Handling maritime emergencies

DON’T PANIC: handling maritime emergencies

Stay calm and prepared with essential tips for dealing with emergencies at sea.

On a yachting holiday, emergencies typically aren't your first thought, not because of being irresponsible, but simply because it's easier to focus on having fun. But...

Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes something happens that forces us into using procedures we know but haven't experienced in a real emergency scenario. 

In these cases, procedures, and above all, attitude, make the difference.

Author’s bio:

Renzo Crovo, an Italian architect and avid sailing enthusiast since his teenage years, has extensive experience racing dinghies (420, 470 & Strale) and later on IOR and ORC cabin cruisers. Currently, he not only navigates for transfers and cruises but also competes in regattas in the IRC and ORC classes throughout the Mediterranean.

Expectations and attitude in maritime safety

Attitude is definitely the most important aspect for anyone taking command of a vessel, regardless of their experience or the size of the boat in question. We're talking about awareness and responsibility here.

We know well that having "skipper" written on your back or claiming to be one doesn't automatically make you the captain of a boat. You have to demonstrate it and, therefore, be recognized in that role. Why? Because it's a role that you earn day by day through the trust of the people on board who make up the crew.

Skipper, emergency sailboat rescue

In the end, it isn’t experience or your role on board that matters; when the moment comes to issue a distress call, part of the crew will be emotionally strained if not in a panic, and even the most seasoned sailor won't be entirely at ease. None of us knows exactly how we'll react in a dangerous situation until we're living it; none of us can be certain we'll maintain the self-control necessary to handle an emergency. It's not something we should be ashamed of, and it's not something that should deter us from living our yachting experiences.

Team preparedness at sea

First thing to remember is that the sea is really vast, and asking for help isn't exactly like calling up a friend and saying, "Hey Joe, my car broke down outside the Red Lion pub, can you come pick me up, and I'll buy you a beer?"

My first advice is that there should always be "two of you" useful for all onboard procedures: make sure at least two crew members can immediately locate the onboard fire extinguishers and know how to use them (by the way, how do you put out a fire when the bacon in the pan catches fire and gets out of control? the answer is at the bottom of the article); ensure that at least two crew members know how to launch and use the life raft, while another two know how to use visual emergency signals.

In line with this rule, it's important to ensure that at least two crew members are proficient in using the VHF radio and can read instruments to provide the exact GPS position at least.

Remember, if you're not in your home country (or if you're not confident in the local language), the international language of maritime distress is English, which operators worldwide can speak with sufficient proficiency. It's useful, before setting sail, to do a little simulation of a call, just to cement those few English phrases necessary for basic but effective communication.

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Immediate actions: communicating in maritime emergencies

The trouble has occurred, we need to ask for help. As I've already mentioned, firstly, keep calm. 

There are both vocal communications and visual signals.

Let's start with vocal communication: the simplest and most immediate method is using a mobile phone. If you're within range of a phone signal, simply calling the coast guard, providing details of the emergency and your location, should resolve everything. Simply like that.

However, the most commonly used method of vocal communication is the VHF radio call.

Unlike a direct call with a mobile phone, a VHF call is directed to anyone listening within the radio's range; therefore, the likelihood of receiving assistance is higher. Communication occurs through the international emergency channel (channel 16) and follows established and precise protocols.

Radio, emergency sailboat rescue

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The 3 distress and urgency calls: Mayday, Pan Pan, and Securité

There are three levels of emergency that can be communicated via radio: Mayday, Pan Pan, and Securité. All three levels follow the same format.

The Mayday call (deriving from its French origin "m’aider") is used to signal an immediate danger to the integrity of the vessel or to the lives of one or more crew members. The call must provide the following information: the name of the yacht, the GPS position, the type of emergency (medical, fire, boat sinking, etc.), and the number and condition of the crew members.

Example of a MAYDAY call 

  • "MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY"(three times) 
  • "Yacht Lady F" (three time the yacht’s name) 
  • "Our position is 44° 30’ N 8° 30’ E"
  • "We are requesting immediate assistance due to a fire on board."
  • "We have six adults and two children on board"
  • "We are preparing the life raft for deployment."
  • "OVER"

If there's no response to the call, repeat it after two minutes; meanwhile, continue addressing the emergency as best as possible. 

I recommend preparing a waterproof sheet with your boat's data to display near your VHF equipment. This way, regardless of the situation, even an inexperienced crew member can make the call. Before heading out to sea with a new crew, it's advisable to explain how to make the call. You should also cover the basic principles of operating the VHF radio and where to find all other safety equipment in your briefing.

If the emergency is not immediately life-threatening (such as an engine breakdown), we use the Pan Pan call (from the French, "Panne panne") and follow the same procedure as for Mayday. The Securité call, on the other hand, is typically used by shore stations to provide weather updates or potential navigation hazards. 

We can also use it to report, for example, a floating container in the middle of the sea; in this case, our involvement will end as soon as we receive confirmation from the Coast Guard that they have taken over the report. 

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Other types of radio communication at sea

If our VHF radio is equipped with it, we can initiate a Digital Selective Calling (DSC) call. The device — usually identifiable by a red button labelled "Distress"— allows for an automatic Mayday call on a digital emergency channel that will be received by all shore or sea stations. The call is made by holding down the Distress button for 5 or 6 seconds, after which you wait for a response for a few minutes. After 10 or 12 minutes, if there's no response, you can repeat the Distress call or make a regular VHF call.

Other methods briefly mentioned here include the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), a floating device (either yacht or personal) that, when activated, signals our position via satellite.

If we're truly in blue water, we can use a satellite phone or a Single Sideband (SSB) radio device to make calls on long-range HF or MF waves.

Using visual distress signals at sea

No less important in case of emergency are visual signals (rockets, flares, and smoke signals) which, if activated, allow you to be seen even several miles away, both during the day and at night, and easily spotted by an aircraft.

Flare, emergency sailboat rescue

Calling for help with flares and rockets requires that you be seen by someone able to provide assistance or call for help on your behalf. In case of emergency, you can immediately use a rocket, which can be seen even from a great distance. When you see a vessel nearby, you can use handheld flares to assist in the final approach. During the day, you should use smoke floats; these are visible from a huge distance, even from a helicopter. But if you don't see anyone around or any flights in the sky, think calmly. Evaluate the best way to call for help in each circumstance.

Proactive measures for ocean safety

The main rule to get out of trouble is... not to get into trouble in the first place. This is a very wise suggestion when sitting at a PC keyboard, but it's more challenging to put into practice when at sea. On board, the keywords are preparation, communication, and caution.

If the weather turns bad, don't go out to sea. During night navigation, always wear life jackets. Don't go barefoot on board, and ensure that the entire crew is informed about emergency procedures and safety equipment. I could go on for pages and pages, but the main advice is to behave as your inner voice suggests, the voice of self-preservation.

Fire, emergency sailboat rescue

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Final safety tip: correctly smother a pan fire on board

If a pan catches fire, DO NOT USE WATER: in the absence of a fire blanket, an appropriate cover to smother a fire can be a lid or even another pot, holding it by the handle as a cover.

Farewell, mates, catch you on deck soon!

YACHTING.COM TIP: A fire breaking out on a boat is a true nightmare for sailors. Read how to prevent a fire on board from happening

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