speed considerably if left unchecked.

How to tackle osmosis

Many owners of old GRP boats live in fear of osmosis, but what exactly is osmosis and what can be done about it? Osmosis comes about...

Keel maintenance and repair – Part 1

Keels are designed to act as underwater foils that generate lift as the boat moves through the water, counteracting the leeward force of the wind and enabling the boat to sail closer to the wind. Keel maintenance and repair is essential for the performance of your boat.

How a propeller works

Have a look around any boatyard and you will notice quite a variety of propellers – some have two blades, some have three and others have four or more. While most propellers are completely rigid some have blades that fold.

Capsize – understanding the risks

A skipper should know how their boat will cope with rough seas. By working within known limits and understanding the risks,...

What boating skills should you have before you buy a yacht?

Many people dream of owning a yacht and sailing off into the blue yonder. What boating skills should you have before you buy...

Common medical emergencies at sea

A medical emergency aboard a boat at sea requires immediate attention to ensure the safety of the casualty and the crew in general. The skipper needs to know which crew members, if any, have had medical training or have a first aid qualification. All boats should carry first aid handbooks to help an untrained crew cope with a medical emergency.

How to use tides and currents to your advantage

If you are contemplating a cruise through tidal waters and strong currents, then planning your trip carefully in advance is essential to enable you to take advantage of favourable tides rather than constantly fighting against them.

Tools and spares for your boat

It is wise to have a comprehensive and well-organised tool kit and a supply of spares for your boat. This is both for routine...

Essential yacht tender safety for skippers and crew

Essential yacht tender safety - the dangers inherent in using a dinghy to get ashore from a moored or anchored yacht are all too easily...

Essential Knots: Figure of eight

Essential Knots: Figure of eight Use: Stopper knot, prevents a rope from being pulled through a hole e.g. through a block or...

Leaking decks

Leaking decks are perceived as a nuisance by some boat owners, but if leaks are ignored a much more serious situation may well be developing, especially in the case of boats with balsa or plywood deck cores. So deck leaks do need to be investigated and dealt with.

Competent crew skills: mooring lines

Mooring lines are used when arriving or leaving a berth. One of the most important competent crew skills is to know how to...

Boat interior inspection and checks

While a boat is ashore, the most critical interior checks to carry out are those that concern the safety of the boat. This entails the integrity of all through-hull fittings and seacocks, the gas system and the electrical system.

Stress cracks on GRP boats

It is quite common to find cracks in the gelcoat when inspecting the deck and superstructure of a GRP boat. It is important to differentiate between a gelcoat crack and a scratch.

Boat engine cooling systems

Some boat engine breakdowns are unavoidable but those caused by lack of maintenance or regular checks can be avoided. Failure to maintain an engine’s cooling system is a well known example of this, so it is well worth spending time checking over the cooling system both when the boat is ashore and afloat.

You Need To Understand The IRPCS ColRegs To Pass Your Yachtmaster, Master of Yachts and Coxswain Certificate of Competence

IRPCS ColRegs Rules of the Road at Sea and Yachtmaster Learning, understanding and remembering the International Regulations...

Wooden Hulls – Part 1

Traditional wooden boats have a plank on frame construction, a centuries old boat building method that is still in use today. Variations of the traditional method include carvel, clinker and strip planking, which all relate to the way the planking is attached to the frame.

Essential Knots: Reef knot

Essential Knots: Reef knot Use: Tying two ends of rope together, often used for tying up a bundle of loose sail around the boom. Step...

ColRegs when sailing single handed

  Don’t neglect the Colregs when sailing single handed Sailing single-handed represents several challenges for skippers, not least how to...

Man Overboard Drill

How to respond to crew overboard under sail • Keep the MOB in sight • Tack into the heave-to position, do not adjust the...

Feeling anxious at sea

  Some people feel anxious at sea. Will they be seasick? What if they get caught in a violent storm? Could the boat...

How to operate a winch

Winches are drum shaped mechanical devices used to handle halyards, sheets and control lines. One of the important crew...