I’m catching up on sharing what I learned during our Bahamian cruise last winter …
The safety plan for our European canal boat Après Ski is pretty simple – walk to shore (in the chest-deep water) and avoid swallowing canal water. Yes, we have life vests, a life ring, a bell and a horn, but not a whole lot more.
Preparing for our Bahamian adventure aboard the Miss Adventure, by contrast, required a lot more planning. Fortunately, we know experienced cruisers and the folks at Briartek whose business is safety at sea. After doing my research, I boiled our safety plan down as follows:
Safety when Cruising Part A: Initial Preparations
Step 1 – US Coast Guard and State of Virginia Compliance
After registering our vessel and our dinghy, we ensured they met all US Coast Guard regulations. I found helpful resources on the US Coast Guard Auxiliary and Boat US websites. I particularly liked this 45-page booklet from the safety division of the US Coast Guard.
Next, I requested a mock USCG inspection through the US Coast Guard Auxiliary. (I gave a small donation as a thank-you.) This ‘practice run’ was an opportunity to bring a set of expert set of eyes aboard. Eight months later when the Coast Guard boarded the Miss Adventure, I knew our boat would pass their inspection thanks to the mock inspection done by the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Virginia compliance was easy. The State of Virginia required us to pass the Virginia Boating Safety Course. Boat US offers an excellent online tutorial/test combination which meets the state’s requirements.
Step 2 – The Ditch Bag
When you abandon ship, what will you take with you? Your ditch bag. This waterproof bag remains prepared and accessible at all times should you abandon ship. We tailored our ditch bag for coastal cruising in semi-tropical waters and popular areas. In our bag we keep the following (and if you use the links below to link directly to Amazon, you’ll help defray the costs of running this website):
- a Cerberus rescue beacon (charged every Saturday), described in detail in Step 3
- hand-held marine VHF radio (charged weekly along with the Cerberus unit)
- blood-clotting sponge
- bandages, butterfly closures, medical tape, and gauze
- SAM splint
- disinfectant towelettes
- antibiotic cream
- saline wash
- basic over-the-counter medications (ibuprofen, Tylenol, anti-histamine, anti-diarrhea)
- food (unsalted almonds)
- waterproof flashlight
- extra clothing, hats, and sunglasses
- copies of our passports, boat registration and credit card (in a zip-lock bag)
- emergency funds
- a solar-powered, inflatable lantern
- emergency flares
We store these items in two waterproof bags. The smaller ditch bag contains water, some snacks, protective clothing and the VHF radio. We take this ditch bag each time we ride in our dinghy (lessons learned!). The second ditch bag holdes the rest of the survival gear and extra water. Both bags have reflective tape on the outside to assist in the event of a night-time ditch.
Step 3 – Additional Safety Items not Required by the USCG
- Cerberus Unit
At the top of our ditch bag list is our Cerberus unit from Briartek. Briartek produces safety equipment for the US Navy and large, sea-going vessels. A few years ago, they began offering personal safety devices. We used the unit on a trip to Africa and asked if we could borrow another for our cruise.
A Cerberus is a satellite communicator and GPS unit, similar to a Spot or a DeLorme InReach. It’s a waterproof device that sends and receives messages and your position via satellite. Linking your smartphone to the Cerberus allows you to send and receive text messages. It is also possible to send a general distress signal simply by pressing a button on the unit. Since the Cerberus is also a GPS, it can inform rescue professionals of your exact location. It’s nice to know somebody’s got our back when we’re at sea! If the worst happens, the ocean’s a big place and we would prefer help to arrive as quickly as possible.
I highly encourage folks to consider a satellite communications device. Cruisers often forget that emergencies can happen back at home. Having two-way communication is extremely valuable. If you’re worried about the price of a unit, Briartek also rents Cerberus units.
- Water-activated lights on our PFD’s
Step 4 – Develop a Man-Overboard Plan
All hands need to regularly walk-through the man-overboard plan. If somebody falls over, you need to act quickly and have your tools ready. Man overboard procedures will vary from boat to boat so regular reviews are important.
Safety when Cruising Part B : Before each Voyage
Step 1 – Develop and Follow a Safety Checklist
The Miss A has a checklist of to-do’s before we head for open water. First, we secure any loose items on deck and below. We take water, snacks, and extra food to the bridge, preparing to ride out a storm from our flybridge. If conditions get rough, we are already prepared. We always have enough unsalted almonds and water on the bridge to live for a couple of days!
I prepare a full suite of meals and snacks, doing no work in the galley while at sea. I also prepare an extra meal or two in case the journey is longer than anticipated. On the Miss A, we minimize trips below if seas are rough.
Dr. V. double checks the engines’ health the night before setting out, topping up all fluids, etc. We charge our portable VHF and Cerberus unit, iPhones, iPad before to departure.
We double check our safety equipment, ensuring our throwable floats are within easy reach.
We also communicate with our fellow boaters to find others with similar plans. Traveling with other boats allows us to stay in touch and monitor one other’s safety and progress. It can be great to have another boat nearby if you need assistance.
Step 2 – File a Float Plan
A float plan provides all relevant information about our voyage in a single document. We file this plan with a friend, who monitors our progress. If we fail to arrive at our destination, our friend contacts the relevant authorities. Our plan contains our departure, our destination and our latest estimated arrival time. It contains contacts for local authorities, the US Coast Guard and our Bahamian boatyard. It also provides our BoatUS worldwide towing policy information. Our friend also has a current photograph of us and our boat, helpful in a search and rescue. You can find a free float plan here.
Step 3 – Wait for Good Weather, ALWAYS
The best solution to a problem at sea is to avoid having the problem. We religiously check the weather, using multiple sources. It’s often said that the single most dangerous thing on a boat is a schedule!
Safety when Cruising Part C: Underway
Step 1 – Wear your PFD
When the USCG boarded us on our return trip to the USA, they seemed surprised that we were wearing our life jackets. That’s a pretty sad commentary! It’s absurd not to wear one when in open or rough water.
Step 2 – Develop a system to track each other 100% of the time
The Miss A is large enough and loud enough that we can’t always see or hear one another. Our flybridge sits high atop the boat, an isolated pod. Going below deck requires a trip down a ladder and a walk around the outside of the boat, where one is exposed to the open sea. Whenever we are not both on the flybridge, we communicate our plans before moving. When moving about the boat, we maintain visual contact until the other crew member is safe. A VHF radio is always on below deck (just remember, everybody can hear you!).
I hope these suggestions help my fellow cruisers enjoy safe and relaxing voyages!