Going out on the water can be a lot of fun, and is a way of life in coastal communities around the UK and the RoI. But the sea can be an unpredictable and dangerous place. Taking some simple precautions can make your time on the water even more enjoyable, and reduce your chances of getting into trouble.
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ALWAYS WEAR A LIFE JACKET
Given the circumstances in which people find themselves in the water, often without the time to don a lifejacket, it makes sense to wear one all the time. A correctly fitted lifejacket will keep you afloat long enough for those nearby to rescue you, or even until the arrival of search and rescue services.
Of all the bodies that the RNLI have pulled from the water, precious few were wearing lifejackets. If they had been, they would have survived longer, perhaps long enough to be found alive.
Choose a lifejacket that fits comfortably over your normal boating clothes and is fully adjustable. Spend time adjusting the straps so that you can place your fist between the buckle and yourself with no other gaps. Too big a gap and the lifejacket will be loose when in the water; too small a gap may be uncomfortable. Look for additions such as a spray hood, a light, a whistle and crotch straps.
The buoyancy of a lifejacket is measured in Newtons (N) and there are three common classes:
100N: designed for sheltered use and/or weak swimmers. Will not turn an unconscious casualty face-up.
150N: designed for coastal sailing and, if fitted correctly, will turn an unconscious casualty face-up.
175N: designed for offshore use and/or use with a lot of clothes.
Many of the incidents to which the RNLI is called are due to, or exacerbated by, inexperience and lack of training.
As boating and other watersports have grown in popularity, we have seen a lowering in the average level of knowledge among those who go to sea for fun. It is important that newcomers realise that they are entering an unfamiliar environment and that they need to get the appropriate level of training to allow them to fully enjoy the pleasures and challenges of their sport.
The best places to find suitable courses and qualifications for your sport are RYA (UK) and ISA (Ireland).
CARRY SOME MEANS OF CALLING FOR HELP
Even in crowded waters and close to the shore, a life-threatening incident might go unnoticed. The ability to call for help, by some means or another, is imperative.
For a sportsboat or craft intended for coastal waters, we recommend a fixed VHF DSC radio, as the aerial and power will allow for a good distance in communication. If you intend to use the boat on inland waters, you could opt for a hand-held VHF radio or have both. While a hand-held might not have the range of a fixed radio, it could double up as an emergency spare in your sports cruiser. If you are choosing a hand-held unit, consider a waterproof version. If you really can't spring for a waterproof VHF, you will need a waterproof bag for your chosen model.
When choosing a VHF unit, bear in mind the qualification and licence required. A Short Range Certificate (SRC) course from the RYA or ISA will teach you how to use the new DSC functions. Licences are available in the UK from Ofcom and in the RoI from the Department of Transport.
Flares are nowadays used as back-up to your primary method of calling for help. They come in a variety of types:
Red flares are used for night or poor visibility and come either as a large parachute rocket, visible up to 28 miles, or a handheld flare visible for 5–7 miles.
Orange smoke flares are used in daytime and come either in a canister for offshore use or as a handheld version for more coastal use.
White handheld flares are used for collision avoidance and should be kept separate from other flares to prevent confusion.
Personal flares are available as double-ended day and night flares, or as a pack of mini-rocket flares, ideal for coastal use
The RNLI recommends you carry at least the minimum requirement as stated in the RYA’s Boat Safety Handbook. If you windsurf, kayak or go to sea in a small craft, then opt for the smaller personal flares and make sure you keep them in a waterproof container.
Mobile phones are not an effective means of calling for help at sea, for a number of reasons:
They are not waterproof.
The signal is not guaranteed and there are many black spots.
Even if your phone is working and has a signal, only one person will hear your call for help.
The search and rescue agencies cannot pinpoint your position with a mobile phone signal.
In summary ...
We strongly recommend a VHF marine radio. Flares are a good back-up to your primary source of calling for help and are worth carrying. If all you have is a mobile phone, be aware of its limitations.
CHECK YOUR ENGINE AND FUEL
In 2010, lifeboats were called out 1,740 times to boats with machinery failure, and 165 times to boats that had run out of fuel.
If your craft has an engine, we strongly recommend that you know the basics of starting, running and maintaining it. Appropriate spares should be carried onboard and fuel use should be calculated on approximately one third for the outward trip, one third for the return and one third as spare. Do not rely on fuel gauges, as these have been know to be faulty.
Where possible, an alternative means of propulsion should be carried. Engine failure alone is not a distress situation; it does not warrant a Mayday call or the use of flares, unless lack of power has put the boat and crew in grave and imminent danger.
The RYA runs a 1-day diesel maintenance course that aims to give boat owners the basics. The ISA also runs a basic marine engine course.
CHECK THE WEATHER AND TIDE CONDITIONS
Weather, especially bad weather, can spoil a day. Even when the weather is fine, it can change suddenly to become uncomfortable or even threatening. This applies to both short and long passages.
Always check the weather forecast before you set off. Get regular updates if you are planning to be out for any length of time. Be prepared to change your plans or cancel the trip if the forecast is unfavourable.
In addition to national and local radio and TV forecasts, here are some more options:
Shipping forecasts on BBC Radio 4 at 12.48am, 5.20am and 5.54pm. The 5.54pm transmission is only available on LW (1515m, 198KHz) on weekdays.
HM Coastguard broadcasts weather forecasts on VHF radio on various channels following an announcement on Ch16.
Met Office online
Many harbour and marina offices display a written forecast.
Navtex receivers provide printed forecasts and navigational information from radio signals.
Republic of Ireland
Sea area forecasts on RTÉ Radio 1 at 6.02am, 12.53pm and 11.55pm
Met Éireann online
Weatherdial: 1550 123 855
Weatherfax: 1570 131 838
Irish Coast Guard weather forecasts are broadcast on each Coast Guard radio station's normal working channel following an announcement on VHF Ch16
It is very important to ensure that your plans fit in with the tidal predictions for the day of your trip.
Most slipways and launch sites are tidal. Check the times of high and low water and assess how they will affect your trip when you launch and later head for home.
If the tide turns to wind-against-tide direction, the sea may become much rougher.
An ebbing tide may create dangerous areas of shallow water.
Check whether it will be a neap or a spring tide.
Beware of harbour entrances, where tidal currents can be quite severe
For a comprehensive tidal prediction service, visit Admiralty EasyTide.
For more information on weather and tides or safety information in general, take a look at our flagship safety publication Sea Safety: The Complete Guide.
TELL SOMEONE WHERE YOU ARE GOING
The Coastguard gets many calls reporting vessels overdue. The emergency services must then decide where to start the search pattern. Knowing where the vessel is likely to be can increase the chance of a successful rescue.
This principle applies to large vessels, but also to those using sea kayaks and smaller types of craft.
Larger vessels are encouraged to use the CG66 form (UK) or this form (RoI) and give the coastguard passage information.
If you use a smaller craft, you can inform someone ashore of your intended trip, and your return time.
Knowing where you are is also an advantage. By keeping your charts up to date and learning basic navigations skills, you will decrease your chances of going aground on sandbanks or rocks.