Safety Afloat

Blue skies, 10 knots of wind and a slight sea - a perfect day on the water. Whilst days can start off this way, the sea breeze can kick in and quickly you're reaching for the life jackets to make sure everyone is safe. It is always best to be prepared and below are just a few tips to ensure that safety at sea is not overlooked.

There is plenty of safety equipment on the market and a skipper should know what is available and which is appropriate for your boat and the type of sailing or boating you do. But safety is also a matter of attitude, assessing risks, and understanding safety procedures. In crowded waters like the Solent, it is important to put safety first and make sure your crew are appropriately briefed and equipped.

Before leaving the pontoon, it is important that a few basic safety checks are completed so that your day does not involve needing a little more help than anticipated. Check the boat and equipment, check the conditions, check someone knows where you are planning to sail and when you'll be back, and check all your personal safety equipment is ready to go and everyone knows how to use it.

Weather information
Always check the current weather conditions and get a marine forecast before you go afloat. There are many sources of weather information available by phone, sms, and online. When afloat, listen for regular weather announcements from Solent Coastguard on VHF Ch16.

Keep in touch
Make sure someone knows your plans when you go afloat and when you expect to return. Be sure to brief them what to do if you are late returning and don’t forget to let them know when you get back.

Don't be reluctant to call the Coastguard if you are concerned that someone is overdue; if they are in trouble, the alert you raise could be vital.

If you do get into trouble it is very helpful for the rescue services if you have registered your boat's details with the Coastguard Safety Identification Scheme, CG66 which will save time in an emergency. Details and registration can be found online at

Calling the Coastguard
The preferred method for contacting the Coastguard is using DSC. Routine use of DSC to the Coastguard or others, helps keep Channel 16 available for distress and urgency. Make distress, urgency or safety calls to Solent Coastguard using DSC or use VHF Ch 16. For other routine calls use VHF DSC or Channel 67, or phone Solent Coastguard on 02392 552100.

If you have to call for help, remember that it is better to use VHF DSC or VHF radio than a mobile phone, although the phone can be a useful backup. Using VHF DSC means that everyone in range can hear your distress call and that as long as you have linked the DSC to your GPS, the Coastguard will be able to send rescue resources directly to your accurate position.

Sailing clothing
The clothing you wear afloat needs to be much more than a fashion statement. It's main purpose is to keep you comfortably warm and dry, or if you're enjoying a watersport where you can't stay dry, it should keep you warm.

The problem is that the more active you are, and the wetter the conditions, or activity, the harder the job your clothing has. Active physical exercise generates heat and perspiration while wet conditions mean that you have to seal your clothing at wrists, neck, waist, and ankles to keep the water out. This is when good breathable clothing is at its best.

If cost is an issue take a look at the non-premium brand names. Often, the lower price kit is as effective as the premium labels for most uses. The Solent area has plenty of chandlers and sailing clothing stores and among them you should find kit that's right for your needs and budget.

Personal flotation devices
Lifejackets and buoyancy aids have been proven to save lives - they are the ultimate safety device for any sailor or motorboater, both old and young, and to use the RNLI phrase - "Useless Unless Worn".

Make sure that you select and wear the correct type for your recreational activity.

Buoyancy aids are foam-filled lifejackets that provide limited buoyancy once immersed in water. You should wear one if you go dinghy sailing, windsurfing or use a personal watercraft. A buoyancy aid however, will not help people who cannot help themselves (eg. non-swimmers or those who lose consciousness).

Lifejackets are intended for general coastal and offshore use in a variety of conditions. A good lifejacket will keep your airways clear when you first fall in the water, when you begin to gasp and breathe more rapidly.

With a vast choice available, any lifejacket you consider should comply to ISO specifications. After that, consider if you want automatic or manual operation - most people opt for automatic these days as accidental inflations are rare. Harness or waist belt? Harness lifejackets tend to be more comfortable and generally the weight difference is negligible, so why not choose comfy.

Below is a quick guide to entry level, mid-range, and top of the range lifejackets and the features that each should include as a minimum:

Entry level ISO jacket: single crotch strap, at least 150 Newtons of buoyancy. Suitable for the occasional sailor.

Mid-range ISO jacket: more comfortable with one/two crotch or leg straps, approximately 180 Newtons of buoyancy, optional add-on items such as spray hood and automatic light. Suitable for the more regular sailor.

Top range ISO jacket: very comfortable with two crotch/leg straps and approximately 180 Newtons of buoyancy, integrated spray hood and automatic light. Suitable for regular sailors planning longer passages, eg cross Channel.

Make sure your Lifejacket is serviced regulaly to prevent corrosion and iminant problems.

Credit: SeaSafe Systems

Man overboard
Should it happen, you will certainly want to let potential rescuers know and hopefully recover the individual as quickly as possible. Achieving this can be tricky.

SeaSafe Systems Cowes

Have a simple man overboard recovery system, including a soft horseshoe buoy attached to a line from the stern of the boat, and a MobMat - British designed and built - offering a vertical lift recovery option which protects the casualty and enables smaller crew to recover larger casualties safely.

Relatively new technology, in the form of AIS beacons, is also available. These alert all AIS enabled chart plotters within a 5 mile area, or if you are on a lengthy passage further afield, consider a Personal Location Beacon which alerts the UK Coastguard so they can coordinate the local rescue services.

Every boat and every person is different and all eventualities can never be defined and catered for. With a few sensible precautions, however, you can ensure a great 2012 season and we look forward to seeing you on the water.

Maritime and Coastguard Agency