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

By Michael Vatalaro

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.

Photo of a life raft adrift at sea

Bigger Is Better

The biggest thing to remember when you're in the water is to make yourself, well, big, says Hathaway. Gather as much flotsam from your boat as possible. Tie together anything that floats: coolers, fenders, seat cushions, you name it. You're trying to be the biggest possible target so you can be seen from the air. Hathaway recalls a search mission in Alaska, where the crew of a missing crab boat gathered marking buoys together in the water to make a ring. The air crew that spotted them never saw the much larger hull of the fishing vessel, but did spot the brightly colored buoys. If you don't have much to cling to, you can still make yourself bigger to passing aircraft by splashing in the water. "Try throwing water up over your head when you see or hear search aircraft nearby," says Hathaway. Any splashing that gives you height above the water helps.

When To Shoot

The most common question boaters ask during Hathaway's classes is, "When do I shoot my flares?" If there were other boats in the area when yours went down or aircraft passing overhead, shoot two off immediately, back to back, as long as you have three or four in reserve. "The first flare will catch someone's eye, but they won't be sure what they saw. The second one will bring them in," says Hathaway. And don't let the first time you open your flare kit be the first time you need it, he says. He often performs this exercise in his classes: Handing an unfamiliar flare kit to a participant, he'll grab a model Coast Guard helicopter and pace across the front of the class holding it aloft, saying, "Here's your chance, here's your chance, can you shoot?" Oftentimes they'll still be fumbling with the kit as he's finished crossing in front of them. But flares aren't the only way to attract attention from search aircraft.

Signal mirrors are simple to use, effective, and can be tucked into pockets on life jackets or attached to one with a lanyard. At night SOLAS tape is a great addition to life jackets, as are red chemical glow sticks. The red color is key, says Hathaway, because it is night-vision goggle friendly. And of course, a flashing strobe light is ideal.

Photo of survivors in water suits waiting for rescue

Learn Cling-On

While an overturned hull doesn't necessarily make an ideal target from the air (black-painted hulls are difficult to spot against dark water, and white ones look like whitecaps), your overturned boat is significantly larger than you and, if rigged correctly, can help prevent hypothermia if you can stay on top of it. Find loose lines, or pull the anchor rode from the overturned boat if possible. Reach under the boat to secure one end to a cleat, then throw the line over the hull to the other side. Secure it to the opposite cleat. If you can work down the hull in this fashion, you'll have much better handholds for climbing and hanging onto the hull. In strong waves, this might be the only way to stay with the hull. Hathaway recommends keeping a reflective "space blanket" folded in a life-jacket pocket. Draped across the overturned hull, it makes a big visual impact.

Whistle Well

Another simple and cheap item that attaches easily to a life jacket is a whistle. Hathaway likes the Fox 40, a "pea-less" model that can't be overblown and emits a very loud tone. When waves make it difficult to keep your face clear of the water, yelling at a passing boat can be next to impossible. "You can't yell forever," says Hathaway, "but you can blow a whistle all day long."

Photo of an overturned boat hull

Signal Strong

While most of the techniques above utilize everyday items aboard your boat, or are low-cost additions to your life jacket or ditch bag, dedicated emergency signaling devices like Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) do just one thing: transmit a distress signal that provides position information so critical to finding a missing boat. But they aren't cheap, and require periodic maintenance to remain certified. Still, if you're a boater who spends a significant amount of time well offshore, outside normal VHF range (about 20 miles), a newer GPS-equipped EPIRB, sometimes called a GPIRB, will give you great peace of mind for around $700. Smaller PLBs are also coming to the market for less than $300. "If you have an EPIRB, you're going to be found," says Hathaway. "We love them to death." 

— Published: June/July 2011

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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