Sea Safety: The Complete Guide

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I n t e ra c t i v e

To complement this guide we have also developed an interactive manual packed with video clips, animations, quizzes and more. Click here to explore now.

WELCOME TO THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO SEA SAFETY FROM THE RNLI Every year our voluntary lifeboat crews respond to 8,000 or so incidents, many of which could have been prevented by observing simple safety precautions. Over half of these launches are to leisurecraft. Potentially more lives could be saved and fewer lifeboat call outs would be needed if leisurecraft users became more aware of the potential dangers. Created as part of the charity’s commitment to prevention through sea safety education, Sea Safety: the Complete Guide aims to help you enjoy your time afloat safely so that you don’t become a rescue statistic. This guide is for you to read at home and possibly have with you when you go out on the water. It covers the basic information you need to consider when going out to sea.

Whether you are an experienced water user or a novice, there is something in there for everyone: it’s your passport to safety at sea. For more individual and confidential sea safety advice, contact us and ask for RNLI Advice Onboard. An RNLI trained volunteer adviser will come and chat to you about your craft’s safety equipment free of charge. There is no substitute for correct training or seeking up-to-date advice from experts and official organisations, so the RNLI provides presentations and practical demonstrations. For more information visit We hope you will have a happy and safe time on the water.

Designed to complement this guide, the interactive version offers a fun and interactive look at sea safety, with video clips, animations and quizzes for your chosen watersport.


RNLI Tamar class lifeboat Spirit of Padstow launching Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard


contents before you go


Learning the basics


weather 8

sharing the water


tides 9

rules of the road



safe speeds


crew 11


navigation marks and lights


navigational dangers


man overboard (MOB) drill


know your engine


contingency planning


information ashore


lifesaving signals


safety equipment


engine failure


lifejackets and buoyancy aids


man overboard (MOB)


caring for your lifejacket/ Buoyancy aid


firing flares


abandon ship


buoyancy 18 irish legislation


communication 20 first aid


flares 22 liferafts 23 fire extinguishers


what to do in an emergency 30 Are you in distress?


making a mayday call


emergency beacons


rescue services


Helicopter rescue


rescue by lifeboats


useful contacts



A lifeboat sea safety advisor goes through important points during a free Advice Onboard (AOB) session Photo: Rod Kirkpatrick


before you go Before you set out on the water, it is important that you plan your trip properly. You must have a basic understanding of meteorology and navigation, ensure you have sufficient equipment onboard your craft, and brief any crew on safety matters. weather 8 tides 9 Is your craft fit for purpose? 10 crew 11 navigational dangers 12 contingency planning 12 information ashore 13 lifesaving signals 13 7

weather Always check the weather before you set off. Get regular updates if you are planning to be out for any length of time. Be prepared to change your plans or cancel the trip if the forecast is unfavourable. In addition to national and local radio and TV forecasts, here is a selection of the best places to get weather information: • Online,, or other forecasting websites for example, and • Shipping forecast and inshore waters forecast on BBC Radio 4 (198LW or 92105FM) • HM and Irish Coastguard broadcast weather forecasts on VHF Radio – check your Almanac for details • Navtex receivers provide printed forecasts and navigational information • Harbour and marina offices should display a local forecast. Further sources of information for the RoI • Weatherdial: 1550 123 855


tides It is very important to ensure that your plans fit with the tidal predictions for the day of your trip. • Most slipways and launch sites are tidal. Check the times of high and low water and assess how they will affect you when you launch and later as you head for home. • If the tide turns to a wind-against-tide direction, the sea may become much rougher. • An ebbing tide may create dangerous areas of shallow water. • Check if it will be a neap or spring tide. • Beware of harbour entrances where tidal streams can be fast flowing. • If the tide is out you may not be able to recover your boat. • Sources of tide timetables include harbour and marina offices, almanacs and the internet, for example

Always check weather and tide information before you go to sea Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard


Is your craft fit for purpose? Is your craft capable of and suitably equipped for the proposed trip? Be aware of the limitations of your craft. Do not overestimate its speed or ability to handle difficult conditions. Remember that the sea state and weather can change rapidly. Do you have sufficient safety equipment and provisions with you? Do a simple risk assessment. Ask yourself: • Have you completed your engine checks (oil, cooling water, fuel)? • Are all parts of the craft operating correctly? • Do you have sufficient fuel for the trip? • Do you have sufficient safety equipment onboard? • Do you have sufficient food, drink and warm clothing for the length of your journey? • Any other questions relevant to your type of vessel, for example, during an inspection of the craft, is there any damage, or cracks, are bungs in place?


