Advanced Sea Survival

I am back to studying! I really need to sit my Ocean Yachtmaster Exam and I am going through a MOUNTAIN of paper with my study notes on there and putting them up on the blog. That way I get to save them, you get to read them, and I get to chuck out a small part of the pile of paper that seems to haunt me and follow me around!

Anyway here goes – everything you ever wanted to know about (hopefully) surviving at sea.

One of the Yachting NZ Category 1 requirements for NZ registered  yachts heading offshore is for at least 30% (but no fewer than two) of the crew including the skipper to have completed an Advanced Sea Survival course. within the last five years.

I’ve done it twice, a few years ago now. It comprised of a day in the classroom discussing aspects of safety planning, and then we also did a wet drill in the pool and we also got to let off some flares, practise using some fire extinguishers and that kind of thing.

Firstly can I say that reading my notes isn’t a substitute for actually doing the course. It is brilliant and gets you thinking about all aspects of safety on board and how you are going to manage situations as they arise. The practical drills are brilliant. You also pick up lots more handy tips from your tutor and fellow classmates. Check with Coastguard Boating Education for the next course – or your own country’s Yachting Association is bound to offer something similar. 


If you keep a good eye on the sailing news then you’ll already know that every year a handful of people are rescued at sea. Whether they hit something and their boat sinks, or they lose a mast or a rudder and their boat becomes inoperable, or if some kind of medical emergency occurs requiring evacuation. Hundreds more people of course sail happily across the oceans without any issues at all, but if the worst does happen then it is good to have both the skills, equipment and a plan to ensure things run as smoothly as possible.

In New Zealand, ocean going yachts sailing offshore are required to have what is called a Cat 1 safety inspection before they leave to ensure they have the correct gear on board and that the boat is safe and seaworthy, and the crew have the required expertise for the voyage planned. Our Search and Rescue area is one of the largest in the world, and this inspection requirement is one way in which the government can (hopefully) reduce the number of rescues that take place each year. There are various categories of safety – with Cat 1 being for offshore races and cruisers, down to Cat 5 for boats racing in sheltered waters.

Duty of Care

Everyone on board has a responsibility to keep ourselves and our fellow crew safe. If you are racing then the race committee obviously has some responsibilities when it comes to starting a race if the conditions are deteriorating, but at the end of the day the ultimate responsibility falls on the shoulders of the Skipper. Here is what the YNZ requirements say:

The safety of a yacht and her crew is the sole and inescapable responsibility of the skipper who must do his/her best to ensure that the yacht is fully found, thoroughly seaworthy and
manned by an experienced crew who are physically fit to face bad weather.
He/she must be satisfied as to the soundness of hull, spars, rigging, sails and all gear. He/she must ensure that all safety equipment is properly maintained and stowed and that the crew know where it is kept and be trained in its use.

If you are a crew member sailing with a new skipper, or a skipper taking on some new crew, you might be interested in reading some tips here about what to check first before you head out to sea with someone you may have only recently met.

Accidents & Emergencies

So what can go wrong while you are at sea? And what do you need to prepare for? Here are some things to consider, and if you click on the links you’ll go through to my posts on how to prevent these things from happening, what safety gear to carry and possible strategies on dealing with these situations.

Of course many of these things can happen on land too, but help isn’t usually just around the corner when you are on a boat, so you need to be a bit more self sufficient and have a plan in place to help you deal with these events should they ever actually occur.


How do accidents and emergencies happen in the first place?

  • Poor maintenance
  • Bad seamanship
  • Construction/Design flaws
  • Fatigue
  • Floating objects
  • Medical issues
  • Human Error
  • Bad weather

Some of these things you can manage – and some you can’t. Sometimes it can be a combination of a few little things going wrong which set off a much bigger disaster.

Safety Equipment

To prepare for any of these scenarios we can carry on board various safety items to assist with our survival including:

  • Fire extinguishers
  • Fire Blanket
  • Bucket
  • Bilge pumps
  • Tools
  • Lifering/Danbuoy
  • Drogue
  • Heaving line
  • Boat hook
  • MOB recovery equimment
  • GPS
  • First Aid kit & training
  • Radar
  • Navigation lights
  • AIS
  • Up to date charts
  • Anchor
  • Engine
  • Spare parts
  • Harnesses
  • Lifejackets
  • Flares
  • Liferaft
  • Grab Bag

Your boat should also be seaworthy and designed for the purpose of your voyage. You can read more about the Cat 1 requirements here.

