What should you do in a boating emergency and how should you prepare ahead of time? Our experts offer their best hints and tips

A boating emergency is the sort of thing that everyone taking to the water should be prepared for even if, in preparing, we hope we are never in a position to use those new found skills.

It should go without saying that anyone using the water, whether that be lakes, river or oceans should be fully prepared for any boating emergency that is likely to occur.

Here some of Yachting Monthly’s regular contributors prove their best boating emergency tip and trick that really work for them, from preparation ideas to practises that have actually helped when in trouble at sea.

Lightning strikes at sea – Daria Blackwell

Lightning strikes are predicted to increase as the globe gets warmer. Credit: Getty

Lightning strikes are predicted to increase as the globe gets warmer. Credit: Getty

It stands to reason that if lightning occurs more frequently in hotter weather, then the frequency of lightning strikes might increase with global warming.

A model published in Science in 2014 predicted that lightning strikes will increase by about 12% for every degree of rise in global average air temperature.

A previous sailing boat we owned was struck by lightning on her mooring. The lightning wiped out all electronics and electrical equipment, including all wiring throughout the boat. It also blew the fairing out of the bottom of the keel.

That boat had a lightning dissipator on her mast, which we decided was a lightning attractor. Had she had plastic through hulls, they would have melted and she would have sunk.

In 2020, a solo sailor’s steel vessel was struck by lightning about 700 miles out from the Caribbean, wiping out all electronics. Fortunately, his iPhone, VHF and satellite phone remained functional and he had paper charts for navigation. Aside from avoiding lightning, what can sailors do?

The obvious thing is to have a plan for how to act when a squall approaches your vessel at sea.

One thing we learned was to put all our handheld electronics in the oven and wrap them in tin foil which acts as a Faraday cage that protects against electromagnetic fields.

Just don’t forget to remove them before baking that fresh loaf of bread.

Firing flares in an emergency – Daria Blackwell

 Many skippers have never set off a flare, which is why the World Cruising Cub holds training sessions before the start of the ARC. Credit: James Mitchell/World Cruising Club

Many skippers have never set off a flare, which is why the World Cruising Cub holds training sessions before the start of the ARC. Credit: James Mitchell/World Cruising Club

The worst things happen in the dead of night at sea.

On leg two of the Bermuda One-Two Race, my friend’s yacht’s keel fell off. The yacht turned over and he and his crew swam out, bringing the ditch kit with them. Soon, a cruise ship appeared on the horizon.

My friend tried to set off a flare but realised he didn’t know how and couldn’t read the instructions, which being red on yellow were invisible at night. Eventually, he did manage to set off a flare and they were rescued. That made us realise that setting off flares is not often practised.

We worked with the coastguard and our yacht club to arrange a demonstration session. Cruisers brought their outdated flares and fired them off under supervision. It was a very instructional session.

We saw the difference between SOLAS flares and inexpensive aerial flares first-hand. The latter typically burn for six seconds and reach 300ft of altitude. The SOLAS flares burn for about 40 seconds and soar up to 900ft or more.

Some flares drip molten residue which can burn hands, burn holes in PFDs, the boat, or liferafts, and even ignite fires on deck. Holding mock drills can help prepare crew for an emergency.

Here is what we learned:

  • Study the instructions.
  • Don eye protection.
  • Face downwind.
  • Aim with care, holding the flare in your non-dominant hand and cocked away from you over the water.
  • Look away before you fire. If the flare fails to ignite or launch, do not make a second attempt. Drop the flare or shell casing into the water and grab a fresh flare.

See clearly in a boating emergency – John Willis

Keep a magnifying glass in your grab bag so you can read instructions if you or your crew lose their glasses in an emergency. Credit: John Willis

Keep a magnifying glass in your grab bag so you can read instructions if you or your crew lose their glasses in an emergency. Credit: John Willis

You can easily find a number of useful guides to help you pack your grab bag. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by producing a packing list, but I would recommend one item – a large magnifying glass.

Like many, I see less clearly now than I did. I have long given up taking expensive pairs of glasses to sea but the cheap ones do seem to be fragile.

Scattered around my navigation area is a motley collection of glasses, some minus an arm, and others with a cracked or missing lens.

In any grab bag will be instructions, important ones, such as how to set off the EPIRB or send a DSC. Some packing lists therefore suggest packing a spare pair of glasses.

If you are like me you will probably either break them or lose them, which is why my grab bag contains a large, virtually indestructible magnifying glass.

It is plastic, has no sharp edges and is more sensible than a fragile pair of glasses. Also, anyone can use it to read, which is not true of prescription glasses.

And if you do end up on a desert island, you could start a fire with it!

Practise with your boating emergency kit – Graham Walker

Practise deploying your drogue to find out about the challenges you might face when doing it for real. Credit: Graham Walker

Practise deploying your drogue to find out about the challenges you might face when doing it for real. Credit: Graham Walker

We all buy a lot of emergency equipment that we hope we will never have to deploy, but as a result we don’t have much experience of using it.

Rigging and using our emergency steering taught us that we just couldn’t use it like a normal tiller. We needed to have lines taken from the emergency tiller to the winches on either side and then have someone working on each winch in order to effectively steer the boat.

Deploying the drogue taught us about the challenge of preparing it for deployment in a heavy sea, and the further challenge of recovery afterwards.

At our last liferaft test we took the opportunity to see our own raft inflated, work out how to get inside it and check out all the equipment it contained.

Use in-board jackstays – Randall Reeves

Secure jackstays from the doghouse could keep you on board in a storm. Credit: Randall Reeves

Secure jackstays from the doghouse could keep you on board in a storm. Credit: Randall Reeves

On my 45ft expedition sloop, Mōli, I set up jackstays that run from the doghouse to the mast, well in-board of the jackstays along the deck.

This ensures that if I am swept by a wave, I will likely still be onboard when the tether comes taut.

Keep an eye on your jackstay stitching – Harry Dekkers

Jackstay stitching in a different colour will reveal when it is UV degraded. Credit: Harry Dekkers

Jackstay stitching in a different colour will reveal when it is UV degraded. In a boating emergency you want to be able to rely on your jackstay. Credit: Harry Dekkers

At sea, especially with bad weather, singlehanded sailing or working on the fore deck, most of us use weather jackstays and tethers.

Recently I was sailing with a friend and noticed he had rigged jackstays on deck.

We had a discussion on the material use for the jackstay.

Basically, there are three options: a line, a steel cable (with or without a plastic cover) and a flat nylon strap.

I would prefer a jackstay made from flat nylon strap, as the other two can roll under your shoes.

But the nylon webbing also has a disadvantage: the deterioration of the stitching as a result of UV exposure.

To avoid this problem, I asked my sail maker to use a different colour for the stitching on the loops at both ends; blue stitches on white nylon.

Once the stitches are discoloured to white, I know it’s time to renew the stitches.


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