Boat charter emergencies


Chartering in paradise-like surroundings does not mean that you do not have to be concerned by safety issue. After all, you are sailing at sea, and safety issues should never be underestimated. As always, preparation and prevention are the best ways to have safe charter cruises. Here are the main issues every charterer should know about.

Boat Safety Issues

Before Leaving

During the pre-charter briefing, you and your mates should pay utmost attention to the safety items pointed by the charter company briefer, for ex. location of life jackets, flares, fire extinguishers (locations and operation), operation of propane stove, anchor windlass reset button, fuel shut-off, emergency tiller, operation of bilge pumps (electric and manual), VHF, seacock, shut-off valves at the bathroom head, etc. Ask questions and/or demonstrations for anything you do not understand clearly. This is not wasted time on your vacation: failures do happen.


At least one other crew besides the skipper - in fact, ideally everyone on board- should know how to use the VHF, which includes at least: emergency channel, how to transmit, and the basic radio procedures and terminology. It is a good idea to have a printed card posted next to the VHF.


Although rare, fires can generally be of 3 kinds: inadvertently man-provoked (cigarette, match, etc.), propane related, or fuel related.

The first thing to so is to shout "Fire!" so the entire crew is alerted. Since you know where the fire extinguishers are (see 1.), use them towards the base of the fire, not the flames. Also, do not throw water on a gasoline or fuel fire, as it only spreads it. If you feel that you might not be able to put the fire out, do not wait too long and have a crew member send a distress call with the VHF: give the boat description, exact location and the description of the emergency.


If you feel that a collision is inevitable and imminent, forbid absolutely the crew to try fending off the other boat with their hands or feet. Pushing off a moving 15 or 10 ton boat is simply impossible and a stupid idea.

Having said that, immediately after the collision happens, check if anyone among your crew has been injured and/or thrown overboard. If so, forget the boat: Take care of the crew(s) instantly.

After it's done, then you can evaluate the boat's damage: Is there a gash in your hull? If so, is there water coming in the boat? If there is, stuff things in the opening, like a big beach towel, pillows, bed sheets etc.

Get as much information as you can about the other boat: name, hailing port, charter company, name and address of skipper (for insurance purposes).

Call the charter company on your VHF or cell phone as soon as things as somewhat sorted and report the accident. They will assess the situation and either send you a chase boat, and/or give you instructions on how to proceed.


If you find out water is coming in your boat, immediately activate the electric pumps. If the automatic pump did not trigger, activate it manually. Then quickly try to locate the cause. Barring a collision (see above), most of the time the culprit is a seacock fitting whose hose came lose: look for the heads, the galley sink, and the engine water seacock. If you find the pulled off hose, reattach it and it should be over. If the cause is a hole, stuff things in the opening, like a big beach towel, pillows, bed sheets etc.

If you manage to stem the flow, start making way towards the closest port.

If you realize you will not be able to do that, you need to place a distress call and give the boat description, exact location and the description of the emergency.

Engine Failure

After a nice sailing day, you are getting ready to get into this nice coveted anchorage. You have furled the genoa, and before dropping the main, you start the engine. Well, what if the engine does not start? This is the very reason why I suggest to keep all sails up for several minutes until you're sure the engine runs normally. If the engine does not start, you have the sails to put the boat safely in heave to position and look for the cause of the engine failure. Then, even if the engine starts normally, you want to keep your main sail up as long as possible before anchoring or mooring: the reason here is that in case a running engine suddenly stops, the main sail is your backup mean of propulsion.

Clearly, when you are on charter, you're not going to start to get greasy in the engine compartment. However, here are a couple of quick things you can check before calling the charter company, and potentially embarrass yourself.

  • Is the engine-kill is pushed back in the start position?
  • Is the gearshift lever in neutral position? Most engines will not crank start if the lever is engaged in forward or backup position
  • Are all the battery switches on?
  • If engine died while running, was it overheating? If so, the cooling water intake is probably clogged.
  • If you manage to fix yourself a problem which was due to a real malfunction, you need to report it to the charter company at the end of the charter.

Anchor Dragging in the Middle of the Night

This is a nasty occurrence, no question about it. First of all, let's hope you merely wake up to realize the anchor is dragging. To prevent this, make sure you anchor properly and take several bearings after anchoring. Then take more bearings after sunset, so I can use them when it's dark. Take some bearings to get out of the anchorage in the middle of the night if you have to. Note the depth of the area where you are. If you notice a big change in the depth, chances are the anchor is dragging. I automatically wake up every 2/3 hours or so and go check on the anchor -but that's just me... you do not necessarily have to do that if you are solidly anchored.

Anyway, if despite all precautions the anchor drags, the very first thing to do is to start the engine. Then try to pay out more chain. Lots of it, if you are not too closely surrounded by other boats. If this does not work, you have to re-anchor. No choice. At this point, you have awakened other crewmembers to help you. Make sure all lights inside the boat are turned off to keep the best night vision possible. Then get back to your original anchor place and re-anchor. If you choose to anchor in another area of the bay, move the boat VERY slowly until your night vision is acceptable.

