Emergency Preparedness for Sailors

Prepare yourself and your boat to handle sailing emergencies


Summary: Emergency preparation for cruising or live-aboard sailors.  Topics include: Knowing your position, being seen and heard, first aid, man overboard, heave-to, emergency steering, plugging holes, fire!, abandoning ship, running aground, runaway diesel, torn sails, flat batteries, etc.


You may want to check out our Selected Books section under the Cruising - How To Cruise category for books covering the things you'll need to think about to help prepare for the emergency scenarios presented below.


Trouble can strike at any time, and on a boat far from help and in a hostile environment, things can get serious quickly.

It's best to prepare yourself and your boat for trouble in advance so that you'll quickly know what to do to help yourself, and you'll have the tools and skills to do it.

I've broken my thoughts on emergency preparedness down into two general sections below:
General Readiness for more generic pre-planning and

ďWhat to do ifÖĒ scenarios with practical how-to ideas.

General Readiness

Know Your Position

Be Able to Make Yourself Seen

Be Able to Make Yourself Heard

Have a Way to Plug Holes

Know Basic First Aid

Be Able to Retrieve an Overboard Crew

Know How to Stop The Boat

Have an Alternate Means of Turning The Rudder

Have A Plan In Case Of Fire

If You Canít Save The Boat

Know Your Position:

Make sure you always know your position, can find it quickly, or at least have accurate course/speed/time notes in your log so you can calculate a DR position.

Have an alternate means of getting your position in case of equipment failure Ė keep a back-up handheld GPS stored away in a safe location in case your primary fails for some reason. Consider storing it in a metal box or even in the oven (when not in use!) as that may save it if it was a lightning strike that knocked out your other electronics. The metal box acts as a Faraday Cage to shield the contents from the strong electro-magnetic field that the lightning strike causes.

Carry a sextant, almanac, tables, and instructions if youíre going offshore, and if coastal cruising, know how get a fix by sighting shore-based charted objects and buoys.


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Emergency Signaling - Be Able to Make Yourself Seen:

Have your emergency signaling equipment ready to go, easy-to-reach, up-to-date, and make sure everyone aboard knows where itís located and how to operate it. Be sure to give hands-on lessons to those that are new to the equipment.

Itís also wise to carry a selection of devices Ė aerial rockets and/or a flare gun for night time use (red twin star for distress signaling, white star for non-distress alerting others of your position), smoke for daytime use, dye to make spotting from the air easier, and a selection of hand-launched signals as well.

Carry more than just the bare minimum number required by law Ė if youíre in a situation where you need to use them, youíll probably appreciate not having to be miserly with them.

As your signaling devices expire, replace them with fresh ones to stay legal and use them as your primary devices, but hang on to your older stuff for a few years as well Ė as long as they have been kept dry, theyíll work long after the expiry date.


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Emergency Signaling - Be Able to Make Yourself Heard:

Have a few different sound-signaling devices. A shipís bell is a good thing to have, and is very Ďsaltyí. An air horn, either electrically-operated, or compressed air, is excellent and can be heard a long way off. Itís a good idea for every crew member to have a pea-less whistle attached to their PFD as well.

While not legally required for pleasure craft, the wide availability and low cost of marine VHF radios makes them essential equipment for all but the smallest boats, in my opinion.

These days, the VHF radio is the primary means of communications between vessels and between vessels and the Coast Guard. Having one aboard will allow you to communicate immediately in an emergency and will alert you if someone else needs help and is close enough for you to assist. Theyíre also a great way of keeping up with whatís going on in your area socially as well as with local hazards to navigation and weather.

Show all your crew its basic operation. At a minimum theyíll need to know how to turn it on, switch to channel 16, key the mic, and make a call.

Have instructions and a Mayday call script posted by your main VHF radio Ė if in a panic the crew forget how to use the radio or the name of the boat, the instructions will be right there for them.

Have an alternate means of communication Ė perhaps handheld VHF (very handy for communicating between the dinghy and the main boat), and/or an emergency antenna in case the mast-mounted antenna stops working (loss of the mast would do it!).


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Have a Way to Plug Holes:

Most boats have a number of through-hull fittings, with nothing but a piece of hose separating the boat from the water.