You should also have a diagram of your boat showing the location of all the safety equipment. You can download a template here.

Care & Maintenance

It is also important to take care of the safety equipment on your boat to ensure that it is ready to use and kept in good working order.

You might like to keep a maintenance log and note the expiry dates on things like your EPIRB battery or flares and the dates of your life raft surveys etc. Download a maintenance log template here.

Your PFD should also be regularly blown up and left overnight to check for any leaks or corrosion around the canister.

Your lifejacket should have:

  • One for each crew member on board
  • A crotch strap
  • Your name and or the name of the vessel
  • Pea-less whistle
  • Retro-reflective tape
  • Rescue loop
  • Mouth or auto inflate
  • A splash hood
  • A light

Your safety harness should have:

  • Double clips
  • One for each crew member
  • Labelled with crew/boat name
  • Jackstays and strong points on the boat to clip on to
  • Move on the high side of the boat

If you go overboard wearing a harness then you can be dragged under the water and drowned. Keep your tether short and travel only on the high side of the boat. Read more about the dangers of harnesses here.

Safety Planning

Hazards can be managed by identifying the risks, assessing and managing those risks, deciding on ways to control the risk, implementing controls, training the crew and regularly reviewing.

One of the Cat 1 requirements is for the boat to have a manual on board which details all your safety policies, safety gear and standard operating procedures. I am working on a template for this which I will share on the blog – so watch this space!


Hazards can include:

  • The boat and equipment on board
  • The area you sail in – reefs, currents
  • Particular hazardous activities – e.g. going up the mast, handling lines, docking etc
  • Fatigue of the crew
  • Weather conditions
  • Outside influences – traffic etc

Take a good look at your boat and think about the hazards relating to your boat in particular.

Risk Assessment

Risks can be broken down in to different groups:


  • Very unlikely
  • Unlikely
  • Likely
  • Very likely


  • Minor
  • Moderate
  • Major
  • Extreme

So now take the hazard and give it a rating for how likely it is to be a hazard and what are the consequences if something does go wrong.

This can give you an overall Risk Rating:

  • Low
  • Moderate
  • High
  • Extreme

With our example above – the Hazard may be going up the mast to retrieve a lost halyard. It could be dangerous for the person going up the mast if they fell, what if it was windy, what if the boat couldn’t manoeuvre correctly while the person was up there etc? How likely is that to happen? Well on our boat last year it was almost a weekly event with the block at the top of the mast getting jammed when the spinnaker was up – so yes it’s likely. What is the consequence of something going wrong? Well if you fell then the consequence would be extreme…

Control Measures

OK so how are you going to manage the risk of going up the mast – or whatever hazard it is that you are working on?

  • Preventative maintenance – perhaps fixing the mast issue so someone doesn’t have to go up the mast every time you fly the spinnaker for example.
  • Correct equipment – having a decent bosuns chair and harness on board fit for the purpose.
  • Checking the systems – checking the halyards you are going to send the person up on to ensure they aren’t chafed. Checking the knots securing the bosuns chair to the halyard, checking that the winch and jammers are in good working order.
  • Training – ensuring the person going up the mast and the people operating the winches know what they are doing, having an agreed way of communicating with one another.
  • Implement -write down your plan and make it your policy. Figure out a best practice way of doing the hazardous activity.
  • Review often – are there any ways you can change or improve your methods for the future?
  • Practice – drills such as fire, MOB etc. Even just chatting about certain scenarios, reading about other’s experiences, reading through your procedures, checking your safety gear.
  • Plan – how will the plan change if the weather is terrible? If it’s dark, if you are seasick etc.
  • General rules/standing orders – you might have a rule that no one leaves the cockpit unless someone else is watching, or you always wear a lifejacket when sailing at night. Make the rules, review them regularly and stick to them.

Emergency Management

So say an emergency arises. What is the best way of dealing with it? These steps may all happen in very quick succession. If you have a plan already in place then you won’t have to waste any time thinking about all the things that need to be done.