Windlass Failure

Although a pain in the neck, all electric windlasses can also be operated manually with a handle stored next to the windlass. Make sure to ask the briefer before departing how to operate it.

If the windlass stops working abruptly, it is most probably because there was a power overload. The windlass needs to be reset with a special switch usually located in the cabin. Ask the briefer where the reset switch is located.

Tips & Miscellaneous

  • A safe boat is a tidy boat. When sailing, keep lines and sheets coiled as much as you can, and keep the working cockpit generally in good order so you can move rapidly if need be.
  • Accidental jibes do happen. So when the boat is running downwind, if someone has to walk up or down the boat sides, it has to be on the same side as the boom.
  • When going ashore, you have to be very properly anchored, without any doubt. And do not leave the boat alone with the engine running -to charge the batteries for example.
  • Respect the rules of the road.
  • Kids and non-swimmers should wear life jackets when not down below
  • No one should go swimming without letting at least another crew know.
  • Always snorkel in pairs.

Crew Safety Issues

Man Overboard

This is unquestionably the most difficult thing to deal with, because it tends to create panic. And panic is the worst that can happen in this situation. Before showing you the steps, here are some things you can do to prevent this from happening.

  • All non-swimmers and all children under 12 should wear a life jacket when in the cockpit or moving about the decks.
  • Non-swimmers should stay in the cockpit while sailing.
  • All crew should be reminded the golden rule of moving about a boat: "One hand for you and one hand for the boat".
  • Crews should avoid relieving themselves overboard, standing. Especially at night when everybody is asleep.
  • Beware of slippery decks.

If despite the precautions, a crew gets in the drink, there is a method of man over board recovery that works in all situations and requires only one crew member and no sail trimming – it is called the Crash Stop (courtesy of

The maneuver sequence is as follows:

man overboard • MOB – head up to beam reach and go two to three boat lengths

• Tack the boat without touching the sheets

• Once the jib is back winded turn the helm all the way back as if you were trying to get back on the tack you were originally on.

• You will be in the hove-to position, which means that the pressure in the jib will not allow you to tack back and the rudder and jib will cancel each other out and you will be stalled.

• Lock the wheel hard over so that you can leave the helm and attend to getting the MOB gear deployed – Once in the hove-to position, the boat will stay like this until you decide to either release the jib sheet, straighten the wheel and start sailing again or alternatively, Jibe out of it using the rudder

• At this stage you can ease or trim the main to ensure you remain in hove-to position. Note that on most boats all that needs to be done is to release the main sheet and let the sail luff. Once in the hove-to position, everything slows down and allows you to gather your wits to deal with the problem.

• At this stage you will be slowly crabbing back towards your MOB at under a knot.

• You can now elect to start the engines to maneuver the boat to the MOB or if you are going towards him you can heave a line to him.

• If you start the engines, remember you need to ensure that the boat's propeller does not injure the MOB

• Retrieve your MOB, severely castigate him/her for his carelessness and then treat with Rum

One person can do this entire maneuver, it stops the boat close to the MOB, which is good for morale and allows you to speak to them. Hove-to is a maneuver that can be used for reefing, in heavy weather or just stopping for lunch without dropping the sails and of course for MOB.

Medical Emergencies

If you read the pre-charter checklist article, you saw that all crewmembers should take with them all the medications they are used to absorb daily. If any crewmember has doubts on anything, a doctor should be consulted before departing, specifically regarding allergies, necessary vaccinations, or any condition that could be affected by excessive heat, sun, insect bites, etc...


Unquestionably the major problem encountered by charterers in the tropics. Because of the geographic location of the tropics, the sun is more or less directly overhead most of the day, which is the most harmful position for the recipients. Additionally, the bimini does not offer as much protection as one thinks, because of the sun reflection on the water. The trade winds in the Caribbean also make one feel comfortable even though the sun is knocking hard. Snorkeling for an extended period of time will also guarantee you major back sunburn.

For all those reasons, you want to use liberal amounts of sun protection lotions, with SPF ratings of at least 15 and up. Even when they are labeled as waterproof, make sure to reapply 2 or 3 times a day.


Also a common occurrence. The market is flooded by all kinds of pills, patches, wristbands, earrings, you name it. Problem is, each person reacts differently to those remedies, and there is no way to tell in advance which one will work on you, if any, unless of course you know already because you tried. Some medications have side effects, mainly drowsiness. Anyway, whatever you use, it has to be in or on your body well in advance of the potential occurrence. And if there are crews prone to be ill, keep a bucket handy or have them use the leeward side.

In addition, here are a few tips to try to prevent it.

  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption before sailing.
  • Stay outside as much as possible.
  • Keep your eyes on the horizon.
  • Try to keep yourself busy (steering, monitoring sails etc.).
  • Avoid reading while boat is in motion.
  • If down below, keep the area well ventilated with fresh air.