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 Sea Accidents




No matter how careful you are in avoiding dangerous situations, a long offshore cruise is exposed to many risks.    It's therefore important to be ready for all possible occurrences, to minimize the risk and remedy the consequences!

It's not happy reading matter, but before setting off on a long voyage it's wise to spend some time to be prepared.

SINKING: the scariest accident is arguably the sinking of the boat, which in itself is likely the last consequence of a series of events (collision, knockdown, fire...touch wood!!) and may take place in circumstances which further endanger the crew's security.

The first priority is therefore to ensure the crew's survival, and here the primary role is played by the liferaft; important factors to take into account include:
- the liferaft's periodic maintenance: a raft which does not inflate or that deflates after few hours is not such a great help!
- the ease of liferaft's deployment in emergency conditions: the raft is very heavy, and one or even two people may have serious difficulties at lifting it out of a locker or cabin!    I prefer to have the raft positioned on its support on the stern, where it can be launched easily (but make sure that the installation is strong enough to avoid losing the raft to a rogue wave!)
- spare water, food, flares, thermal blankets and anything else that may be useful for the crew's well-being, either packed within the raft or in an emergency "grab-bag" stored in a position where it would be easy to recover it.

The liferaft installed on the stern of Shaula4, and our Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) with built-in GSP

Once on the liferaft, wet, cold and possibly under shock after a grueling experience, the survival of the crew until the arrival of rescue must be ensured, but most important of all  is to ensure that there will be a rescue, which is far from obvious: bookstores are full of stories about people who drifted for very long times and unfortunately there have been cases where crews have been lost and never found.

Luckily the modern telecommunications technologies come to the help with the EPIRB (position-indicating radio-beacon) that broadcast to a network of monitoring satellites, indicating the boat's name and position (within few miles, or even few hundred meters if the device is equipped with a GPS receiver, like our GME.)

Although the EPIRB will transmit the casualty's position very accurately for a couple of days, until the batteries will die out, arrival of help in such a short time cannot be guaranteed in the middle of the oceans (quite likely, a nearby ship will be asked to change course and get to the area).   Once help is near, allowing them to pinpoint the casualties' position can be very helpful: a SART (a transponder showing a signal on the searchers' radar screen) or a plain hand-held VHF transceiver would be very helpful and may easily fit in the grab-bag, together with plenty spare batteries!).

MAN OVER-BOARD: in my personal rating, one of the scariest scenarios is one of us falling overboard and the other who is still on-board having difficulties at stopping the boat and coming back, or even that this turns out to be impossible, for example due to extreme weather.

Like the solo-sailors say, but the same applies to short-crewed sailors, if one falls over-board he is as good as dead!

Self-inflating lifejacket with permanently attached safety harness, tethered to strong-points in the cockpit or to the lifeline on deck

Our lines of defense:
- first of all we try to avoid having to leave the cockpit, leading all lines to the cockpit and avoiding sail configurations which may be tricky to handle during a sudden blow, such as poled-out sails, spinnakers, etc...).
- except when motoring in flat calm under a scorching sun, we wear our self-inflating lifejackets with integral safety harness.   We use a 3-point tether, which allows to hook to a new position before releasing the old one.
- we installed strong-points in the cockpit to hook the safety line
- when we have to go on deck, before leaving the cockpit we hook on the lifeline running along the whole boat, until we reach the mast or the bow and we can attach the third hook to something sturdy
- on Shaula3 we installed a man-over-board alarm: a sort of wrist-watch that each on of us wore when on-deck and which would sound all hell's bells if the device fell beyond range: useful especially to warn the one of us that was sleeping under-deck, but useless to locate the casualty; for Shaula4 we are considering adopting an AIS-PLB, a radio-beacon which outputs an AIS signal which would show on our own chartplotter and greatly help locating the casualty at night or in bad weather (and one does not fall overboard in flat calm, does he?).

FIRE/EXPLOSION: in my personal fear scale, the possibility of a fire or, even worse, an explosion is very near the top.    Many possible causes, a leak from the gas bottles or the pipes feeding the stove or heater, gasoline vapours (even if the main engine runs on diesel oil, you have a petrol-powered outboard, don't you?), loss of fuel in the bilges (also diesel-oil is highly flammable), short-circuit in the electrical wiring, typically due to under-dimensioned wires which over-heat and ultimately melt their insulation and cause a destructive short-circuit.

The solution is practically in-built in the description of the possible accidents: first of all, make sure that all systems are STATE OF THE ART and compliant to regulation.    A good guideline is the Boat Safety Scheme, a voluntary specification which complies and sometimes exceeds the European RCD (Recreational Craft Directive).

The key features for the gas system are the bottle stowage in a dedicated locker, isolated from the boat's interior and with an exhaust pipe discharging possible leaks to the outside, a main tap (either manual or remotely-controlled) at the bottles, metal pipes  to the appliance to a second tap and then a screwed-on flexible hose connecting to the appliance.

The gas bottle in its airtight locker, with main tap and bubble leak-tester                            The leak tester: no bubbles means all OK!

A leak tester is installed between the regulator and the pipe leading to the interior: pushing the button, if bubbles begin to flow in the tester's window it means there is gas flowing, therefore alerting on possible leaks along the piping.    Caution is never too much though, so we also installed a gas alarm, with its sensor installed down low, under the oven; low because lpg is heavier than air and therefore accumulates starting from the bilges.   These alarms are designed to give a warning well before the gas concentration has become explosive, and some models can even remotely control the valve in the gas-bottle locker.

