Introduction to Safety at sea


Safety on boats is a way of life, it is not just enough to fit certain pieces of equipment and hope that you will never need to use them. The equipment recommended to be fitted to small craft is listed in the RYA publication the RYA Safety Boat Handbook.


You need to think through any safety related incidents and come up with a plan of action that fits your situation and boat.

Examples are a fire drill, or procedure for recovering a man over board.

The standard methods taught on practical courses are not always feasible, especially, if as is common, there are only two or three people on board.

In the case of a real incident you may find that what you have planned does not work, but it will probably point you in the direction of the correct action.

One of the first reactions in an emergency is often to freeze and do nothing, in a man over board situation this could have fatal consequences. If you have an established plan that is well practiced, it is much easier to switch in to automatic mode whilst you get over the shock.


Many of the ideas that you will read in magazines or hear about, will not work effectively aboard a specific boat, and it is only by practicing your drills that you will find out what your limitations are.

One of the ways I practice is that I have a personal goal that every time someone loses a hat overboard, we do a man over board drill and recover it. It is not always convenient, but it is the closest you can get to suddenly being presented with the real thing.

Daily checks

Many major incidents are the culmination of a series of small problems, which as each one manifests itself become a serious situation. One method of reducing problems is to carry out thorough daily checks of the engine system, all joints and fittings above deck, operation of the lights and a final check below for hatch closure and security of stowage.

Everything that is attached by a lashing, screw, bolt , split pin or any of the thousands of connections there are on the external yacht equipment should be checked.

There are two sorts of things to look for, one is those items that must be corrected before the vessel goes to sea and also those that are long term maintenance issues.

It is a good idea is this daily deck check is carried out by different people, not everyone will check the security of the liferaft or the operation of the lights on the life rings but over a few days virtually all the equipment will be checked.

The daily check must include the engine, oil, water and water filter, drive belt condition, fuel level, fuel water separator is appropriate, any leaks or odd stains. If you do not check the engine every day you will one day have a problem. The strange thing about engine problems is they never occur when you do not need the engine!

Running maintenance

A boat should be run in a manner that would allow it to remain at sea indefinitely. That is, if a problem develops, deal with it immediately if possible rather than leaving it until you are next in harbour.

The very experienced sailor and writer, Eric Hiscock had a philosophy that is worth following.

He considered that he had a sealed box on board which held all his credit, the only way to keep the box in credit is to carry out repairs and routine maintenance tasks. Each job or check performed would put credit in the box, but of course there is no way of checking how much credit is left.

Credits are removed from the box every time you make a mistake or have a near miss whether you notice it or not.

The day you run out of credits, you sink!

Therefore, the aim is to keep paying in credits, because you never know when you might need as much as possible.

When you look at reports of incidents it is noticeable that the most serious are normally the result of a series of minor problems that develop into something much greater.

Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) Reports

Safety equipment

Equipment, appropriate to the vessel and cruise should always be carried aboard. There was an incident a few years ago where a small motor boat was launched in fine weather off the Welsh coast. The crew were dressed in swimming gear to launch the boat and the safety kit was left in the car whilst the boat's engine was tested. The engine cut out when they were about 100m off the beach, as the wind was offshore, the boat drifted across to the Devon coast. The crew were badly dehydrated and sun burnt by the time they were rescued the next day.

Being on the water has potential for danger at any time.

You may find that standard equipment needs to be adjusted or added to before it is used. An obvious example is that most lifejackets are not sold with a Lights Leg Loops and Spray Hoods ready fitted. All three of these items are really important and normally need to be purchased and fitted separately.

In the UK we have relatively little regulation on the use of small vessels for leisure activities, however, many people do not realise that there are rules for vessels over 13.7m LOA regarding the safety equipment that must be fitted. There have been prosecutions for not complying with these rules.

Liferaft emergency water makers


Many yachts are run in a manner that if the skipper is incapacitated, there is no one left with the skills to handle the boat.

One of the signs of a good skipper is that he never seems to do much, but things never go wrong, and everything seems easy. This occurs when the crew has been trained properly, thus freeing up the skipper to plan and think ahead. The better skipper you are, the more moves ahead you are thinking about, then when you have to act, you already have the answer.

One main aim of the skipper must be to teach the crew everything you know. You may think that if you do that, there will be nothing left for you to do, in fact, you will find that you are freed up to work at a higher level-you will find plenty of tasks!

Leaving a passage plan

It is prudent to leave word ashore of your plans and when you expect to arrive, this could be with the Coastguard but a better plan is to leave details with a friend or relative who is briefed to contact the Coastguard if you are overdue.

The Coastguard, operate a scheme called CG66. This is a form that you fill in annually, it includes the details of the boat and its equipment plus contacts. The Coastguard keeps this information in a national database, and in the event of you being overdue or a partial Mayday message being heard, they can access the vessel's details (your shore contact may know nothing about boats!). Once they have this record they know what type of vessel they are looking for and the equipment that is being carried.

Medical and first aid

Once you leave the shore you may have to deal with anything that happens to your crew. Fortunately the sea environment is pretty healthy, over the years I have had very few incidents to deal with but when you do have a serious one, you may suddenly feel very alone. Even if you are only in a small harbour in a foreign country in Europe you may find it quite difficult to deal with sickness or injury aboard the boat.

I once had a crew member with a suspected heart problem, in october, on a Sunday when there was no one about in a very small village in Brittany, not the easiest situation! Today, with the ability to call a coast radio station and be put in contact with a doctor this would have been less of a problem.

The boat should have a well equipped first aid kit, that is kept fully supplied (how often have all the plasters or Stugeron been used up when you need them?). This kit should be suitable for the area that you are cruising in, there is a big difference between what you will require for a weekend on the South Coast in the UK and a voyage from the UK to the Canary Islands.

You need several people onboard who can deal with injuries, if you are the only one and are the casualty what are you going to do?

The minimum is a one day first aid course (Phone 023 80 45 77 33 to book a course) but serious sailors should improve their skills by attending an M.C.A.Prof. In Medical Care Aboard Ship. This takes about a week and includes basic medical care that can be carried out on the radio advice of a doctor.

A basic first aid book should be carried but you may find The Ship Captains Medical Guide useful as well. is free to use, but if you feel you would like to contribute to the running and development costs you can donate via Paypal:

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