When it comes to boat safety it’s quite a broad category. You might immediately think that it’s just life jackets, a GPS positioning device, and Man Overboard equipment but that’s only a very small tip of the iceberg. As with most things boating-related, safety is yet another huge category to get your head around. Allow me to help demystify this area and help you to hit the ground running.
Once you scratch the surface you might wonder what you already know versus what you need to know.
To gain a top-level understanding of boat safety, let’s start with a question:
“What do I need to know to ensure that my boat and the people on and around my boat are kept in good health and protected? How can I make sure I minimize accidents and avoid serious casualties?”
To attempt to put the world of boat safety into context, we can organize it into three main areas: equipment, policies, and procedures.
Equipment includes items like life jackets, liferaft, EPIRB, Man Overboard (MOB) equipment, flares, and so forth.
Policies, which are more boat/owner specific, might include when to wear or not wear a life jacket, the required use of sunscreen, rules of a night watch, and shoes required on deck. And procedures may include items like the specific MOB method to use, how to prepare the boat for a storm/hurricane, and what to do in the instance of an engine alarm.
I’ve actually written a Safety Manual for Britican that lists every bit of equipment we have, when it was last serviced and how to use it. I also have a section for our policies in addition to the various procedures we follow. I’d love to say that we had our manual from day one. And I’d also love to brag that I did it off my own back but that’s not the case. When we got our boat legalized to take paying guests it was a requirement.
Ever since going through the exercise of creating our own boat safety manual I’ve felt strongly that EVERY boat should have one.
In some cases, Simon and I knew what to do in certain situations. In other cases, I had no clue. For example, I really didn’t understand how our life raft worked. I had fears that the sailboat would sink and since the life raft painter was attached to the boat it might go down with the sailboat.
Little did I know that it usually takes quite a while for a sailboat to sink and if by some odd chance the sailboat does pull down the life raft, the painter will eventually pull a sacrificial piece off the raft and allow the raft to float up. With our Down Buoy, I didn’t know what it looked like until we saw it tested and deployed (it’s a very thin, tall balloon-like structure with a flag). All I knew was that we had to throw it in the water.
Knowing how the equipment works and what it looks like deployed makes a massive difference in feeling safe!
In addition to not fully understanding all our equipment, we had various ‘policies’ but we didn’t really tell anyone about them formally. They were unwritten and we mostly made them up on the go.
For example, we now tell all our guests that they have to either wear a rash guard covering their skin or apply sunscreen periodically throughout the day – and we monitor them! We also move them to the shady side of the boat throughout the day all day long. It might seem odd, but if we don’t force people to protect themselves they will get burned. Visitors just don’t realize the environment they’re in when they spend time on a boat. You simply don’t feel the sun burning you.
We also have a no peeing off the side of the boat under passage policy (for men).
More men are found drowned with their fly down than not!
Simon and I have a no-leaving-the-cockpit at night policy. If we’re on a night sail we have to wake each other up if we need to adjust something on the aft or foredeck – even if it’s one foot away from the cockpit. By having this policy not only do we ensure that someone is on deck when the other might be vulnerable but I also sleep better because I know damn well that Simon won’t be wandering around the boat (and potentially fall off)!
Some other policies that we have include making sure the boat is clean and tidy before setting sail, and the requirement for all crew to wear a lifejacket always at night, during storms, and at the Captain’s request. Of course, our crew is welcome to wear a lifejacket at all times if they want. All children must wear a lifejacket if going outside the cockpit.
And as far as boat safety procedures go, we have our laminated VHF broadcasts checklists and templates.
If and when we need to make a MAYDAY, Pan-Pan, or other VHF communication, we simply flip through the laminated documents in our Nav Station desk and follow along. I created these VHF broadcasts when we first set sail. I was confused as to the exact steps and procedures. For six years we’ve had our laminated sheets and not once have I used them. To get your copy of the VHF Broadcasts, check out my guide, VHF Checklists & Broadcasts for Sailors.
Last month I had to make a MAYDAY broadcast.
We were sailing along in the middle of the open ocean and we darn near ran over two men in the water. At first, I couldn’t understand what was happening. Long story short, the men went out in a rowboat, and the tide went out and pulled them to sea. The boat got swamped and capsized. If we hadn’t almost hit them I fear they would not be with us today. That being said, we had enough people on board to follow our MOB procedure to the exact specification.
Incidentally, we covered our MOB procedure one day early with our guests.
One person pointed, and another worked at shooting flotations devices off. Simon started the engine and put the boat in a position to recover the men. Then I told the guys, ‘we’re coming for you,’ and did the MAYDAY call. I went to the Nav Station, my heart racing, and pulled out my MAYDAY sheet. Then, I started off, ‘All Stations, All Stations, All Stations, This is a MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY.’
I proceeded the read our MMSI, Call Sign, and give our rough position. I explained the situation and manned the VHF through the whole ordeal.
Over five other boats in the vicinity called to help out.
And weeks later I received many comments from people who were in the area. They said that they were impressed with the way we handled the situation and super pleased we saved a couple of lives.
Had we needed backup there were boats on the way. It was a real-life drill and our procedures ensured that the best possible outcome was achieved. Had we not discussed the procedure with our guests nor had the MAYDAY script at hand it wouldn’t have gone as smooth.
Other boat safety procedures that we have included include how to turn the boat on and off in addition to reading the plotter.
It might seem nuts but if Simon and I both go overboard if there’s anyone left they need to know how to save us and save themselves. We also have set procedures on how to prepare for a storm (see my Hurricane Preparedness Guide) in addition to what to do if the bilge starts going off. We have a map for all our stopcocks. So if water is coming in, we know what floorboards to start lifting up to rule out the issue.
No one wants to contemplate the worst.
We all think of sailing and see sparkling blue water, tropical white beaches, and smiles on everyone’s faces. It’s hard to force ourselves to look too closely into ‘what if…’ situations but it’s imperative to do so. What if our engine dies? What if Simon goes over – how am I going to lift him out of the water? How about our mast coming down?
What’s important is to ask and answer the “what if” questions. Make some formal policies and procedures and learn how to use the equipment and then move on. Don’t dwell on these things. In most cases, nothing will ever happen…but by knowing how your equipment works and how to deal with issues you’ll feel more confident and safe. Amen!
FREE Boat Safety Blueprint Video & Safety Audit
When it comes to avoiding boat safety mistakes the most important thing you can do is define what boat safety is, make sure you understand how all your equipment/safety systems work, and create a manual that enables you to store and disseminate all your boat safety instructions, procedures, policies, maps, and checklists.
To get started on determining how safe your boating environment is, make watch our Boat Safety Bluprint Video & grab a copy of our FREE Boat Safety Audit.
This audit lists all the common boat safety equipment and enables you to check off what you have/don’t have. It also recommends servicing items that require maintenance in addition to listing potential procedures and policies that you might want to take on board your boat. Get access here: Boat Safety Video & Audit.
Other Boat Safety Articles/Videos
- The Ultimate Boat Safety Blueprint
- 7 Boat Safety Mistakes and How to Correct Them
- Sailing Basics – Avoiding Collisions
- The Importance of Using a Sailing Safety Tether
- The Best Life Jacket for Sailing Cruisers
- Seasickness Solution For Sailors
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