On a small sailboat, the skipper is that guy who usually just sleeps and eats. He docks and launches the boat, and from time to time tells his sea adventures which makes you feel like if you were nothing but a mere landlubber.
Each person being in-command of a small vessel, especially on a sea-going sailing adventure with a crew with limited to none sailing experience, the skipper has one very important duty, that mustn’t be omitted at any time. It’s a safety briefing before a departure from a safe haven.
It is important to listen to it carefully and try to as much as it’s practically possible. The reason for that is, that skippers also fell overboard, they may have a medical issue or might be vulnerable to any other judgment – impairing condition that human beings can possibly suffer from. Obviously, in a perfect world, there is a qualified relief crew onboard able and capable of stepping in, when actual crap hits the fan. But if that person sleeps or, for whatever imaginable reason, is unavailable? On top of that – safe manning rules apply only if you are on a commercially coded vessel. If you’re hitchhiker, or just sail with someone you know, privately – there maybe just nobody else qualified onboard. And what if the only qualified person has just disappeared 200 meters behind the stern? In an emergency – every second matter. It’s worth to know what to do. In the end: safety is everyone’s responsibility.
It is unlikely, that you’ll remember each and every single thing you’ll hear in the course of the briefing. Those are tons of information. Below, you’ll find non–exhaustive list of things which are worth being aware of, and maybe if they’re reinforced during safety briefing some of them will at least partially remain in your memory.
Lifejackets and safety harness
How to put them on, when they need to be worn, how to adjust all these straps properly. It is advised to dress them whenever you are on the deck, or in the cockpit. Very important is to properly attach crotch strap. If it hangs loose may become a cause of the accident itself.
The skipper will advise you as well when and how to use a safety harness. Remember to secure yourself with it always when you sail at night and you’re outside, but also when it is wavy, or when skipper tells you to do so for whatever reason. If you fall overboard at night chances of finding you are really minimal. Safety harness shall be attached to special belay points on the deck, or to a lifeline. Cockpit table handrails or mast are usually good places to attach yourself too. I’d not advise you to clip yourself into the helm. It makes helmsman job really miserable.
At this point, the skipper will usually tell you about the most basic rule, while onboard of any sailing vessel. ‘One hand for the yacht’ – wherever you go on the boat – hold yourself with at least one of your hands.
Here you’ll learn about fire extinguishers, fire blankets, and their location. The skipper will also tell you how to prevent fire onboard. In practice, it means, that he’ll tell you how to operate the stove, to spare yourself the trauma of an explosion, and will remind you, that smoking is allowed only outside (if at all), far away from the gas cylinder storage.
How and where to check the coordinates or in other words position of the vessel
It is especially useful if you call Search and Rescue, and they’d like to know a bit more precise where exactly you are between Scotland and Norway for the sake of that example. Coordinates can be usually found on: radio, chart plotter, yacht logbook or on nautical charts.
How do you actually call SAR or Coast Guard?
The minimum knowledge you need to have on that subject is where to find distress pushbutton on VHF radio. As it is usually under a flap with the word ‘distress’ written on it – that shouldn’t be an issue. If you’d like to speak to someone over the radio – you need to remember that it is not a mobile phone, and to have an efficient conversation, you need to press and release push – to – talk button on the handset in right moments. To make sure, that everyone around understands that you’re in an immediate need of assistance it’s the best to follow ‘MAYDAY’ call protocol. It usually hangs just next to the radio. If you’re on an expedition somewhere really far away from the land there could be also: Long Range radio, EPIRB, SART or satellite phone. It is worth knowing what each of these things does, and how to turn it on. Ask your capt’n about it.
How to stop yacht in case of man overboard situation.
As one tragic event on the Atlantic Ocean in 2017 shown – it is very important to know it. Some married couple was crossing Atlantic making their ways towards the Caribbean, and skipper fell overboard. His wife, who knew literally nothing about sailing, continued on the same course for another two days before she managed to establish contact with a cargo ship passing by. All that time, she didn’t manage to drop sails and start the engine. Lady has been eventually rescued, but boat left with her sails on continued by herself for another week until she ran aground into one of the Caribbean Islands.
There are plenty of methods of man overboard rescue, and probably even more opinion which one is the best. My personal view is: immediately shout for help (if there is anyone to help), make sure you keep an eye on a person in the water, throw him lifebuoy, and heave-to boat.
If you do these things immediately, there is a good chance you’ll end up just a few meters away from a wretch who involuntarily chose freedom in the Ocean.
Heave – to is a very simple maneuver: you need to steer into the direction where the wind blows from until you cross its line. Once that’s done, you completely loose mainsail (just remove the rope from the winch and drop it on the floor), in the end, you turn helm hard towards the wind. You’re heaving – to, and remain almost in the same place.
Another steps are: turning on the engine (you need to be shown in the course of the safety briefing how to do it!), getting rid of the jib or genoa (these are sails in front), and securing the mainsail. With the engine running, and no front sails, approaching the man overboard shouldn’t be difficult.
If you haven’t understood a word of what I’ve just written – make sure skipper explains that to you or even practice with you somewhere on sheltered water.
In the event of an evacuation, you may have assigned duty. Usually, it will be: ‘take something with you and run to a raft’. It is worth knowing what you need to take and where it will be located. As some of these may be: ‘grab bag’ or ‘EPIRB’ – make sure you do understand what you’re required to do. The skipper should also explain to you, that throwing raft into the water just as it is, may not be the best idea, as raft will go its direction whilst yacht would remain where it was.
It is a matter of the utmost importance to memorize one thing: do not touch any object attached to a helicopter, which has not touched the water before. Helicopter generates a huge charge of static electricity. You don’t want to be the conductor for it to ground.
Use of toilet and other organizational things
Toilet on board of a vessel for God only knows what reason is called ‘head’. There are two things you need to know about the use of it: how to flush it – it is not that straightforward as one may think. Still, on a vessel, it is easier to use than in a submarine. Another important thing is sewage pipes. They’re VERY thin. It means that whatever you drop into the toilet bowl may very efficiently clog it. And unclogging isn’t a job you’d wish to anyone. The rule is: whatever went through your digestive system, this or another way can go into the toilet. The rest of it needs to be disposed of elsewhere. If you ask yourself if you’re allowed to throw in toilet paper, the answer is yes. Under that condition that you eat it first.
On sailboats running training or adventure scheme – everyone participates in navigating the boat. It is called ‘watch’. Make sure you know when is your turn and don’t come late.
It will be very difficult in such a short article to even touch on all of the most important things about life and safety onboard a small vessel. I hope that this blogpost will somehow make it closer to you. I hope as well, that you’ll never need to use the knowledge which I tried to pass on to you. Except for the use of toilets, of course.