How to Handle an Emergency at Sea

How to Deal with an Emergency While on a Boat

Exploring the open water can be fun, but it can also make it harder to get help when you need it. If you’re miles from the coast and you can’t see any other vessels around you, the peaceful tranquillity of solitude will likely be replaced by fear or dread.

Fortunately, there are some strategies and preparation methods that can better equip you to handle an emergency—of any kind—at sea.

Types of Emergencies

There are a few main types of emergencies you could experience, including:

  • Mechanical issues/failures. If your boat’s engine suddenly stops working, or if you start taking on water, you could be stranded—or worse, you could start to sink.
  • Health/medical emergencies. You might also have to deal with a medical emergency onboard. A member of your party may suffer from a heart attack or a serious injury.
  • Man overboard. It’s possible for even the most careful person to be thrown overboard. In this scenario, you have to act fast to save them.
  • Weather emergencies. Bad weather can also be problematic for your boat and crew, making capsizing a real possibility or jeopardizing your ability to navigate.

Preparing for an Emergency

The best way to handle an emergency at sea is proactively, before one occurs. Make sure your boat is stocked with all the equipment that can help you manage an emergency situation, including:

  • A functional VHF radio (and backup). This is your main line of communication, so it should be one of your top priorities.
  • Lifejackets. Ensure there are plenty of lifejackets (of the proper sizes) for everyone on board.
  • Throwable floatation devices. If someone’s overboard without a lifejacket, you’ll need a throwable floatation device to rescue them.
  • A life raft. If the boat goes down, a life raft can save everyone on board.
  • Fire extinguisher. You may be surrounded by water, but fire is still a real danger. Keep a fire extinguisher on hand.
  • A first aid kit. A well-stocked first aid kit will have things like bandages, gauze, antiseptics, tape, scissors, and other items.
  • Visual indicators. Flares, flags, and other visuals can help you be seen in an emergency.
  • Audio indicators. Similarly, horns and other audio cues can help you attract attention.
  • Bailing devices. If your boat takes on water, bailing devices can help you stay afloat longer.
  • A flashlight. This is especially important if you boat at night.
  • Backup mechanical items. Replacement parts, battery chargers, and other backup items can help you correct a mechanical failure.
  • Knives and rope. It always pays to have extra knives and rope onboard.

Planning, Practice, and Drills

You’ll be much better capable of handling yourself in an emergency situation if you train, practice, and conduct drills with the people you typically boat with, you’ll be in a much better spot if an emergency does unfold.

  • Train yourself. First, train yourself on the basics. It’s a good idea to learn first aid, study various types of emergencies and how to respond to them and familiarize yourself with the mechanics of your boat—so you can conduct your own repairs. The more knowledgeable you are, the better you’re going to respond to an emergency.
  • Establish a responsible party. Someone on the boat needs to take charge, making decisions and directing action. By default, this is usually the boat owner, which is probably you. This is the person that will act as a leader if and when necessary, and they need to be prepared. This is one of the only ways to prevent frantic shoulder-shrugging in the middle of a real emergency.
  • Educate your crew/guests. If possible, educate your crew and your guests proactively. This could mean something simple, like teaching your guests how to use a life jacket or showing them how to use the radio.
  • Run through various scenarios. It’s a good idea to conduct drills for various types of emergencies. Even if it feels silly or unnecessary, going through the motions will make it easier to do the right thing when the real event unfolds.

In the Moment

Of course, no amount of training and preparation can prepare you for the real thing. If you do encounter an emergency situation on your boat:

  • Remain calm. As the boat owner, you’re probably going to be the person responsible for making the decisions and coordinating the action. You’re going to make much better decisions if you’re calm under pressure. Obviously, this can be difficult to achieve, but it’s highly beneficial if you can do it. Take a deep breath, avoid your negative emotions, and focus on the logical steps you need to take to resolve the situation.
  • Coordinate your guests. Most emergencies are best tackled as a team, assuming you have other people aboard. Become a leader and direct the other people to assist as you see fit. For example, you can instruct one person to radio for help, while instructing another to begin bailing water as you try to make repairs on the vessel.
  • Run with multiple backup plans. Oftentimes, your first attempts to rectify the situation will fall flat. You won’t be able to make the repairs you want, or the weather gets worse before it gets better. Accordingly, you should run with multiple backup plans. If your first idea doesn’t work, what will you try next?
  • Don’t be afraid to call for help. It may be embarrassing to call for a tow or another form of help, but you shouldn’t be afraid to call for help if you need it. It’s much better to call for help in a questionable situation than to avoid calling for help when you truly need it.

Nobody wants to face an emergency at sea, but if you’re better prepared, it won’t be nearly as scary or destructive. You can increase your confidence even further by making sure you have a reliable, functioning vessel. Browse our selection of boats at TheYachtMarket, and find the perfect new or used vessel for your needs.

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