Being prepared to handle an emergency on board

Next month we publish Seamanship 2.0, which, as the subtitle reveals, covers everything you need to know to get yourself out of trouble at sea. With fantastic illustrations, this practical handbook will help develop skills and build confidence in the most essential of seamanship skills. In this blog, author Mike Westin writes about being better prepared to handle an emergency on board.

Three out of the four authors of Seamanship 2.0 have been lifeboat coxswains and lifeboat volunteer crew for many years and in that job have seen a lot of situations, that in some cases could have been a ‘danger to human life’, which would be the basic definition of an emergency situation at sea (in an emergency at sea, every boat within the vicinity must try to help – unlike on land where the same laws do not apply).

When out there, what sometimes surprises us the most is how many boat owners react with apathy and/or indifference, instead of trying to proactively resolve a situation. It may be in very non-threatening circumstances, such as the engine won’t start when the wind is failing, or when a boat is nearing lee shore in a gale and a skipper really needs to react to save the boat and possibly lives.

There are various studies that have looked into how people react in stressful situations. They usually confirm that very few people feel ‘panic’ in its proper sense. Rather, it is fear combined with a measure of anxiety that gives an inability to act rationally.

The conclusion from these studies is that young men, and mothers with small children, are the ones who to the greatest extent act proactively. Trying to escape the situation is another reaction that a small percentage across ages will do.

On the other hand, a large percentage of middle-aged men seldom try to act on their own – instead they often become dead possums and wait for someone else to take the initiative. Even when this happens, it is common for this group to not respond actively, even after direct orders. Apathy at different levels has been described in the sinking of both the Titanic and Estonia

Without going into the incomprehensible underlying psychological causes that are partly (up to 60 per cent) genetically determined from hundreds of thousands of years ago, we can only confirm that we often see normal boat owners not do much other than possibly pick up the phone to ask someone else to remedy the situation. When we arrive with the rescue boat, they may have drifted ashore, even though if they had thrown into the anchor they may have been able to avoid this. Or, what happened to the paddle that would be on board according to the safety recommendations in the 1960s and 70s? Okay, maybe the last solution is only for smaller boats of which there are few today…

We suspect it is a combination of little real-life boating experience, stress and perhaps the expectation of always having rescue resources around the corner, that causes a skipper to expect that ‘someone’ (often the RNLI, Coastguard, SAR helicopter or similar) will always show up and fix everything.

Very few people know their stress-to-panic-limit because it’s extremely rare that we are exposed to excess (real) stress. And when we do, we can rarely do anything about the situation (eg in a traffic accident or in a robbery).

One of the advantages of working with SAR services is that you yourself are also exposed to substantial stress from time to time. Therefore, we can learn how we function in these situations. This is largely due to the fact that we as lifeboat crew (as well as firefighters, ambulance paramedics, lifeguards etc) try to recreate various emergency situations for training purposes. During training, we can make mistakes, we can stop and take a couple of deep breaths and afterwards we will get valuable feedback on what worked and what did not during debriefings.

How can this be transferred to regular boat owners? To begin with, you need to have a plan (and a plan B for backup) then practise, both on your own and with your crew. Where is the first-aid kit stored, what is the immediate thing to do if a crew member falls overboard or what to do if a fire starts in the engine compartment?

You can actually do quite a lot just by mentally going through a possible scenario step by step and thinking on how to act (this is where a book like Seamanship 2.0 will help!). Then run through the situations with your crew and practice, practice, practice.

Some tips:

  • Assume that it is you – as skipper – who must save yourself and your crew, though do call for help immediately if there is a danger to human life. if you solve it, you can later call back and cancel the emergency
  • While waiting for outside assistance, try to handle the situation; ‘buy time’ (drop an anchor before drifting into shallow waters when the engine has stopped, make a pressure dressing immediately to reduce bleeding (or just press a hanky on the bleeding wound while waiting for a bandage), start CPR straightaway when a person has fainted and no longer breathing normally, take down sails when you have run aground, tow a burning boat out from a full harbour, learn to get a position by taking bearing when the digital charts blacks out and so on
  • Take a training course (or several) to be better prepared for handling different stressful situations

After an emergency (or training session) always debrief to reduce the chances of after-effects from a stressful situation, and so you all learn something from what happened.

Saving a boat from sinking or burning out is not an emergency. An emergency is only when there’s a danger to life and a human life needs saving. The boat itself is for the owner or their insurance company to take care of. Often it is easier for us on the lifeboat to tow the affected boat, with its crew to safety, rather than trying to transfer them to the lifeboat…

Seamanship 2.0 is published on 18th March (ISBN 9781472977021). You will be able to buy it through all good bookshops and chandleries at an RRP of £14.99, but you can pre-order it with a 10% discount direct from our website: