Liferafts are reassuring, but should only to be used as an absolute last resort. James Stevens explores the main scenarios that could lead to abandoning ship, and what to do if the worst happens
Having to abandon ship into a liferaft is the biggest decision a skipper has to make.
Current thinking about this was greatly influenced by the 1979 Fastnet Race Inquiry Report written by the RYA and RORC.
The race fleet encountered very severe weather in the Irish Sea; 24 yachts were abandoned of which 19 were later recovered.
There were 15 fatalities.
Before we become too judgemental, however, remember that yachts in 1979 were not designed for knockdowns and inversion.
Batteries, toolboxes, cookers and other heavy equipment were not secured as they should be now, so conditions below would have been grim in a storm.
However, the point was forcibly made that if the yacht is afloat it is the best liferaft.
While the RNLI is kept busy with yachts running aground, engines failing or crew needing to be taken off, it is very unusual for a lifeboat or a helicopter to rescue a crew from a liferaft.
In spite of this, it is worth considering the circumstances when it is time to abandon ship, how it might be prevented and if the worst happens, how to survive.
So, why do yachts founder?
Recently there has been a great deal of discussion in the yachting press and elsewhere on keel failure.
Most of this has been prompted by the loss of the Beneteau First 40.7 Cheeki Rafiki with four lives in the North Atlantic in 2014.
The keel separated from the hull.
The racing yacht Hooligan V capsized following keel failure off Prawle Point in Devon in 2007, with the loss of one crew member.
Sailing’s world governing body, World Sailing, has highlighted these and other keel incidents.
Most of the accidents were yachts which had been raced and had struck the bottom and many, including Cheeki Rafiki, had been repaired at the hull-keel joint area.
In the case of Hooligan, the keel had been altered by adding extra weight.
It very unusual for standard production cruising yachts which are well looked after to suffer keel failure.
The first obvious rule is that if you are getting into shallow water, slow down.
Most cruising skippers understand this but slowing down is anathema to a racing sailor.
If you hit the bottom hard, you will have to inspect the damage out of the water.
The good news is that some insurance policies cover lifting out for a survey after grounding, so check your policy.
During the annual lift out while the boat is in the slings, check the keel hull joint for cracking inside and out, and if in any doubt hire a surveyor to check it.
If you buy a boat which has been raced hard or, like Cheeki Rafiki, has been bareboat chartered for racing, have it checked really carefully.
Striking a semi-submerged object
I expect most skippers have stayed awake in their bunk off watch and wondered what they would do if the yacht struck a container or other obstruction on the surface at night.
No one knows how many containers are lost overboard each year but it’s certainly in the hundreds.
Fortunately most of the them sink and the chances of a cruising yacht hitting one is small.
Most of us have hit logs, wooden pallets and other obstructions which take off some antifoul but rarely cause significant damage.
This hazard is greatest for racing yachts travelling day and night at speeds of around 25 knots, when hitting a container or even a whale would be catastrophic, though there are even recent accounts of moderate heavy displacement cruising yachts suffering severe keel damage following a whale strike.
We all have a healthy respect for ships, which are an obvious hazard.
Collisions between yachts and ships are therefore very rare.
The Sailfish 25 yacht Ouzo was thought to have passed down the side of the P&O ferry Pride of Bilbao and capsized in her wake at night off the Isle of Wight in August 2006 in good visibility.
The three crew drowned and their bodies were recovered in their lifejackets in the following days.
No trace of the yacht was found.
It seems that the yacht was swamped but stayed on the surface for a short while but not long enough for the crew to send a distress message.
There was no liferaft.
In 2003 the Moody 47 Wahkuna collided with a container ship in the English Channel in poor visibility.
The yacht sank but all the crew managed to board the liferaft and were picked up after about five hours when one of their flares was seen by a passing ferry.
In 2011, the 10m racing yacht Atalanta steered across the bow of a fully laden supertanker off Cowes.
The yacht was struck but miraculously the crew survived and yacht, though damaged, remained afloat.
Again this was a rare accident even though during Cowes week thousands of yachts sail across a main shipping channel.
A good lookout is an obvious essential with a knowledge of radar if you have one, and AIS is also a big asset, but again these accidents a very rare, particularly in conditions of good visibility.
Grounding or striking a rock
This is probably the main reason why yachts are abandoned.
Unsurprisingly the cause is usually navigational error and occasionally an over-reliance on electronic data.
In 2006 Gypsy Moth IV was on a round the world voyage when she grounded on a reef near Tahiti.
The cause was inattention and navigational error.
The crew all managed to get ashore.
The yacht was eventually recovered and taken by cargo ship to New Zealand where she was repaired and continued the voyage.
The reports of the grounding and loss of Clipper CV24 off South Africa in 2017, the loss of the Brig Maria Assumpta in 1995 and the Sail Training yacht Lord Rank in 2010, and the grounding of Team Vestas in the Indian Ocean during the 2018 Volvo Ocean Race all involve navigational errors often compounded with other issues such as fatigue.
There are numerous accident reports illustrating similar disasters, many with fatalities.