Being on the sea is exhilarating but make sure your craft is up to it Photo: Richard Langdon

crew Being the skipper of a vessel means taking responsibility for your actions. Your safety and the safety of the crew are in your hands. You must match your knowledge to the conditions and never put either the crew or the vessel at risk. Crew members suffering from cold, tiredness and seasickness won’t be able to do their job properly. Take into account the experience and physical ability of your crew, the type of journey proposed and weather conditions. When briefing your crew include: • when the skipper should be called • the location of the first aid kit • onboard dangers – including the boom, winches and windlasses, cleats, propeller, engine/shaft • lifejackets and harnesses – how and when they should be worn • safety procedure for going on deck • starting and operating the engine including how to use the kill-cord • how to switch on/off the boat’s batteries and ancillary equipment • are the crew ready to sail? Do they have suitable clothes, lifejackets, shoes/boots, harnesses, and do they need to take a seasickness remedy?

• switching on and operating the VHF radio or activating the digital selective calling (DSC) button • man overboard drill what to do if the skipper is incapacitated • how to read the latitude and longitude off the global positioning system (GPS) • operating gas appliances, including isolating the gas supply • where the flares are stowed, and when and how to fire them • sending a distress message – keep the emergency procedures stickers from this booklet beside your radio • what’s in the grab bag and where to find it • use of fire extinguishers, fire blanket and other fire safety equipment • when and how to launch the liferaft or inflatable dinghy • leaving/returning to a mooring or berth, use of fenders and warps (not arms or legs) • how to anchor • where to find spare/waterproof clothing.


navigational dangers

contingency planning

Make sure you are familiar with any navigational dangers you may encounter. This generally means checking an up-to-date chart and a current pilot book or almanac. It is vital that you know, and ensure you remain familiar with, what the different navigational marks mean. See our interactive guide for more information.

Always have a contingency plan should anything go wrong. Before you go, consider places where you can take refuge if conditions deteriorate or you suffer an incident or injury. It is sensible and good practice to make sure you are not over-reliant on your GPS and can navigate yourself to safety if it should fail to work.

If you are unfamiliar with the area, seek advice from local sea users or the Coastguard before you set out. Check the chart for shallows and make sure you know the channels. If trailer boating, choose a launch spot that is clear of rocks, swimmers and other obstructions and show courtesy to other people in the vicinity. Keep clear of surf and avoid steeply shelving launch areas where you will soon be out of your depth when holding the craft in the water. West cardinal buoy


Go to Learning the basics section for further details.

Nominate a second in command to take charge should the skipper become incpacitated.

information ashore

lifesaving signals

Make sure that someone ashore knows your plans and understands what to do if they become concerned for your wellbeing.

There is an internationally agreed set of lifesaving signals for use in distress. Under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations, you must use the signals when communicating with search and rescue units.

The Voluntary Safety Identification Scheme (CG66) in the UK and the Yacht and Boat Safety Scheme in the RoI are easy to join and free. The schemes aim to help the Coastguard to assist you quickly should you get into trouble and could save your life. Join the schemes here or contact the Coastguard/Coast Guard. Go to useful contacts section.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) produces a free leaflet describing all the signals. The advice given is based on Chapter V of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, known as SOLAS V. You are advised to keep a copy onboard your vessel but if this is not practical because your vessel is small or very exposed, you should at least study these signals before you set out.


Wearing the correct buoyancy aid or lifejacket for your sport is essential Photo: Richard Langdon


SAFETY EQUIPMENT No matter how well kitted out your craft is when you buy it, there is always some equipment that you will need to add or replace to enhance your safety. Regular servicing of all safety equipment is highly recommended. The topics here are not exhaustive. For more information, why not request a free Advice Onboard session? Lifejackets and buoyancy aids 16 Caring for your lifejacket/buoyancy aid 17 Buoyancy 18 irish legislation 20 communication 20 first aid 22 flares 22 liferafts 23 fire extinguishers 23 15

Lifejackets and buoyancy aids The water can be extremely unpredictable. It is vital to wear a lifejacket or buoyancy aid. The RNLI believes that lifejackets save lives and are useless unless worn. If you find yourself in the water, a lifejacket or buoyancy aid could save your life but only if you ensure that it is the correct size and type for you, properly fastened, maintained, and that you understand how to operate it.

