Types of emergencies

Accidents happen every day on the water, whether you experience engine trouble, a man goes overboard, or a storm has left your boat incapacitated. In these worst-case scenarios, the ability to summon help quickly can be the difference between life and death. 

Some emergencies are obvious whilst others might be harder to identify for new skippers. Some of the more common emergencies boaters come across can be grouped into the following points – 

  • Fire – Smoke and/or flames may be visible. Obviously, heat & a burning odour will help you realise what’s going on.
  • Grounding – The vessel will be heard or felt contacting the shore, reef etc.
  • Person Overboard – A headcount may indicate a person is missing; distress cries may be heard from the person overboard or others who have witnessed the over boarding;
  • Capsize – The vessel will be in an inverted position.
  • Swamping – The vessel will sit lower in the water. Its motion will differ from its usual motion. Water may enter the vessel which may or may not be visible on the deck (depending on your vessel)
  • Engine Breakdown or malfunction – The operation of the engine will cease or differ from its usual operation.
  • Fouled Propeller – The propeller will cease turning and the vessels motor may stall. Debris may be visible at the propeller.
  • Anchor Dragging – The vessel will move laterally relative to the shoreline and/or other vessels.
  • Hypothermia – Persons affected by hypothermia will be cold and may appear confused with motions slowed. Speech may be slurred. The person may become unresponsive.
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – Persons affected by carbon monoxide poisoning may appear fatigued, confused, short on breath and unable to see or hear correctly, among other symptoms. 
  • Contaminated Fuel – The vessels motor may cease smooth operation, become irregular in its operation and/or splutter or stall. It may not be possible to restart the motor.

It’s vital you know what the emergency is and what steps to take to deal with it. We’ll go through how you should respond to these emergencies and more in the following lesson.

Cold Shock & Hypothermia

A person who falls into the water may first experience cold shock upon entering cold water, their breathing and heart rate increase sharply. While the water is cold, try to avoid panicking as much as you can. Cold-water shock is the first stage of the sudden and unexpected immersion in a water temperature of 15 °C or lower and occurs during the first minute of exposure. Cold water shock likely causes more deaths than hypothermia.

Hypothermia occurs when heat is lost from the body’s core. Your body begins to cool as soon as you enter the water, with the full effect of hypothermia being experienced in as little as 30 minutes. You may experience a reduction of blood flow to your hands, feet and surface of the body, and intense shivering while the body tries to maintain its core temperature that then subsides to no shivering.

Some tips to prepare yourself and your passengers to reduce the risk of cold shock and hypothermia –

  • Always wear a lifejacket
  • Wear warm, preferably woollen, clothing under wet weather gear
  • If you are in the water, get into the HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) position – hold your arms down to your sides and up across your chest, with your knees raised and holding them together
  • If you and your passengers are in the water, you can also huddle together. By huddling close together with other people, your chest and arms are protected. You can reduce the rate at which your body loses heat and increase survival time by up to 50 per cent. This is the most effective method of reducing the onset of hypothermia if there is a group in the water.

How do you know if it’s hypothermia?

For an adult, they will be cold to touch, their pulse will be slow, weak or imperceptible, and their breathing will be slow and shallow. For a child, they will be cold to touch, quiet and lacking appetite.

The treatment needs to be quick but gentle. Allow the person to warm naturally where possible, remove wet clothing when warm, dry clothing or blankets are available.

Carbon Monoxide (CO) Poisoning

Carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when you breathe in too much carbon monoxide and it begins to replace the oxygen in your blood. Without oxygen, cells throughout the body die, and the organs stop working. The main systems affected are the cardiovascular system and nervous system. We all know that carbon monoxide can be fatal. Hundreds of people, young and old, die from the fumes of this poison every year. The question is how to guard against this so-called “silent killer”?

Poisoning by carbon monoxide is difficult to diagnose. Symptoms are similar to illnesses such as influenza, the onset of a cold or seasickness. Symptoms can include –

  • fatigue 
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • dizziness or fainting
  • vomiting
  • impaired judgment, confusion
  • shortness of breath
  • changes in seeing and hearing capacities

When you suspect carbon monoxide poisoning, immediately taking the following steps can save lives: –

  • Immediately move the victim to fresh air in an open area;
  • See a doctor immediately;
  • Call 000 or another local emergency number for immediate medical attention;
  • Do not reboard the boat until you receive an expert opinion from a competent authority (e.g. firefighters).

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is also known as sunstroke. Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency which requires immediate attention. It occurs mostly in the very young, or the elderly with health problems. Working or exercising in hot weather or hot conditions without drinking the necessary amounts of fluids is the main cause of heat stroke.

Symptoms of heat stroke may include –

  • extremely high core temperature of up to 41°C (106°F)
  • hot, red, dry skin
  • rapid pulse
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • headache
  • confusion, strange behaviour
  • possible fainting, but can be revived

High core temperatures damage the internal organs, especially the brain. The loss of bodily fluids can also produce dangerously low blood pressure. If you suspect someone has heat stroke, begin treating him/her immediately, while someone else calls emergency services.

