Distress When Sailing (And What Saves You)

Distress When Sailing (And What Saves You) | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

June 15, 2022

I have always had the same fear: going down with the sailboat. I have been in more than just a few boats that took on water and one time where I truly thought I was going to die.

The thing I have never considered, or for that matter ever used, in any of my sinking moments was the bevy of distress gear I, and I am sure many others like me, carry aboard my sailboat.

Except for VHF Channel 16, I have never (and hope I never have to) used any of the distress equipment I have carried on my boat and body.

With that said, just like the mask I use daily to ward off death from the air, so too do I cling to my distress gear to ward off death from the water. And to start with, I have my PFD.


Table of contents


Without my PFD, I am useless… you know how it goes. An unused PFD is a useless PFD. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “I don’t need a life jacket, I can swim,” I would be a gazillionaire.

PFD stands for personal floatation device. It is not a life jacket that you wear when you are going down. It is a device that will help you float if you have become incapciated for some reason and you should wear it all the time time.

I am wearing one right now as I write this article. The real question is, “How well do you swim when you are unconscious?”

A PFD, regardless of type, is designed to flip a full size adult over so that they will float face up in the water. So unless you put it on wrong or aren’t wearing one, if you get knocked in the head with the boom, there is a better than 50% chance that we will find your body eventually.

That’s not to say you will be alive, as a knock overboard has about a hundred ways to kill you immediately. But if you do go in the water, we will find your body and it is the earnest hope of the designer that we find you while you are still breathing.

But if you’re not wearing one, you have already diminished your chances of survival considerably. And really that’s the true purpose of any distress relieving system - to keep you breathing at sea.

On my PFD I have some gear that always goes with me. A whistle and an Emergency light are attached to my PFD and if I ever go in the water not only will my PFD inflate automatically, it will flash automatically as well and give me a resource to call for help.

I don’t want to have to pay to recharge my PFD as it is co2 charged and inflates when in the water, but I always have this resource if I ever need it.

Also on my PFD is a set of d-rings. I never use them in my current role, but when I sailed offshore on my charter boat, I used them nightly to tie in and attach myself to the jack lines. Are these items distress gear? I don’t think so, but if I am ever in distress I will be happy I had them.

If you don’t have a good PFD, checkout this article on the best PFD’s for sailing.

Distress Signals

Next up in the arsenal of distress gear are distress signals.There are literally dozens of signals you could use to indicate distress - a continuous sounding horn, a US flag flown upside down, a gun fired every two minutes.

My students in my captains' classes loved the questions they could answer with a burning barrel of oil - yes that is a distress signal according to the US Coast Guard.

Of all the most well accepted visual distress signals for day time and night time use, the flare is the most common.


Either fired by a gun or held in your hand, flares are by far and away the most ubiquitous distress signal in the modern boaters lexicon. The problem with them is they expire. That doesn’t mean they go bad, but they do expire.

It is for that reason that the USCG allows you to carry extra gear as long as you have the requisite gear on board as well, which includes non-expired distress signals for day and night use.

So if you are like so many boaters, you have a stack of unused yet expired flares that take up space on your boat, that you never get rid of. I am told that if you find a local Coast Guard Auxiliary unit and give them your flares they will take them.

It was explained to me that they usually take a weekend each summer and fire them all off in a blaze of glory (under USCG supervision of course like at New London at the US Coast Guard Academy).

If you're lucky, they’ll invite you to the spectacle where I am told the beer flows like wine and the food is only topped by the satiation of your inner child’s fascination with fire.

Fire Extinguishers

Speaking of fire, let's talk about fire extinguishers. We all got em, What do we do with them? The obvious answer is put out fires of course, but talk about a distress signal.

A boat on fire is a prescribed distress signal per the USCG, so if all else fails when you're trying to get someone’s attention, set your boat on fire (no not really).

But seriously if you have never fired off a fire extinguisher do it once and you’ll be glad you did. It’s striking how little fire extinguishing agents there are in a Type B2 fire extinguisher. That is the size and type that is required on most boats in the US.

My neighbors house caught fire one afternoon in winter when I was living in the hills of Connecticut. I had a half dozen fire extinguishers in my basement from all the boats I had owned over the years and we used all of them in a matter of minutes with very little effect on the fire.

Between the adrenaline of the situation and our inexperience using a fire extinguisher, we wasted all six of them as we failed to aim properly at the base of the fire and sweep side to side and the house sustained considerable damage from the fire. You wouldn’t think that it would be hard to use a fire extinguisher correctly, except it really is in a real life fire emergency.

When I decided to start my charter boat business, that was the first time I really noted the fire extinguishers on my boat, along with all the other gear I needed to be safe to do offshore passages.

That was when I bought my first EPIRB and Liferaft - two pieces of distress gear that I would not think of leaving a harbor without. So many skippers decide that they don’t need either and go offshore. I am glad to say they don’t all get dead, but listen to channel 16 in Beaufort Inlet and you will hear how many people get in trouble every day. There really ought to be a law about liferafts and EPIRBS but alas they are pricey.


My Liferaft came in a pelican case and mounted right to my fore deck. It was a pain when I tacked the boat, as the jib sheets got caught most of the time.

But it was bolted on quite well so it didn’t pull off and I felt 100 times better knowing that if all hell broke loose I would have a rescue boat in the water in a hurry.


That was the same feeling I had with the EPIRB. If I ever needed to manually hit the switch or if the boat went down, an automatic signal would be beamed up into space and to the USCG with all my boats info and location.

It even would have called my Mother in Law as she was the only person we could think would like to know if we were lost at sea. EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon and it broadcasts at 121.5 Mhz around the world.

