Putting boat safety first

Isobel Smith
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The sea, for all its beauty, can feel lonely and threatening when things go wrong. We outline the kit you should carry and the safety measures you should take to ensure you can cruise without concern

When buying your new yacht you will be surprised at the low levels of boat safety equipment supplied as standard – maybe just the lifelines round the deck edge, a couple of fire extinguishers, a bilge pump and perhaps a handful of wooden bungs.

The boatbuilder doesn’t know your sailing intentions, and with such a variety of equipment to choose from, they simply leave that choice to you, together with the cost!

Even when buying a used boat, you will find that some of the safety kit will have been removed to go on board the sellers’ new boat, leaving you to find and fund this, too.

Where you sail and how you sail will affect what level and the amount of equipment that you need.

If you’re interested in joining in with the racing at the club, you’ll find that there is a list of required safety equipment before you’ll be allowed to start racing.

For cruising you’ll need to think about where you intend to go, the time of year and how many people you’ll have on board.

We can define four categories of sailing with a different safety emphasis for each level:

1. Day-sailing, with no overnight passages.

2. Coastal passages, which might involve a some sailing in the dark to reach the next port.

3. Offshore – maybe a trip across the Channel or a week’s cruise.

4. Ocean voyaging, where you may be at sea for multiple days, with no access to the shore or harbours.

Your equipment must match your expected proximity to a safe haven or assistance, and a larger boat and crew will demand a higher spec of kit.

Safety management is all about your preparation and detailed planning for dealing with possible emergencies that may occur on board your yacht.

Emergencies may come in many forms, from life-threatening situations like a man overboard (MOB), to inconveniences like a steering failure, which could easily escalate into a much larger problem very quickly.

If most of your sailing is going to be within ten miles or so from the shore, then help is going to be readily available to you from the Coastguard and other nearby vessels.

Priorities for your emergency planning should be MOB, water ingress and fire. And wherever you sail, carry lifejackets for everyone on board.

Lifejackets

Put simply, don’t go to sea without them.

There are two sizes of inflatable jacket available: 150 Newton and 275N. The 275N is much larger when inflated, so don’t expect to be able to do much, and even when folded away they are still quite a bit larger than the 150N.

There is a variety of prices for lifejackets, and so you need to be careful to check the specifications, as you really get what you pay for here.

The most recent advance in safety has been the fitting of spray hoods. These stop windblown spray from entering your lungs when you’re just inches from the sea surface.

My advice is to go for a complete lifejacket with spray hood, harness and whistle, rather than trying to buy add-ons later.

You’re going to be at sea at night at some stage, so make sure you carry a light and have reflective tape fitted.

Also look for comfortable crotch straps, to stop the inflated lifejacket from floating over your head in the water.

Man overboard

A serious danger that can happen on any boat is a man-overboard incident.

It’s surprisingly hard to get someone back onto even a small boat, and one of the biggest dangers is losing sight of them and never finding them again.

You should invest in a good system for MOB recovery, and you and your crew should be confident in its use.

There are several systems on the market for marking and even lifting the causality on board, like the Jonbuoy system, but there is nothing wrong with the simplest method – a horseshoe lifebuoy and danbuoy.

The danbuoy is essential to give a clear indication of the causality’s position, as the flag will be flying up to 2m above the surface and is much easier to spot than a person’s head in the water.

A whistle and a small drogue to slop it being blown about will complete your kit.

What if my boat leaks?

What would you do if holed or the boat springs a leak? Your boat will have at least one manual bilge pump fitted with a strum box to filter out any debris, but what if it can’t cope?

Many strum boxes are now being permanently fitted into the bilge, thus making them all but impossible to clean when under a lot of water.

The simplest failsafe method, often quoted, is a frightened man and a bucket – no moving parts or electrics to fail and it’s cheap to fit!

Have at least a couple on board, but get ones with strong handles as you’re bound to use them over the side on a lanyard, and the cheap ones always pull out.

Fire on board your boat

Fire is another serious hazard that you can be better prepared for with a little forethought.

Take a look at your yacht’s possible danger zones: the galley, engine space and electrical panel.

If you have a gas cooker then you should have a gas detector in the bilge and/or underneath the appliance.

Being heavier than air, gas will sink into the bilge and collect with the air into an explosive mixture.

Foam, powder or CO2 extinguishers are best located near to the galley and engine space, as these locations are likely to contain oil, fuel and electrics, so fire extinguishers should not be aimed at them.

Consideration should be given to getting inside the engine space if it were on fire, as opening the compartment will introduce more oxygen to the area.