  • Primary assessment – ensure your own safety first. (If you get injured then how are you going to help sort the situation?)
  • Prioritise what needs to happen first.
  • Minimise the risk of the problem escalating any further – for example with a fire – turn off any additional fuel sources.
  • Communication – tell everyone the plan
  • Utilise the resources and implement the plan
  • Continually assess for new dangers
  • External communication – do you need to call for help?

Calling for Help

And if you do need to call for help and you are out of cellphone coverage? What then? Does your vessel have these ways of communicating your distress?

  • MAYDAY on VHF – will only be heard by ships/land stations in line of sight
  • Pressing the distress button on your DSC VHF radio
  • EPIRB – will be picked up by the local and your own country rescue coordination centre
  • Flares – can be used to attract the attention of a passing vessel or shore station. However they are dangerous to use and only last a very short time. Consider getting a battery operated flare
  • Raising and lowering arms – handy if you are close to shore or other boats
  • Flags N over C
  • SOLAS – V Sheet


Medical Emergencies

The Advanced Sea Survival course did cover off some basic first aid tips and treating hypothermia, however I really recommend people to do a Marine Medic – Offshore course. This will teach you how to take care of a patient for an extended period of time, and lots of practical things such as how to give an injection, do stitches and that kind of thing.

First aid on a boat can be made even more difficult given the motion of the boat, the weather conditions, being so far from help, your lack of knowledge and skills, and lack of supplies. The course will teach you how to manage these issues.

Some things you should know how to treat:

  • Hypothermia
  • Concussion
  • Seasickness
  • Shock
  • CPR

Remember ABC – Airway, Breathing and Circulation – these are the most important things. Treat them before anything else.

Having a fully equipped first aid kit on board is essential. Then having a way of communicating with a doctor and knowledge of the information to give them to assist is also very useful.

Here is a blog post about some other medical matters to consider on board.

Heavy Weather

As most of us sailors know, heavy weather can cause all sorts of issues. It puts pressure on the rig and boat, the crew can get seasick, it becomes difficult to sleep so the crew get tired, people can be injured more easily being knocked over etc.

After being caught out by some unexpected, unforecasted and unfavourable weather conditions recently, our new motto is “prepare for the worst and expect the best”. Checking the forecast regularly is of course one of the best ways of predicting what is coming up and preparing your crew and vessel accordingly. You can also monitor your barometer and also reading the clouds to see what might be about to happen.

Your bad weather strategy might include reefing your sails, using storm sails, maintaining sea room – avoiding a lee shore, use of a drogue or sea anchor and that kind of thing.

Practice reefing your sails, heaving to, and think about where you are going to attach your drogue or sea anchor if you have one and how it can be safely deployed. Trailing lines is an easy and very effective way of slowing your boat down if you find yourself surfing too fast down the front of steep waves.

Your strategy will depend on where the wind/waves are coming from, where you are heading to, whether there are any hazards to leeward (i.e. how much sea room you have), what the forecast is. Lots of variables.

You will also want to swot up on the angle of vanishing stability and what this might mean for your boat.

More detailed knowledge of weather systems and forecasting is really useful. You can read some of my blog posts on Meteorology here.
Search and Rescue

If you get the opportunity to visit your country’s Rescue Coordination Centre – it is really worthwhile. I learned so much. Lots of info on my blog post about the visit.


The practical element of the Sea Survival Course was fantastic. Actually seeing a life raft inflate, getting in to the water wearing your life jacket and wet weather gear, attempting to get in to the life raft, capsizing and righting it etc. Even doing this in the pool made me realise just how difficult it would be in rough conditions at sea.

We also had the opportunity to set off some flares. They are actually really dangerous, and I am glad my Mum bought us an electronic flare. Not only does the light last a lot longer, it doesn’t expire like flares do and it isn’t going to burn you or your boat if you set it off.

Practicing using a fire extinguisher is a very handy thing to do as well. Getting a feel for how all these things work before you are in a stressful situation and needing to use them immediately and in the dark perhaps are essential skills to have.

Have you done an Advanced Sea Survival Course? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Watch this space for the next post “How to create your own Boat Safety Manual”


5 thoughts on “Advanced Sea Survival

  1. “…I really need to sit my…”
    I’m going to confess my ignorance, why do you need to sit the exam? Professional, or personal, or why?


  2. Pingback: RYA Offshore Yachtmaster | Astrolabe Sailing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.