If Your Boat's Sinking — Improve Your Chances Of Survival

By Michael Vatalaro
Published: June/July 2011

Improve your chances in a survival situation by being an active participant in your own rescue. An interview with a rescue expert.

You're cruising along at a good clip on a summer day, when you hear and feel a bone-jarring thump. The engine stalls and the helm won't respond. While you're still trying to figure out what you just hit, and doing a head count of your passengers, the bilge light comes on, followed moments later by the highwater alarm. Most of us would dive into the bilge, racing to find the source of the water intrusion. While a quick look under the floorboards or in the bilge to try to spot the source of the water intrusion is prudent, getting caught up in trying to fix the problem might prove to be a critical error. During a different set of circumstances, say offshore at night, or in cold water, possibly a fatal one.

Photo of a boat sinking in the ocean

George Hathaway spent 30 years in the U.S. Coast Guard and participated in dozens of search-and-rescue missions both as a rescue swimmer and aboard search aircraft, retiring as a chief warrant officer. He now uses his experiences with the Coast Guard to instruct boaters on emergency preparedness. "The first step is recognition," he says. "Too often we see captains get caught up trying to save the boat, and they fail to get a mayday off before the batteries or antenna is submerged. Boats accelerate as they sink. They swamp, become unstable, and flip over. If your boat is taking on water, you should be getting someone on the radio and reporting the situation. That radio operator is just sitting there. If you're not prepared to send a mayday, you can declare an emergency and set up a radio watch that will launch to your last reported position if you don't check in every 15 minutes, while you try to remedy the situation."

Another critical step is the mayday itself. In a sinking situation, your shipboard VHF might cut out at any moment, so the correct progression is: MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, your position, then nature of distress and boat info. "The Coast Guard will launch on the mayday," says Hathaway, even if the position gets cut off.

Photo of a Coast Guard helicopter rescue

Of course, if you have a well-prepared crew, one person can be on the radio while another works to fix the problem, and ideally everyone aboard knows how to work the VHF and read a position on the GPS. Newer VHFs are DSC-equipped, and if you've connected it to your GPS and coded your MMSI number in correctly, a mayday can be sent automatically with the push of a button.

In the event that there's no GPS aboard or it stops working, your bearing and distance, even roughly to local landmarks, can give the Coast Guard a starting point for their search.

Suddenly Swimming

The impact with the unseen object has pushed the rudder through the hull. The gaping wound can't be staunched. If you haven't already, put on that life jacket. You're about to enter the water with whatever you can grab in the cockpit on your way off the transom. "Once you're in the water, the first thing you do is inventory," says Hathaway. "Collect your people. Gather together everyone and everything you can reach. Put on your life jackets, if you haven't already." At this point, your job is to do everything possible to make it easier for the Coast Guard to find you, regardless of whether they have a position to start with. The techniques can be broken down into visual, audible, and electronic.

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Life Jacket Lesson

If you didn't don a life jacket before your boat went under, you might be in for a rude shock. Hathaway suggests this exercise to illuminate what a struggle it can be to get into a Type II in the water. "The next time you're at anchor in a calm cove with people swimming off the boat, throw them a life jacket and ask them to put it on. You'd be surprised at how hard it is."


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