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Several tragic accidents have recently taken place off our shores; many could have been prevented by taking the simplest safety precautions. We know that everyone says, or at least, thinks:

“It won’t happen to me, why worry?”

until it does happen, and to you, and then it might be “curtains!”

Boat handling skills are the first necessity for all small boat users-ensure you know how to handle your boat adequately under difficult circumstances. One does not need to go crazy about safety but lives can be saved by following simple, common-sense suggestions.

First: DON’T PANIC! If you keep your head and have the right gear your chances of surviving an accident at sea are very good;

Second: Check the official weather forecast BEFORE you go out. Weather changes abruptly and dangerously off our shores, Cape Point was not called the Cape of Storms for nothing while gale-force driven seas will swamp you or push you far from where you want to be, even onto the rocks. Fog is known beyond any doubt to disorientate the most experienced seamen. Lightning is very likely to strike any metal object on a vessel at sea during a thunderstorm. The message is: head for safety fast if the weather turns;

Third: Ensure your craft is seaworthy (that leaks have been fixed!); that it has all the gear needed; check the engine(s) (when was it last serviced?); see you have enough fuel (no leaks) plus some spare; that there are oars or paddles aboard should the engine(s) fail; that the bottom anchor, sea anchor and cable is working; and check appropriate safety equipment. Take some spare food and drink along;

Fourth: Know your coast, its reefs, currents and landmarks and make sure to use proper marine navigational equipment on larger vessels;

Fifth: tell a responsible person ashore when and where you are going out, where you plan to be and when you expect to return. Locating a small boat at sea in poor visibility and bad weather is extremely difficult-seeing casualties in the water is worse still-and this information will help focus rescuers on the most likely region for a successful rescue;
Sixth: Wear lifejackets (aka Personal Flotation Devices). It is too late to put them on in an emergency, there is no time. Lifejackets keep your head up so you won’t drown if you pass out briefly, and keep you afloat-and alive. An Olympic swimmer would drown if they fell, lifejacket-less, into the water after bumping their head on the way down! Modern jackets fitted over your foul weather gear are light and far less cumbersome to work in than the old fashioned styles. Make sure all youngsters aboard, most of whom are particularly prone to going OB (overboard), have properly fitted juvenile jackets. All rescue services will tell you many sad stories of pulling bodies from the sea that had no lifejacket on.

It is your life that is at stake if you don’t bother with wearing a lifejacket…..

Cold water which we often experience off our shore especially in summer is a killer through initial numbness then unconsciousness and perhaps death through hypothermia (the cold) or drowning while unconscious from the cold. Cold shock occurs when entering cold water unexpectedly throwing your thinking off balance and if you swallow very cold water too quickly your throat muscles may go into spasm, with nasty consequences. Try and protect your head and face if OB since wind-blown spray and waves hitting your face increase the chance of drowning. You lose body heat so very much more rapidly in water than in air and the colder the water the much faster you lose the essential heat needed to keep you alive. A wetsuit is invaluable in delaying hypothermia, although even the wetsuit wearer will eventually become chilled after prolonged contact with cold water.

Boat motion is nearly always erratic even in a moderate sea and can throw you about without warning causing injury or send you OB. “One hand for the boat, one hand for yourself” was what the wise old skippers used to tell new seagoers. Slippery, wet, often oily, decks usually found on small ships don’t help. Any unexpected wave coming aboard packs an enormous punch and could tip you over the side-(I know this from experience!)-always have the greatest respect for ocean waves. Sea sickness, all people suffer from this malady to a greater or lesser extent, and, apart from feeling awful, it severely reduces your thinking ability and slows your reactions-be extra careful if you are seasick. Most “seasick tablets” (or other medications for seasickness) make you sleepy-beware if you have to work.

Injury: Fishermen are about equally as likely as miners to be seriously injured while working-commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous of all occupations with many deaths per year from drowning (OB, vessel capsizing or sinking) or from serious work-related injury, do take great care when fishing or working at sea.

Stability: Even a seemingly small amount of water sloshing about in a boat not only seriously reduces its ability to roll away safely from a wave but also considerably reduces boat stability and increases the likelihood of sinking, and excess bilge water must be bailed or pumped out immediately. Overloading any boat is an insane thing to do, the risks of capsize and sinking are near 100%.

Man overboard: If someone goes OB it is so, so, easy to lose sight of them in a normal sea (smallish waves) or even when it’s calm. A human head in the water is barely visible from a hundred metres away so someone must keep the missing person in view constantly while others manoeuvre the vessel for picking the person up. The signal for help is to raise a hand vertically.

