Boat Emergencies: What to do When Something Happens Onboard

Content Provided by Tom Neale

Boat Emergencies: What To Do When Something Happens Onboard

People buy a boat to fulfill a dream. Usually that's what happens. But sometimes the dream can turn into a nightmare in the form of an emergency at sea. Here are a few tips for handling "stuff" when it hits the fan.


In most emergencies, three things must happen and they must happen very quickly.

1. Someone must make an accurate diagnosis of the problem.
2. Someone must decide the best response.
3. That response must be immediately put into effect and it should always include signaling for help when appropriate.


Interfering with the execution of all or most of these is the fact that you'll probably have no time. You may not have time to thoroughly investigate, to think it through, to go through a check list of things to do and get or to execute carefully made plans. And the circumstances you're dealing with may be very different from what you were thinking about when you made plans earlier.


The more warning you have, the better you'll be able to diagnose and respond, thus the greater your chances of survival. Multiple alarms on your boat are important. The alarms should warn both audibly and visually. There should be backups and all should be tested regularly. Alarms should not be ambiguous. For example, the alarm signal for a rising bilge should be very different from one for smoke or fumes.

Alarms that alert you to fire, gas and smoke should be not only in the engine room but throughout the boat. Once a fire has started below on a typical fiberglass boat, even though it's still contained to a small area, you may not be able to go below anywhere because of the toxic fumes so quickly generated. For example, we've known a surprising number of boats to very quickly burn to the waterline (and then sink) because fires started in wire runs behind bulkheads or panels and, once started, spread rapidly. In the daytime the odds are that you're going to be up on deck at the helm, and you won't notice the first tell tale smells. We've also known boats to burn because of sudden conflagrations in the engine room, apparently caused by a split high pressure fuel line spraying diesel mist on ignition sources. The people at the helm station didn't know until it was too late. The fumes and smoke below not only prevented them from doing anything to fight the fire (probably a dangerous lost cause anyway) but also prohibited them from getting things such as wallets, passports, money AND sometimes poorly placed ditch bags.

Regardless of the number and functionality of your alarms, you should still regularly and frequently check the engine room, equipment spaces and other areas below. My engine room door has a heavy glass port in it. You can look in as you walk by. This is great, but I still open the door and listen and sniff as well.


It's almost inevitable that when an emergency is in progress there will be some degree of confusion. This is often fatal to a successful response. Your mind has many things to process, and very quickly. Not the least among these are fear, concern for others, concern for the loss of lives and concern for loss of the boat. The attitude, training and response of the skipper is critical here. The skipper can create a good response by all involved or add to the problem, depending on what he does and says at the outset and throughout.

The best way to combat confusion is to have a plan in place for various emergencies. The plans will vary with boat, occupants, use and other circumstances. But you should repeatedly run through your head what you will do, how you will do it and the things you will do it with in the event of different types of emergencies. Your plan may not readily lend itself to what is actually happening, but at least it should help. Often when I'm standing long watches at the wheel I'll imagine a disaster and imagine what the response should be under the circumstances. Periodic reviews and drills are very important, even if you're a single boater who goes out on a center console from time to time. Pre-trip briefing and crew drills are also important. Tell people about things such as life jackets, fire extinguishers, sea cock plugs, alarm sounds, how to use the VHF and GPS etc.


Many serious emergencies occur in the dark. This makes it difficult to diagnose and respond and it also contributes to confusion and panic. Even if the event occurs in daylight hours, it's likely that you'll need to see in dark areas of the boat to diagnose and respond. When you drill, do so in the dark sometimes, if it's safe. Or at least consider what you'd do if you can't see. Remember that crew will also be extra likely to be confused and frightened in the dark. Good onboard emergency lighting may fail and sometimes permanently fixed lights don't illuminate what you need to see, such as the source of water gushing in between two stringers under a settee. For this reason, high quality reliable ignition proof water resistant handheld lights should be conspicuously placed all over the boat. Change batteries regularly. A good example is the the Streamlight 3AA Haz-Lo Headlight . Streamlight has other lights excellent for onboard emergencies, such as the Waypoint. It's a small but 210 Lumens 115000cd spotlight with an 8.5 hour runtime in high beam, and an integral stand so that you can use it for hands free scene lighting. The Knucklehead is a bright scene illuminating work light with very strong magnet and clip so that you can easily secure it where needed and go about your business.

When buying lights, don't buy cheap. Look for the "FL1" standard on the packaging. Standard icons give ratings in various crucial categories. Learn what the icons and ratings mean on various sites, including:


Never underestimate the danger of fires, which are usually considered the number one danger on a boat at sea. Often a fire engulfs the boat quickly, or at least enough of the boat to emit fumes which will immediately choke, blind or kill you if you go below. Properly installed and maintained automatic fire extinguisher systems are critically important and may make the difference. Also, hand held fire extinguishers of appropriate size and type should be placed throughout the boat as well as above decks. You can't have too many. Place them strategically. For example, an extinguisher placed immediately at the galley stove may be unreachable in a grease fire at the stove. All should be checked regularly and maintained according to the manufacturer's instructions. This may include periodically turning some types of extinguishers upside down and shaking them to dislodge settled powder.

Fire extinguishers should be very conspicuous, even if they interfere with the décor. If a hand held extinguisher must be somewhat obscured because, for example, it must be protected from the weather or from being knocked off the bulkhead by people staggering by in a seaway, post conspicuous signs.

We've talked about only a few types of emergencies and steps to take. It would take volumes to cover it all. But hopefully this will help.

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