How to deal with a sailing emergency

December 29, 2014

Staying safe during a sailing emergency means acting calmly and quickly and having the knowledge to respond to any potential problems. Here's how to be prepared for safe sailing.

How to deal with a sailing emergency

Have a game plan

It's important to review every conceivable scenario in your head when sailing:

  • 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 land aground on a sandbar?

Unfortunately, there is not always one answer for many of these issues, and it takes quick analysis of surrounding 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 towards a safe direction, or use the current in a similar way.
  • You might want to drop anchor nearby in a safe area.
  • 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.

  • You can better respond to a motor cutting out by having your radio set to channel 16 on your VHF radio 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 (PFD) onboard for all crew members.

Prepare yourself

Many of these emergencies require the right kind of gear. Your gear should include:

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

Be sure to properly utilize your chartplotter, GPS and navigational apps to avoid running aground.

  • If you do run aground, you should know strategies to get yourself free, such as heeling the boat, using your engine to reverse free or knowing how to kedge off.
  • Learning these sailing skills are essential to respond properly to a sailing emergency.

Bad weather and good weather

Most sailors imagine that accidents and emergencies only happen during stormy weather and difficult conditions on the sea, but most of the accidents that occur while sailing happen during calm weather.

  • Many sailing accidents don't even happen at sea, but right in 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.

Sailing can be a difficult and sometimes dangerous sport, which is why you need to be prepared for all scenarios.

Ultimately, if you have the right strategy and equipment, you can properly deal with any emergency that may arise and enjoy smooth sailing.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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