Enjoy your sport with the right equipment Photo: Nathan Williams


Caring for your lifejacket/buoyancy aid Lifejackets and buoyancy aids do not last forever. Regularly inspect them for wear and tear. Whatever type you use, it will need basic maintenance to keep it working properly. You should have it serviced in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations.

• visually check for wear and tear, especially at the folds, straps and fastenings • on CO2 gas inflatable lifejackets check that the gas bottle is full and fitted correctly, has not been fired and has no signs of corrosion

• after saltwater use, wipe down your lifejacket with fresh water and allow it to dry fully before repacking (ensure you repack your lifejacket according to the manufacturer’s folding instructions). A CO2 gas inflatable lifejacket that has been inflated will need a new CO2 gas cylinder of the correct size. Simply unscrew the empty cylinder and screw on the new one. If it is an automatic lifejacket, a replacement bobbin capsule or cartridge will also be needed.

As a general rule, at least every 6 months: • all lifejackets should be inflated, preferably by hand pump to avoid moisture build-up inside the jacket, and left inflated for 24 hours to ensure they hold their pressure and to see if there are any leaks or damage

When your lifejacket is not in use it should be stored in a dry, well-aired area. Out of season, the lifejacket should be opened up, partially inflated with a pump (to remove folds) and stored on a (non-metal) coathanger. For buoyancy aids, check there is no damage and store in a dry place. Do not sit on buoyancy aids as this will reduce their effectiveness.

Check CO 2 gas bottle is full, fitted and has no corrosion

Open lifejacket and check for wear and tear 17

Buoyancy is measured in Newtons (N). The Newton ratings are relative to the weight of the intended users so a level 150 lifejacket designed for a child will not float an adult and you must get a level 150 lifejacket designed for an adult’s weight. Lifejackets and buoyancy aids sold throughout Europe should now meet the International standard ISO 12402. Similar to the previous European standard, it covers four basic levels of buoyancy and uses the same pictograms to indicate compliance. A level 50 buoyancy aid is recommended for dinghy, kayak, windsurfing and personal watercraft users. It does not have sufficient buoyancy to protect a person who is unable to help themselves and is unlikely to turn a person from a face-down position in the water. A level 100 buoyancy aid/ lifejacket is recommended for those in sheltered and calm water. It is intended for those who may have to wait for rescue but are likely to do so in calm water conditions. It may not have sufficient buoyancy to protect 18

a person who is unable to help themselves and may not roll an unconscious person on to their back, particularly if they are wearing heavy clothing. A level 150 lifejacket is recommended for general use on coastal and inshore waters when sailing, motorboating and fishing. It is intended for general offshore and rough weather use where a high standard of performance is required. It should turn an unconscious person on to their back and requires no subsequent action by the wearer to keep their face out of the water. Its performance may be affected if the user is wearing heavy and/or waterproof clothing. A level 275 lifejacket is recommended for offshore cruising, fishing and commercial users. It is intended primarily for extreme conditions and for those wearing heavy protective clothing that may adversely affect the self-righting capacity of lower Newton-rated lifejackets. This lifejacket is designed to ensure that the wearer is floating in the correct position with their mouth and nose clear of the surface of the water.

Photo: Richard Langdon


A level 150 or larger lifejacket is designed to turn an unconscious person face up on entering the water. A buoyancy aid is not guaranteed to do this – it is only an aid to keeping you afloat. Therefore:

Adult lifejackets are available with: • foam-only buoyancy – these provide buoyancy at all times and are bulky • air and foam buoyancy • air-only buoyancy – these are likely to be the most compact and comfortable and may be automatically inflated by a CO2 gas cylinder on entering the water, inflated by a manually operated cylinder or inflated orally. Suitable spare CO2 gas cylinders and automatic inflation mechanisms should be carried in your craft. The RNLI recommends that you should have crotch straps, a sprayhood and a light on your lifejacket.