You must do everything you can to cool the heat stroke victim immediately. The best way is to get them out of the sun, immerse the body in cold water, such as a river, stream. Otherwise, remove most of their clothes, douse them with water, and fan them vigorously. Wrapping in wet sheets can help the body lose heat more quickly. If the person is conscious and alert, offer him or her water or other fluids. Avoid caffeine or alcoholic beverages because they dehydrate the body.

The heatstroke victim should also be put in a cool place. Lay them down and give small sips of liquid every few minutes. “Sports” beverages (with no caffeine) are best, but water is often more readily available. You should watch carefully for signs of deterioration, but there’s no need to rush to a hospital for heat

Man Overboard

Should anybody fall overboard, do not jump in after them. If a person falls overboard, initial actions should be –

  1. shout “man overboard” to raise the alarm
  2. throw a lifebuoy ring, horseshoe or lifejacket to them
  3. check your bearings relative to prominent landmarks if available. Mark where the event occurred on a map, GPS or chart plotter. This will assist if a search is required
  4. keep them in sight at all times. Ask someone on board to point continuously at the person in the water for the reference of the master and others on board who may be preparing equipment or other head down activities
  5. turn the boat toward the side they fell from (if the person is close to the propeller, put the motor in neutral or switch off the motor to avoid striking them with a turning propeller).

To recover the person overboard position the vessel to bring the person alongside, preferably into wind, then stop engines to avoid striking them with a turning propeller. Help the person into the vessel, preferably over the stern, as a small vessel might capsize or take water if you try taking them in over the side.

On yachts with overhanging sterns, they should be pulled in at the lowest point of free-board. Consider installing a boarding ladder on your vessel

A person recovered from the water may be hurt, cold or exhausted. If they cannot help themselves, it is difficult to get them back into the vessel. Ropes, a sail or blanket may be passed under them in the water and used to lift and roll them back into the vessel. Keep the victim lying down if at all possible. Practice your ‘man overboard’ drill often.

What To Do In An Emergency

The master of the vessel is responsible for understanding the vessels safety and making sure the vessel and crew are safe at all times.

You must be able to carry out the following measures – 

  • Brief on-board personnel
  • Prepare and take emergency equipment, drinking water, food, clothing and any other relevant equipment and supplies
  • Don life jackets
  • Communicate the proposed course of action to rescuers
  • Ensure readiness of life rafts, life rings or other buoyancy aids
  • Activate EPIRB
  • Deploy sea anchor

Communicating To Emergency Services

The master is responsible for communicating effectively with passengers and should have the complete authority and do what he/she thinks is necessary to keep the vessel and passengers safe.

Skippers must be able to identify, record and communicate the location of the vessel in need with emergency services and passengers on board. This can be achieved via –

  • Information such as GPS, local knowledge, marine charts, compass, or marine radio
  • Recording information via ships log, marking a way point on a GPS device, sending coordinates in a text message, sending coordinates in a radio message, or marking the position on a chart
  • Communicating via use of mobile telephones, marine radio, verbal (i.e. shouting), EPIRB, use of flares or other signals.

Don’t forget to communicate the end of the emergency to Emergency Services. It can save valuable resources & unwarranted searches. 

Summoning Assistance Form Other Vessels

A mobile phone is almost useless to communicate with the boat that may be closest and first to rescue you as you won’t have their phone number. A marine radio is much better form of communication as many boats in your area may be in a position to hear your request for assistance and can be summoned to offer the necessary help.

Providing Assistance 

Providing assistance to an injured person is not easy on-board a small, recreational boat. Depending on the situation, expert assistance would be more appropriate than what you can provide. Communicating with emergency services and getting them involved should be a high priority in most cases. Having said this, if someone who is first aid trained is on board, their help would be of greater benefit than those who are not. Consider having first aid qualifications not only for yourself, but for those whom you go boating with. Marine first aid courses are available if you’d like to pursue this further.

Maintaining Communication 

Good, clear communication is required to manage communication with rescuers. The better the communication, the likelihood of successful rescue increases. As stated above, there are many tools of communication at your disposal. Our experience would lead us to believe the marine radio and mobile phone communication are brilliant devices in most circumstances when contacting emergency services. Maintaining conversation will enhance the clarity of the situation and this is important as many parties may be involved with the rescue.

Abandoning Your Vessel

If your vessel capsizes and you are unable to right the vessel, abandon the vessel only as a last resort. Stay close to the vessel to improve your chances of being sighted by the rescue vessel. Do not remove your lifejacket, and if you are in the water, stay together in a HUDDLE or HELP position.

Do not try to swim ashore unless it is extremely close-by and a suitable landing place exists. Distances can be deceptive so it’s best to not risk it. Furthermore, your vessel is easier to spot in the water than you are.

Try to get the EPIRB and distress signals out of the capsized vessel and raise the alarm. Make yourself as visible as you can to both ships and aircraft. Put on more clothes if you are able to. They will help to keep you warm and may delay the onset of hypothermia. If you are abandoning your vessel, take the EPIRB and distress signals with you. Switch on the EPIRB and leave it on until emergency services tell you to turn it off.

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