Make sure each through-hull fitting has a seacock that can be shut off in case a hose leaks or needs to be replaced.

Make sure you have a softwood plug (generally cone-shaped to fit a variety of hole sizes) that fits each through-hull fitting. Ideally, have one tied directly to each through-hull Ė that way itís immediately handy.

For larger holes or irregularly shaped punctures or cracks, have a collision mat ready to go. A purpose-built, dedicated, collision mat is probably best, but a storm jib can be successfully employed as well. The idea is to place the collision mat over the hole on the outside of the hull using ropes attached at its corners to hold it in place. The water pressure will press the mat firmly against the hull in the area of the hole and slow the flood while repairs can be made.


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Know Basic First Aid:

At least one person aboard should take some first aid courses and be able to handle the most common cuts, sprains, burns, CPR, and rescue breathing. Make sure youíve got a well-stocked first aid kit with painkillers and ointments that are within their expiry limit. Everyone aboard should know the location of the first aid kit.


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Be Able to Retrieve an Overboard Crew:

Practice picking up a simulated overboard crew by using an old fender with a loop of rope attached to it. Under various points of sail, drop it overboard and practice sailing back to it so that the boat stops alongside close enough to snag it with a boathook.

Practice under power as well. Make sure at least one crew member can also do this Ė it may be you thatís in the water!

Have a means of getting an injured overboard crew back on deck (devices such as a LifeSling or a home-brewed block and tackle arrangement), and make sure everyone knows how to do it.


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Know How to Stop The Boat:

Practice heaving-to with your boat. Every boat is different, so practice this sail configuration with your own to find the way that works best for you. This can be important if you need a rest, if you need a stable platform to effect repairs, if you need to wait until daylight before making landfall, and depending on conditions, if you need to ride out a storm in the safety of the cabin.


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Emergency Steering - Have an Alternate Means of Turning The Rudder:

If your steering gear fails, youíll want to have an emergency tiller ready to deploy. This is the sort of thing that should be prepared, fitted, and tested while still at the dock, and practiced with while under way so that you know how to set it up when trouble strikes.


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Have A Plan In Case Of Fire:


Make sure you've got smoke detectors and enough fire extinguishers aboard, and make sure the crew knows their locations and how to use them.  Have an evacuation plan that includes an alternate exit, and make sure the crew knows that the optional exit is available (they may not think to use the forward hatch on their own in a panic, for example). 


Engine fires are particularly dangerous because of the proximity of fuel, heavy electrical wiring that can short out and add to the problem, and water intake hoses that can melt and flooding dangers to the situation. 


In the event of an engine fire, it can be a real hazard to open the engine access panel, exposing yourself to the flames, and allowing a fresh supply of air to the fire.  Consider installing a through-bulkhead fitting with a cover in one of the engine compartment panels so that in the event of a fire, the nozzle of the extinguisher can be jammed into the through-bulkhead hole, and the extinguisher emptied into the compartment without having to open the panel.


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If You Canít Save The Boat:

When underway, have a waterproof 'ditch bag' ready to go. It should be kept handy to the companionway and everyone aboard should know its location. Things to include in it might consist of the shipís papers, passports and other important papers of everyone aboard, a selection of flares and other signaling devices, dried snack food, bottled water, handheld marine VHF radio, small first aid kit, small compass, waterproof wristwatch, pencil and notepad, etc.


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What To Do If...

You lose steering

A Mast Stay Breaks, i.e. Forestay

A Collision Causes a Hole

Someone Goes Overboard

The Boat Runs Aground

You Have a Runaway Diesel Engine

The Batteries Are Too Low to Start the Engine

You Tear Your Mainsail
A Rope gets Wrapped Around the Prop

You Need to Ditch Your Anchor/Chain Quickly

You lose steering:

If you lose your rudder or your steering gear fails, there are several possible ways of steering well enough to either gain control of the boat in order to make repairs easier or to get you to harbour (or at least close enough for a tow):

Use sail balance and trim to steer the boat. Particularly with longer-keeled boats this is a viable option, but it can also be done with many well balanced fin/spade boats. This requires some practice to get the hang of it, but hereís the basic theory:

The boatís center of lateral resistance can be thought of as the pivot point about which the boat turns. Its center of effort is the point at which the forces of the sails combine to push the boat sideways. If the center of effort is forward of the center of lateral resistance with the wind on the starboard side, the boat will want to turn to port. If it is to stern, the boat will turn to starboard.

