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The Onboard Briefing for Crew

By Daria Blackwell

“Suddenly Alone” seminars have become very popular for a good reason.  Many cruisers go off short-handed only to realize that the “non-sailing” half of the crew wouldn’t know what to do in an emergency.  On our boat, we both fortunately know how to sail and yet we created a rule. We both have to know how to do a bit of everything.  We still have the “blue jobs” and the “pink jobs,” although we do tend to share duties in both directions. That means Alex had to learn first aid, and I had to learn diesel mechanics, at least enough to get by without killing the other person or the engine.

But what happens when guests join us in very nice places?  Many have never been on a sailboat, but are thrilled to have the opportunity to taste the adventure.  They have no clue where to look for anything, much less how to use important equipment like the radio.  During an emergency, precious seconds can be lost telling passengers where to locate and how to use vital safety equipment. If the skipper has been injured, the situation can suddenly turn life-threatening. And use of unfamiliar equipment is intimidating to many novices.

The first thing we do is take everyone through the stewardess routine. No video, just a thorough walk through of safety and emergency procedures should they become necessary.  It only takes a few minutes but it can save precious time and lives. These are the main topics we cover.

Safety briefing points

1.       Where to find life jackets, how to put them on, and how to size them. Remember if you have children on board they must be wearing properly sized life jackets.

2.       How to use the VHF radio and place a distress call.  We have brief instructions and a verbatim mayday message tacked above the radio.

3.       How to read the GPS coordinates from any onboard equipment.

4.       Where the fire extinguishers are and how to use them.

5.       Where the first aid kit is.

6.       Where the EPIRB and survival equipment are and how to activate them.

7.       What to do in a person overboard situation and how to deploy emergency equipment.

8.       How to stop the boat. We now always heave to immediately in an emergency. But every vessel is different so make sure you explain the idiosyncrasies of yours.

9.       Where the anchor is and how to deploy it.

10.   What the chain of command is, including the need to stay out of the way if told to do so.

Have a Q&A session afterwards to answer questions or clarify any issues.

Afterwards, we give everyone a role to play. We always have at least one dedicated spotter (pointing to a person overboard or a hazard), a navigator, a rope handler, a radio operator, and a flotation device manager. That leaves the boat handling to the two of us – and in a disabling or person overboard situation, it may be only one of us.

Finally, we also teach a bit of seamanship which can come in very handy in difficult circumstances and keeps people occupied during potentially boring passages.  We teach how to tie knots, handle the sails, what to do in a person overboard situation and so on.

Learning how to throw a rope, for example, proved extremely handy when we had to squeeze into the last available slot in a marina with a tropical storm suddenly changing course and bearing down on us. We had three novices throw ropes to shore like pros, and were secured laterally into the teeniest slot in no time at all. We had a safe boat and proud, accomplished crew. 

Some time ago off the New England coast, the skipper of a sail boat was knocked overboard by the boom while wrestling with the sails during a severe thunderstorm. His only passenger, a friend visiting from out of town, did not know how to radio for help nor did he know how to maneuver the boat. When he finally got through to the Coast Guard – which was less than a half-mile away – he couldn’t tell them their location. By the time the Coast Guard reached them, it was too late. The skipper had drowned.  

You never know. Taking the time to brief your crew may one day save your life.

Joy of sailingCoastal Boating (Reg. in Ireland No. 443222) is a division of Knowledge Clinic Ltd.
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