Day Sailing Emergencies: How to Be Prepared

Day Sailing Emergencies: How to Be Prepared | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

The difference between emergencies at sea and those we encounter on an inshore day sail is entirely one of preparation and for many that can mean life or death.


Table of contents

Top 5 Day Sailing Emergencies

  1. Grounding: I have always said there are two types of sailors, those who have grounded and those who admit they have grounded.
  2. Man Overboard: Nothing prepares you for the actual event when someone goes overboard.
  3. Dismasting: This is one of the scariest emergencies you should never encounter at sea. With a little prep and maintenance you can avoid it.
  4. Engine Failure: As with all emergencies, preparation saves the day. But none so much as with engine failure. Planning ahead and doing the maintenance can help avoid an engine failure and one of the ways to get ahead is by making a checklist.
  5. Medical Emergencies: I have not written an article on medical emergencies afloat and in truth I’m no doctor. Keeping track of your own health and having a working radio is probably the best prep you can make for a medical emergency at sea.

The gear you take with you, the availability of help and the training you prepare yourself with can all mean a safe return or a tragic tale. Recognizing the differences between these types of emergencies and identifying the dangers that exist inshore is imperative to the safety of your family and crew.

Just because you are ten miles from shore, does not mean that nothing can happen. Statistically speaking,  that is where far more accidents occur than anywhere else in the world. So why is it we become so complacent when we are “just” on a day sail?

The Truth about Accidents at Sea 

According to the USCG boating statistics report, there were 4168 accidents on the water in 2019. That was a 0.6% increase from 2018 and the leading cause of accidents was attributed to alcohol.  

Top 5 Emergencies at Sea in 2019 per the USCG

It should be noted that the USCG does not differentiate between powerboats and sailboats

  1. Collision with recreational vessel
  2. Collision with fixed object
  3. Grounding
  4. Flooding/swamping
  5. Falls overboard  

Other interesting statistics included 86% of drowning victims weren’t wearing a PFD and 70% of deaths involved people who had no safe boating training. What’s more, of the total deaths, just 341  happened in Ocean or Gulf waters and more than half happened on calm days, in warm water in good visibility.

That means you are statistically more likely to get injured or killed near the shore on a nice day if you don't have any training and are drinking alcohol. Much like automobiles, you are more likely to get in an accident 5 mins from home than anywhere else in the world.

How is an Emergency Different on a Day Sail?

It's not that emergencies are different when on a day sail verses on a long voyage, but it's the mindset that is different. A heart attack is a heart attack, but if you are 100 miles off shore, that heart attack becomes a new level of scary.

However it is this complacency knowing that 911 is just around the corner when you are day sailing that makes people take chances they would not take 100 miles from shore.

On a day sail, you will stay out a little longer because home is that much closer. You will let storm clouds get a little closer because home is just a few miles away. You will swim a little farther from your boat just because the water is just a little safer.

It is this risk taking that gives sailors the belief that water is less dangerous near shore than it is offshore and the truth is, you can drown in a pool, just as easily as you can drown in an ocean. Emergencies are different inshore because we treat them differently inshore- with less fear and trepidation and that is why more people get hurt near shore than offshore.  

911 on the Water

Despite common belief, a cell phone and 911 service is not the best solution in an emergency situation, particularly near shore.

On inland bodies of water like Long island Sound, cell phone signals will go to the nearest tower. That means that if you call from the middle of the Sound, you are just as likely to get a 911 operator on Long Island as you are to get a 911 operator on the Connecticut shore line.

When you use a cellphone, you might have no idea where the help is coming from and if you are familiar with the I95 corridor, you don't want an ambulance coming from Long Island to save you if you're waiting in New Haven.

Day sailors rely heavily on cell phones but in most places on the water,  cell phones are not your best source for help. Channel 16 on your VHF is by far more reliable to get help inbound on the water than a cell phone.

You would not believe how many boats I assist every day as a rescue captain that don't have a working radio and think that their cell phone is a reliable substitute. VHF is a line of sight radio signal so if help is coming from Channel 16, it's usually the Coast Guard and it's most likely close.

Preparing for a Day Sail

If you are just heading out for a few hours, and you have all the training and fear you need to be safe, having a few supplies might just make your day a little more enjoyable and safer.