You can get some excellent engine room-mounted extinguishers activated by excess heat, or units operated by pulling a cable.

A cheaper way would be to make a hole in the engine compartment and have a metal opening plate, then aiming your standard extinguisher inside the area safely.

For small fires, such as fat catching alight while cooking bacon, all that is needed is a well-placed fire blanket so you can smother the flames fast and with minimal mess.

Communication and flares

With any emergency, communicating your needs to others is a high priority. In coastal waters a VHF is all that’s needed to communicate with the Coastguard and other yachts and ships.

GMDSS sets are becoming standard now and they have the benefit of a one-touch distress operation, which can transmit a data-burst containing your vessel name and MMSI number.

If you have registered your details with the Coastguard, they will know what you look like and even what kit you have on board, which will greatly help them in assisting you.

As well as the VHF, a simple radio will keep you informed of the weather forecast, so you can decide when it’s best to return to port and call it a day.

If you’re having a really bad day and water has knocked out your electrics, you will need a set of flares to attract attention. These are best kept in a dedicated floating box, ready to pass on deck.

Smoke flares are really much more useful than you might think, as they are obviously good during the daylight hours, and at night help to show the wind direction to lifeboats and helicopters when lit up with good torch or a hand-held flare.

Finally, one thing that often gets overlooked as basic safety kit is the anchor. Having reliable ground tackle is both comforting for a good night’s sleep, but also essential in an emergency to stop your yacht drifting into danger.

Heading offshore

For longer coastal trips there is the chance that you may be caught out in some bad weather while trying to get home, so it becomes a priority to keep the crew securely attached to the boat.

Well-attached wire or webbing jackstays should be fitted to both sides of your yacht, so you can leave the cockpit and get to the bow while always being clipped on.

There should be attachment points in the cockpit too, so you can lean out to attach yourself before exiting the hatch – you’re at your most vulnerable when coming straight out the companionway on deck.

With longer overnight and offshore passages it would be prudent to carry some more parachute flares with you, as you’re more likely to be out of sight from the land.

Parachute flares can be seen from 30 miles or more, and are always best let off in pairs to confirm your distress situation to that sleepy watch-keeper. Most standard packs only give you two attempts.

When crossing shipping lanes you need to be sure that you are seen, so your best chance is to have a good positive radar signal displayed on the bridge of the passing traffic.

The standard octahedral aluminium reflector is very good at maximising your target area, but tends not to get put up as often as it should.

If you’re planning to sail regularly offshore, then it’s better to fit a reflector up the mast permanently, or for even more peace of mind fit a SeaMe active enhancer, which amplifies and retransmits your signal making you look a much bigger target on the transmitting radars.

An addition you should make to your toolkit is a good hacksaw with plenty of blades or a good pair of boltculters. If your rig should fall down offshore, you need to be able to clear it away quickly so it does not puncture your hull and cause you more problems.

Abandoning ship

If you’re venturing further away from the shore, then you should now be considering a lifecraft as part of your equipment.

You will need to know how far offshore you’ll be and how many crew you’ll have aboard to decide what specification your raft should be.

As with lifejackets, you really need to check the specs first, as there is a huge variety of sizes (four, six, eight-man etc) and the contents vary greatly.

You should always make up a grab bag to take with you if you have to get into your raft – you can add to this if your choice of raft has been limited by budget.

You can make a grab bag yourself by buying a large dry-bag and loading it with a spare VHF, handheld GPS, first-aid kit, extra flares and other safety equipment.

Ocean crossing

When preparing for an ocean crossing, you need to be totally self-sufficient in everything, including your safety gear.

Your communications gear needs to be higher spec for both general use and for your safety needs. Firstly, an EPIRB with a hydrostatic release mechanism is a must, so it can float free if you don’t have the time to grab it in a serious emergency.

Your liferaft and grab bags will have to be assessed carefully. A few water containers placed near the liferaft will be an easy way to increase your survival time in the raft, together with some extra kit in the grab bags, like food, clothing, torches and batteries, and maybe even a sat phone, so you can keep in touch with the shore and rescue services.

Finally, we recommend that you spend time becoming familiar with your safety equipment and the procedures for using it.

Being confident in how to use it is vital in ensuring it’s used properly. It’s always hard to spend money on safety kit you hope you’ ll never use, and it’s tempting to pack it all away on board and forget about it.

But as soon as an emergency situation develops, you will be wishing that you had spent more time researching and buying good equipment.

Putting boat safety first

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