I’m ashamed to admit it but until recently, I wasn’t 100% sure about how to deploy our life raft. If you’re not familiar with what a life raft is, it’s a backup floatation device that can be used for survival if the boat sinks. It blows up to look like a neon orange floating tent and is packed with water, flares, and a range of other life-saving items. Before I get ahead of myself, this article is about three things that all liveaboards must know…
From time to time, over the past five years, I’d look at the big white box containing the raft and think, ‘I don’t want to envision ever having to use it so let’s ignore the abandon ship possibility.’ Or sometimes, I’d think, ‘If I ever have to use it, I’ll figure it out when I need to.’ And of course, I’d hear my go-to line loud and clear:
‘Simon will sort it out if that ever happens!’
With all my PMA (positive mental attitude) training, I am very quick to change my thoughts when I feel they’re heading in the wrong direction. Thinking about Britican sinking just doesn’t work for me. The instant any thought like that crosses my mind I divert attention to something else.
In the case of boat safety, diversion might not be a good long-term strategy! There’s certainly a need know what to do if disaster strikes.
Even as I write this I’m hearing my inner voice say, ‘If I don’t think about it, it won’t happen.’
The problem with this diversion tactic is that there’s a little niggle that hangs over me. A little niggle that’s constantly there, poking at me every time I look at the life raft. Or anytime I think about the possibility of Simon becoming incapacitated while at sea. It’s hard to admit, but putting my head in the sand actually increases my anxiety and fears rather than reduces them.
When deciding to become a liveaboard cruiser there is a huge amount of responsibility put on our shoulders. Some of us know about the responsibility but choose to ignore it (that’s me!). By doing so our confidence reduces and our fears, often unknowingly, increase.
Yes – there are emergency services available to boaters and in busy areas, the response can be very fast – even under an hour. For full time live aboard cruisers, however, the response is more likely to be hours and even days due to the more remote locations they sail in.
Someone recently told me that the average wait to be found in a life raft in the Caribbean is 48 hours!
Growing up in the States and living half my life in the UK, I never had to worry about help coming quickly. I knew it was on its way or I knew I could drive to a hospital within minutes. There was no niggle. I didn’t need to know anything other than how to dial 999/911.
In contrast, while on a boat in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Pacific, there’s a high potential that no one is going to come anytime soon (or ever) when an emergency strikes.
During my recent Medical Emergency on a Deserted Island, I had a bit of a wake-up call. I thought I was having a heart attack. My husband was able to contact land-based emergency services but we then had to figure out how to get me from the boat, anchored off a deserted island, to an island with services! And even when I got to land, the ambulance wasn’t there. And when I got to the hospital, the Doctor didn’t know what to do…but that’s another story.
So, as a liveaboard cruiser there are three very important things to understand regarding being a liveaboard cruiser:
- There’s a possibility that YOU will have to be a First Aid responder and move heaven and earth to tend to a loved one for hours…not minutes.
- The boating industry has created safety equipment, procedures, and medical assistance but if you don’t know how to use it you’re only going to create undue anxiety about having it.
- YOU, and anyone else that’s going to liveaboard, must know how to operate the boat and it’s basic systems so to be able to retrieve a Man Over Board (MOB), use the VHF to make an emergency call, read the plotter to know where you are and navigate the boat to safety, bring in the sails (if they’re out) AND helm the boat (steer, go backwards and forwards).
The worst case scenario is that you and your partner are sailing between islands on an overnight passage and your partner falls off the boat or becomes incapacitated.
There’s no one else on the boat – what are you going to do?
(Err…actually, the worst case scenario is that you fall overboard and your partner doesn’t know how to get you, but let’s not go there).
Many people write me often asking how I can help them convince their partner to live the sailing dream. Well, there’s a two-prong approach you need to take. You need to sell the positives – exotic travel, beautiful weather, gin & tonic in a Tiki Bar and so forth.
And you also need to get adequate training so that all parties can operate the boat single-handed AND know what to do if an emergency happens. I can understand that that might be too much for your partner to handle so you’ll want to take baby steps.
The key is that you sell the dream AND build the confidence.
Your partner will want to know that you can deal with emergencies. Furthermore, the more your partner has confidence in his or her own capabilities, the more confidence they’ll have (and more likely they’ll want to continue sailing).
Taking a few sailing courses is a good way to get started, but it’s experience and practice that will build confidence. No one likes to feel vulnerable and that’s exactly what someone will feel if they are on a boat and don’t know what to do in an emergency.
As soon as you get your boat, don’t spend months pouring money into upgrades and making it perfect (like too many people do). Instead, spend all the time you and your partner/family can to take the boat out (into open water) and practice:
- Tacking and gybing – eventually single-handed.
- Maneuvering the boat under the engine.
- Practice MOB with one sail out, two sails out/all sails out and under engine power at different points of sail (throw a pillow over and retrieve it). Do this as a family and/or couple and then do it without assistance from any others.
- Do VHF drills (not live) reading out a MAYDAY and going through the process to send a DSC alert. (If you need the templates for what to say for all VHF calls, get my guide, ‘VHF Radio Broadcasts‘)
- Getting the sails down without your partner.
- Entering a new location and anchoring without the help of anyone else.
- First aid.
And it’s not about practicing once and that’s it.
Make a routine calendar to practice emergency drills. Have a procedure for fires, a demasting, taking on water, medical emergencies, steering malfunctions, an engine failure and on a monthly basis get everyone on the boat to participate doing all the roles necessary.
One person helms for the MOB practice the first time and then switches over to another person. If children are on board, get them involved. Teach them to be spotters, explain what to do if they fall overboard, show them where the MAYDAY template is located and how to use the VHF (most boat kids use the VHF better than adults by the age of five!).
Let’s come back to my life raft…I now know how it works.