• foam-only buoyancy – these provide a notional level 100 of buoyancy and are for inshore use only • air-only and air and foam buoyancy lifejackets – these meet the requirements of a level 150 lifejacket and are for offshore use.

not to purchase a lifejacket that is too large. It is easy for a child to slip out of an oversized lifejacket and it may float high in the water leaving their mouth and nose submerged. A lifejacket that lifts more than 2.5cm above the child’s shoulders once it is fitted and adjusted is too large.

All children’s lifejackets and buoyancy aids state a maximum weight and chest size that must not be exceeded. It is equally important Photo: Ocean Safety

• a buoyancy aid is the best choice for those who expect to go in the water such as dinghy sailors, waterskiers, personal watercraft (PWC) riders, canoeists, windsurfers and kayakers • a lifejacket is a better choice for those who plan to stay aboard – for larger yachts, motorcruisers, angling and sportsboats.

Children’s lifejackets are available with:

Ensure lifejackets and buoyancy aids are suitable for your age, size and sport 19



Under Irish legislation, an appropriate personal flotation device (lifejacket or buoyancy aid) must be carried for everyone onboard all vessels.

In coastal waters, a VHF radio set provides the most reliable means of making immediate contact with the Coastguard and alerting other vessels if there is an emergency.

If the craft is less than 7m in length, personal flotation devices must be worn at all times on an open vessel or on deck on a vessel with accommodation. Irrespective of the size of the vessel, anyone under the age of 16 years must wear a personal flotation device at all times on an open boat or on deck if the vessel has accommodation. Appropriate personal flotation devices are also required when being towed or if skiing behind a powered craft. The legislation does not require the wearing of personal flotation devices when a vessel is moored alongside or at anchor, or if those aboard are swimming from the vessel for recreation.

• You must know how to operate your VHF radio. The RYA administers the Short Range Certificate (SRC) 1-day course including routine, safety, urgency and distress communications and radio voice procedures and techniques. The Department of Transport in the Republic of Ireland runs a 2-day course (see useful contacts section page 38). • Most new VHF radios will be equipped with digital selective calling (DSC) allowing a distress alert to be transmitted to the rescue services at the touch of a button. If your VHF radio is interfaced with a GPS set it will also give your position. • If you use a waterproof hand-held VHF, check the batteries and always carry a set of spares. • Make sure everything is working before you leave by doing a radio check with a marina, harbour master or coastguard. In an emergency, dial 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard. The service is free – the Coastguard is always there to help.


A mobile phone with a waterproof case may be useful on a PWC or small dinghy but should not be relied on in emergencies. It may let you down with a poor signal and it will not give the rescue services your position. Other vessels in the vicinity will not hear your call either. A hand-held VHF radio is a better option. Go to What to do in an emergency section. Personal locator beacons (PLBs) and emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) are becoming increasingly popular. They use a frequency of 406MHz and come with or without a built-in GPS receiver. When set off, the PLB or EPIRB sends an identifiable signal via satellite to the emergency services. Your position may either be calculated by low-earth orbit satellites or immediately indicated by the built-in GPS. These devices must be registered with the Coastguard. For more information go to the interactive guide.

Ensure you have some means for calling for help Photo: Rod Kirkpatrick




It is advisable that at least one crew member on the vessel has a good understanding of first aid.

Flares are an essential part of your safety equipment. There are several types of flares on the market designed for different water users. For coastal journeys and beyond you should carry a full flare kit including rockets, hand-held flares and smoke flares.

A comprehensive first aid kit and good first aid knowledge could prove invaluable while you wait for professional assistance to arrive. The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and the Irish Sailing Association (ISA) run first aid courses that are specifically marine orientated. Go to useful contacts section for details. If you are in doubt or in need of medical advice do not hesitate to contact the Coastguard.


Firing flares is a simple method of indicating that a boat and/or person are in distress, and of drawing attention to your position when the rescue services are coming to your aid. • Make sure you know how to operate your flares before you need them. Firing mechanisms vary so read the instructions printed on the sides. • Leisure flares expire after 4 years. After this date they will deteriorate and become less reliable. Replace expired flares with new ones.

• If your boat is suitable, mount some of your flares in spring clips on a bulkhead immediately inside the companionway for rapid use. Keep any others (with a torch and a pair of gloves) in a readily accessible, watertight, screw-top container. • It is illegal to fire a distress flare when not in distress. • White flares are to be used when the risk of collision is imminent. They can also be used for searching for an MOB at night. It is wise to keep white flares separate from others to avoid confusion.

