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Real world tips for when the ‘stuff’ hits the fan

A couple was enjoying the beautiful waters of the Bahamas in a trawler that they’d carefully prepared for years of cruising. One morning, shortly after getting under way, they smelled smoke. Less than half an hour later the trawler was burned to the waterline and on the way to the bottom.

A well-found trawler left a crowded anchorage in a routine departure. Its stabilizers snagged the mooring rode of a sailboat. This pulled the sailboat rapidly to the trawler, resulting in a collision that resulted in the death of one person on the trawler.

Some hull breaches can't be patched in real time.

A sailboat was crossing the bar to enter a favorite cruising harbor. An unexpected sea rose up astern, humping under the boat, causing it to broach. One of those aboard suffered a broken back.

These are just a few of the emergency incidents we’ve heard of during our years of cruising. People buy a boat to fulfill a dream; usually that’s what happens. But sometimes the dream can turn into a nightmare. Here are a few tips for handling “stuff” when it hits the fan.

No time

Perhaps the single most important thing to prepare for is the fact that when trouble arises you’ll probably have no time. We do a lot of talking about what we’ll do if calamity happens. There are excellent seminars on the subject, as well as books. The more we learn from these, the better off we are. As a rule, and as the good seminars teach, you probably won’t have time to go through a checklist of things to do and get. You may not be able to do many of the things you planned to do. Your response to the emergency should be quick and decisive, but the circumstances you’re dealing with may be very different from what you were thinking about when you made your plans.

In most emergencies three things must happen, and they must happen very quickly:

1. Someone must make an accurate diagnosis of the problem.

2. Someone must decide the best response.

3. That response must be immediately put into effect, and it should always include signaling for help when appropriate.

Early warning

The more warning you have, the better you’ll be able to diagnose and respond, thus the greater your chances of survival. Multiple alarms on your boat are important. The alarms should warn both audibly and visually. There should be backups, and all should be tested regularly. Alarms should not be ambiguous. For example, the alarm signal for a rising bilge should be very different from one for smoke or fumes.

One bilge alarm isn’t enough. Bilge alarms live in an extremely hostile environment. Some boats have a display at the helm showing high water in the various sectors. This is excellent but doesn’t negate the need for backups and regular checking, not only of the pumps but also of the alarms.

Alarms that alert you to fire, gas and smoke should not only be in the engine room but throughout the boat. Once a fire starts below on a typical fiberglass boat, even if it’s still contained to a small area, you may not be able to go below anywhere because of the toxic fumes it quickly generates. We’ve known a surprising number of boats to quickly burn to the waterline (and then sink) because of fires that started in wire runs behind bulkheads or panels and spread rapidly.

In the daytime, the odds are that you’re going to be up on deck at the helm enjoying the beautiful day, and you won’t notice the first telltale smells. We’ve also known boats to burn because of sudden conflagrations in the engine room, apparently caused by a split high-pressure fuel line spraying diesel mist on ignition sources.

The people on the bridge didn’t know until it was too late. The fumes and smoke below not only prevented them from doing anything to fight the fire (probably a dangerous lost cause, anyway) but also prohibited them from getting such things as wallets, passports, money and poorly placed ditch bags.

Regardless of the number and functionality of your alarms, you should still regularly and frequently check the engine room, equipment spaces and other areas below. My engine room door has a heavy glass port in it. You can look in as you walk by. This is great, but I still open the door and listen and sniff, as well.

Early warning also facilitates timely calls for help — more on that below in the section regarding medical emergencies.


It’s almost inevitable that when an emergency is in progress there will be at least some degree of confusion. The effect of confusion is difficult to comprehend, and it can be fatal to a successful response. Your mind has many things to process — and very quickly — not the least among them fear, concern for others, concern for the loss of lives and concern for loss of the boat.

There is also the issue of confusion and panic among the crew/guests upon whom you must rely to help. Early warning helps, but the attitude, training and response of the skipper is critical here. The skipper can create a good response by all involved or add to the problem, depending on what he does and says at the outset and throughout. Obviously the consumption of alcohol isn’t going to help with this issue or any others.

The best way to combat confusion is to have a plan in place for various emergencies. The plans will vary with boat, occupants, use and other circumstances, but you should repeatedly run through your head what you will do, how you will do it and the things you will do it with in the event of different types of emergencies.

Often when I’m standing long watches at the wheel I’ll imagine a disaster and what the response should be under the circumstances. Periodic reviews and drills are very important, even if you’re a solo boater who goes out on a center console from time to time.

Pretrip briefing and crew drills also are important. The others aboard should be able to help. And a plan isn’t going to work well if you and the others don’t know your boat and where things are. If you do nothing more, tell people about things such as life jackets, fire extinguishers, seacock plugs, alarm sounds, how to use the VHF and GPS, etc.


Situational awareness - knowing what's going on outside and inside the boat - will help you avoid trouble.

