• The stricken yacht. Photo / RNZAF.
    The stricken yacht. Photo / RNZAF.
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You’ve just bought all your Category 1 safety gear, and are ready to take on the great race, but where on the boat does it all go? Not only is this a matter of personal preference, it is also a question that can only be answered by experience and training. A location that works on one boat might not work so well on another, and a location that works for one crew might create confusion for the next.

The reason we do our safety at sea courses is to gain some experience without endangering ourselves in a real life situation. Only until that real life situation comes around, do we really understand the importance of all that training. The same holds true with safety gear – only when you’re in an emergency situation do you appreciate the benefit of knowing precisely where it is and being confident it has been properly prepared.

Man overboard

Let’s start with the worst situation we can face, a crew member in the water. All crews are required to do man overboard drills as part of the Category 1 requirements. The key thing we are always taught is to get plenty of floating things in the water as quickly as possible. This gives the person in the water opportunities to stay afloat and also helps narrow the search area. Last year I received an emergency call in the middle of the night from the crew of a yacht who just minutes earlier had lost someone over the side. The crew knew they were searching in the right area because they found some of the floating items they had thrown overboard immediately after the crew member.

When someone goes overboard offshore, it is generally those near the back of the boat that will see them. The crew sitting on the rail are generally looking outboard, maybe at the horizon, or to weather spotting wind. If they are not, they are then looking at their task at hand. The helmsman and afterguard are generally looking forward, watching the waves, the instruments and the tell tails… they have the best visibility of everyone on board. This is in both senses – first, they can see most of the people on board most of the time. Second, they can see most of what happens.

With this in mind, place your life rings and Danbuoy somewhere the helmsman or afterguard can reach and throw them from quickly. However, I believe it is not enough to throw only the life ring and Danbuoy for the person who has gone overboard. My personal experience, and general experience of all offshore crews, is that the more we can litter the water with floating items (anything will do), the better the chance of finding that person. Place floating torches, drink bottles with glow tape, light sticks, and anything else you have room for near the life rings and Danbuoys for the helmsman and afterguard to throw in. The key here is to reduce the time between the person going overboard and the items joining them. Again, this makes it more likely the person will be able to find and use those items and also means there will be more items close to them for the crew to search for. This will make the search area more accurate.

Also of crucial importance is to have a “man overboard” button on your GPS. This allows the crew to pin point where the boat was when the person fell overboard. If this button is near the helm, the helmsman can press it as soon as he becomes aware someone has gone overboard. Again, each second is precious so the closer this button can be to where the helmsman will be standing, the better. All major navigation electronics manufacturers now make their instruments with the capability for a button input to be added into the instrument system. Make sure the button is well marked, easy to find at night and easy to operate.

Hopefully you will find the person quickly. Once found, that person needs to be brought back on deck. To do this, you need a recovery sling. Again, make sure this is easy to find, and that each crew member is familiar with how it works.

My experience is that some crew members assume the sling, and other safety equipment, will be the same as the one they used during their safety at sea course. Nine times out of ten the equipment won’t be the same. Knowing how the life rings, Danbuoy, sling, etc. on each boat works and should be set up and used, could save someone’s life.

First Aid

Another very important piece of safety equipment is the boat’s first aid kit. Again, this should be easy to find and easy to use. Each crew member should know what each item is for and how it works. Again, it will all be that much harder in an emergency, if you or someone else is in shock, if there’s a lot of blood, if it’s dark or when you’re tired. You don’t want to have to search for the kit, move heavy items to get it, and/or find it and then discover half the items are missing.

My suggestion is to check the kit before every race. That way you can tell your fellow-crew members where it is and make sure it is fully stocked. I also suggest having two kits - the Category 1 first aid kit which is kept sealed until a real emergency, and a separate “day kit” for regular use by the crew. The day kit can contain items that always seem to be used, plasters, pain killers, sea sick medication, and scissors. A final word on scissors – check them before every race because they often seem to go missing to be used for sail repairs.

Abandon Ship

When it comes time to abandon ship, it is very easy for an already bad situation to deteriorate further, and fast. Having a good, well-rehearsed plan is critical. Knowing where the safety gear is located can save vital time. Each life raft should have a well prepared, conveniently located grab bag. Make sure you have everything you need in each grab bag, and consider two complete sets if you have two life rafts. The spare VHF won’t be of any use if it’s in the “other bag”.

In advance of each race, consider the race course and what the worst case situation may be. How long could you be in the raft? What communication equipment could be useful? For instance a VHF could well be fine for coastal communications, but if you are some distance from help a Satphone might be a better choice. What else from the yacht could you need in the grab bags other than what is required by the race rules? For example, this should include prescription medications for crew members, passports (for international races) and a decent amount of cash. I know of at least one person who got rescued but couldn’t afford a cab from where he was dropped off to where he needed to go.

Assigning each member of crew a number is great practice, also assign them a raft. Eg: crew one to eight, life raft A and nine to 12, life raft B. In any emergency, this saves more time and prevents confusion. The smoother the process in any emergency, the less chance of further problems developing.

Also check that you can you deploy the life rafts if the boat loses its keel and/or capsizes. More than one boat has had this situation, with crew unable to get the rafts out of the now upside down cockpits. This is the reason that the Comanche rafts are set into the transom, a lesson learnt through the experience of the Rambler 100 capsize in the 2011 Fastnet race.

- Ross Vickers

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