Up to around 200 miles offshore, any urgent evacuation of crewmembers is likely to be carried out by helicopter so it’s worth ensuring you know what to expect should you ever require this type of rescue
As a sea survival instructor, I have been evacuated from a liferaft by helicopter and over the course of my sailing career I have helped with several practice Hi-Line transfers.
I can attest first-hand to the noise and distraction you experience when a helicopter is hovering overhead so ensuring that all of your crew know what to expect is invaluable.
Whether you are in a liferaft or on your boat you will need to help the helicopter crew find you, using as many aids as you have on board:
- EPIRB/PLB: Ensure these are placed on the outside of your vessel with a clear view of the sky and left on. Your GPS position will update via 406Mhz a minimum of every 20 minutes and will give the navigator a ‘ball park’ to aim for. From then they will use the 121.5Mhz homing signal to pinpoint your position.
- SART (radar and AIS): Mount these in the open and as high as you can.
- AIS: Use your vessel AIS device if still on board or personal AIS devices in a liferaft. If using a personal device ensure it is the correct way up and the antenna has a clear view of the sky.
- VHF Radio: Call the helicopter on Ch16 if you can see it and give them your lat and long. If that’s not available, describe your location to the pilot using hours on a clock relative to the pilot’s heading (ahead is 12 o’clock, immediately behind 6 o’clock).
Notify the pilot if you have casualties on board so they can assess the best means of evacuation. This applies to those that have been recovered from the water or are hypothermic, as well as any injured crew.
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You can also try to make your vessel as visible as possible from the air using whatever is available. Here are some ideas:
- Storm sails: These can be hoisted and set or tied over the foredeck to make an orange target.
- Torches, deck flood lights, strobe lights, signalling mirror: Flash these to attract attention. Once in contact with the helicopter crew use a steady light aimed at the deck of your boat not the pilot. If in a liferaft, turn on lights and torches to illuminate the canopy from the inside.
- Flares: Orange smoke by day will help location and confirm wind direction for the pilot. Handheld flares can be used during the day but should be used with caution at night as they can blind search and rescue crew using thermal imaging cameras.
- Fluoroscien: This is a packet of dye that when tipped the water will colour the sea bright green; the effects last for 30-40 minutes and are visible for up to a mile.
When the helicopter arrives, there will be a lot of noise, downdraught and distracting things to look at. It is vital your crew are briefed before this happens, that they have clearly defined roles on the boat and understand what they should do and any immediate dangers.
Prepare to transfer
You may need someone to manage radio comms, a good helm to steer a straight and steady course, and one person to manage the Hi-Line. All others should stay out of the way and wait for instructions. Tidy the boat thoroughly ensuring everything on deck is tied down or stowed below decks.
Even if you have experience of Hi-Line transfers, never assume you know how it will go. Await instructions from the pilot, and follow them to the letter.
In general, smaller vessels (less than 7m) are asked to remain stationary, and larger vessels to sail or motor at a steady speed and course. If sailing it is normal to be on a port tack as the pilot sits on the starboard side of the helicopter, as this will give them the best view into the cockpit. If motoring you can tie your boom to the starboard side of the cockpit.
Once the pilot is in place they will lower the winchman, who may be dropped directly onto the boat. They will use a Hi-Line, which will allow you to guide the winchman onto your vessel. If the winchman is dropped directly, do not touch them until they have earthed on the boat or water and instruct you to do so. This will be using a hand signal.
If a Hi-Line is required then this will be dropped from the helicopter first. The Hi-Line is a weighted, narrow diameter line. It will be dropped down to sea level and then manoeuvred over to your vessel – do not touch the line before it has earthed on the water or your vessel. Once the line has earthed you can take hold of it but never tie it off.
The winchman will then be lowered from the helicopter, slowly take up any slack that is created in the Hi-Line but allow the winchman to drop vertically down from the helicopter. Do not try to pull the winchman into the boat until they indicate you should do so.
The Hi-Line needs to be coiled in a free space, where it will not get tangled around people or equipment. You can coil it into a bucket or plastic crate. If being rescued from a liferaft it is important to keep the raft balanced so try not to move everyone to the same side at once. Make room for the winchman to enter the raft once they tap on the canopy.
Once the winchman is aboard, allow them to take command of the situation, to manage casualties and brief you on how crew will be evacuated. In the UK casualties that require a stretcher will be taken first across the knees of the winchman, those that are hypothermic or have been recovered from the water may be taken in a double strop to keep them in a horizontal position, more able crew will be lifted with a sling under their arms.
If being lifted in this manner it is essential to keep your arms down and when entering the helicopter do not try to help the crew get you on board. They will need to push you out over the door sill which may feel a little odd but relax and allow it to happen.
When the winchman is ready to remove a crewmember they will ask you to reverse the Hi-Line process. Let the line out at the rate indicated by the winchman to allow them to hang directly under the helicopter then throw the line clear of your vessel into the water.
Not all countries perform helicopter rescues in the same way; procedures differ internationally and can include the use of a basket to rescue casualties and a rescue swimmer instead of a winchman who will be dropped in the water first then board your vessel to coordinate a rescue.
In the US and in Canada baskets are used to recover casualties from a liferaft or directly from the water. These baskets do not use a Hi-Line to direct them, they generally are able to lift two people at once and casualties are expected to get into them unaided though, if conditions allow, a rescue swimmer will assist.
First published in the June 2020 edition of Yachting World.