It’s not because we had to use it in haste, thankfully!
We’re currently getting our boat coded to take paying passengers for our Britican Liveaboard Experience. We’re now offering week-long packages in the Caribbean providing the opportunity for people to try the sailing liveaboard lifestyle before they buy.
In order to meet regulations, our boat has to be certified as safe. We’ve had to get all our life jackets tested and checked, a surveyor has examined every inch of our boat (looking for anything suspect) and loads more. As a part of the process, we had to have our life raft blown up, inspected and repacked.
We were fortunate to see our raft in its open state and get the low-down on how it works, what we’ll find in it when it’s deployed and tips on how to get in the life raft and survive.
So, I now know how to use our life raft. It’s no longer an unknown that makes me feel anxious.
It’s only in hindsight that I realized my mistake. I should have learned more about the safety side of being a liveaboard cruiser AND I should have put a procedure in place to practice drills routinely. It might not sound like a big deal to have anxiety about how to use the life raft but compound that with worrying about doing a MOB procedure and all the other things that could possibly happen. I didn’t realize how much anxiety I created for myself.
In addition to getting our boat and safety equipment up to scratch, I also had to write a safety manual for Britican. It’s a requirement for the coding process. From what I can make out, we’re only required to write about lifejackets, MOB, Fire, Life Raft and how to make a VHF emergency call.
After doing the bare requirements, I asked myself, ‘what could make this manual more valuable?’
What worries have I had in the past that guests might have? What might our guests need to know that they don’t know they need to know?
I then thought of the worst case scenario. What if both Simon and I are washed overboard? It’s extremely unlikely that we’d both fall off, but what would our guest(s) need to know to save us and get back to land safely?! This is what I came up with:
- Turn the engine on and off in addition to how to helm Britican.
- Read the plotter to know where you are (latitude and longitude) and how to get to safety or how to help someone find you.
- Crash tack (a maneuver that allows the helmsperson to very quickly stop the boat with full sails out).
- Take the sails down.
- Use the VHF radio to set off a DSC alert and make an emergency broadcast.
So, the first part of our Britican Safety Manual is a quick-start operating manual for the boat.
Thereafter, I cover lifejackets, Man Over Board, fire, steering, engine, collision, taking on water, the location of all thru-hull fittings, how to deploy the life raft, medical emergencies, grounding, and other procedures and boat rules. The manual is 20 pages long and won’t take more than 15 minutes to read. Even if a user skims the manual, they’ll know what’s in it and can refer back to it if need be.
In the UK, the only requirement you need to own and operate a boat is a Drivers Licence and a VHF Radio Licence (2-day course). In the US I think you only need a Driver’s Licence. There’s no requirement for an owner/operator to know how to operate the boat nor is there anything regarding emergencies at sea. It’s just not logical when you think about it.
Every boat should have a quick-start operating manual so that passengers can save themselves by taking command of the boat (in a worst case scenario) and every boat should also have an outline of where the safety equipment is and how to use it in addition to emergency procedures (chartered or recreational).
Would you like a copy of my Britican quick-start instructions and the full safety manual so that you can use it as a template for your own boat manual? Within an hour, you’ll be able to make your own safety manual to have on hand in case of emergencies. Or, if you’re getting your boat coded for chartering purpose, this manual will give you a very solid foundation to start with. To get your copy, become a Britican Club Member or Patreon Patron today.
All Britican Club Members and Patreon Patrons can collect my Boat Safety Manual here.
Duncan Wells says
I would add to your MOB on different points of sail that you should practise when running downwind with a symmetric spinnaker set on a pole. One person has to get that sail down on their own before they can get the boat back upwind to the MOB. See my book Stress Free Sailing, for this. And then check out my MOBLifesavers.com which add in to the automatic life jacket and allow us to retrieve the MOB. Duncan Wells
Kim Brown says
That’s awesome. Thanks for this Duncan 😉
Jim Hughes says
Once again, Kim comes across with some very “valuable” information.
There are quite a few sailing schools offering same or similar training experiences, some promoted as a “crash course”. Fine for some but if you want take your sailing skills/safety to the next level … . As I have followed Britican, Simon, Kim, Sienna and now Andrew, the Britican Liveaboard Experience will prove to be invaluable, why? The people of Britican and their attitude. Sign me up!
Kim Brown says
Jim – you’re awesome. Hehehehe. I do think that no matter what course you take it will be a ‘crash course’ and that your first year of sailing is a ‘crash year’. And I’m not meaning that literally… of course, I don’t want anyone to crash. There’s just so much to learn and it’s really hard to prioritize what’s important and what’s not. Thank you for your kind comments 🙂 Kim
Shelly Galligan says
Absolutely! There is every possiblility that if there is an onboard medical emergency we will have to handle it ourselves and likely for a long period of time. On the water, we can be on our own for hours or days, which for non medical people will seem like a lifetime. Handling medical emergencies on the water is remote medicine and having the skills to handle them is essential and totally learn-able. Thank you so much for emphasizing this point along with all of your other life saving information. I also love what you said about safety equipment. We can have all of the fancy equipment in the world, including a well stocked medical kit, but if we don’t know where it is and how to use it, it’s nothing more than expensive ballast. Thank you so much for discussing these critical issues.
Kim Brown says
Hey Shelly! The problem with discussing safety on a boat is that no one wants to ever think that anything bad will happen. The whole industry is geared to ‘living the dream,’ and there’s very little about making sure you survive living the dream. But by gaining a bit of training/experience, having procedures in place and strategically positioning First Aid resources and VHF emergency templates, issues can be successfully dealt with. What I find is that that the longer you sail, the more you realize what can go wrong, and the more you realize how lucky you’ve been for the past X years. Thank you for your comments 🙂 Kim