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So, You’re In Charge

So, You’re In Charge

Would you be able to take over as skipper in an emergency? Caroline Strainig finds more than a few crew would fall far short of the mark. Take our spot quiz and see how you and/or your crew would fare.


“Splash!” The sound of my husband going overboard was hard to miss.

“Don’t worry. He jumps in often to test my skills when he thinks conditions are safe,” I reassured the other couple on board calmly. “He wants to be sure I can rescue him if he does go overboard by accident. Can someone keep pointing to him while I turn the boat around and brief you on what to do?”

Thankfully, I never needed to rescue my husband in an emergency, although he did fall overboard once by accident when we were gunkholing up a creek. Sometimes, in the wee hours when I dwell on our divorce, I wish I had not rescued him on that occasion. (But that is another story over a few drinks with my girlfriends!)

That was many years ago, but his approach to safety has stayed with me. My then-husband was an experienced single-handed offshore sailor and navigator. It would have been all too easy to leave anything remotely hard to him and just be crew. However, there were times when I was on deck by myself and had to be competent to manage. Apart from the man overboard drills, he used to give me pop quizzes, asking me things like: “Do you know where you are now?” which often involved looking on a chart because we had no GPS back then.

Does this ring any bells with you? Do you do that with your crew? Or, if you are crew, does your skipper do that with you? If so, you may be in the minority or at the very least an underwhelming majority. Talking to couples candidly about their knowledge while researching this article, I discovered a surprising lack of knowledge, especially when the crew was the female partner of the skipper.

One woman in her 60s, whose partner had owned boats ever since she could remember, said she would not even know which side of a channel marker to go on, let alone make a radio call for help. They had boated together for years and her husband had already had one heart attack, thankfully ashore.

So, what are the essentials you need to know, and how can you learn them?

Obviously, you can train your crew yourself, as my husband did with me. You should also give anyone new on your boat an in-depth safety briefing, and as an added safety precaution mount an emergency checklist in a prominent location. However, if it is your partner, a boat licence course is a good idea to ensure marital bliss is not compromised – because it can be hard teaching someone close to you. Brisbane Coast Guard takes it a step further, recommending anyone remotely likely to be left in charge to sign up to a boat licence course.

Remember the boat safety campaign, “You’re the skipper – you’re responsible”? By law, the bottom line is that the skipper is responsible. Just like the regular skipper, the fall-back skipper should be licensed, know how to drive the vessel, know the rules of the sea-road, and be responsible for passenger safety.

It does not have to be an emergency situation before a crew member has to take over sometimes. On one occasion, I was handed the helm at short notice when the skipper had been drinking and the Water Police were approaching. Another was on an offshore passage when the skipper decided to retire below with a bottle of whisky, and only surfaced days later.

Back to the ideal scenario – getting some training and ideally your boat licence or an equivalent sail-training qualification. What is Plan B if you have not done that?

Brisbane Coast Guard media officer Harvey Shore says crew should only take over as skipper if they are competent to do so. If they are not, they should immediately take these five actions, and skippers should brief their novice crew-cum-passengers accordingly:

  1. Stop the vessel by either dropping the sail or putting throttles to neutral, and stopping the motor.
  2. Drop the anchor.
  3. Get everyone to put on lifejackets.
  4. Establish the vessel’s exact location by using local knowledge, or the GPS chart plotter, or by identifying landmarks.
  5. Call for help, either by radioing Coast Guard on VHS Channel 16, or by dialling 000 on a mobile phone and asking for Water Police.

The Coast Guard also recommends every boat should be equipped with a VHF radio because phone reception can be unreliable. Crew should obviously be taught how to use the radio as back-up. Radios should be tuned to Channel 16, the emergency frequency, and 73, the general communications channel. The Coast Guard also monitors channels 21, 67 and 81.

For added peace of mind, Mr Shore says boat owners can join the Coast Guard’s marine-assist program, which is like an on-water RACQ. Coast Guard volunteers are trained in first-aid, so they are well equipped to deal with medical emergencies.

“Ah, well, chances are nothing will happen to us,” I can hear you say as you read this. Sadly, safety is not something that only “other” people need to worry about. Over the past five years, the Brisbane Coast Guard has been called out thousands – yes, thousands – of times to rescue stranded skippers and their passengers in our local waters. In six of these, the skipper was also disabled because of a medical emergency. While we all hope every outing will be idyllic, the reality is that accidents can happen, so it pays to be prepared. Safety may not be sexy, but it is something we all need to be aware of.




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