I can’t think of a better way to call for help if you are in open water and are in trouble. An offshore non commercial version will cost you about $1,000 but when you're hemorrhaging cash to start a charter boat, it's a drop in the bucket and really ought to be required gear.

If you never leave your sound or your bay or your gulf, you really don't need to spend that kind of money on safety gear. A decent pack of type II PFDs and handheld VHF radio will do everything you need to do in an emergency.

It’s not the gear you buy that will save your life in those situations, it’s knowing how to use the gear you have. If you have never put on a TYPE II consider yourself lucky. They are uncomfortable and hot and the chaff the neck something awful. But in an emergency the best PFD is the one on your body.


VHFs however are only as good as the operator, so if you have one, tune to channel 16 every once in a while and listen to how people talk. Especially listen to the USCG announcements that are made quite regularly from your local USCG group.

Where I used to live, the USCG made announcements every half hour or so but they were always spot on for format. So tune to your local USCG broadcasts and listen to how they do it. Here are a few radio practices that I think are key:

  1. When hailing a boat or station on VHF, always repeat the boat or station name that you are calling three times- “Vessel XYZ, Vessel XYZ, Vessel XYS, this is the Vessel I.M.Lost calling.” By repeating yourself three times, you give the channel a chance to open up and transmit and you give the listener a chance to turn their attention to you.
  2. Know your location and communicate that to the other party. Everyday I hear radio checks on the VHF and every day I hear, “Radio Check Radio Radio Check” and someone invariably replies, “Radio Check Copy. You sound great.” Or something similar to that. That is like telling someone next to you that they have broccoli in their teeth by calling your Aunt Margie in Tupelo. The message may get there, but you have no idea where it came from. A radio check or a pan pan or a mayday is only effective if you tell the responder where you are, so you can get some understanding of distance. A radio check from the boat next door doesn’t do you much good and neither does telling someone you have mayday without telling them you are 10 miles away from them. Know your location and transmit it if you are in distress.
  3. Stay six inches from the mic. It does no good yelling into the mic from two centimeters away regardless of how upset you are. No one will understand you. The microphone needs some breathing room to be heard and understood. So it should be held six inches away from your mouth when speaking. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.

Distress Calls

I mentioned Pan Pan and Mayday. These are distress calls made on channel 16 when life or property is in danger. A Pan Pan is a less dramatic situation than a Mayday, but both should be regarded with an emergent nature by all vessels. Pan Pan is usually a health or safety related issue that might not be life threatening while a Mayday is a situation where immediate death is imminent without help.

I was listening to the VHF when a plane crashed off the coast of Long Island a while back. The US Coast Guard issued a mayday and asked all available vessels to lend a hand in fishing survivors from the water. That’s the cool part about being in the maritime world - all boats are equal in the eyes of the Sea and we all need to help each other when any one of us is in trouble.

What really chaps my cookie is when boaters fail to recognize the purpose of channel 16. I am working on Lake Powell right now and I heard a boat calling the National Park Service for assistance the other day. Here is how the conversation went:

Boater: Mayday Mayday Mayday this Vessel T-32 calling.
NPS: Vessel T-32 this is the National Park Service, what is the nature of your emergency?
Boater: National Park Service we have an emergency on our vessel, our hot tub has stopped working.
NPS: You declared an emergency for your hot tub? Are you Kidding?
Boater: No National Park Service, we need our hot tub and it has ceased operating.

Then the NPS I think urinated on themselves from laughing so hard and ceased the transmission as did everyone else who heard that call. You wouldn’t believe how many stupid calls are made like that every day around the US.

Thankfully that call was made on an inland lake and not in open sea, but just think if someone was having a heart attack or a vessel was stricken and going down fast, and that individual was calling about their hot tub.

Use VHF Channel 16 as you would use 911 - but oh wait didn’t someone call 911 about their chicken nuggets a few weeks ago? Better yet, use channel 16 like a prayer to your God. Like something you’ll go to hell for if you screw it up.

Distress at Sea

Distress and sea is a fact. As long as people were braving the waves, people have been encountering distress and had to communicate that distress to others.

Today we have cell phones and VHF. We have radio telephones and EPIRBS. We have flares and liferafts and helicopters and rescue divers and the entire US Coast Guard waiting to come help on a moment’s notice.

The water is a dangerous place, but with all these things we have at our disposal, it should be a ton safer than it was back just 20 years ago.

Personal responsibility is not alleviated by the fact that it is safer than ever before to go to sea in ships. Proper preparation of your crew, your vessel and yourself is imperative to take full advantage of all the systems that we now have to keep us safe.

Respect the men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe and respect their knowledge and their service. Just because you can go sailing doesn’t mean you should, and the best way to keep from needing those distress systems is to use good judgement of weather, sea conditions and the condition of your vessel.

There is this idea that all you need to do is watch a couple Youtube videos and buy a boat and you're ready to go to sea. As long as that idea is propagated on social media, the need for distress signals and gear will persist.

Do yourself a favor and learn how to use the gear and systems before you set sail. Thanks for reading and do good, have fun and sail far.

Distress When Sailing (And What Saves You)
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.

Read more articles

by this author

Home /

Distress When Sailing (And What Saves You)

Distress When Sailing (And What Saves You)
7 Best Places To Liveaboard A Sailboat >>Can You Live On A Sailboat Year Round? >>

Most Recent

Important Legal Info

Similar Posts

Popular Posts

Get The Best Sailing Content

Welcome aboard! Check your email...
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Lifeofsailing.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon. This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.

(866) 342-SAIL

© 2024 Life of Sailing
Email: contact@lifeofsailing.com
Address: 11816 Inwood Rd #3024 Dallas, TX 75244
DisclaimerPrivacy Policy