A theme of most accidents is that there is rarely one cause; the final loss of vessel or life is a succession of incidents often involving fatigue, poor maintenance, short cuts, complacency and often simply a poor lookout.
In most cases a navigational error is at the heart of it.
It can be difficult for the skipper to prioritise.
That shrieking engine alarm might be less important than checking the ground track.
The torn sail might have to flog while you establish why the bilge water level is rising.
I suspect that every skipper has at some stage taken their eye off the ball, maybe taken a nap at the chart table and woken up to discover a rock ahead or a starboard tack yacht or a ship approaching.
These spine-chilling moments are a forceful reminder of the need for vigilance and constant attention.
Overwhelmed by heavy seas
The 1979 Fastnet Race gave a stark warning of the dangers of the open sea in a gale.
The lesson was obviously heeded because in 2007, with severe weather warnings, the Fastnet Race was postponed by 25 hours, and with continuing bad weather, 207 of the 271 entries retired to South Coast ports.
The great majority of British yachtsmen limit their cruising to passages of less than 24 hours and therefore within a period when accurate forecasts are available.
The Met Office and its European equivalents are usually accurate for the next 24 hours and reasonably accurate for 48.
So cross-Channel sailors can avoid gales.
Occasionally strong gusts can make life unpleasant but they rarely last for long and there is usually some forecast warning.
In the ocean, yacht crews are on their own.
Here, a stable, well kitted-out boat, secured for a knockdown and with a trained resilient crew, is essential.
Well-found yachts with capable crews are rarely lost at sea.
Obviously it is impossible to analyse why yachts disappear at sea but my guess is that structural failure is the most likely reason in severe weather, and that includes the integrity of hatches and deck fittings as well as the hull and keel.
Neither gas nor petrol smoulder, so if either ignite it’s usually too late for the extinguisher.
In 1999, a gas explosion on board the 13.5m Services Sail Training yacht Lord Trenchard, berthed in Poole, severely injured the skipper, who lost a leg.
In 2019 the yacht Honeymoon suffered an explosion, following a gas leak off Selsey on the South Coast.
The two crew were winched to safety.
A gas alarm is required on commercial vessels and a good idea on recreational ones too.
It is crucial to have a checked and serviced gas system, flame-fail devices on the cooker switches, and to make sure the gas is turned off when not in use.
Butane is heavier than air and sinks to the bilge.
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If you discover a leak, ventilate the yacht, open the hatches and lift the floorboards; do not start the engine – starting the generator ignited the gas on Lord Trenchard.
The engine and galley are the danger areas for fires.
Keeping both clean and well maintained is a good start, along with care when handling fuels or fat.
You can put a lit match out in cold diesel or cooking oil but both spontaneously ignite when heated.
Abandoning ship following a gas explosion probably means jumping or being blown into the water.
If you are lucky there will still be a liferaft.
Fortunately there are very few recorded fatalities from yacht fires.
Modern gas and fuel systems are far safer on yachts than even 30 years ago and with regular checks and care the risk can be minimised.
Make sure your fire extinguishers are in date, accessible near both the forehatch and from the cockpit, and that you know how to use them for different types of fire.
Abandoning ship for a liferaft
If all of these preventative measures have failed, and the yacht is either burning or sinking beneath your feet, then it may be time to abandon.
Before you slip the lines from the dock, take a sea survival course.
Trained people are far more likely to survive, and you are left in no doubt about the dangers of cold water and the discomfort of inhabiting a liferaft.
Read the contents list of your liferaft.
You must send a distress message, so an EPIRB and radio are essential items.
Most rafts are stowed on deck in a canister or in a locker in a valise.
When the time comes to launch, it is critical that the liferaft painter is attached to the yacht.
If the yacht sinks while attached to the raft, the painter will break.
Unless the yacht is on fire, launch the liferaft to leeward by throwing the canister or valise into the water.
Pull the painter – about 10m of rope will come out before the enclosed gas cylinder activates and the raft inflates.
If it is inverted, try and right it from the yacht, as it is more difficult to do so from the water.
If you can, climb in without entering the water.
If there is time, take warm clothing, a grab bag, extra water and food.
If you have to enter from the water, the strongest crew member should enter first and help the others in.
Waiting crew should link their arms over the lifelines round the raft, which helps stabilise it.
Once in, the mantra is: cut, stream, close, maintain.
Cut the painter, stream the drogue for stability, close the flap to keep out the wind and maintain the raft, starting by bailing out any water.
Sit facing the middle and if it is light, read the survival instructions.
If you are within about 200 miles from the UK shore and have sent an EPIRB distress message, help should arrive within a few hours.
It is still worth conserving water.
If you are in the open ocean you could be in for the long haul and the sea survival course tells you how to minimise water use by not drinking for the first 24 hours then half a litre per person per day.
Life in a raft is unpleasant and even hardened sailors feel seasick, so everyone should take a seasickness tablet.
The good news is that it is unlikely you will ever have to abandon ship.
Taking training and keeping your yacht in good condition make it even less likely.
The coast of Britain is not littered with the remains of foundered yachts!