When and How to Abandon Ship – Save a Life! Maybe your own…

If the boat is sinking or there is a fire aboard that can’t be contained and extinguished, it is time to abandon ship immediately.
ZAMBOANGA DEL NORTE, Philippines (Sept. 6, 2009) Members of U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines (JSOTF-P) check life rafts for survivors Sept. 6, 2009 following the sinking of a Philippine super ferry in the waters off Zamboanga del Norte. At the request of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, JSOTF-P dispatched several boats and a civilian helicopter to assist in the search and rescue effort. The service members, from Naval Special Boat Team 12, joined the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard and civilian rescue personnel to search for survivors and provide medical care to the injured. (U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Robin Ressler/Released)
ZAMBOANGA DEL NORTE, Philippines (Sept. 6, 2009) Members of U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P) check life rafts for survivors Sept. 6, 2009 following the sinking of a Philippine super ferry in the waters off Zamboanga del Norte. At the request of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, JSOTF-P dispatched several boats and a civilian helicopter to assist in the search and rescue effort. The service members, from Naval Special Boat Team 12, joined the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard and civilian rescue personnel to search for survivors and provide medical care to the injured. (U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Robin Ressler/Released)

When disaster strikes onboard an assessment must be made whether to abandon the vessel.

The criteria for abandonment are straightforward:  If the boat is sinking or there is a fire aboard that can’t be contained and extinguished, it is time to abandon ship immediately. Otherwise, stay with the boat, as it is a much larger target for the search and rescue teams.

If temporary repairs can be made to delay sinking, everyone has additional time to prepare to abandon ship.

Getting ready for abandonment

  • Alert the crew to prepare to abandon ship. Keeping calm is the first order of business. Quickly assigning tasks to assist getting ready will aid the preparation.
  • Don lifejackets. If there is enough time to put on extra clothing plus foul weather gear, it will help to stay warm and dry.
  • Transmit a distress call. Press the “distress” button on the DSC (Digital Selective Calling) enabled VHF radio, followed by a voice mayday call. 
  • Turn the EPIRB on. After activation, the EPIRB will be taken aboard the liferaft along with the ditch bag.
  • Grab the ditch bag. A pre-packed abandon ship bag with all the necessities needed to supplement the survival equipment packed with the liferaft, including a waterproof handheld VHF radio and SART (Search and Rescue Transponder), should be readily accessible. If extra time permits, gather additional water, non-perishable food, extra distress pyrotechnics, blankets, medications, passports, binoculars, hand bearing compass and first aid kits.
  • Position the liferaft for launching. A liferaft should be stowed where it is readily accessible in case of an emergency. The bottom of a locker underneath dock lines and deck brushes is a poor choice for a storage location.

How to Deploy the liferaft?

  • Secure the painter. Using a strongpoint, such as a cleat or padeye, tie the liferaft painter to the boat. Double check the knot or hitch used to make sure the liferaft will not drift away once inflated.
  • Launch the raft downwind. Heave the liferaft canister or valise overboard to leeward, this will help provide a modicum of protection from wind and waves when boarding and avoid potential damage to the raft when inflated.
  • Pull the painter. Life raft painters are long; they can be as long as 50 feet. Keep pulling out the painter from the floating canister until it is taut. Then give it a sharp tug, this activates the inflation by piercing the CO2 canister.
  • Secure the liferaft close to the boat. Once fully inflated, quickly trim in the painter and cleat it off so the liferaft is close enough to the boat for boarding.
  • Board the liferaft. The goal is to board the liferaft directly from the vessel and not from the water. Staying out of the water is essential to remain as dry and warm as possible. Don’t forget to load the ditch bag and any other spare items collected.

What do you do Once aboard the liferaft?

Initial actions. There are four actions to be taken immediately:

  • Cut the painter with the blunt-tipped safety knife secured at the liferaft’s entrance.
  • Stream the sea anchor to slow the rate of drift. A SOLAS approved liferaft will automatically deploy its sea anchor.
  • Close the entrance flap to keep the wind, waves and rain at bay.
  • Maintain the liferaft by keeping it as dry as possible. Bailing scoops and sponges are included in the survival service pack. 

Subsequent actions.

  • Attach the EPIRB’s security line to the raft so it can float in the water nearby.
  • Distribute seasick tablets and use them immediately.
  • Give first aid to any injured crew.
  • Inventory survival items in the raft.
  • Apportion food and water for rationing.
  • Do not eat or drink water for the first 24 hours.
  • Stay warm and dry.
  • Maintain an active watch to look for other vessels or aircraft.
  • Keep morale high, the will to survive is a key factor while awaiting rescue.

Prior training makes handling emergency situations more successful. All boats should have their crew practice conducting abandon ship drills, which include muster stations and pre-assigned preparation tasks. Practice builds confidence and reduces panic when an actual emergency occurs.

It is also helpful to get to know the liferaft stowed on board. When it is time for the scheduled liferaft service, observe the liferaft when it is manually inflated and tested for leaks prior to repacking. Become familiar with the raft’s construction and placement of the safety gear on board.

Capt. Jeff Werner
Capt. Jeff Werner is a Senior Instructor with International Crew Training in Ft. Lauderdale, and is a 22 year veteran of the yachting industry. www.yachtmaster.com