Make sure all your crew know how to fire the flares you have onboard


Fire extinguishers

Liferafts are an essential part of safety equipment for an offshore or coastal passage and should be stowed in a position ready for immediate launching. Make sure you are familiar with how your liferaft works and the equipment inside it.

Fire extinguishers and fire blankets must be checked and maintained in line with the manufacturers’ recommendations. Make sure they are stowed correctly and fully accessible and that every crew member knows when and how to use them.

Being in a liferaft can make people feel cold and seasick but liferaft survival equipment to cope with this can vary enormously. Many liferaft safety packs do not include drinking water and food. You can get any extra kit added the next time the liferaft is serviced, or supplement the contents with a grab bag. This should be a waterproof floating container kept in an easily accessible place ready for when you need to abandon the vessel. Go to What to do in an emergency section for more information.


Ensure you learn the necessary skills to operate your craft Photo: Richard Langdon


learning the basics You and your crew must possess sufficient skills to use your craft safely. You will enjoy your sport much more as a result. This means acquiring basic knowledge of boathandling, navigation, rules of the road, use of safety equipment and maintenance of the craft and its engine. sharing the water rules of the road safe speeds navigation marks and lights man overboard (MOB) drill know your engine

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Sharing the water You have to share the water with many other craft. To help you enjoy your time at sea, learn to do so responsibly: • abide by speed limits in restricted areas • know the collision avoidance rules (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS) or rules of the road) • keep away from canoeists, divers and anglers • be aware of the effect of your wash, particularly when close to other boats • slow right down through anchorages • avoid all areas with swimmers • don’t throw rubbish into the sea, or spill petrol or oil • stay away from buoys, pots and markers being used by local fishermen or divers • be aware of the side effects of any medication • alcohol will impair your judgement. It is as irresponsible for a skipper and crew to be in charge of any craft under the influence of alcohol as it is to drive a car under the influence of alcohol. The use of recreational drugs is equally dangerous and irresponsible.

Do you know who has right of way? Photo: Nathan Williams

rules of the road

safe speeds

Knowing the rules of the road is key to avoiding collisions on the water. They become very important in busy harbours or ports.

Make sure all crew are safely seated or holding on before the boat starts moving.

The skippers of all craft on the water, from supertankers to rowing boats, must abide by the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (IRPCS), known as the rules of the road, to prevent collisions. A complete guide to IRPCS is available from the RYA, ISA and most good chandlers.

Photo: Nathan Williams

• Treat any slippery areas with non-skid paint or stick on non-skid strips. • Check that everyone is comfortable with your speed. • Slow down in bumpy conditions or when there are waves ahead. • Warn everyone if the boat is going to change speed or direction or is about to hit unexpected waves. • Be aware that back injuries are common on small, fast craft. If you drive too fast, you also risk people falling over the side. • Bow riding is dangerous and is illegal in some countries.

navigation marks and lights Recognising the different types of navigation marks and lights and knowing what they mean is essential. There are two main types of buoy: lateral marks, which delineate safe channels, and cardinal marks, which warn of submerged hazards. Any vessel that is underway at night is required to show navigation lights. These lights will help other vessels spot you in the dark, judge in which direction you are travelling and identify the type and size of your vessel. They also help you to identify other vessels at night. Lateral buoys delineate safe channels

Photo: Nathan Williams

Learn more with our interactive guide. 27

man overboard (MOB) drilL A growing number of RNLI services are to rescue people who have fallen overboard. Even on a calm day it is easy to trip over a loose line or sail, or be thrown out of the vessel if the craft accelerates or turns unexpectedly. Take basic precautions: always have one hand for yourself and one for the boat, and watch your step. In the event of an MOB, everyone onboard must know what to do. If only the skipper knows the drill and goes overboard, they could be lost if no one else is able to control the vessel.

