Every skipper needs to ask themselves this question – Is my boat at some stage going to break down?

The answer to that question is YES, under the law of averages your boat will definitely break down. The nature of the activity is that a mechanical device will at some stage fail. Therefore, not knowing when the breakdown will occur, all trip planning needs to be done on the basis that it could be THIS TRIP that the breakdown happens. If you have consciously thought prior to the trip about how to manage the breakdown and planned and prepared for it, then when it happens you’ll be much more able to manage the situation.

Important – Your preparation will vary, depending on trip location, and things such as weather and tides.

When a vessel breaks down, typically all passengers look at the Skipper and think “you got us into this mess, so you get us out of it”. At this stage, you’ll need to manage the people on board, and may have to set them specific tasks.

Your first concern is whether the vessel is in immediate danger. Are you drifting onto rocks, into the path of an oncoming large vessel, or into a surf break. Your next action will be determined based on the presence of that immediate danger, and you will have to take the appropriate steps to alleviate that danger (anchor up/paddle for your life/signal to an oncoming vessel etc). Once any immediate dangers have been dealt with, you would normally attempt to restart the vessel, by troubleshooting and attempting to fix whatever caused the breakdown. If the problem is simple, you may be able to identify and remedy it and happily continue on your way. If you are unable to remedy the fault, you will need to manage a rescue. Most of your rescue management options come back to your pre-departure vessel and trip preparation

With an effective marine radio or mobile phone on board, you will be able to communicate to a rescue service or gain assistance via voice communication. With another propulsion source, such as oars and row-locks, you may be able to move your vessel to a location from where the vessel may be retrieved. With a tow rope on board, you are ready to be towed by a passing vessel that offers assistance. With visual distress aids such as waving arms, flares and V-sheets, you may be able to visually communicate with other vessels in the vicinity. The choice of which distress signal to use (voice/visual) will be made by the skipper.

As the skipper, you will feel stressed during the breakdown. A physical reaction to stress is perspiration and a dry throat. Therefore, you will wish you had plenty of water on board. If the situation takes many hours (or days) to resolve, all on board will be subject to the elements. Therefore suitable weather protective gear would apply.

The question of the physical characteristics of the people on board needs to be considered. If you are unable to row the distance back to safety, would it not be better to conserve your energy and anchor up and think of another way to get the vessel to its desired location? (flag down a passing boat/wait for tide or wind change and let the natural forces drift you the way you wish to go.) If you have young or elderly people on board, they will cope less well physically with being exposed to the elements for a long period, so prompt voice communication to a rescue service would be a high priority.

If you are overdue from an off-shore trip, was there someone at home whom you had left details with, so they could provide the rescue authorities with relevant details so they would know when and where to start looking for you? Had you logged in with the rescue service and given them your trip information?

Good experienced skippers plan for all eventualities, (and I say ‘Good’, because heaps of experienced skippers don’t do enough contingency planning) including weather changes etc. and take the appropriate actions. One of the things ABC goes through when training people is what is the appropriate rescue procedure on THIS stretch of water and for MY boat.

Next time you do a boat trip, include in your prior planning ‘what will I do if the boat breaks down’. Put the appropriate equipment on board, and when the break-down does occur, you’ll be able to turn to your passengers and say “don’t worry folks, I planned for this, it’s all under control”.

How greatly comforted they’ll be to hear those words!

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