Abandon Ship!

For tonights Ocean Yachtmaster study I am looking at abandoning ship. I have already visited the Rescue Coordination Centre, and saw how these amazing people are able to muster assistance in the form of another boat or a helicopter to come and help you.

I have learnt about EPIRB’s and how they work, what safety gear you should have on board, and I have also looked at ways that you can help your family help you – by giving them all the relevant information they might need to assist in a rescue. I also learnt what can happen when rescues go wrong – as in the case of Steve Collins who ended up in the Ocean in the dark during his rescue.

No abandoning ship doesn’t sound like terribly much fun, and I hope that we never have to go through it, but if you do get in to a situation, here are some tips to (hopefully) make it go smoothly.

Firstly, do you know what you are getting yourself in for? The very act of being rescued is super dangerous. In fact in this article a ship captain suggests that you shouldn’t make a decision to abandon your boat and board a ship in anything other than flat calm conditions unless you are convinced that you are going to die. The danger involved in the transfer is far worse than staying aboard your floating vessel.

Not to mention that it is extremely unlikely that you will get your boat back once you have been rescued. In fact the ship may even deliberately sink your boat to avoid it becoming a hazard to navigation.

So if you are still convinced that you actually do want to be rescued, here is how to go about it…


Call For Help.

With any luck you will get the opportunity to make a distress call before you have to abandon your ship. I recently read a story of a couple whose boat caught fire and they had to jump in to the Ocean without anything and watch their boat burn and sink before their eyes! In short, you can’t expect anyone to come and rescue you if they don’t know you are in trouble. So this should be your #1 priority.

So how do you call for help?

  • Setting off your EPIRB
  • Making a Mayday call on VHF channel 16 or SSB 2182 kHz – give your name of vessel,  location (latitude and longitude and bearing and distance from a known geographical feature) nature of distress, type of assistance required, and any other relevant information including people on board, description of vessel, life raft, EPIRB etc
  • Setting off a flare – red parachute at night or orange smoke during the day
  • Dialling 111 (in NZ or 911, 999 etc in other countries)
  • Waving oustretched arms up and down
  • Morse code SOS …_ _ _ …
  • Gun or loud noise at 1 minute intervals
  • Continuous sounding of a fog horn
  • Code flags N over C
  • A square shape above or below a ball shape
  • Flames or smoke
  • Displaying a V Sheet


Muster the Crew, Life Raft & Grab Bag

Your boat should have a written abandon ship plan, and regular crew training on emergency procedures. Be familiar with how to use flares, activate your lifejacket, switch on the EPIRB etc in the dark.

The general rule of thumb is to step up in to the life raft – i.e. you should only be getting in to the life raft when the boat is actually slipping below the ocean. There have been a number of occasions where people have ditched the yacht to get in to the life raft. The boats have been found floating sometimes months later, and the people in the raft have perished. Steve Collin’s boat turned up 9 months later in remarkably good condition after he abandoned her in the Tasman Sea.

  • Prepare the life raft – but don’t launch it unless absolutely necessary
  • Dress the crew in warm clothing, wetsuits, and life jackets
  • Drink water and take seasick tablets
  • Activate personal strobe lights
  • Gather together extra food and water to take with you in the raft if required
  • Collect personal documents, passports, boat insurance papers etc
  • Try to keep warm and dry
  • Pack things in to pockets or a backpack to make sure your hands are free
  • You should take your EPIRB with you so that it does not continue to send a distress signal once you have been rescued.
  • If you have EPIRB’s and PLB’s just set off one at a time to preserve battery power

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Rescue by Helicopter

Helicopters can have a range of up to 120 nautical miles offshore, and be with you in 20 minutes depending on the weather conditions. If you are going to be rescued by a helicopter you can do some things to help.

  • If possible lower any masts or aerials to provide a clear area for the hoist
  • Keep all unnecessary personnel out of the way
  • Turn the boat in to the wind and maintain a straight course
  • Have someone inside on the VHF radio – channel 16 communicating with the crew. Once the helicopter is above you will not be able to hear them on the radio.
  • A red light works best for night vision. Do not shine a torch directly at the helicopter as you could dazzle the pilot. If lighting up the deck ensure lights are facing downwards.
  • Secure or tie any loose objects that could be blown up in to the rotor blades. (hats, fishing gear, papers, clothing) Clear away any fuel containers.
  • They will lower a line in to the water first to disperse any static electricity. Let it touch the vessels deck before handing it.
  • Never under any circumstances attach the line to the boat
  • Ensure the person being hoisted it wearing a life jacket.
  • During the day smoke signals or a flag can be used to show the apparent wind.
  • They will lower someone in to the water or on to the boat to assist with the rescue or lower a basket in to the water for you to get in to.

Rescue by Ship

If you are near a major shipping route, then you might not be too far from potential assistance. However a ship could be a couple of days away. Be aware that there could be a language barrier when you are speaking to the captain of the ship on the radio. Make sure you understand the procedure as the ship approaches.

The ship will probably position itself upwind and broadside to the wind and waves to bring the yacht in to the lee. If you are able to motor your boat, then you could assist to come alongside. Communication is the key.

  • Deploy fenders, and have a boat hook and lines ready if required. Have all crew tethered to the yacht.
  • The ship will likely launch a small messenger line to the boat. Use the boat hook to retrieve the line and then haul in the heavier line to attach to your boat – to a sturdy cleat or around the mast. The ships crew will use this to pull your boat in towards the ship.
  • Take extra care once the yacht is along side the ship. They will probably deploy a ladder or a net to climb up.
  • Time your climb to go from the yacht to the ladder at the crest of a wave, and then climb quickly to get out of the way when the next wave comes.
  • Send the weakest people first, leaving the stronger crew members on board to assist others climb. The skipper should be the last one to leave.
  • It will be very difficult to transfer people who are injured or unable to climb.

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Be aware that the ship has probably had to go out of its way, and at great expense to come and rescue you. Also the ship will continue on to its previous destination. You might have been aiming to sail to the Pacific Islands, and instead end up in Panama!

Rescue by Another Yacht

In this instance it might be easier to deploy the life raft or dinghy, leaving it attached to the yacht with a long line, and then allowing the other boat to come alongside that.

Every situation will be different and will depend on the weather conditions, your vessel and the condition of your crew.


MEDEVAC – Medical Evacuation

If you are a calling for help for a medical emergency. You should include the following information:

  1. Name of vessel and call sign
  2. Position – latitude, longitude, bearing and distance
  3. Date/Time of position
  4. Craft’s course and speed
  5. Patients name, nationality, age, sex, race
  6. Patient’s language
  7. Patient’s symptoms
  8. Medications given
  9. Medication available
  10. Radio frequencies in use
  11. Craft description
  12. Local/emergency contact details
  13. Last port of call & destination
  14. On-scene weather and sea state
  15. Assistance required
  16. Any other pertinent information


There are a couple of international conventions and laws in regards to the obligations of rescuing people at sea:


‘Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers:

(a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost;

(b) to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him’ (Article 98(1)).


‘master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving information2 from any source that persons are in distress at sea, … to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so’ (SOLAS regulation V/33.1).

So I hope we never have to abandon ship or rescue anyone else who has to abandon theirs! Have you ever been in an abandon ship situation?


5 thoughts on “Abandon Ship!

  1. Pingback: Ocean Yachtmaster | Astrolabe Sailing

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