Practise man overboard recovery


Whatever your craft, returning to an MOB casualty under sail or power can be very difficult. There are several different techniques. Practise to see which works best for you and your crew and seek training for your type of craft. Remember, staying clipped on will significantly reduce your chances of falling overboard and by always wearing your lifejacket you’ll be better prepared if you do fall in. Go to What to do in an emergency section.

know your engine One third of lifeboat launches to leisurecraft each year are to vessels suffering machinery failure or simply running out of fuel. Many of these breakdowns could have been prevented if the engine had been checked before setting off. Make sure that your engine is properly serviced at the beginning of the season and that you carry out regular checks on it throughout the year as well as before each trip. Before departure: • work out how much fuel you need for the trip; calculate one-third for the way there, one-third for the way back and one-third spare. A second or auxiliary engine can save the day should your main engine fail so make sure you carry sufficient fuel for the auxiliary engine as well as for your main engine • look for obvious signs of oil or fuel leaks • check the cooling water piping for signs of trouble, such as perishing or weeping hoses • inspect the cooling system’s raw-water strainer and remove any debris that could restrict the flow • if the engines have a freshwater side to their cooling system, check the level of coolant. Don’t remove the cap when the engine is hot

• take a quick look at the drive belts. Are they frayed, cracked or slack? If so, they need replacing or tightening • check the fuel filter for sediment or water; a build-up of either warns you that the fuel supply is not clean • remove each engine’s dipstick and check the level of lubricating oil. Top it up if necessary • on an inboard petrol-engine boat, fans should be turned on for at least a couple of minutes to clear the compartment of fumes before you turn the ignition key

• check that the engine compartment is clean and dry. Petrol engines are particularly susceptible to water in the bilge. Use a pump and sponge to dry the engine compartment • make sure you have the right tools and spares to carry out basic engine maintenance or to make running repairs if necessary. After starting an inboard or outboard engine: • check that cooling water is coming out of the exhaust or the outboard telltale • look for fuel or water leaks • be aware of any unusual vibration. On passage: • regularly look into the engine compartment to check that all’s well • regularly scan the engine instruments to make sure they are reading at normal levels. Some people put a small paint mark where this level should be • don’t run the engines continuously at full throttle as this burns fuel excessively. The RYA and the ISA run a 1-day diesel engine course. Go to useful contacts section.

A blockage here will cause the engine to overheat

Learn more with our interactive guide.


Help will be there if you need it, but only if you know how to make the call Photo: Whitstable RNLI


what to do in an emergency It is vital that you and your crew understand what constitutes an emergency. Everyone onboard should know how to respond to a man overboard, when and how to make a mayday call, operate flares and use a liferaft. Are you in distress? engine failure man overboard (MOB) firing flares abandon ship making a Mayday call emergency beacons rescue services helicopter rescue rescue by lifeboat

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Are you in distress?

engine failure

Being in distress means that a vessel, vehicle, aircraft or person is in grave and imminent danger. This is a mayday situation. ‘Distress’ does not apply to a vessel that is disabled but in no immediate danger. However, it is strongly advised that you contact the Coastguard so that they are informed of your situation should it take a turn for the worse. If in doubt always contact the Coastguard. They may request the launch of a lifeboat.

Engine failure alone is not a distress situation: it does not warrant a mayday radio message or the use of red flares unless lack of power has put the vessel and crew in grave and imminent danger. However, do inform the Coastguard of your situation; and explain that you are trying to fix the problem. This may prevent ‘maybe in trouble’ lifeboat call outs.

Photo: Colin Vickers


If your engine breaks down while you are at sea, it’s important to take some safety measures: • Can you find and fix the problem yourself? Check fuel, oil, air, cooling water and correct operating procedures. If you can, fix the problem. If not, consider alternatives, such as using the dinghy and outboard motor to tow the parent craft. • Is there an alternative such as sails, other engine, outboard motor, paddle? In open water, it may be acceptable to drift while you assess the problem and attempt repairs. If not, anchor your vessel.

