Emergency Preparedness for Sailors: Learn the Basics to Stay Safe

With proper planning, hopefully you can avoid encountering an emergency situation when you’re sailing. But even with the best planning, the unlikely can still occur.

A storm can form seemingly out of calm, still air, or somebody could become sick or injured on the water. If so, how can you handle these emergencies as they unfold? Following are some emergency preparedness tips for sailors.

1. Use jacklines.

If there is any concern about falling overboard, you should secure yourself to your vessel. To do this, run a jackline down the length of your boat, and tether yourself to it using a safety harness. This will give you freedom of movement across the entire deck, but also prevent you from falling into the sea and becoming separated from your vessel.

It should go without saying, but you also should be wearing a personal flotation device. No amount of precautions can guarantee that you won’t fall out of the boat, even if you are tethered.

2. Handle man-overboard situations efficiently.

What if a crew member does wind up in the water? Hopefully, by the time you find yourself in such a situation, you will have practice with the relevant maneuvers and steps to get your crewmember back on board.

The first thing you should do is throw a life ring or anything else that floats as close as possible to your overboard crewmember.

Next, get eyes on the overboard person, and make sure that somebody is watching them continuously to make sure that they don’t get lost. Also, mark the location on your GPS which you can keep in the best drawer safe in the cabin.

Then, loosen your sheets, turn on your engine, and execute an appropriate maneuver for the scenario, for example, the Beam Reach-Gybe Method.

3. Be ready to deal with hypothermia.

When you recover somebody from the water, there is a chance that they will have developed hypothermia. Uncontrolled shivering is one sign of this, and another is slurred speech. Also look for slow breathing and a weak pulse. Sleepiness followed by unconsciousness are possible as the condition progresses.

If a crewmember or passenger does develop hypothermia, you should get them warm and dry as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, you should not expose them to heat in excess of 40 to 45ºC. Alcohol is a bad idea, but non-alcoholic warm beverages may be useful.

One common mistake made by those who do not know how to treat hypothermia is to rub cold hands and feet in an attempt to warm them up. While this may seem intuitive, it actually can cause the problem to migrate into the person’s core.

4. Rapidly patch leaks.

If a vessel is poorly maintained—or if you run aground—it is possible that your hull will spring a leak. Should that happen, it is imperative to patch it as quickly as possible.

What can you use to accomplish that? In a pinch, the answer should be, “just about anything.” But preferably, you should use materials which you stowed onboard for the express purpose of plugging leaks. Plywood patches and softwood plugs are examples. But if you lack these materials, you can use anything from a cushion to a bunch of potatoes to slow a leak.

If you sprung a leak, there will be water inside your boat. You should bail it out as quickly as you can after dealing with the hole (or at the same time, if you have enough people onboard to do that).

5. Put out fires fast.

Naturally, fire can destroy your vessel as quickly as a breach in your hull. If fire breaks out, use extinguishers, and put on a personal flotation device. Everyone else onboard should do the same.

6. What to do in the event of harsh weather.

If you notice signs of a storm impending, make for land as rapidly as possible if you think you can make it. If you have any concerns about weathering it safely, contact someone who can help you. Ideally, you should get to a dock or mooring, but if it is not possible, you will need to lower your sails and anchor instead in the most sheltered position you can find.

What if you don’t think you can safely find shelter? In that case, it may actually be a safer option to head for open water and ride it out. This won’t be pleasant, but with proper training and procedures, hopefully you can get through it.

Don’t Try to Take On More Than What You Can Handle

The safety tips above should give you a starting point for dealing with emergencies when you’re sailing. But this guide just scratches the surface of this topic, as there are many more situations you need to be prepared for and detailed recommendations for each.

So, make sure that you have trained and rehearsed emergency procedures for a wide range of possible scenarios, that your vessel is well-maintained, and that you have all the supplies you need before you head out. If in doubt, avoid sailing on days or in locations which might still be beyond your skill level.

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