BOATING SAFETY SKILLS PUT TO THE TEST
There’s nothing quite like being out on a boat. Those of us who have spent any time on a boat know there are generally no bad days when you’re on one. The gentle motion, the fresh sea breeze, the sounds and smells of the sea – mesmerizing! Most of us take the necessary precautions to enjoy boating safely. We get trained, carry safety equipment and inspect our boats regularly. But every now and again, despite all of our best preparations, Murphy rears his ugly head and catches us by surprise. Anything from a mechanical failure close to shore to flooding or fire, things can turn from terrific to terrible pretty quickly on a boat. What should you do when you have an emergency on your boat?
WHEN BOAT EMERGENCIES HAPPEN
First, I’m going to assume that the emergency is something beyond your ability to quickly resolve. Aside from happing the proper boat safety equipment, I’m going to assume that you’ve taken appropriate mitigation steps for your particular situation, such as closing fuel valves in the event of a fire, plugging holes to stop flooding, etc. If you’re totally unfamiliar with basic safety practices on a boat, I highly recommend registering for Boater U’s Boater 101 course to give yourself a good foundation in the essentials. But then, what do you do next?
BOAT EMERGENCY? DON’T PANIC
There will be enough adrenaline flowing through you to revive a dead horse, but as captain of your vessel, you need to maintain calm so that everyone else on board doesn’t make the situation worse. Hopefully you have held your safety briefings and your crew knows what to do, but if not, now is the time to start delegating quickly, calmly and with authority.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR PASSENGERS FIRST
Make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket and is moved to a safe part of the vessel away from the emergency situation.
Your first line of defense is your VHF radio. If this is a life-threatening situation, Issue a MAY
DAY call on Channel 16. https://www.westmarine.com/WestAdvisor/DIY-Making-a-Mayday-Call-on-Your-VHF-Radio) If it’s not a life threatening situation, a call out to Vessel Assist (Towboat U.S.) or SeaTow will get you a pretty fast response. Alternatively, a non-emergency “Pan Pan” call on Channel 16 will solicit a response from the Coast Guard and any vessels in your area. Follow the instructions for the Mayday call above, but use “Pan Pan” (pronounced “pawn pawn”) instead of “Mayday”.
VHF RADIO NOT WORKING?
So your VHF isn’t working or you don’t have one. Then what? How about a cell phone? Cell phones will generally work up to about 9 miles off the coast, and sometime farther, depending on the area. For emergency situations, dial 911 just as you would on land. What, the cell phone fell overboard? You should still have several other ways to communicate:
- Break out that flare kit! Flares are not just for night time use – they are designed to be seen during the day too.
- Use a signal mirror or bright light pointed at another boat if you don’t have flares (shame on you)!
- Make noise – use your horn, portable air canisters, whistles, pots & pans – whatever you have to attract the attention of other boaters in the area. Sound carries far over the water!
- Waive a distress flag (often contained in the flare kit) or whatever you have available to attract attention.
If you have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or Personal Locater Beacon (PLB), don’t be afraid to use it if you are in a life-threatening situation. Running out of fuel does not count, unless your vessel is in immediate danger or you have exhausted all other means of reaching help. A broadcast message from your EPIRB/PLB will go out to all commercial vessels and aircraft in the area, and will be picked up by the US Coast Guard and military vessels. A
lot of people will start looking for you, and if your device is the 406MHZ satellite variety, they will find you fairly quickly. (It still could take hours, not minutes, depending on your location, so don’t give up!)
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are several ways to get help out on the water. All boaters have a responsibility to assist another vessel in distress as long as doing so will not put anyone in danger. It’s the law, and most boaters I know would help even if it wasn’t the law. Despite our best efforts to be prepared, every now and again we get caught by surprise and need some help. The more boat training you have, the more practice you’ll have preparing for emergencies, as well as the right tools (VHF, EPIRP, PLB) to make those emergencies manageable. You might even have some great sea stories to tell back at the dock!