Emergency Drills for Cruising

And you thought CPR was fun...

©2018 Jeffrey E Isaac, PA-C

Running wing and wing in the trades…my wife and I got to arguing about something. Neither of us can remember what it was about now, but at the time it was important enough to keep either of us from noticing the squall approaching fast from astern. It struck with the particular form of vengeance reserved for sailors who are not paying attention. The whisker pole snapped and the jib took off for Puerto Rico while the boat quickly exceeded hull speed and tried to submerge.

I’d like to report that the two of us instinctively leapt to our emergency stations; she to the rig and sails, and me to stabilize the helm and fix our position….the boat quickly brought under control and the situation normalized with no bellowing. This did not happen.

We were experienced, competent, and complacent; the perfect target for a real emergency. Fortunately, we emerged uninjured but severely humbled by the experience. Unfortunately, it often takes this kind of event to motivate cruisers to really train for handling sudden disasters.

Navy vessels and school ships drill routinely. Everybody aboard knows their duties and stations for fire, man overboard, abandon ship, collision, and heavy weather. The best skippers run numerous drills designed to reinforce skills and training under a variety of conditions. It’s a lot of work, but you won’t find anyone complaining about it when the need is real.

Emergency drills are even more important for small boats and small crews. While aboard Westward with 30 other people, my job was pretty easy to remember; close a ventilator in case of fire, grab the log book and launch Life Raft #1 in abandon ship, man the dinghy to recover a man overboard. If I was the one overboard, one of the crew aboard could take my position.

With a small crew like a couple or a family, each person will need to perform a number of tasks. This is bound to be physically more demanding, harder to remember. And certainly worthy of more practice.

Merely thinking or talking about what you’d do is expedient, but not sufficient. Until you actually stage a simulated galley fire, you won’t appreciate how difficult it is to heave the storm jib out from behind the head, open the locker in the dark, lacerate your thumb on the rusted extinguisher bracket, and then try to blast the stove with CO2 through the three other crewmembers who have lunged for the same locker and are now jammed in the door. Drills can actually be quite amusing, and informative too.

Boring passages are a great time for practice. Pick a moment of peace and serenity and announce that the boat has just struck a container on the port bow and is taking on water. After the initial panic, reveal that you are conducting a drill and would like to see the important bases covered; someone manning the helm, someone obtaining a position and prepared to broadcast a pan or mayday, someone finding and deploying the collision mat, someone working the pumps, and most importantly, someone in charge. Sometimes this is done by only two people. You can imagine the difficulty. You can also imagine how much better you’ll handle it after really doing it a few times!

We have a tendency in Western Civilization to try to buy our way into security. We purchase life rafts, flares, medical kits, survival suits, and machine guns and then feel that we’re prepared for sea. The sea loves toys, and if you don’t really practice with them the sea will have more fun with them than you will. Did you know, for example, that if you launch a rocket flare according to the directions on the side, you’ll singe your eyebrows? Do I need to explain how I know this?

Fire off a few expired flares to get a feel for them (fire into the water to avoid an inconvenient rescue operation). Heft your life raft. Can you quickly extract and launch it from where it is stowed? Simulate an injury, find the appropriate medical gear and practice using it. Assign each crewmember to be responsible for specific elements of your survival gear and practice collecting it for abandoning ship. Try donning your survival suit in the dark and then climbing the companionway ladder. Drills make the difference between intellectual complacency and true competence.

Talk with your crew about various emergencies and how you should handle them. Then do it, and do it again. Your survival may someday depend on it. The list of potential emergencies is, of course, endless. The classic favorites include; abandon ship, man overboard, fire in the galley, engine room fire, holed below the waterline, dismasting, loss of steerage, and getting caught by a squall while arguing with your wife. Have fun!