It seems to be the luck of the draw that many serious emergencies occur in the dark. This not only makes it difficult to diagnose and respond but also contributes to confusion and panic. Even if the event occurs in daylight hours, you’ll likely need to see in dark areas of the boat to diagnose and respond.

Good on-board emergency lighting is very helpful, but sometimes this will fail. Permanently fixed lights might not illuminate what you need to see, such as the source of water gushing between two stringers under a settee. For this reason, high-quality, reliable handheld lights are critical. They should be conspicuously placed all over the boat; you won’t have time to go looking for one. Their batteries should be changed regularly, whether or not they are depleted.

The failure rate of flashlight batteries — and this can ruin the light — is totally unacceptable, in my opinion. I’ve had far too many failures in recent years. They have leaked and damaged lights. The ability to send the light in for replacement doesn’t help when you must find a leak in a dark hole before you sink.

You also should have some ignition-proof lights, as many emergencies can introduce explosive vapors. For example, sea water mixed with the acid in flooded lead batteries can cause this. Obviously they should also be water-resistant or waterproof.

Types of emergencies

A fire aboard often engulfs the boat quickly or at least enough of it to emit fumes that can choke, blind or kill you if you go below. Properly installed and maintained automatic fire extinguisher systems are critically important and may make the difference. Also, handheld fire extinguishers of appropriate size and type should be placed strategically throughout the boat, as well as above deck. For example, an extinguisher placed immediately at the galley stove may be unreachable in a grease fire at the stove.

You can’t have too many fire extinguishers. All should be checked regularly and maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This may include periodically turning some types of extinguishers upside down and shaking them to dislodge settled powder.

Fire extinguishers should be very conspicuous, even if they interfere with the décor. If a handheld extinguisher must be somewhat obscured — for example, it must be protected from the weather or from being knocked off the bulkhead by people staggering by in a seaway — post conspicuous signs.


If you’re aware soon enough, there may be far more that can be done for flooding than for fires. Again, your odds of success are much greater if you have an early warning. Stopping is often important to lessen pressure on the leak. Early repair is important because the deeper the boat settles, the faster the water comes in.

As is true of most emergencies, the critical first step is to diagnose the source and to do this quickly. For example, if a hose has come off a through-hull fitting, you may not be able to see the problem once the source is under water. It’s also important to move quickly before critical systems become inoperable from high water. If your batteries short out, your bilge pumps probably won’t work, and you may not be able to use the VHF or SSB for distress calls. Also, the ship’s lighting will go.

If you hit something and know that you’ve got a breach in the hull, you’ll hopefully have at least a rough idea where. But flooding often occurs from other causes, such as a ruptured hose, a hose coming loose from a barb or a packing gland coming loose. Once you determine the source of the flood, quickly ascertain whether it’s safe and practical to try to contain it, or whether you should abandon ship.

The ability to safely remain with your mother ship often gives you much better odds of survival than getting in the water or a life raft. However, if you decide to try to save your boat, don’t rule out the possibility that you still may need to abandon ship.

Whether you can fix the leak and whether it’s safe to do so depend on your knowledge, skills, physical ability and the circumstances. I’ve seen serious breaches quickly repaired sufficiently for the vessel to make it back when someone jumped over and applied appropriate material into or over the hole. But these people were excellent swimmers, good divers, knew what to do and were in very good shape.

What to do for various types of large leaks and how to do it is beyond the parameters of this article. In flooding emergencies, as in all others, all of the circumstances of the moment must enter into decisions and courses of action, and those at the scene must be responsible for making the correct decisions.

It helps to have the right material aboard, although it can be impractical to carry it. You often don’t have to stop the leak to stay afloat. You just have to slow it enough so the pumps can keep up until you get help. For example, thin sheets of plywood and wooden 2-by-4s and similar material may come in handy in shoring up holes from the inside. Thin plywood, towels or tarps covered with a good caulking material, such as Boatlife Life Calk (the manufacturer says its curing is enhanced by water) or other substances that cure under water may be very helpful.

We’ve seen holed boats saved when someone went into the water with a piece of plywood coated with underwater curing sealant and fastened it to the hull with screws or even by tying it tight with lines wrapped around the hull. Stuffing towels coated with such a sealant into a smaller hole also may help.

We keep aboard a store of repair sticks made by Star brite for fiberglass and aluminum — Epoxy Putty Sticks (product No. 87104) and Epoxy Aluminum Putty Sticks (product No. 87004). Other related Star brite products are formulated for other surfaces and can be quite helpful because they have filler added, adhere well and cure quickly, and the manufacturer says they can be used under and above water.

Be sure to replace any product before its shelf life expires. We’re all familiar with the tapered wooden plugs for broken through-hull fittings. Keep them secured to the through-hulls.

Man overboard

Know the proper sound signals used in limited visibility and other situations.

