Emergencies at Sea, Any Day Will Do

By Tom Neale, 12/23/2010


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

They’re words you perhaps desperately need to hear but when you hear them they can be frightening—especially if you understand why you’re hearing them. They’re instructions from a USCG helo when it’s lowering a pump or basket or other equipment to a boat in distress at sea.

The instructions include things like giving you a direction and speed to steer—if you can. They include stopping your radar, taking down antenna, fishing rigs and any other removable high appendages, securing loose items on deck, preparing for very high wind from the rotors, and not touching the device being lowered unless it (or perhaps a trailing wire) first contacts the water or the boat. This latter is because of the possibility of electrocution from the discharge of electricity from the helo via the wire to ground—not through your body.

USCG Rescue Swimmer Demonstration
So the scenario is often that you’ve got to let the equipment discharge, then somehow grab it or get control of it, as it dangles in the air near you or floats from a long wire, whipped by the wind. The helo is being buffeted by wind above and you’re hanging on for dear life in a boat in rough seas. Maybe if you’re lucky the equipment has landed onto the deck of your boat and discharged any electricity. This is usually the plan. But then there’s the issue of securing and detaching it while the helo is maintaining position above you, compensating for the wind’s effect on it and the wire, compensating for the heaving of your boat and the rate and direction of travel of your boat and keeping the wire just right considering the fact that the boat is rising and lowering in the seas and no one wants it to become entangled with any portion of the boat.

If everything doesn’t go well at this point the equipment could be damaged, lost altogether, or it could seriously damage your boat or injure people aboard. But you’ve got to secure it and release it from the cable, or, if it’s a rescue basket, get someone in and secured. If something goes wrong the helo may have to drop a swimmer into the water. He must make it to you, get aboard and he will do what he can to help. In many situations the helo will drop the swimmer anyway, because usually people on pleasure boats in a situation like this are going to need help handling it. These swimmers are amazing.

Just thinking about all this seems like you’re envisioning the impossible, but it happens time after time. It usually goes well because of the incredible skill and care and bravery of the Coast Guard personnel involved. I’ve listened to these events on VHF and SSB many times and it’s often been nothing short of miraculous.

You may be on the boat in distress, in which event you’re probably exhausted, cold, wet and/or scared. You may also be injured, suffering from hypothermia and wet to the bone. To top it all off, you may also be seasick. Or you may be on a vessel that heard the call and that’s standing by to help—hoping you don’t have to but ready if needed. Either way, you probably haven’t had much experience to prepare you for whatever it is that you must do.

To throw another fact into the mix, sometimes it turns out that the boat in distress really isn’t in distress, even though the people aboard may think it is. Quite often they’re wrong about the seriousness of the distress because they don’t have basic seamanship skills or because they’re exhausted and frightened. More often than you might think, people are “rescued” from boats at sea by helo crews and brave swimmers or people on boats which must save the “victims,” and then the “distressed” boat continues floating for weeks or months. It turns out it wasn’t the boat that was distressed, it was the people aboard. But what matters at the moment is that they’ve issued a distress call and the Coasties and people on other boats, ranging from law enforcement boats to commercial to pleasure boats, are trying to help. They’re ready to risk not only expensive equipment but also their lives. You can’t take chances when someone at sea calls out a distress. You must assume the worst and do your best—something that the Coasties do daily.

Often these situations develop when the skipper of the boat took chances himself. He made one or more of the many classic mistakes such as “riding a cold front” down the coast to warmer waters, or hitching a ride on the Gulf Stream during a northerly or running an inlet in heavy incoming sea or planning a passage without leaving enough wiggle room should the weather systems speed up or slow down. Thinking that you and the boat can “handle it” when a blow is coming is an oft repeated mistake, especially among pleasure boaters who don’t have much experience and who don’t have a clue about what it is they’re going to have to “handle.” Books and movies and magazines and talk around the bar don’t begin to tell you like it really is.

And often people go out into weather in the ocean in boats that just aren’t fit for the job. Thin fiberglass hulls relying on structural strength from being glassed to internal structure such as bulkheads sometimes start breaking up simply because the “glue” isn’t up to the stress of the seas as the skin flexes, despite the best of design plans. When this happens bulkheads can punch right through the skin. Old wooden boats open up at the seams or keel joint. Those big spacious windows on some trawlers may be smashed by an angry sea. A seldom inspected shaft seal may spin off and the water rise so high that the skipper can’t see the problem. But sometimes there’s no one to blame for the impending disaster. Stuff just happens. And it seems to do that at sea far more often than you’d like to think. I’ve often been bitten in the backside by the irony of life on the water that no matter how hard you try to keep your boat maintained and operating well, stuff just happens.

How do you prepare yourself for something like this? You can’t really, no matter how hard you try. But you should try. Attending safety at sea events helps. It’s helpful to have Coast Guard personnel address your yacht club or other boating organization. Having adequate and tough crew on board when you head out on trips in the ocean can help. These days more and more of us older types are heading out. With age you can become very vulnerable very quickly. It’s a fact of life, like it or not. And finally, thinking about it, going through the different scenarios in your mind, as they may pertain to your boat, may help. Every case is different, and the rescuers will have specific instructions for you, but at least you may be in a little less shock if you’re somewhat mentally prepared.

Tom’s Tips for Preparing Yourself for Trouble at Sea

1. Carefully store your emergency equipment so that you know where it is and can easily and quickly get it when you need it. This may involve relocating certain equipment to pre-planned spots when you go out. But you don’t want to have to take time to think about where something is..
2. Emergency equipment, in addition to the obvious, which would take a book to list, should include flashlights, personal strobe lights, a modern EPIRB which is registered and updated for the trip, hand held VHF with fresh or charged batteries, lines, boat hooks, MOB equipment…

Click Here for More Tips

Boating and water sports involve risk.  Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk.  You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others.  Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.

See www.tomneale.com