Modern yachts are packed with the latest survival kit, but how confident are you in the capacity of your crew to act decisively and use it correctly in the event of an emergency? Will Bruton explores the options for further training


I tried a more proactive approach to making sure both skipper and crew are equipped to deal with worst-case scenarios on board. While waiting to start a new emergency training course in Cowes, by chance I got a demonstration of how UK authorities bring together an emergency response.

It’s not on the course schedule, but the Southampton-Cowes car ferry has run aground in thick fog and the shredded parts of a Contessa 32 the ferry ran over have already begun to drift into the marina. Luckily, no one was on board the yacht.

The rescue effort involves two lifeboats, a Coastguard shore team and their helicopter hovering above. What I’m immediately struck by is how, despite the unique scenario, everything seems almost choreographed. It is clearly the result of a lot of practice.

The first topic in the classroom at a new Emergency Procedures course I attended is search patterns, led by former Head of Coastguard Operations Harry Leslie. This is an opportunity to imbibe some wisdom from someone who has run hundreds of searches, receiving service medals in the process. Unsurprisingly, the delivery is a mix of dark humour and pragmatism, as goes hand in hand with so many years of experience at HM Coastguard.


Training in a cold water wave pool makes the Volvo Ocean Race crew’s bespoke course challenging, but is still a long way off a real survival environment. Photo: Mike Jones / Waterline Media

The numbers involved are thought provoking. In an MOB situation with no immediate recovery of the casualty, the search area expands with every minute that passes. Turning things around requires decisive action from the skipper and crew to counter ever-diminishing odds. Indecision is lethal.

The conclusions drawn from this session become an enduring theme of the two-day course: only practice of these search and rescue techniques makes them valuable. Vaguely knowing about them, or having read about them, is not enough.

Ocean racer Dee Caffari has trained herself and her crews for everything from the Global Challenge to the Volvo Ocean Race. “Safety training should be beyond a one-day RYA course. The reality is that it continues for every day you are afloat – or at least it should.

“For those venturing beyond immediate rescue it is important that measures are put in place to ensure the crew not only have the right equipment but also the right training. So often, this is not provided.”

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Do you need further training?

Alistair Hackett is managing director of Ocean Safety survival equipment and also provides bespoke training to the Volvo Ocean Race teams. “The RYA Sea Survival course is a valuable introduction to anyone that might find themselves in a sea survival situation. However, it is just that – an introduction. Participants should see it as a primer to get them thinking about their specific sailing situation on board the boat they will be sailing.

“It should pose questions that need to be answered before casting off, such as: ‘How would we get a crew member back on board our boat, with our freeboard, using the equipment we have at our disposal?’ For example, if you haven’t been through that as a crew, the kit is of little use.”


Ocean Safety managing director Alistair Hackett briefs the VOR crews on a sea survival course. Photo: Mike Jones / Waterline Media

Hackett says that besides thinking about the kit you need, your emergency plan should be tailored to your crew and yacht also. “We use the adage ‘Look, plan, think.’ In other words, be active not passive. If you’re about to cross the Atlantic and are in the Canaries, is it possible to practice MOB for real on a calm day before you set off? That’s being proactive.”

He is candid about the dangers of equipping a yacht based around a list of requirements from a race or event organiser.

“There’s nothing wrong with a list in itself, but the idea that: ‘Thou shalt have this piece of kit!’ can foster the belief that if you’ve got everything on the list, you’re good to go. In reality, you need to really understand what you have at your disposal and what it can actually do for you in an emergency.

“I would say 50% of people who have a PLB on their lifejacket believe it will share their position instantly with boats nearby if they fall overboard. It doesn’t and never will. What they are actually confusing it with is an AIS personal beacon, which is an entirely different bit of equipment. That’s a bit worrying.

“Every year we hold open days where customers can see their model of raft inflated and go through the survival equipment that comes with it. If you can’t make an open day, when you take your liferaft to the service centre, ask to see it inflated and learn what’s in it. Be curious.”

Training realistically

Finding relevant in-depth safety training can be a challenge. I joined Salty Sailing in Cowes for a new two-day Emergency Procedures course that aims to fill some of those gaps.

“The Emergency Procedures course is the product of a lot of conversations surrounding what we felt was missing and would be of value to sailors, with a strong focus on the practical use of theories most people know about but have never practiced,” explains Lizzie Fitzsimmons, Yachtmaster instructor and owner of Salty Sailing.


Practicing casualty recovery with a standard trysail before trying the technique at sea. Photo: Will Bruton

Through a mix of classroom sessions and time on the water over two days, the group tests out and evaluates different techniques for ourselves. Using a full-weight dummy, we practice hauling a casualty up from the waterline. It quickly dispels any false hope you might have about it being easy and, most importantly, makes you think about how you’d do it for real.

Using a trysail to recover the dummy, the first stumbling block is that we quickly realised you need a bespoke plan that’s tailored to the specific yacht you are on. The trysail works once in place, but finding a suitable attachment point and rigging the halyard takes an age. Were the yacht set up with clips to fit a trysail to and the crew trained where it was kept and how to go about it, the process would be much quicker and more efficient.

If the weather permits (and rescue services are not busy elsewhere) the course also offers the increasingly rare opportunity to practice a highline rescue with the Coastguard helicopter.

If you are ever approached on the radio, or a helicopter flies overhead advising you to listen out on a specific channel, do take them up on the offer of a hi-line practice exercise.


RYA chief instructor Vaughn Marsh and RYA chair Chris Preston try out recovery of a casualty using a helicopter sling. Photo: Will Bruton

Emergency training options

Emergency Procedures

Salty Sailing in Cowes runs a two-day Emergency Procedures course costing £450 (including accommodation on board and lunch). This is suitable for cruising sailors and yacht owners as well as offshore racing crews.

RYA Sea Survival

This is the fundamental one-day course run by numerous RYA-accredited providers around the UK. It involves theoretical and practical training in liferaft use and survival techniques conducted in a pool.

Proficiency in Survival Craft and Rescue Boats

Previously called the Advanced Sea Survival Course, this three-day course is part of the training for the MC Officer of the Watch qualification. A number of training centres run a variation of the course designed for vessels that are not equipped with davit launched lifeboats, including superyachts.

Bespoke training

Ocean Safety can equip your yacht with suitable safety equipment for how you sail and at additional cost provide bespoke sea survival training on how to get the most out of it. Ocean Safety delivered the training for the Volvo Ocean Race crews at the Marine and Offshore Training Centre in South Shields, which included liferaft and sea survival training in an ‘environmental’ pool complete with realistic waves, wind, spray, darkness and rain.

Offshore Personal Survival

Many of the elements of the Volvo Ocean Race training are included in the RYA/World Sailing Offshore Personal Survival Course, a two-day course designed for offshore racing and a prerequisite for a percentage of crew in RORC races such as the Fastnet.

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