Rescue at sea: What to do and how to get help

9th September 2021 Jack O'Rourke

Rescue at sea: What to do and how to get help

Knowing how to get help in an emergency out on the water can be the difference between life and death. If an accident happens and you are in need of rescue, there are few ways you can alert the authorities that you are in danger.

Depending on the situation, you may need to abandon ship at a moment’s notice. Every rescue at sea situation is unique depending on the weather, boat, the number of people and the severity of the emergency. It is your responsibility to be ready when help arrives. 

Prepare before your trip

Inspect your boat

Maintain your boat regularly during the off-season and do a throughout check of your boat for any damages or potential hazards. 

Check your equipment

Make sure all your safety and communications equipment is up-to-date and in working order. Ensuring your radio is in a good condition and tuned into the right channels will go a long way to easily communicating in an emergency. Assemble a grab & go bag and keep it readily accessible, and inspect the contents before every trip to make sure everything is clearly marked and operable.

Let someone know where you are going

Inform someone of your trip and ensure they understand what to do and who to contact if you are late returning. Include as many details of your journey as possible, including approximate location and time windows.

In the United States, you can file a detailed float plan with friends or family that can be used by the Coast Guard or rescue services as a resource to ascertain your location. 

Prepare passengers

Ensure everyone on board knows how to properly use all the safety equipment on the boat, know where the grab & go bag is, and how to use the radio for emergency communications should you become incapacitated. 

All passengers should have a life jacket available to wear, and knows how to use one in the event of an emergency. It is advised that everyone on board wear a life jacket while on the water, and check your state laws for any further clarification. If an emergency situation does develop, make sure everyone on board has immediate access to a life jacket.

While you are out on the water

Call for help

Don’t wait until a potentially life-threatening situation develops; if things start to go wrong, call for help as soon as possible. If you find yourself in an emergency situation call rescue services. 

If you are on a river or a lake you should ask for Fire and Rescue when you call for help.

If you are close enough to shore, your mobile phone might be the best and easiest means of calling for help, as you are likely to have one anyway. You should ensure your phone is fully charged before heading out, and keep it in a waterproof pouch.

Push the emergency button on your DSC-equipped radio, or use your VHF radio to contact rescue services. 

Use the Mayday call for an emergency message when there's imminent danger to a vessel and the passengers. Use the Pan-Pan call to alter services of an urgent situation, such as a mechanical failure or a medical problem.

Activate your EPIRB 

An EPIRB uses search and rescue satellites to send a message to the rescue services that you need to be rescued. They can then use the GPS position given from the EPIRB to send search and rescue out to that location. You must register the EPIRB with the proper authorities.

They work on the 406MHz distress frequency to pinpoint the location of the beacon. EPIRBs can be activated automatically when it comes into contact with water, and can also be activated manually in an emergency.

The EPIRB will carry printed instructions on how to activate it, so familiarise yourself with these instructions.

To activate the EPIRB, take the device from its cradle and raise the antenna. Activate the switch and unravel the lanyard from the device to attach it to your vessel, life-raft, or PFD. 

The battery life of an EPIRB tends to be longer, normally for a minimum of 48 hours.

Activate distress signals

Distress signals are an important part of your boat's safety equipment, so ensure that they are in working condition. Flares, signals and lights will be more effective if you know there are rescue services in your vicinity.

Send up a flare if you think there may be a vessel close enough to see it. In most cases, you will see aircraft and vessels before they see you, so have a plan and be prepared when you spot something. Having distress signals ready to go improves your chance of rescue. 

A helicopter or plane has navigation lights but it is rare that the occupants are looking backward. Make sure you are between the search crew’s eight to four o’clock position before signalling or letting off a flare or smoke signal.

The electric distress light is recommended for night use only. It flashes the international SOS distress signal - three short flashes, three long flashes, three short flashes.

Follow search and rescue authorities directions

Moving from your vessel to a rescue vessel requires careful attention to detail. Rescue crews are trained for these situations. It is critical that survivors follow directions carefully to ensure a successful rescue. 

If you are being rescued from a helicopter, monitor the radio communications for instructions from the pilot and the team. If you are being lifted off your boat, make sure your deck is clear and secure any loose gear so that the rescue team has a safe path to lower down. The rescue team may advise you that it is safer to enter the water and be rescued from there.  

If you are being rescued by another vessel, make sure it is safe to disembark your vessel before attempting to board. Check for hazards in the water and keep a safe distance if your vessel is damaged. If you can establish radio contact, cooperate with the operator of the vessel to coordinate assistance.

It is essential that you do not panic, as you may put your life and those around you in danger. Understand that the rescue crew’s first priority is to keep themselves safe before attempting a rescue, so it helps no one if you do things to put the mission in jeopardy, such as trying to be the first one off the boat. 

Always be prepared for an emergency at sea. The best way to avoid putting yourself in danger is to check the weather and follow safety protocols.