When things go wrong …

Doug King | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 1

While running into trouble isn’t on any skipper’s agenda, being prepared and keeping your emergency equipment ship-shape will help greatly in an emergency.

The Australian Volunteer Coast Guard flotillas assist over 500 boaters every year across each eastern state and the Northern Territory, while Volunteer Marine Rescue Services in Western Australia, covering the coast from the Kimberley to Esperance, respond to a similar amount of incidents.

Breakdowns, boat fires, capsizes, collisions, personal injuries and even running out of fuel are some of the incidents they attend. While I was attached to the Water Police in Victoria, I saw hundreds of situations where things had gone wrong. None were deliberate acts – no one starts a day’s boating expecting things to go wrong. Some incidents occurred because of obvious carelessness, but most were the result of inexperience or insufficient planning.

While boating is a very safe pastime, it does have some risks. Things can go wrong and you should be prepared for that. Hundreds of years of experience have led to the development of regulations, safety equipment and procedures to deal with most situations that can arise. And, as skipper, you have a duty to ensure that you are prepared and can respond in a reasonable way to ensure the safety of your boat and passengers.


It’s useful to have an understanding of the search and rescue system, as it will enable you to determine how to deal with different situations and know what kind of response you will get if in trouble.

The marine search and rescue system in Australia is coordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). Its Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) in Canberra operates 24-hours a day and is responsible for the national coordination of marine and aviation rescue.

AMSA is also responsible for the management and operation of ground stations that are part of the satellite system that detects Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs). If a beacon signal is received or the RCC is notified of a missing vessel, the RCC will commence a process leading to a search and rescue operation.

The state police forces are responsible for the coordination of search and rescue for vessels on inland and inshore waters. This task is normally handled by the Water Police squad in each state, who are assisted by highly trained volunteer Marine Rescue Groups (VMRs), such as the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard.

In New Zealand, maritime search and rescue is coordinated 24-hours a day by Maritime New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ). The New Zealand Police coordinate all other New Zealand search and rescue missions.

Search and rescue authorities are generally alerted to emergency incidents by radio calls, flare sightings and calls from worried friends or relatives. When received, the information is evaluated by checking that the vessel is, in fact, on the water. This may mean checking boat ramps for the car and trailer to narrow the search area. Wind, waves, boat equipment, current conditions and the skipper’s experience will also be taken into account. This information assists in determining the response action and type of rescue craft that may be used.

Irrespective of what situation you may find yourself in, you will be required to manage the initial response and support your own survival for a period of time while waiting to be rescued. Your initial response to an emergency and how you manage it until rescued can be the difference between a good outcome or not.


The first part of onboard risk management is the carriage of compulsory safety equipment. The second part is understanding the risks and knowing how to deal with them.

Boat licence examinations go some way toward informing skippers of how to respond if things go wrong, but further detailed knowledge will help reduce the consequences of an incident. A good working knowledge of your safety equipment and how to use it goes a long way to making you competent in handling emergencies. Thinking about what you would do and how you would handle different situations is just as important.

Drills take the panic out of a real situation – such as practising man overboard recovery using a fender or some other floating device. At the very least, you should consider what actions you might take in a variety of emergency situations. When something goes wrong, there may not be time to think the problem through.

On that note, it’s a must to brief your passengers when they come aboard your boat about safety issues and safety equipment.


There are some basic rules to follow in an emergency situation.

The skipper should take charge of the situation. In all situations where the boat is disabled, everyone should put on a PFD if not already wearing one.

For simple breakdowns, anchor the boat if it is safe to do so. If that’s not possible, use a sea anchor to slow down your drift. Sea anchors are parachute-type devices that are streamed from the boat’s bow. If you don’t have one, a bucket tied on a long line from the bow will slow down your drift rate and keep the bow of the boat into any chop.

Assess the problem. Check the fuel quantity and connections, and look for any obvious issues, such as overheating. Make sure the ‘kill’ or ‘dead-man’ cord has not been inadvertently disconnected from the ignition. On inboard engines, check drive belts and fuel filters.

If the problem cannot be fixed, call for help or attract attention from other boaters or people on the shore to gain assistance.