Since the center of lateral resistance is designed into the hull and canít be changed (unless your boat has dagger-boards that can be raised, or a movable keel), the trick is to manipulate the center of effort of the sails.

The center of effort can be moved forward by hardening the jib and loosening the main, thus causing the forward sail to exert relatively more sideways force than the aft one, effectively moving the average/combined center of sideways force forward.

Likewise, the center of effort can be moved towards the stern by easing the jib and hardening the main (or, with even more effect, the mizzen, if youíve got a ketch or yawl).

If your boat is nimble enough and your timing is excellent, it is even possible to tack through the wind in this way; if not, gibing it around to the opposite tack is more easily accomplished.

Itís a good skill to have, can be fun to practice, and can come in very handy Ė I managed to sail from Port Credit to Hamilton, right into my slip that way once when the fitting attaching the tiller to the rudder shaft failed on one of my previous boats.


If steering via sail balance isn't suitable for your boat, or the conditions are so bad that more control is needed, another alternative (preferably used in conjunction with sail balance) is to use an external drag on one side of the boat or the other to cause it want to turn. 


This can be accomplished by attaching a small drogue, bucket, coil of rope, or other sturdy object that will cause some resistance while being dragged through the water to the center of a long rope.  Attach one end of the rope to a winch on one side of the boat, and the other end to a winch on the other side.  Essentially, the drag will ride behind the boat at the apex of the V formed by the rope that's attached to the port and starboard winches.


To steer, it's just a matter of using the winches to pull the drag closer to one side of the boat or the other.  This will put more of the drag's strain on one winch than the other, and cause the boat to turn in that direction.  If the drag is kept directly behind the boat (the port and starboard lines to the winches are of equal length), the boat will want to go in a straight line.

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A Mast Stay Breaks, i.e. Forestay:

Immediately change course so that the pressure on that stay (or where that stay used to be!) is removed. For example, if your forestay lets go, turn downwind so that all the force is coming from astern and being taken by the backstays. If your starboard stay breaks, immediately come about and put the wind on the port side.

If itís your forestay that has parted, and you have a sail hoisted that is tacked to the deck, leave the sail up. The luff rope or wire will help hold the mast up until you can add reinforcements.

Use a spare halyard or drop the main and use the main halyard by clipping it to the deck as close to the where the broken stay attaches, and use the halyard winch to tension it. This should stabilize the rig enough to take it out of immediate danger of coming down and buy you time to effect more permanent repairs.

Iíve had this happen twice to me on two different boats Ė both with the forestay. The first time was a fairly catastrophic failure that very nearly cost the boat its rig. The second time, the deck fitting failed (cracked), but I noticed it before it completely let go. Because of that, I now shackle the forestay to a second strong point on the stem fitting with redundant hardware Ė I donít want a repeat of the incident on the Belle Argo! (Read the full story here or navigate to it by clicking the Experiences button)

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A Collision Causes a Hole:

If you strike an object while moving at speed, itís quite possible to put a hole in the hull. If the location of the hole is to port or starboard (as opposed to near the center line of the boat), immediately put the boat on the same tack as the hole and sail close-hauled. The idea is to try to heel the boat over and lift the hole out of the water. Even lifting it up a foot or so will make a difference in the water pressure, reducing the inward flow.

If the hole is small and you have access to the hull in that location, you can try staunching the flow by hammering wedges or softwood plugs into the hole. With a wooden boat, it may be possible to fasten a piece of plywood over the affected area with screws.

If itís larger or you canít get at it from the inside without ripping out your cabinetry, it is probably time to deploy your collision mat (or small tarp or storm jib) to cover the hole and slow the rate of flow.

If your electric bilge pumps are working away, and it looks like itís going to be a long time until the leak is stopped, it may be a good idea to start the engine to keep the batteries topped up.