Obvious things like a working radio, sunscreen and first aid kit and water are absolute musts on a simple 4-hour sail. Other things to bring will be determined by your guests and crew.

Lots of folks like to sail with little kids. Even a short sail can be a little too much for young children so bring what my mother called a “Ditty Bag’ of stuff to keep them entertained on that long leg with little breeze.

Older folks and folks with special needs may have medical issues or other time sensitive needs  and preparing to be out longer than planned is always a good idea. You never know when that three hour tour will turn into something substantially longer and you don't want someone to go without their meds because a day sail turned into a marathon.

While we are talking about planning for the unexpected, the weather can turn in a few minutes and as my Dad always said, it's better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it. An extra sweatshirt or extra hat can be just what the doctor ordered if things don’t go quite as planned. (and they rarely do in my world).

Do I NEED to take Sailing Lessons to Sail?

I have taught sailing for nearly a quarter of a century.  I have taught children, adults, special needs folks, seniors and everyone else who ever wanted to set sail.  And I can tell you definitively that there are better sailing certifications than others.

Some sailing schools set you down for the first three hours of a course and tell you everything you need to know about a sailboat by drawing pictures on a chalkboard. Other schools have you take a class on a boat for three days with six other people and tell you 're graduated. Neither approach has ever worked as far as I can tell, to teach someone what they need to know to set sail on their own.

I believe that sailing can only be taught over time. You take a boat out, you learn, you go home and think about it and then you come back and learn some more. Schools or certifications that give your credentials based on class attendance are not teaching you to sail.

Accordingly, the best training system I have found (and the one I instruct with) is an online system where you are self-paced called NauticED. It can teach you all you need to know to be a safe sailor and it operates on your pace, not that of the sailing instructor.

Brand dropping and self promotion aside, there are other forms of training you ought to have before you head out.  CPR and basic first aid is a great idea if you're heading out for the day, the week, the month or the rest of your life.

Knowing how to handle basic emergencies and taking care of your guests is one the most obvious things you can do to be prepared and I don't get a dime for suggesting that you take a cpr and first aid course at your earliest convenience.

What training do I need for a day sail?

Admittedly, most accidents occur on power boats and if you ask any insurance agent, sailing is a relatively low liability sport. The slow speeds and the more advanced skill level required for sailing really makes it a much safer way to enjoy the water.

Training however is the key to keeping it safe and so many people think that watching a few youtube videos and reading a blog, can prepare you to set sail for the afternoon. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Think back to 2018 and the news that a couple sold off all their belongings, bought a boat and were going to set sail to the Caribbean.

They didn’t get so much as 2 miles off shore and their boat sunk with everything they own. They not only lost everything, they became an International tale of caution and were fined by the USCG for polluting the water with their sunken vessel. See the article here.

Thank goodness for the kind souls who helped them out with crowdsourcing, but what did they do when they regrouped? They didn’t take lessons and learn how to read a chart so they didn’t run aground again, instead they bought another boat and headed back off shore.

That's the problem with the Youtube culture. People think by watching a few videos you can sail anywhere and that’s just not so.  I'm not a giant fan of many sailing certifications, but training to sail with a certified instructor is a huge step forward to being safe at sea.

The USCG points directly to a lack of safe boating certification as a cause for boating accidents, and it does seem that every time we hear about a sailing accident, a lack of training was a factor.

At the very least, a little training will help you better avoid the other jack asses out there who have a credit card, a boat and lack of any kind of intelligence.

So just because you are only going a few miles out on a day sail, doesn't mean you don't need to be prepared. Maybe you don't need a single sideband weather fax if you're only heading to the end of the river. However you might need that one thing that will ruin your afternoon if you forget it. So don’t forget it and enjoy your day sailing. And do good, have fun and sail far.

Day Sailing Emergencies: How to Be Prepared
Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German

Capt Chris German is a life long sailor and licensed captain who has taught thousands to sail over the last 20 years. In 2007, he founded a US Sailing-based community sailing school in Bridgeport, CT for inner city youth and families. When Hurricane Sandy forced him to abandon those efforts, he moved to North Carolina where he set out to share this love for broadcasting and sailing with a growing web-based television audience through The Charted Life Television Network.

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