On a bright summer's day, it is tempting to relegate the issue of safety to the back of your mind, but you never know when a sticky situation might arise.

Safety at Sea

On a bright summer’s day, it is tempting to relegate the issue of safety to the back of your mind, but you never know when a sticky situation might arise. (October 1997)

There are plenty of books packed with advice about the type of safety equipment you should carry, from basic manufacturers’ leaflets through to the DOT Code of Practice for the Safety of Small Commercial Vessels. Here, we cover the main core of items that appear in every publication.

General equipment

If you don’t carry a liferaft, a tender is vital, even for just making short coastal hops. You can never have enough warps and fenders ­ you never know when you might need them for towing or to help out another vessel. If you are starting from scratch, aim for four warps the length of your vessel and two of twice that length. You should buy larger fenders than you think you will need, and have at least two large-ball fenders in addition to sausage-shape ones.

It is important that you have spare fuel filters and engine and gearbox oil for topping up, and don’t forget spare water pump impellers, together with a selection of tools that you know how to use! If you don’t have an engineering background, the RYA Diesel Engine Course is recommended.


Helpful hints

As safety equipment has a finite life, make sure yours hasn’t expired.

Don’t be afraid to use a larger anchor or more cable than is recommended.

Keep an eye on fire extinguisher pressure gauges. If there is no gauge, keep a check on the weight. Many extinguishers lose their pressure prematurely and are therefore useless.

Fire, bilge pumps and personal survival

Always turn off the gas at source when it is not being used. Don’t allow smoking below decks on any type of boat or anywhere onboard petrol- powered craft.

Switch off all electrical power when refuelling petrol-powered craft. Always ventilate engine spaces before starting petrol engines. Make sure your crew know where the fire extinguishers are stowed and how to use them.

Fire blanket

This is invaluable for putting out galley fires and burning clothes. Make sure that the blanket is easily accessible as the galley area is approached. Obviously, don’t hide it behind a cupboard door or beyond the most likely area for a fire.

Fire extinguishers

There should be at least 3kg of dry powder in total, split either as 3 * 1kg or 2 * 1.5kg dry powder, together with at least one automatic inert-gas extinguisher in the engineroom. If the vessel is more than 9m long, an additional 2.5kg dry power is advised. Make sure the extinguishers are easy to get to on the approach to a compartment. Don’t fix them behind doors or across bunks where they may be difficult to reach in an emergency.


Bilge pumps

Every compartment should be fitted with a bilge pump. These can be fixed or mobile, and also manual or automatic.

If you have an automatic system it should have a warning light to show whether or not the pump is working. It might be worth considering fitting an inexpensive audible alarm ­ it is easy to miss a warning light, and a buzzer will be much more likely to attract your attention to a possible problem.

Don’t forget that in smaller craft a bucket and lanyard is a very effective way of removing unwanted water in an emergency.


Personal survival

It is vital to have lifejackets for everyone on board, plus a few extra for unexpected guests, and make sure they are regularly serviced. Safety harnesses are sensible, especially if anyone is likely to go down on a bathing platform in an emergency.

If you are contemplating offshore journeys, it is a good idea to have a liferaft. These can be hired for short periods if, for example, you only venture offshore for your annual holiday.

The need for waterproof clothing is best judged by the design and shelter provided by the boat. However, it is wise to have at least two sets.

Be seen, be heard

A foghorn, navigation lights, radar reflector and a powerful torch are all recommended.

Man overboard

Have at least one lifebelt with drogue and automatic light. A danbuoy is not normally carried in motor boats, but it is certainly easier to see than a lifebelt or casualty, and is easily seen by the casualty if it is within swimming range. If you fall overboard don’t thrash about ­ keep calm and adopt a fetal position to conserve body heat.

First aid

Although it makes sense to carry a comprehensive first-aid kit, it is useless unless you and your crew have completed an elementary course. The RYA runs approved first-aid courses all over the country, which are both enlightening and fun.

Distress Signals

You can never have too many marine pyrotechnics on board, but remember that they have a shelf life of three to four years and should be replaced regularly. The minimum recommended are as follows:

Inshore ­ up to five miles from land

two hand-held red flares

two hand-held orange smoke generators

Coastal ­ up to seven miles from land

two red parachute rockets

two hand-held red flares

two hand-held orange smoke generators

Offshore ­ over seven miles from land

four red parachute rockets

four hand-held red flares

two buoyant orange smoke generators

Always fire parachute flares in pairs within about a minute of each other. Other boats in the area may not be sure about seeing the first flare, and a second confirms any doubts which a potential rescuer may have. They should be aimed slightly downwind ­ they are designed to turn towards the wind once fired.

Hand-held flares can be seen up to seven miles on a clear night, and orange smoke can be seen up to three miles during daylight and is particularly visible to rescue aircraft.

