The Last Page of How to Abandon Ship

Congratulations – you have made it to the last page of this website! If things go terribly wrong and there is really no way at all to safe your yacht, you might have to abandon it. This very end of a sailing trip or cruise requires some caution and skills – in this final article, I try to outline which.

If you yacht has a serious accident, such as a wide-spread fire, a major leak or other devastating damages, you might have to abandon ship. If you consider to do that, keep in mind that it should be the very last option for you. Under almost any circumstances you are safer staying with the boat than by moving into a life-raft. If you have to, your survival strategy should have two top-priorities: Fighting hypothermia and being easily detectable.

However, life-rafts are not the only way out. There are essentially four ways to abandon ship, divided into the mode of evacuation: Firstly, you can go straight into the water; by any means the worst option with very little survival chances. Avoid this under any circumstances. If you don’t have a choice and find yourself facing the ocean with no supporting device, get into a wetsuit and as much clothing as possible.

It is a common misbelieve that clothes “pull” a body down into the water. This is not the case, clothes might cause additional friction and lead to earlier exhaustion, but the same friction that makes your arms feel tired will increase their thrust. Keep in mind that hypothermia is the killer number one for people in cold seawater, so adding as many insulating layers to your body as possible is a question of life or death.

Abandon towards water, vessel or air

Needless to say, you should put on personal buoyancy before abandoning your boat. This applies to all kinds of abandoning, not just for the straight-into-the-water option. Furthermore, get a torch if you have one handy, flares and other means to draw attention to you and your crew. Before you leave the ship, transmit distress signals for a last time through your radio or communication system.

Option number two is the life raft or dinghy option. Despite of the name, the survival of castaways in life-rafts depends hugely on whether or not they are found quickly. Survival in dinghies is more realistic; in this case, “dinghy” means “small lifeboat” that is attached to big cruisers. If you abandon ship into a life-raft, a lifeboat or any other vessel, follow the following procedure.

Use your communication system or Marine Radio for transmitting distress signals. Gather the crew, make sure you are complete and brief them. Put on life-jackets and personal buoyancy. Load a portable communication system or radio, first aid kit, compass and binoculars, flares and all other means of drawing attention, and, if appropriate, as much sealed water and food as possible on the evacuation vessel. Make the crew wear appropriate clothing, ideally wetsuits.

Keep warm, together and draw attention

If you have a life raft on your boat, make sure that you know how to use it. Try it at least once and take good care to keep it serviced and checked frequently.

The third way of abandoning ship leads to rescue vessels. The scenario is normally such that your distress call was received and your crew should now get ready to transfer to the other boat. As the helmsman you should get in touch with the head of the rescue crew via the emergency Channel 16 (156.8 Hz) or at 2186 Hz. Once contact is established, you should switch to a working channel.

Follow the instructions of the rescue team. Get your crew ready to board as soon as the lifeboat or ship has come alongside. Larger ships will probably use nets or a ladder to aid you moving.

How to call for assistance

The fourth option to abandon ship is common in coastal areas of developing countries or during regattas: Evacuation to a helicopter. Your survival chances are indeed pretty high, if you get picked up that way. The procedure for this one is similar to the one needed for rescue ships: Gather the crew and brief it; put on life-jackets.

Use you communication system to get in touch with the pilot or head of the rescue team on Channel 16 (156.8 Hz) or at 2186 Hz. Again, switch to a working channel as soon as contact is established. Unlike in a ship rescue, you will probably have to leave the boat before you get picked up.

Helicopters normally don’t fly directly over a vessel to avoid collisions with the rig and because of the wind they generate. You should be either in a life vessel, or in the water. Follow the instructions of the rescue team strictly. No matter what way of abandoning you have to go, you should always stay united as a crew. Do everything to keep your bodies warm.

Further Reading

Back to "vacation"

Distress Signals: Visual and Acoustic

Wikipedia on the International Code of Signals

Department of State's Travel advice - crucial information for your safety

Marine Safety and Emergency Advice

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