What to do in a sailing emergency

November 3, 2015

Staying safe during a sailing emergency means being prepared, acting calmly and quickly, and having the knowledge to handle various problems. Here’s an intro to how you can prepare for and respond to a sailing emergency.

What to do in a sailing emergency

Have a game plan

It's important to review every conceivable scenario in your head when sailing. For example, what if your engine cuts out in a channel? What if you fall overboard and start drifting away from your boat? What if your prop is tangled? What happens if you run aground on a sandbar?

Unfortunately, there is not always one answer for many of these issues and it takes quick analysis of your surroundings and current conditions to make the right decision. For example, if your motor were to cut out in a tight channel, it might be a good idea to draw up your sails and ride the wind in a safe direction, or use the current in a similar way. Alternatively, you might want to drop anchor nearby in a safe area or you might have to dodge other boats due to being in a crowded harbour.

For each scenario, it's good to have a basic plan in mind, even though the exact circumstances might vary. You can better respond to a motor cutting out if you have certain basic measures in place, such as having your VHF radio set to channel 16 to send a potential SOS to the Canadian Coast Guard, having a sail rigged and a winch handle handy to quickly raise or trim your sail if necessary, and having enough personal flotation devices (PFDs) aboard for all crew members.

Prepare yourself

Many sailing emergencies require some basic types of gear. The gear aboard your boat should include, among other things:

  • Flares for alerting the coast guard and other boats
  • Boat hooks
  • Fire extinguishers
  • A bilge pump
  • PFDs
  • Working radio equipment
  • Life buoys in case someone goes overboard
  • A life raft, if you have room on your sailboat

You should also consider devices like a bilge alarm, high-water alarm and bilge counter. These devices can help you quickly respond to emergencies when your boat has a leak or is quickly taking on water.

You should also properly utilize your chart plotter, GPS and navigational apps to avoid running aground. If you do run aground, you should know strategies for freeing your boat, such as heeling the boat, using your engine to reverse free or knowing how to kedge off. Sailing skills such as these are essential to respond properly to a sailing emergency.

Bad weather vs. calm conditions

Many sailors imagine that accidents and emergencies happen only during stormy weather and difficult conditions at sea. Although big storms that lead to sailing emergencies are good for making the news, most of the accidents that occur while sailing actually happen during calm weather.

Furthermore, many of these accidents don't even happen at sea, but right in a harbour, and often when sailors aren't wearing a life vest. That's why it's important to prevent an emergency by wearing your PFD whenever you're near water, even during calm conditions.

Sailing can be a difficult and sometimes dangerous sport, which is why you need to be prepared for all scenarios. Ultimately, having the right strategy and equipment can help you prevent many emergencies and quickly respond when necessary.

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