Once youíve done what you can to reduce or stop the flow, and have had a chance to assess your situation, youíll have some decisions to make based on the seriousness of the leak, how far you are from harbour and help, and how the pumps are coping with things.

With the best-case scenario, youíve managed to stop the leak and can sail to a nearby harbour for repairs. If, however, the damage is more serious, the weather bad, etc, it may be time to think about tearing into that cabinetry to get better access to the damaged area, or even making a distress call and getting your abandon-ship gear ready. At least with the preliminary steps of slowing the leak, youíll have bought yourself as much time as possible for sorting things out yourself or for help to be notified and/or arrive.

Itís definitely not a pleasant scenario - but better to think about it in advance so if it were ever to happen youíll have a clear plan of action to follow.

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Someone Goes Overboard:

Donít lose sight of the person: deploy your MOB (ďMan OverBoardĒ) pole, life ring, seat cushions, or anything else handy to help them stay afloat and mark the location, get all hands on deck, and start back to their location.

If there are several crew aboard, designate one person whose sole job is to keep eyes on the MOB at all times and point at them constantly. Even a momentís looking away invites the opportunity to lose them in the waves, and the pointing will help the helmsman track and steer back to them.

Approach under main alone and turn into the wind as you make your final approach with just enough speed to come alongside and let the wind stop you within reach of the MOB. Blasting past them wonít help at all, and puts them in danger of being struck by the boat.

Do you pass to windward or to leeward? Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. If you stop to windward, the boat will drift down to them and provide somewhat of a lee, but it also poses the danger of running over them. Stopping to leeward may be safer for the MOB, but if you donít snag them right away, the boat may quickly drift out of reach. Youíll have to decide based on sea conditions, crew availability, the condition of the MOB, and how your boat responds to the wind/waves.

My own thinking at the moment is that for a MOB who is in good physical condition and able to swim towards the boat, Iíd rather put the boat to leeward to avoid placing them in any danger or causing injury. If the boat drifts, they have a fighting chance to keep up by swimming as my boat has a long, deep keel and tends to drift fairly slowly. If the MOB is injured, then putting the boat to windward gives the crew a better chance to get a line attached as the boat will stay alongside.

Either way, youíve got to practice doing this under sail and power. Using an old fender with a loop of rope attached works well.

I havenít had to use these skills in a real emergency yet, but have picked up a fair number of fenders in my day. Iíd appreciate any feedback from those of you who have had to do this in real circumstances.

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The Boat Runs Aground:

So youíve run aground and are stuck Ė the engine isnít getting you off the shoal. What next?

If youíve got a shallow draft boat or one with a retractable keel, you might be able to hop out and push, but with a heavier, deeper-keeled boat, this isnít a possibility.

With a conventional keel (not a double bilge keel, or a keel with a huge horizontal wing), when you heel the boat, you reduce the draft since the keel lifts as the boat leans over. So now you just need to figure a way to do that.


Angi here: I understand heeling the boat, but reducing the draft? What does that mean and how does one accomplish the other?

Dave: The draft is the minimum depth of water the boat needs in order to float. Basically, itís the distance from the waterline to the lowest part of the keel or hull. Leaning the boat over puts the keel on a bit of an angle instead of hanging down perfectly vertically, and that bit of angle translates to a slight reduction in draft Ė hopefully just enough to lift the keel off the bottom so that the boat can float free.

If you have lots of crew, move everyone to one side to heel it over as much as possible, get them rhythmically moving to set the boat rocking, and use the engine to power off Ė hopefully thatíll be enough to do it.

If youíre alone (and this has happened to me, so I know this remedy can work), start the engine and put it in gear pulling towards deeper water. Then attach a line to the end of the main boom and swing the boom out as far as it will go so that the end is hanging over the water. Tie the other end of the line to somewhere sturdy in the cockpit. Then crawl out along the boom (I used the dangle-underneath-it method) until youíre hanging out over the water. The idea is move your weight as far as possible over the side of the boat, like a dinghy sailor using a trapeze, in order to heel the boat over. Once it starts to break free of bottom, pull yourself back to the cockpit using the line you rigged up, and take control of the helm.

