When you take a new crew or guest on your boat the first time, be sure to teach them the basics about how to stay safe on the water. All too often, when the weather is good and conditions are stable, a skipper is tempted to get underway immediately—and tell guests or crew about safety equipment and actions later on if a need arises. The problem is that if a need does arise, it’s usually too late then to talk about safety actions, because immediate action is needed.
Boat safety for guests is an important matter to address from the start.
Remember too that you the captain may be involved in an emergency and unavailable to give instructions at the time. Imagine if you were knocked overboard — would your guests know how to rescue you or call for help?
Here are five safety guidelines to show and tell guests and crew before heading out.
1. Make sure everyone has a PFD.
Don’t just tell them where PFDs are stored, but get them out and make sure everyone has one. Have them try them on and make any adjustments needed for a good fit. Then each guest can put the PFD where they can find it later (better yet: wear it). Remember that children under age 12 must wear one at all times.
Also show them your throwable PFD (life ring or seat cushion) and instruct them that if anyone goes overboard, even when wearing a PFD, throw the life ring or additional PFDs toward the person in the water. They will provide additional buoyancy for the person, and having several items in the water makes it easier to find the area if you’re under sail and it takes a minute or two to return.
2. Show everyone how to stop the boat.
Assume, in the worst case scenario, that you are in the water or having a medical or other emergency. Sailing crew can likely stop the boat or return to you, but guests may not know what to do. Under sail, show them at least how to release the mainsheet and jib sheet immediately to spill the wind and stop the boat. Under power, show them how to shut down the engine—it’s not good enough to think you have the boat in neutral if a person may come anywhere near the prop. Once you’re underway, you can talk more about how to run the boat back to a person overboard under either sail or power—but before starting out, guests should at least know how to stop the boat.
3. Show everyone where fire extinguishers are located.
If a fire were to break out, you might be too busy doing other things to fetch a fire extinguisher. Show people where they are and how to release them from a mounting bracket.
4. Show the boat’s radio and how to use it.
Several kinds of emergencies might result in you being incapacitated and needing help. In this day of universal cell phones, guests may assume they can simply call 911. Off the coast they may lack a signal, and even if they have a signal, using a VHF radio is better. The Coast Guard will hear a radio distress call virtually anywhere in US waters, and other boaters nearby monitoring channel 16 may also hear and arrive to give help long before the Coast Guard does. With a phone call, these boaters obviously will not know you are in distress.
Unless you are very near land where crew and guests can easily identify shore features to describe the boat’s position in a distress call, you should have your GPS unit on. Make sure at least one guest knows how to read longitude and latitude to be able to give your location in an emergency call.
5. Explain the plan if someone falls overboard.
Falling overboard is the most common boating emergency, a situation that requires immediate action from others in addition to the captain. Tell them what to do if you yourself end up in the water. (If your guests are not sailors or boaters, the best they may be able to do is stop the boat so that you can swim to it.) But explain that you need their help if one of them falls overboard. As noted earlier, throw the life ring and other floating objects immediately. Assign one person to watch the person in the water at all times, pointing with an outstretched arm. Others should stand by for your orders, such as controlling the sails or preparing a retrieval system such as a LifeSling. It takes a coordinated team effort to return the boat to someone in the water and assist the person back on board.
In addition to these five guidelines, if you are the only one aboard who knows how to sail, it can be critical for someone else to know how to handle the boat if you become incapacitated or are knocked overboard.
Then head out and have fun!
Your safety “show and tell” doesn’t have to be scary—that’s not the point. It takes only a few minutes to cover these basics, but should an emergency occur, this will have been time very well spent.