SAFE-BOAT SMART-BOAT: Abandoning ship…

The decision no fisherman ever wants to make; how to prepare for disaster, survival, and rescue

The following is Part 1 of a multi-part series focused on the decision to abandon ship and then taking the steps necessary to maximize chances for survival and rescue.  Watch for additional parts in this series in subsequent issues. -Editor

I can still remember the desperate and fearful Mayday call.

“HELP, HELP my vessel is sinking.”

The trepidation in the voice of the captain, pleading,”What do I do?”

A qualified Coast Guard-approved marine drill instructor, Fred Mattera of Point Judith, RI is the owner/president of North East Safety Training Co. (NESTCo), which conducts fishing vessel drills and inspections and basic safety training workshops.
A commercial fisherman for 40 years, Mattera is a member of the Commercial Fishing Safety Advisory Committee to the Coast Guard, and, since 1998, has been president of the Point Club, a fishing vessel mutual insurance group. He also has served on the board of directors for Sunderland Marine Mutual Insurance Co., the principal underwriter for the Point Club and more than 2,000 US fishing vessels, since 1998.

We responded, and steamed full throttle to the declared position about 18 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard – arriving on the scene about 90 minutes later, just as the last 6’ of the bow was swallowed by the sea.

The captain and two crewmen were wide-eyed and appreciative as we slid up alongside their life raft and brought the three aboard.

No survival suits, no EPIRB.  Wearing only shorts, tee shirts, and sneakers – with a gallon jug of water and bag of potato chips.

Fortunately, it was a clear, sunny, warm, and calm early afternoon in June – extremely favorable conditions.

Once aboard our boat their initial comments were, “It all happened so quickly.  And it was sheer chaos because we didn’t know what to do.”

This incident took place years ago, when little or no safety training existed on most fishing vessels.

No doubt, safety awareness on many fishing vessels is more prevalent today than it was then.

But it is nowhere near 100%.

That is what’s prompting me to define, in a series of articles over the coming months, the proper procedures when abandoning ship.

Abandoning ship is never routine, and the suggestions offered here cannot possibly address all the circumstances that may arise in an emergency.

They are simply intended to make you aware of generally accepted procedures that should increase your chances of survival.

The decision to abandon ship.  Only the captain should give the command to abandon ship, and only when the vessel is in such distress that the lives of the crew on board are endangered.

Abandoning ship signifies the end of attempts to save the vessel.  It means that the life raft has become the next best means of shelter.

You must sound the alarm and alert the crew in plenty of time to enable them to get to their emergency stations and prepare survival gear.

It is always better to re-stow the survival gear after a close call, than to wish you had assembled it sooner.

Each crewman must report to his station immediately and began his assigned survival duties.

The first rule is to establish radio contact with the Coast Guard, or another vessel, as soon as you recognize that an emergency exists.

Don’t let pride or panic cause you to delay making a distress call.  It is vitally Important that the captain,
and/or crewman standing watch,
write down the vessel’s position to convey during a distress call.

If your emergency does not allow for a well-organized abandonment, use whatever time is available to send a distress message, muster all the crew, prepare life raft, and gather additional survival equipment.

This should take no more than five minutes if you have conducted drills and know your assignments.

Once in the life raft, stay attached to the vessel until its stability is compromised.  Searching aircraft and other boats in the area are more likely to see a vessel than a life raft.

Seven steps for survival.  The Coast Guard has determined that there are seven steps to survival that you should observe.

It is critical to adhere to the sequence of these seven steps, and apply them both prior to and – most importantly – after you have abandoned ship.

The seven steps are:


Recognize that a life-threatening situation exists.  You are in serious trouble.

Don’t wait to start emergency procedures.

If you don’t take some action, immediately, you may die.


What do you have on hand to help with the emergency and what things/factors may work against you?

Inventory: all crew (personnel), any injuries, equipment,

skills, environment, location, and ability to communicate.

Quickly gather all the gear you need


Find and use anything that insulates you from the environment.

Your vessel is the best shelter, don’t abandon ship too early.

Gather whatever protective clothing you can.

Don your Immersion suit and deploy your life raft.


Your hope for survival and rescue depends greatly on alerting or getting the attention someone who can help you.

Think bigger, brighter, and different.

Your radio is best for initally signalling distress.

Once in the life raft, you will be relying largely on the signal from your EPIRB, flares, flashing/strobe lights, your mirror, and whatever else you can muster, to call attention to yourself and your position.

•  5) WATER

You (and your crew) can only live 3 or 4 days without potable drinking water.

Prepare a ditch kit (in advance of any shipboard emergency) and plan to take extra water (this is a must).

Once you abandon ship, start drinking water early and remember to hydrate to maintain your mental capacity.

Plan for each crewman to drink 2–4 quarts of water per day until rescue.

Retain rain water.

Do not drink urine, saltwater, or alcohol.

•  6) FOOD

Stock your ditch kit with high-energy food.

But remember, having water is even more important.

Without sufficient water, you can’t eat, since you need water to adequately digest your food.

•  7) PLAY

Think this sounds crazy?  It’s not.

Survival gear won’t keep you alive if you don’t have the will to live.

Humor helps maintain the will to survive and to keep a positive attitude.

Employ jokes, games, stories – anything to keep focused on life.  Not death.

In conclusion.  Memorize these seven steps of survival and you will be amazed at how frequently they apply during critical situations.

Coming in the next SAFE BOAT-SMART BOAT: Part 2 of this series – focusing on how to dress for survival, and how to properly launch the life raft.  Stand by.

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