Even if you are a wonderfully experienced sailor and have the safest boat with all the latest safety equipment, an accident can still happen. Then your safety, and perhaps your life, may depend on the knowledge and training of another person on board: your spouse or partner, friend, or crew. Is that person as knowledgeable and skilled as you are?

At bare minimum, that person must be prepared and be able to take over operation of the boat if you end up in the water or are incapacitated by injury or illness.

Following are the bare-bone basics of what that person should know how to do. You can teach these basics to another person relatively quickly when you head out, and then give that person some opportunity to practice maneuvering after your show-and-tell.

1. Know How to Stop the Boat

In many emergencies the first action to take is to stop the boat. Obviously this is critical if someone falls in the water, but with limited crew it also frees up time to deal with the emergency without a need to steer, manage sails, etc.

  • When under sail, teach your partner how to turn up into the wind and release both the mainsheet and jibsheet to spill the wind. The boat may stay in irons (stalled facing the wind) long enough to get things under control.
  • With the sails up, the boat will likely eventually turn off the wind. Hopefully it will slowly drift sideways to the wind, but it may turn off downwind and keep moving if the boom and mainsail are blown against the shrouds. Make sure your partner knows how to prevent this or how to start the engine to stay pointed into the wind.
  • When running under power, teach how to throttle back and put the transmission in neutral. Ideally, turning into the wind or current first will also help stop and stabilize the boat. Even if someone has fallen into the water, teach how to stop first in neutral – you don’t want an untrained person to simply turn the boat under power and immediately come roaring straight back at you!
  • If you have an autopilot that can be easily engaged and operated with very little training, show your partner how to turn into the wind (or current) and then set the autopilot to help keep the boat stalled.

2. Know How to Get Back to Someone in the Water

If you’ve fallen in the water, you may be able to get back to the boat if it stops immediately. But often there is a delay before your partner can stop the boat, or wind or currents may sweep you away. Therefore the other person must be able to get back to you.

  • Returning to a precise location under sail and then stopping to pick up a person from the water requires more skill than you can teach in a short, simple session. If you have lots of time, it is fun and useful to teach a man-overboard technique.
  • With a small, engineless sailboat, it’s often better just to stop and let the person swim back to the boat. Ideally you are wearing a PFD. You should also have a throw line or throwable device aboard – be sure to show this to your partner to help you stay afloat and return to the boat.
  • If the boat has an engine, teach how to start it and its basic operations. Most important, impress upon your partner the critical point to stop the engine when the boat reaches you, to prevent injury from a spinning prop.

3. Know How to Call for Help

If you’re in the water, the primary goal should be to get you back on the boat. But if your partner can’t do that, or if a different type of emergency incapacitates you, you likely need help as soon as possible.

  • Calling for help on a VHF radio is much better than using a cell phone. In all areas of the US and most other countries, the Coast Guard or rescue service monitors the radio and can take the fastest action. Moreover, other boaters nearby may hear your call and come to your aid within minutes. So teach the other how to use the VHF.
  • If you don’t now have a VHF, get at least an inexpensive waterproof handheld model. In dire straits, your partner can call for help on a cell phone. Rather than calling 911, a call directly to your local Coast Guard station is best. Learn the direct number for your area and post it. A call to 911 will be transferred to water rescue, but any lost time could make a difference in the outcome.
  • In crowded waters with boats likely nearby, don’t underestimate the importance of alerting other boaters that you need help. A whistle attached to everyone’s PFD is a simple but effective solution.

4. Take Preventive Action

Teaching your sailing partner the three basic actions above will help prepare for the most serious sudden emergencies. Note that all of these do require taking preventive actions: have the right equipment on board, show and tell, and practice.

It helps also to take additional preventive steps, including these:

  • Everyone should wear a PFD at all times.
  • Anyone leaving the safety of a deep cockpit or cabin should be tethered to the boat, especially if conditions become rough.
  • All required safety equipment must be on board, including fire extinguishers, flares, etc.
  • Check wind and weather conditions and forecasts before heading out.
  • File a float plan with someone who will call for help if they don’t hear from you by a certain time.
  • Perform a safety inspection of critical boat equipment when starting out.