Emergency Preparedness

  • “The boat’s on fire!”
  • “The steering wheel isn’t working at all!”
  • “I think the steering cables broke!”
  • “The jib is tangled up and I can’t furl it!

I really dislike all those doom and gloom skipper’s tips out there, however, there have been a number of incidents on the bay and around the docks recently which have driven home to me the importance of safety and being prepared for whatever might happen!  Every single safety and preparedness item listed here was needed as a direct result of one or more incidents on the bay this summer.  Each quote above represents an incident I was personally involved with this summer.

Every Tradewinds member knows that all boats are equipped with certain safety gear that should be checked each time before sailing, and I’m sure we all do, however, do we really or are we just going through the motions?  Here are several items taken directly from the Tradewinds Pre Check List and what to do about them.

  • Anchors and Ground Tackle.  Not only should you verify there are anchors about, figure out what will be needed to deploy one or both of them.  Check the windlass … how does it work and does it work properly?  Is there a pin holding the anchor in place?  How do your remove it.  Is the rode made properly fast to the boat?  This summer, deploying an anchor during an emergency saved vessels from nasty consequences on three different occasions that I am personally aware of.  Broken steering cables in one instance, a broken rudder in one, and a fouled jib with a flooded motor in the other.
  • Emergency tiller.  Where is it?  How is it assembled?  Where is the rudder post?  Can it be used with the wheel in place or does it need to be removed?  How?
  • PFDs.  Are they the proper size(s) for all parties on board?  Where are they?  How do you put one on?  How are they adjusted?  Is the Throwable PFD easily accessible to the helm station?  If not, it’s useless.
  • Fire extinguisher(s).  Where?  In good condition?  How do you remove it from it’s holder?   How do you use it?  Remember that if you need a fire extinguisher it is going to be under some very trying circumstances.  Actions that seem easy when not under pressure can seem nearly impossible when an emergency strikes.  Very recently, I received a call regarding a fire on a boat.  I responded quickly, however, before I got there the skipper had emptied two fire extinguishers on the fire and gotten everything under control.  I would hate to guess what would have happened had the skipper not known where the fire extinguishers were located, and how to use them.
  • Visual distress signal.  Where?  What kind(s) are there?  Flag? Flares? Smoke? Signal mirror?  Do you know how to use them?  Which would best draw attention to your situation?
  • Sound signal.  Again, where is it?  If it’s not in the cockpit with the helmsperson, it’s not in the right place.  Also (and this is one of my pet peeves), do you have both the air bottle and the inflator pump.  I would hesitate to guess the number of times I have found these two items in totally different locations on the boat.  They should never be more than six inches apart!  Either one is useless without the other!  Always test the sound signal before leaving the dock.  Blow the horn … does it make noise?  Does the inflator work properly?
  • First aid kit.  Where is it?  Is it sufficient?  Before you even get on the boat, learn how to use one.  Take a first aid class.  Here’s one to think about.  Recently, there was a report of a person in the water near the ferry building.  The vessel notifying the coast guard informed them that they really didn’t want to pick them up because they thought the person was intoxicated.  The Coast Guard was close by, only taking a few minutes to get there.  When they arrived, they found the victim was not intoxicated, he was suffering from hypothermia!  Do you know the symptoms and the treatment?
  • Thru hull plugs.  Where are the thru hulls?  Where are the plugs?  I personally like to have two sets on board.  One correctly sized plug wired to each thru hull, and one additional set of plugs just in case.  Recently, a 40 foot sailboat sank off Berkeley, because it was “taking on water.”  I don’t know the source of the water, however, I have wondered if the use of a plug might have been all that was needed.

Safety Preparedness also included inspecting critical systems and parts, which is what SAFETOGO and COOL are all about.

  • Standing rigging.  Inspect the stays and the shrouds.  Check the turnbuckles.  Fish hooks in the wires?  Cracks in the swages? Too loose?
  • Running rigging.  What does each line do?  Check for chafe.  Clutches and cleats working properly?
  • Steering.  Don’t just check for the center point of the rudder.  While turning the wheel, does it feel right?  Is it loose?  Too much play?  While backing out of the slip is the rudder firm or does it pop back and forth like the cables are loose.

Here is a final thought.  Sometimes, challenges happen in singles while out sailing, however, often times when one thing goes wrong, something else (or two somethings) are going to happen to make it even more challenging.  For example, the jib gets fouled on the forestay and the outboard motor floods and won’t start.  Or, a boat’s rudder post breaks at the same time as the jib sheet gets fouled on the propeller.  In a matter of seconds, steering, propulsion, and sails are all lost.  Are you ready to handle that kind of an emergency?

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3 Responses to Emergency Preparedness

  1. Bryan Crowley says:

    I will come forward and admit that I was the skipper on a boat that Don helped me out on. I was likely the reason for these three quotes:

    “The steering wheel isn’t working at all!”
    “I think the steering cables broke!”
    “The jib is tangled up and I can’t furl it!

    I had a series of failures in close succession, all related to each other. We had an overrun on the jib furler. I went forward to clear it and put someone else at the helm. That person put the boat in reverse and let go of the wheel. The rudder slammed hard over and the steering cable broke, thereby rendering the steering useless.

    I had an emergency tiller aboard, but it was set up so that I had to steer from inside the aft cabin (which offered no visibility ahead).

    Don assisted us with a tow in to the slip while I worked the emergency tiller from below deck.

    I like to think that this situation wasn’t worse than it was due to preparation. everyone aboard knew where the emergency tiller was and we dropped anchor when we knew we were in trouble.

    I cannot stress enough the importance of what I call my “Pre-float” This is a checklist that I go through with everyone onboard. That way, we get several eyes on all systems.

    Once the checklist is complete, I always have a safety breifing where I cover how to call the coast guard, First Aid kits, Fire Extinguishers and a plan for what to do if stuff goes poorly. This is a holdover from my Aircraft and Railroad days.

    There were two take-aways that I learned that day.

    1. If you can safely wait to fix an issue until you are at anchor or at the dock, do that.

    2. As the skipper, you are responsible for the safety and well being of everyone aboard. Part of that responsibility is to educate your crew and passengers on what to do if something goes wrong.

    When I had trouble that day, I was very glad that I had given my crew a good safety breifing and that we at least had the beginnings of a plan when we needed it.

    Once again, thank you Don for your help that day back in May.


    • Don Gilzean says:

      Thanks for sharing Bryan … a real life example of how problems on a sailboat “cascade” is much more effective than me just writing a skippers tip! The good news is that you and your crew all did what was need to prevent more serious damage or injuries.

  2. Chuck B says:

    Another great safety and preparedness article Don, thank you! Do you have any special tips for anchor deployment under less than ideal conditions? Say, if you’ve lost helm control and/or the engine? Anything more sophisticated than tossing it over? Do you still go for 7:1 ratio (provided such a ratio will keep you from hitting the lee shore)?

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