• Use your VHF to put out a ‘Securité’ (safety) call announcement of your situation. A DSC radio can do this very quickly and digitally. Go to the interactive guide for more information. • If you are in a particularly hazardous area, such as a traffic separation scheme, port approach or channel, you can always upgrade your call to a pan-pan or even mayday if it warrants it. The Coastguard may do this for you as they have the equipment to assess your situation from a larger perspective. • Carry appropriate spare parts and tools for your type of engine, as there are some organisations that can come out and fix it for you.

man overboard (mob)

If one of your crew has fallen overboard it is vital you do not lose sight of them. Make sure you do the following: • Make your mayday call early (MOB comes into this and can always be cancelled if you pick the casualty up successfully). This is where a VHF DSC set is advantageous. • Stop the vessel as soon as possible and initiate your manoeuvre to go back to the casualty. • At least one crew member must keep pointing at the person in the water to keep track of them. • Throw MOB equipment and markers into the water to aid the casualty. • Press the MOB button on your GPS set. • Have a method ready to bring them back onboard if they are unable to help themselves. Always practise this method with your crew and know how to use the equipment. When approaching the casualty: • never allow a rotating propeller to get near them • ensure that if you have an engine it is in neutral or turned off if it is safe to do so.

Make sure you know what to do in a man overboard situation

How you approach and recover the MOB will be very dependent on the conditions, type of boat and familiarity with the equipment onboard.

Photo: Jane Morgan


firing flares

abandon ship

Flares are an effective means of both signalling distress and indicating your position. Everyone onboard should know how to operate your flares before you need them.

Your liferaft is the last resort. Before you abandon ship, make sure you are certain there is no other choice. While your boat is still afloat it will most likely be a better-equipped and more pleasant place to survive than a liferaft, even if in a bad state. Rescuers will also find your boat easier to spot.

• Hold hand-held flares over the downwind side of the boat with your arm fully outstretched and your face turned away. • Point them away from yourself, anyone else and the superstructure of the boat. • Hand-held flares become extremely hot so wear gloves if possible. • Rocket flares must not be used when a helicopter or aircraft is overhead. • Orange smoke flares are most effective for daytime use. • Red flares are most effective at night.

If you do need to use your liferaft: • If you haven’t already done so, make a mayday call using your VHF radio, set off an EPIRB or PLB if you have one, or let off distress flares. • Make sure everyone is wearing correctly fitted lifejackets with crotch straps. • Take seasickness pills and drink as much water as possible. • Take your grab bag along with carbohydrate-rich food and water. • Prepare the liferaft for launching. Do not inflate the liferaft on deck. Liferafts are designed to be inflated in the water on the downwind side of the boat unless your vessel is on fire. Try to get into the liferaft without getting wet. The common rule is to always step up into a liferaft.


making a mayday call If your boat or any person onboard is in distress and requires immediate assistance, make a mayday broadcast. Modern VHF sets are capable of non voice Digital Selective Calling (DSC), which allows you to send and receive information at the touch of a button. Make sure each crew member knows how to operate the DSC distress alert button. State your position as either latitude and longitude or a distance and bearing from a known feature. Go to the interactive guide for more information.

With the introduction of the global maritime distress and safety system (GMDSS), the traditional distress calling procedure is changing. Modern VHF sets are capable of non-voice digital selective calling (DSC), which automates calls by using a special channel to send and receive information digitally. Make sure each crew member knows how to operate the DSC distress button. In an emergency the most important thing to do is to raise the alarm. It is possible to use a mobile phone but this is a poor substitute for a VHF radio because: • mobile phone networks may offer poor coverage at sea • you can only ring one number on a mobile. With a radio everyone hears your call for help. There could be a vessel a few miles away that hears you on the radio and could reach you in minutes • lifeboats and helicopters cannot home in to the signal of a mobile phone. With a radio they can, and will, find you more quickly.

Know your drills for survival at sea Orange smoke flares are for daytime use

Making a mayday call


emergency beacons

Rescue services

Helicopter rescue

EPIRBs (emergency position indicating radio beacons) and PLBs (personal locator beacons) broadcast a distress signal that allows the search and rescue services to home in on your exact position.

When you send a mayday in UK waters, HM Coastguard will evaluate the situation and coordinate the response of either RNLI lifeboats, independent rescue services and/ or their own search and rescue helicopters. The RNLI’s volunteer lifeboat crews are highly trained, and they will clearly communicate their intentions. It’s crucial that you do exactly as asked.

You’ll probably see the helicopter before the helicopter crew sees you.

If you believe an EPIRB has been set off accidentally, do not switch it off until you have contacted the Coastguard to explain what has happened. PLBs operate in a similar way to EPIRBs but are designed to locate a person rather than a vessel.


Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

EPIRBs are portable satellite communication units, designed to send an automated distress signal on a frequency of 406MHz to search and rescue authorities ashore. The RNLI recommends small craft carry an EPIRB if they sail more than 20–30 nautical miles from the coast. You must register your EPIRB with the relevant national authorities so that the rescue services have details of your vessel. Go to useful contacts section.

• Never fire a parachute flare or miniflare near a helicopter. In daylight, use an orange smoke flare as a signal to the helicopter, or use a hand-held red flare if requested. • Once contact has been made, listen to the pilot’s instructions carefully and brief your crew. You will not be able to hear each other when the helicopter is overhead. • Ensure all loose gear on deck is secured. • Do not touch the hi-line, winch wire or winchman until they have ‘earthed’ in the sea or touched the boat to avoid a static electric shock. • Wear gloves when handling the line. • Never secure any helicopter line to the boat.

Rescue by lifeboat Depending on your location and the weather conditions, the RNLI lifeboat that comes to your aid may be a large all-weather type or a smaller inshore lifeboat. • Ensure radio contact is maintained. Most lifeboats are equipped with VHF directionfinding equipment and you may be asked to transmit using your VHF so they can home in on your signal. • Make your boat as visible as possible. Turn on all lights at night or have distress flares ready to use to help the lifeboat pinpoint your exact position. • Have ropes and mooring lines ready, although the lifeboat will prepare any ropes or fenders required. • Warn the lifeboat of any hazards in the water. • Try to stay calm. Using this guide and the interactive version will help you to keep safe on the water. But if things do go wrong, RNLI lifeboats are here to help, whatever the weather, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

RNLI to the rescue Photo: Anthony Peters


useful contacts UK:


Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)

Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)

West Quay Road, Poole, Dorset, BH15 1HZ

RNLI Ireland, Airside, Swords, Co Dublin

Telephone: 0800 328 0600 email:

Telephone: 1800 789589 email:

General enquiries: 0845 122 6999

Irish Coast Guard

Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)

Leeson Lane, Dublin 2

Spring Place, 105 Commercial Road, Southampton, Hampshire, SO15 1EG

Telephone: 01 678 3454 email:

Telephone: 023 8032 9100 email:

In an emergency, call 112 and ask for the Coast Guard

In an emergency, call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard

Irish Sailing Association

Royal Yachting Association (RYA)

3 Park Road, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin

RYA House, Ensign Way, Hamble, Hampshire, SO31 4YA

Telephone: 01 280 0239 email:

Telephone: 0845 345 0400 email:

Irish Water Safety

The EPIRB Registry (MCA)

The Long Walk, Galway

Pendennis Point, Castle Drive, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WZ

Telephone: 1800 420202 (LoCall) email:

Telephone: 01326 211569 email:

Maritime Radio Affairs Unit (MRAU)

British Marine Federation (BMF)

Department of Transport, Leeson Lane, Dublin 2

Marine House, Thorpe Lea Road, Egham, Surrey, TW20 8BF

Telephone: 01 678 3439 email:

Telephone: 01784 473377 email:

Commission for Communications Regulations (ComReg)

Office of Communications (Ofcom)

Block DEF, Abbey Court, Irish Life Centre, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1

Riverside House, 2a Southwark Bridge Road, London, SE1 9HA

Telephone: 01 804 9600 email:

Telephone: 020 7981 3000 or 0300 123 3000


How to support the RNLI and why we need your help As a charity, the RNLI relies on voluntary donations to keep our lifeboats afloat, so we aim to ensure all who go to sea in their leisure time realise that the value of our lifeboat service comes at a cost. Become an RNLI supporter from just over £2/€3 a month, so you can enjoy the water confident in the knowledge that the RNLI is never far away should things go wrong. Start supporting the RNLI today by calling 0845 121 4999 (UK) or 1800 789 589 (RoI) quoting ‘sea safety’. RNLI, West Quay Road, Poole, Dorset, BH15 1HZ web: email: (UK) (RoI)

The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea Registered in England and Wales (209603) and Scotland (SCO37736). Charity number CHY 2678 in the Republic of Ireland VERSION 6/2013

Six tips for safe trips


Tides and weather

Knowledge of your activity is essential

Check the conditions before heading out

Wear a lifejacket

Engine and fuel check

A life statement, not a fashion one - wear it

Have you sufficient fuel and spares?

SOS device


Carry a means of calling for help

Tell others where you’re going