• As with anything, a bit of planning goes a long way.
  • … the best rescue is the one you never have.
  • Incidents happen rarely, but those that do happen are often avoidable …
  • Still too many callouts for lifeboats are to avoidable incidents.

We all hope it’s never going to happen, but however well you prepare your boat, and however much training and experience you have, there’s always the chance you’ll need to call for assistance. Knowing how best to prepare for the arrival of help could prove key, as Paul Glatzel explains …

If you get the chance to travel the world boating, one of the things you quickly learn to assess anywhere you are going is how good the rescue services appear to be in case you need to rely on them. You quickly realise that in the UK we are luckier than most to have the SAR (‘Search & Rescue’) organisations that we do, as so many other countries have really limited resources, or sometimes none at all.

In the UK, at the top of the pyramid we have the MCA – the Maritime & Coastguard Agency. The MCA are appointed by the government to manage SAR in UK waters and to assist UK vessels further afield. This they do through a series of centres around the UK, with the main one being at Fareham in Hampshire – the National Maritime Operations Centre – which is also where ‘Solent Coastguard’ operate from.

The MCA (‘coastguard’) can draw on various ‘assets’ to assist them with SAR incidents. The most obvious are the lifeboats, which people tend to think of as the RNLI, but there are also numerous independent lifeboats operating around our shores that do an identical job. The MCA also has access to helicopters, coastguard mobile units and, of course, the fire, ambulance and police services. When faced with an incident the MCA will allocate resources and manage the incident through to its conclusion.

So let’s say you are out afloat and something goes wrong. What do you do? What’s the best way to call for assistance? And how do you prepare to be rescued?

Of course, the best rescue is the one you never have. Still too many callouts for lifeboats are to avoidable incidents. This could be running out of fuel, an engine issue that you knew about but hoped would go away, a bowline from your bow running under the boat and snagging the prop, and so on. Good preparation, looking after your boat and if in doubt staying ashore will help you avoid being a statistic.

But sometimes you just cannot avoid it, so having the right kit and the ability to summon assistance is key.

The first question is: what level of assistance do you need?

In short, if life is in danger it’s a ‘mayday’, whereas if something is broken and life isn’t in immediate danger, it’s known as a ‘pan-pan’ call. A ‘pan-pan’ call is made over a VHF radio and you would learn more about how to make this call on a VHF course. A ‘mayday’ is a distress call and there are various ways to seek assistance if you are in such a serious situation. (Don’t worry, though, about getting the nature of the call right as if you call the coastguard as a routine call, they will decide with you the help you need and classify the call accordingly.)

Everyone has a mobile phone and certainly it can be useful in the event of an issue. The potential problem with a phone is that you may not get a great signal afloat (it can vary hugely along the coast, with no signal in one bay and strong 4G 200m further along), but perhaps more importantly your mobile makes a call that only one other person can hear – the coastguard – whereas a VHF marine radio ‘broadcasts’ to all so the coastguard and others can hear. In most situations in busier waters, it’s the ‘others’ that will get to you before a lifeboat and thus be able to provide some level of assistance in really serious situations.

The other two really obvious means of issuing distress calls are VHF radio and flares.

There are two elements to issuing a distress call using your VHF. There’s a red button on the radio that can be pressed to send a digital distress message that if set up properly sends your position to everyone, including the coastguard. Then you follow this up with a voice mayday call. Learn how to use your radio properly by attending a VHF radio course.

Flares have been around forever, and every year there’s a discussion around whether there’s a better and safer solution than holding what amounts to a firework in your hand. The reality is that flares are still very effective, and when seen even by non-boaters they are recognised as a distress signal. As electronic methods improve, it may be that flares become redundant, but I’d certainly still carry them.

Waving your arms up and down is a recognised signal, as is using a distress beacon called an EPIRB. EPIRBs (or their smaller relation, the PLB – personal locator beacon) are becoming increasingly popular as they have come down in price and send an alert straight to the coastguard.

A fairly recent addition that is worth having is the SafeTrx app that the RYA manage. This app has just been announced as the replacement for the coastguard registration scheme, CG66 (where details about your boat are recorded). The thing about SafeTrx is that you can alert the coastguard to a problem and they can see where you are; you can record your passage and let friends see where you are too. It’s early days with this app and it’s evolving the whole time, but it is worth getting. It’s free too!

So something has gone wrong and you are dealing with the issue on board. The action you take clearly depends on the nature of the problem, so it’s worth spending time as a skipper thinking through what you do for the various things that can go wrong on board – before they happen! It may sound a slightly negative thing to do, but it’s just good planning, and professionals do this sort of thing all of the time.

For example, if you have seacocks on your boat, are they greased and working? Do you have wooden bungs next to them in case one breaks? Have a plan and practise it. If you had an engine fire, do you have automatic shut-offs? Is there a port to put a fire extinguisher through? Where will your crew go – life raft, dinghy or straight into the water? Do they have life jackets? Do you have flares and a handheld VHF in a grab bag? As with anything, a bit of planning goes a long way.

Let’s imagine you have a medical emergency on board and have spoken to the coastguard. Aside from supporting the casualty in whatever way they need, brief the other crew – what do you want them to do? Perhaps it’s nothing, and getting them sitting down and keeping still is what’s needed, but maybe you need a couple of your competent crew to deal with lines or prepare to receive a helicopter winchman.

A lifeboat or helicopter will wish to chat to you on VHF Channel 16 or 67, so be ready. In the case of a lifeboat, they’ll want to put a member of their crew on board immediately to assess the situation. Discuss the plan with them – their first interest will be the safety of the people, and their job is to get the boat to a place of safety, so agree with them a plan for people and boat that seems fair.

If a helicopter is coming to your assistance, prepare the deck – loose items out of the way, lines stowed. On a small boat (around 8m or less) you will almost certainly be asked to come to a complete stop, whereas a bigger boat will be asked to motor into wind at about 10 knots. The winchman will either lower directly onto your deck or send a line down first – don’t tie this line off! Coil it on deck and use it to then pull him on board. Once he’s on board he will assume control, but remember, you are still the skipper and need to keep the boat safe.

Incidents happen rarely, but those that do happen are often avoidable, so hopefully you will use the ideas in this article to prompt a bit of thought about your own boating. If you do need rescuing, it’s always nice to feed back to those involved, and whether it’s an independent lifeboat or the RNLI, a letter/email is really appreciated and a donation is pretty handy too.

Have fun and be safe!

The images in this article are replicated from the RYA Powerboat Handbook, which is available from the RYA web shop.  

Paul Glatzel is an RYA powerboat trainer and wrote the RYA Powerboat Handbook and the RYA Advanced Powerboat Handbook. He runs Powerboat Training UK in Poole and Lymington (www.powerboattraininguk.co.uk).

Premier Marinas Dry Stack - Trafalgar Wharf

MDl Dry Stack
Henri Lloyd

Yamaha - The most exciting way to get from A to B campaign
Quarken 2023
Boatfolk May 2023