If youíre really stuck, use the dinghy to take one of your anchors out into deeper water as close to 90 degrees off the beam as possible, and as far away from the boat as your rhode will allow. Set the anchor as best you can, then return to the boat with the other end of the rhode. Attach a block to a halyard, run the rhode through it, and hoist it to the top of the mast. Then use a halyard winch to tension the anchor rhode (now attached to the top of the mast) to heel the boat over and pull you off.

If an anchor wonít do it, the same rig can be set up and run to a friendly rescuer in a power boat to accomplish the same thing but with considerably more power.

If you get stuck on a falling tide, do your best to position the boat so that it leans towards the shore or shallower patch. If you have it leaning so that the low side is facing offshore, as the water rises again, itíll cover the lower rail and deck before the boat gets any lift, and youíll quickly discover any leaks you may have in the ports and deck fittings on that side!

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You Have a Runaway Diesel Engine:

This can happen when the piston rings get worn and lubricating oil flows past them into the combustion chamber. The engine will actually run on its own oil, and can start revving faster and faster until it either consumes all its oil and seizes up or self-destructs. Neither of these outcomes is desirable!

Turning the ignition key off wonít help. Diesels donít need electricity or sparks to run Ė they run on the heat of compression in the cylinders. And cutting off the diesel fuel supply wonít help either because itís now running on its engine oil.

So how do you stop it?

If your engine is equipped with a cylinder decompression lever and you can get to it safely, you can stop it by decompressing the cylinders. Without cylinder compression, the oil wonít combust and the engine will stop.

Or you can cut off the air supply. No air = no combustion, and the engine will stop. Donít use your hand to do this though! The amount of suction created by a highly revving diesel engine can be tremendous. Some engines are equipped with a gate that can be dropped in front of the air intake to cut off the air supply. Another way is to use a fire extinguisher (CO2 or other gas-based extinguisher). Discharge the extinguisher into the air intake until the engine stops.

Donít start the engine again until you service it to correct the source of the original problem. Otherwise youíll start the runaway again.

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The Batteries Are Too Low to Start the Engine:

If your engine starting battery is too discharged to start the engine, first try flipping the battery switch to BOTH so that the house batteries can lend a hand as well. If that doesnít work and you have a fixed blade propeller, a trick that Iíve used may come in handy:

Get the boat moving under sail, the faster the better. Put the transmission into forward gear. Then try starting the engine again. The pressure of the water on the prop (especially a 3-bladed prop) will lend quite a bit of torque to the engine and will assist the batteries in turning it over.

Other alternatives, of course, are to use a hand crank if your engine is equipped with one, get a boost from a neighbour, fire up a generator for a while, or wait for your wind generator or solar panels to add enough energy to get it started.

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You Tear Your Mainsail:

If the tear is horizontal, drop the sail to the reefing point above the tear and sail on with it reefed. Otherwise, itís time to unbend it and get the sewing machine out.

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A Rope gets Wrapped Around the Prop:

Often, the easiest solution is just to swim for it (I employed this method last summer when the dinghy painter fouled the prop while reversing to set our anchor). You may be able to unwind the rope, or you may have to cut it free.

Alternatively, you can try putting the transmission in the opposite gear than it was in when the fouling happened: slowly crank the engine over Ė it might just unwind for you.

There are also products that can be added to the propeller that will cut ropes as they begin to wind around the prop, and thus avoid the problem altogether.

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You Need to Ditch Your Anchor/Chain Quickly:

If you have an all-chain rhode, the last few feet of it really should be rope. It should be attached to a strong point in the anchor locker and be long enough that it reaches up onto the deck.

Youíll never use the short rope portion for anchoring purposes, but if you ever need to ditch the anchor in a hurry (with a manual windlass such as we have, it can take quite a while to reel in all our chain), let out all the chain until the final rope portion comes on deck. Then attach a buoy, preferably with your boatís name on it, to the last usable link of chain with a rope long enough to reach the bottom. Then cut the rope that connects the chain to the chain locker.

Youíll be free of the anchor quickly and easily (much more so than having to take a hacksaw to the chain or rummage around for heavy bolt cutters), and can return later to pick up the buoy and your ground tackle.

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