Flat batteries are the most common cause of boats being stranded – the engine may start fine on the boat ramp but, after being stopped for a while on the water, won’t restart. Again, prevention is best. A good marine battery that’s properly fitted and serviced will not let you down. If you do get stuck, some outboards can be manually pull-started. Check your engine’s manual to see if this is possible and follow the instructions. If you can’t restart the engine, follow the basic rules and call for assistance.

Fire is a frightening prospect on boats. If you do have a fire, try to manoeuvre the boat so flames blow away from it, and muster your passengers (who are wearing PFDs) away from the source. Try to isolate the fuel source – disconnect the fuel lines if it’s a fuel fire, and turn off the batteries if it’s an electrical fire. If the fire is in the engine pod of an outboard, aim your extinguisher to discharge into the air intake. Remove the outboard’s cover only as a last resort. On inboard engines, crack open the engine hatch and fire the extinguisher. The less oxygen in the engine bay, the easier it will be to put the fire out. Fire is a situation in which a distress call should be made immediately.

Flooding or swamping is another highly dangerous situation. Again, follow the basic rules and account for your passengers. Turn bilge pumps on and, if you can, try to reduce the inflow of water. Cushions and towels stuffed into breaches or activating a spare inflatable PFD into a hole in the hull can reduce water flow. Again, seek assistance immediately.

If you do have to leave the boat, take what you think may be useful and stay together in a huddle. Things that may assist in the water are an EPIRB, life rings, floating cushions, a waterproof torch, flares, drinking water, and warm clothing. It is not recommended that you swim to shore unless it is extremely close.

If your boat is capsized, climb out of the water to the top of the hull. Being immersed in water takes away body heat 25 times faster than air does.


There are recognised procedures for alerting others when you’re in trouble on the water. It is important to know that some actions will elicit an immediate urgent response. When you are in distress, immediate assistance will be dispatched to you. ‘Distress’ is defined as grave and imminent danger to life.

Using marine radio, a message proceeded by “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” indicates that you are in distress and require immediate assistance. A Mayday call must include your boat registration and radio call sign (if you have one), your exact location and the nature of the problem. How many people are onboard and a description of the boat are also required, if possible.

If you are in doubt about the seriousness of the situation, use the Mayday call. This will attract attention and rescue groups can downgrade the response if it’s apparent that grave danger is not present.

In Australian waters, the radio distress channels are 27.88MHz – commonly referred to as channel 88 – and marine VHF channel 16. Both channels are monitored by rescue authorities and other vessels.

In New Zealand waters, radio distress calls are transmitted on VHF channel 16.

Avoid using mobile telephones as a primary source of communication. There are many reasons why they are not as effective as marine radio, including unreliable network coverage.

Marine flares are also a distress signal – red flares are for night use and orange smoke flares for daytime. A red flare can be used by day but it’s not as effective. Don’t activate flares until you are reasonably certain that someone will see them. Good safety preparation calls for skippers to check their flares for expiry and reviewing the operating instructions.

There’s a lot of discussion about whether you should fire a flare if you’ve only run out of fuel. If it means the difference between being stranded overnight or attracting the attention of a passing vessel for a tow, then it’s probably appropriate to use the flares.

Signalling SOS with a torch is also an indication to others that you require assistance. Signalling a light in any group of three flashes should attract attention. Also, standing while raising and lowering your outstretched arms indicates distress.

A V-sheet is a large orange rectangle with a black ‘V’ imprinted on it and also indicates distress. V-sheets are compact and easy to carry, even on small boats. In some states, they are required by law.

Finally, a word about Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs). These beacons are usually required when going offshore, but are highly recommended no matter where you go boating. They must be registered with AMSA (beacons.org.nz in NZ) and, when activated, transmit your position and details to the RCC. They indicate distress and take the ‘search’ out of search and rescue. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) that are about the size of a smartphone are also useful.


Before each boating trip, always tell someone responsible where you are going and when you will be back. Leave details of your boat, crew, and area of operation. Advise this person to alert police if you are not back at the nominated time. If you have a radio, logon with your local VMR when you leave and logoff when you return.

Consider using the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Safetrx smartphone app, which tracks your voyage from logon to logoff. Download it at: coastguard.com.au/safetrx.

Know how your safety gear works and keep it in top condition, and have plans on how to deal with common safety issues. You could also get a first aid qualification.

Carry an EPIRB, even in areas where not required by law, and take protective clothing and basic supplies, including water, with you.

How to-Safety