The gas alarm...                                                   ...and its remote sensor

However reliable may the gas system be, caution is never too much with gas, and therefore our golden rule is: ALWAYS CLOSE GAS AT THE BOTTLE when it is not in use!    A remotely-controlled valve would be handy, but we found nothing available for Camping Gas bottles so we have to stick with manual valves.

While we were dealing with sensors, we also installed a CO (Carbon Monoxide) sensor: CO does not explode, but it may silently kill the crew if the engine's exhaust fumes are leaked in the boat's interior!!   Being light, CO accumulates at the top, and therefore the sensor is installed high-up in the aft cabin, the one nearer the engine.

The Carbon-Monoxide (CO) alarm                                                           The electric-distribution panel

Without repeating here all regulation concerning the electrical systems we may just point out the main safety requisites, the RIGHT DIMENSIONING OF THE WIRES and the RIGHT DIMENSIONING AND POSITIONING OF PROTECTIONS (either fuses or automatic breakers), to avoid that under-dimensioned wires may over-heat, melting their insulation and ultimately creating a short-circuit between nearby wires and start a fire.

A precaution which is seldom seen on production boats is a fuse (or automatic breaker) very near the battery terminals, protecting the feeder cables up to the main distribution panel.

Last but not least, it's advisable spending some time considering the safe stowage of flammable substances, most notably the fuel jerrycans for both diesel and petrol (more dangerous due to its volatility).   Not easy, especially on smaller boats, to find a solution avoiding the danger of a leak accumulating in the bilges.


When sailing far offshore (as well as along little-inhabited shores) a medical emergency, be it an accident or a serious illness, must be tackled with the knowledge and equipment available on-board.

First of all then, be prepared:

- Ad-hoc training (not just the typical shore-based first-aid-while-waiting-for.the-ambulance training course)

- On-board Med-Kit

It's also useful to be prepared with the means to get in touch with a medical.assistance service like the excellent CIRM.

This subject has been already discussed in this page, therefore  will not repeat it here.

An important reminder: make sure that you know the MEDICAL HISTORY of all crew-members, if they are under medication (and if they have enough stock with them) and what dangers does their condition imply if they get worse suddenly; remember to ask the same questions to any last-minute crewmember as well!


The list of things that can go wrong, to be prepared against, is virtually infinite, but nevertheless it is important to spend some time thinking about mitigating measures and means to perform repairs in cases such as:

- Water ingress, ranging from a dripping skin-fitting to a hole in the hull after a collision.
- Electrical Blackout, which may have several causes and would make it impossible to use all on-board electrics and electronics and probably makes starting the engine very difficult or impossible
- engine failure, which may not prevent a sailboat from eventually reaching its destination, but may make charging the batteries impossible
- dismasting, which is usually the consequence of the encounter with exceptional weather condition
- loss of the rudder, an event which has become increasingly frequent with the diffusion of unsupported spade rudders also in ocean-voyaging boats
- keel loss, another accident which is increasingly taking place on yachts with a keel blade bolted to the hull, not very suitable for ocean-going yachts and very dangerous because the yacht typically capsizes instantly after the keel's loss
- sail damage, which may be the consequence of severe weather condition but also of wear and tear during a long ocean-crossing voyage
- capsize, either a full or partial knockdown, which poses additional problems besides the possible damage to rig and sails, like floorboards flying around and releasing what is stored under them, heavy objects crashing around the cabin and doing damage, possible seawater pollution of water and fuel tanks, flooding of the hull
- bad-weather damage: try to identify all items, especially on-deck, which may be damaged or swept-away by bad weather such as sprayhood, dodgers, but also heavy objects like liferaft, dinghy and even crew-members!

Obviously it's impossible to think of all possibilities, and also the solutions will be heavily dependent on circumstances, but it's really important spending some time trying to determine:

- preventative MODIFICATION that could either avoid an accident or minimize the consequences (for example: lash the batteries to avoid them crashing about in a knock-down)
- SPARES to perform emergency repairs
- spare or duplicate essential devices (e.g. a second GPS or a spare VHF radio)
- spare SAILS and ROPES (around the world even simple stuff can be incredibly hard to find, and sailmakers are usually very busy: forget quick turn-around times!)
- alternative means to PRODUCE ELECTRICITY, like wind-driven or towed generators and solar panels: useful especially on boats without a separate gen-set, to either minimize the use of the main engine to charge batteries or even to ensure enough battery power to feed at least the essential devices in case of an engine failure
- arrangement to use the OUTBOARD as an emergency engine (stern bracket, but also enough fuel to run at least some hours)
- emergency FOOD and WATER stores in case of unexpected delays or deterioration of the main food stores


Several kinds of accident may cause the loss or deterioration of food and water stores, such as:

- flooding
- fridge or freezer failure (or loss of electrical power to run them)
- water.maker failure (or, once again, loss of power)
- leaking water tanks
- tank contamination (for example due to sea-water ingress)
- lengthening of the voyage duration, for example due to damages to the boat

Among the possible strategies:

- store an adequate quantity of EMERGENCY PROVISIONS (long-lasting food and water)
- make sure you have a basic FISHING KIT


Webmaster: Gianfranco Balducci - email: gfbalduc@tin.it

Last Update: 07/09/2017

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