Other help signals

Slowly raising and lowering the arms

Continuous sounding of a foghorn

A ball over or under a square shape

International Code Flags N over C

SOS in Morse code sent by any means . . . – – – . . .


How to send a Mayday


If there is a threat of grave and imminent danger requiring immediate assistance to a vessel or person


Turn on your VHF radio set to full power

Select Channel 16

Adjust squelch

Think carefully about what you are going to say (write it down if necessary)

Squeeze the pressall switch and speak very slowly and clearly

It’s very easy to gabble away in an emergency. Remember that when someone hears your call, they will want to write it down. Give them a chance. If you can, write down the message as you say it, which should slow you down.


Firstly, the Distress Call:


Secondly, the Distress Message:



[Try to give a range and bearing from a well-known point. A latitude and longitude bearing may seem easier to you but it doesn’t paint a visual picture for anyone listening who doesn’t have the right chart]


[Describe what is causing the grave and imminent danger]


[What help do you need? You, at the scene, are the best judge of what is required]


[Type of vessel, number of people on board, colour of hull or superstructure, and so on, or any other distinguishing marks that will help your rescuer recognise you]


[Release the pressall switch and await a reply]


The RYA runs one-day courses on VHF radio operation, which end in a simple written and practical test. Even if you are the ship’s radio operator (who is required by law to pass the test) it’s certainly worth your while taking the course.

Anchors and anchoring

There are five main types of anchors (or derivatives) used in motor cruisers:

1. The Fisherman’s anchor

This is probably the most traditional design. It is excellent on rock, and folds flat for stowage. However, it is easily snagged, has low holding power and is difficult to recover without damaging the hull. It’s the only anchor that can cut through seaweed effectively.

2. The CQR or plough anchor

This is the most commonly used anchor, with high holding power for its weight. You need to be careful that you don’t trap your fingers in the hinges.

3. The Danforth

This has a good holding/weight ratio and can be stowed flat. It

can be difficult to remove from mud.

4. The Bruce anchor

One of the two most recent designs, it has excellent holding power. However, it is awkward to stow in lockers because it doesn’t fold.

5. The Delta

The most recent design, it is similar to the CQR, but rigid. It has very high holding power/weight ratio and can be launched and recovered using a similar stemhead fitting to the Bruce.


Anchor and chain

Boat size Chain size Anchor size Delta anchor only

6m (20ft) 6mm 8kg (18lb) 4kg (9lb)

8m (26ft) 8mm 10kg (22lb) 6kg (14lb)

10m (33ft) 8mm 13kg (29lb) 10kg (22lb)

12m (39ft) 8mm 18kg (40lb) 16kg (35lb)

14m (46ft) 10mm 24kg (53lb) 16kg (35lb)

17m (56ft) 10mm 34kg (75lb) 25kg (55lb)

20m (65ft) 12mm 47kg (103lb) 40kg (88lb)

If a combination of chain and rope is used, a minimum of 5m of chain is required in small craft, increasing to at least 10m in larger craft.



Choose a depth where you have sufficient chain and rope to allow four times the depth at high water if using a chain only, and six times the depth if a combination of chain and rope is used. Always use the chain at the anchor end. It will help the anchor to ‘dig in’ and not drag. Remember to calculate the cable length required based on the depth at high water.

Choose an area with as little tidal stream as possible. The less tide, the less hard the anchor and cable will have to work to keep you in the same position.

Look for a sandy or muddy bottom. That will provide the best holding ground. Rocks, stones and shingle will not hold so well.

If anchoring among other vessels, estimate the size of your swinging circle and remember that different types of boats will swing to the tide at different times, depending on the tide and the direction and strength of the wind.

Once the anchor has reached the bottom, move slowly astern to stop the chain and/or rope forming a pile. For the best results, it is vital to lay out the cable along the bottom.

Try lining up shore features in a transit to check whether you may be dragging your anchor. (It is important to remember that they may alter considerably if the wind or tide change direction).

If you have a radar, use it to check ranges of the shore regularly. Modern radars are excellent for giving accurate ranges, but are more difficult for providing accurate bearings.

If there is any chance of snagging the anchor, rig a tripping line, but make sure the anchor buoy isn’t too inviting for other craft to use as a mooring. A weight fitted on the tripping line 2-3m below the surface will keep any slackness in the line at low water, away from passing propellers.

If you suspect that you may be dragging the anchor, let out more cable or rope. If that doesn’t solve the problem, recover the anchor and try somewhere else.

If you get snagged and cannot recover the anchor and cable, mark it with a large fender and go to find help. Don’t discuss in public the exact position of where you lost it because it is quite likely that you may be overheard and the anchor and cable could quite simply disappear overnight.