Having a person fall overboard can easily result in a fatality. There have been rigorous experimental sessions by different organizations to determine the best way to retrieve an MOB. Most of them have primarily pertained to sailboats. I assume that’s because many believe this accident is more likely to happen while sailing, particularly racing, but it happens with boats of all types and sizes. What you do will depend on the circumstances at the time.

We all should start the process of handling it by thinking and planning about it now, before it happens. For an extensive discussion of MOB maneuvers and equipment, search the archives at Soundings with keyword “man overboard!” (Be sure to use the exclamation point.)

For a detailed discussion and a listing of resources written by me, go to and enter “man overboard” in the search window at the top of page. This article pertains primarily to powerboats because there already have been so many articles pertaining to sailing, but it references learning resources for sailing, as well.

Medical emergency

Broken bones, bad burns, serious cuts, strokes, heart attacks — all of these can occur on a boat. Obviously the better the medical kit you have and the more you know how to use it, as well as how to perform such emergency medical procedures as CPR, the more likely you’ll be able to successfully handle the situation. A thorough discussion is beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few tips.

Always know where you are and be able to tell Coast Guard search-and-rescue personnel. With GPS it’s easy enough to give an exact location. Be sure to tell the SAR person whether you’re using degrees and minutes/seconds or degrees and decimals. Serious errors have occurred because of the failure to understand this.

Also, you should be able to describe with some specificity where you are — for example, at the mouth of the Kickemuit River or about a mile due east of Stingray Point. This may help an inexperienced radio operator understand a little quicker, and it may help a nearby boater come to your aid. Give the name and a description of the boat, the nature of the distress, your location, and the weather/sea state at the scene. Activation of a DSC signal, if appropriate, also may help.

If the situation warrants, put out a distress call on the VHF for nearby boats, as well as the Coast Guard, describing the situation. You never know when there’s a doctor, EMT, nurse or other expert in a boat a short distance away. The use of “Mayday” is for life-and-death situations; calling a “Pan-Pan” is for non-life-and-death urgent situations.

If you make a distress call and the distress is rectified, be sure to cancel the call. This is covered in articles 30 through 34 of the International Telecommunications Union Radio Regulations. These regulations have treaty status in the United States and apply to everyone — government and non-government.

Assuming it’s prudent to head to a marina or other destination, do so with the state of the victim in mind. Jarring and pounding from running fast may do harm. Inform any search-and-rescue component to which you’ve given a location that you’re moving and to where. If you have someone aboard who has a health condition, plan in advance what you may need to do if that condition manifests itself.

Abandoning ship

To assume that you’re never going to have to abandon ship is the height of naiveté. To assume that if it happens it’s going to happen on a sunny day with calm seas is perhaps as bad. It’s usually best to be able to stay with the boat, though not if it burns or sinks.

Have a plan and be able to execute it, even if you can’t see and you’re holding on for dear life and panic is creeping over you and your crew. Ideally this should include a good, well-maintained life raft for many boats. A dinghy is seldom an acceptable substitute for a good life raft. It may have launching issues, it won’t have the protection and stability, and it won’t be equipped as well. There are various manufacturers from which to choose and a variety of models that may be appropriate for you. On Chez Nous we have a Switlik offshore with hydrostatic release.

There is a wide variety of life rafts, from those for inshore and coastal waters to far offshore, and occupancy ratings to suit your needs. They’re expensive, but think about suddenly having to get into the water without one as your boat is going down or burning. Mount the life raft so that it will easily deploy when you need it and not before, won’t be washed overboard in rough seas, can be boarded easily, and won’t get hung up as the boat goes down. Mounting issues vary with the boat. Think it through. It should be well equipped with survival supplies and gear because you might not have time or the ability to load more.

If you have a boat such as a well-found Boston Whaler and stay close to home, obviously some of the above isn’t relevant to you. But still consider what you’d do if you had to ditch. Depending on the circumstances, this minimally includes Type I life jackets with whistle and signal mirror and/or strobe, a PLB and other relevant gear — for example, a wet suit or immersion suit in colder waters.

Every boat should have a well-equipped ditch bag. The contents will vary according to where you’re cruising and the number of people on board. Survival items such as food, water and signaling devices are of high priority. The container should be something that can be stored in a place where you can immediately grab it in a disaster. It should float, be easy to see and be rugged. On Chez Nous we use a Pelican 1520 case, which is tough and waterproof. Pelican says it’s buoyant with as much as 40 pounds of content.

In my view, no boat should leave the dock without a 406 MHz EPIRB and/or personal locator beacons ready to go in a moment’s notice. ACR’s GlobalFix iPRO or Global Fix PRO and/or the PLB ResQ Link+ are examples (

We’ve only scratched the surface here. Explore as many resources as you can, but remember that underlying it all is basic seamanship. You can’t get this solely by reading about it or by listening to lectures. You learn it slowly and painstakingly by study and experience. The more you develop your seamanship, the safer you’re likely to be and the more fun you’re likely to have.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at

See related article:

- Shedding a little light

January 2013 issue