When someone goes OB you need to get them out of the water as soon as you can, dry them quickly and wrap them in a blanket or something warm to restore their body core temperature.

Provide warm drinks to rescued persons but absolutely NO alcohol since this actually accelerates heat loss!

Shock, or delayed shock can set in unexpectedly so it is a good idea to seek medical help for someone who has been OB for any extended period. Swallowing seawater makes you ill as well as increasing the risk of drowning, while in the shallows sand particles may be inhaled into the lungs and the person then requires rapid medical help.

Clearly artificial respiration (resuscitation) needs to be done on partly drowned persons and this procedure should be learned and practiced under professional supervision.

Wind is the greatest enemy to those at sea, both by the direct and damaging effect of gale-force winds on vessels and by the powerful, often confused, dangerous seas such winds set up.

Wind chill is underestimated by most people and the wind is always stronger at sea than on the adjacent shore. As the wind speed goes up the loss of heat from your body increases rapidly. The colder the air the greater the effect of wind chill on exposed skin and cold is more than merely uncomfortable, it slows your reactions, fingers get numb leading to mistakes when handling gear-injury, especially to the hands, is highly likely and commonly occurs. WEAR GLOVES! These will minimise painful cuts to seawater-softened skin by wire strands or sharp objects. A small watertight First Aid kit is useful, but do restock it after use.

Windproof clothing over warm jerseys will allay heat loss but do remember that wet clothing loses body heat at an amazingly faster rate than the same clothes when dry and seriously chills the wearer-blue jeans are particularly bad. It’s pretty obvious that working at sea you are almost always going to get wet either through sea spray, water coming aboard, or rain, so a good, truly waterproof (NOT the completely unsuitable ‘showerproof’ clothing!), outer shell covering is necessary both for comfort and for avoiding chill. Cover of the head and neck is important since major losses of body heat occur when these are exposed. “HiVis” (high visibility, e.g. fluorescent striped yellow or orange) outer clothes greatly assist location in emergency.

Sunburn is often not thought about, but the sea reflects sunlight well and you burn quicker at sea particularly if it is windy. Wear a hat/cap (tied on against wind!). Staring over the sea on a sunny day strains the unprotected eyes too-wear sunglasses to prevent eye strain when on watch.
On larger vessels, many injuries have occurred when a person unthinkingly stands in a bight (a loose loop) of rope or cable and this suddenly pulls taut cutting into you - never stand in a bight!

When the weather turns ugly at sea, it is wise to tether each person on deck to the vessel by a properly knotted lifeline of the correct strength, but beware of snagging and tangles which make a bad situation worse.

Cell phones are of very limited use in emergencies at sea and cannot be relied upon because the onshore directional transmitter/receiver masts are set up for use over land and the signal over the sea is often weak or absent. The microwave phone signal travels in straight lines so any object in the way blocks it, and it fades completely about 15 km from the nearest (shore) mast. In addition, only one person will, that is if you are lucky, hear your distress call. Cell phones do not like water especially electrically conducting seawater and quickly die if wetted.

Portable VHF waterproof radios of moderate range are far more reliable when you are in a fix and emergency calls are picked up by emergency services and by other vessels. Learn the correct radio protocols to call for help (“Mayday”) on the right wavelength, immediately give your last known position and repeat this if you are able. Know how to use the radio and keep the batteries charged.

A waterproof torch, with spare batteries, helps if you have to fix your engine at sea and obviously when it gets dark.

Safety flares do not last for ever and MUST be checked and replaced at the intervals recommended by the manufacturer. It’s no good finding in an emergency that your flares don’t work because these are out of date!

Please NEVER, EVER let off flares unless you are in distress.

Only if it does not endanger your boat and crew, try to help those in distress. Remember the rescue services are trained and equipped to deal with emergencies far more than is the average seafarer and you do not want to add to the problem by having to be rescued yourself.

If you have checked your engine, fuel pipes and fuel tanks and these are in good shape, fire is not a usual problem, but on larger vessels a serviceable fire extinguisher is a good idea.

If your boat is used for SCUBA diving be absolutely certain that divers and crew alike follow all diving safety procedures. “Dive alone, die alone” used to be the mantra.
The sea is a wonderful place for fishing, diving or just sailing but it can turn nasty in an instant and gives you no second chance. So enjoy our beautiful ocean wisely, go prepared and thus return safely.

boat sinking 640

Fig1: Sinking boat


safety flares 640

Fig2: Flares


storm waves 640

Fig 3: Storm waves


bundled up first night 640

Fig 4: Bundled up


wetsuits 300

Fig 5: Wetsuits


overloaded boat 500

Fig 6: Overloaded boat