I’m amazed at how long bad advice perpetuates when it’s given in a catchy phrase. An example: Don’t leave the boat until the boat leaves you. This might be the most misguided advice ever to cross the lips of otherwise sensible men and women. Another example: Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.
These stick around not because they are always true, but because they sound good. Don’t be fooled. The ocean is no place for absolutes, even when they rhyme.
When I was a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, I spent most of my time in the back of a helicopter flying out to sea to look for the lost. Far too often we came back empty, having gotten the call too late or with too little information. I wonder how many of those sailors fell victim to trading precaution for poetics, pinning their hopes to some ditty such as, You don’t step off until you have to step up. These sayings may roll off the tongue easily, but staying aboard your vessel until the last possible minute is almost always a bad idea. With your safety on the line — as well as the safety of your rescuers — you must consider the realities of each situation when making decisions at sea.
Myth 1: You Are Safer On The Boat
Staying with the vessel until it sinks is what sailors did when there was no other choice, before we had VHF radios. If you are offshore without propulsion and cannot arrange a tow, you’re going to abandon your vessel, one way or another. Your choices about how and when will determine the shape you’re in when you do.
In all likelihood, your boat is much tougher than you are. I’ve picked up more than one sailor whose decision to stay with the vessel led to serious injury. A broken collarbone offshore will immediately douse the romance of self-reliant sailing. That your vessel is still afloat is not reason enough to stay aboard. A captain with a broken rudder once told my crew that he was going to “wait it out tonight” and make repairs when seas lay down in the morning. Low on fuel, we returned to base. We never heard from him again, and his vessel was never found.
Opportunities to abandon a boat safely come in windows that open based on such factors as weather, drift, sea state and the availability of rescue assets. The best time to abandon your vessel is when it is safest for you and those who come to get you.
Although rescue organizations will come when it’s dark and stormy, they prefer sunny and calm conditions; the chances of success go up, and risk goes down. An orderly daylight climb over the rail to a waiting vessel may make you feel like you gave up too early, but the alternative is often a harrowing fight against waves in a high-risk nighttime helicopter evacuation, with the potential for someone to be seriously injured — perhaps worse.
Getting off the boat is not the same as leaving the boat. If you are going to inflate the raft, get into it as soon as possible, particularly in bad weather. It is always better to climb down into the life raft, dry and well-supplied, than to fight your way through waves, hoping you can make it aboard. You don’t have to cut the painter if your vessel is still floating. Being found is about being seen, and rescuers will have a better chance of spotting you if you’re tethered to the boat.
Myth 2: Call the Coast Guard As A Last Resort
Almost everyone who has called in a mayday picked up the VHF too late. At the first sign of trouble — no matter how confident you are in your abilities — the smart money is on calling a pan-pan and notifying everyone (within range) of your situation. I’m not suggesting you call because of a slow leak on the inboard side of your sea strainer — by the way, you should have fixed that before you left — but if water starts flowing in around the shaft, call first, then grab your tools and get to work.
Letting the Coast Guard know there might be trouble doesn’t cost anything, but it does open up a world of options that are unavailable if no one knows your situation. Perhaps there is a vessel nearby that can lend a hand or at least stand by while you sort things out. A rescue asset may be close, but if the crew is unaware of your situation they will continue their patrol. Waiting an hour to call may cost you two hours if that same asset has to fuel up and return. How high will the water be inside the boat by then?
Survivors call early. Using your radio or phone (cell or satellite) to connect with those who might be able to help is safer for you and for search teams. The more rescuers know about your situation, the more options they have. Coast Guard crews who might be fatigued from earlier missions can call for backup. Morning training flights can be canceled to prepare for your situation. Perhaps most important, the search-and-rescue coordinators can help you plan and feed you information to help you make the best decisions.
If you wait until mayday is your best option, everyone has to scramble, and the chances of a happy ending are much less likely than if you’d picked up the phone earlier.
Myth 3: An EPIRB Is All You Need
EPIRBs are tremendous lifesaving devices. Thousands of people owe their lives to them. Why? They make things easier for your rescuers, not for you. An EPIRB does what its name implies: It indicates a position. More specifically, it indicates its own position, not yours. The beacons won’t keep your head above water. They won’t keep you warm. They don’t guarantee rescue, but they do guarantee a search.
I’ve looked for numerous EPIRBs without finding the vessels from which the signal came, or its owners. What rescuers do tend to find are EPIRBs in a life raft with the crew, attached to a floating vessel after manual activation or safely tied to a sailor wearing a life jacket or an immersion suit.
Remember: A red sky at night can mean good weather in the morning, and there are plenty of times you should stay with your boat. Just acknowledge that the sea is never a place for absolutes. Consider everything at stake, including the risks. Know what you can handle and what you can’t. Plan for emergency repairs but don’t overestimate your self-reliance. It’s the best way to get the help you need before it’s too late and give your story a happy ending.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.