Tips From 106: Handling An Emergency

By: Books, Cruising Tips, Sailing Tips

Thes tips are excerpts from ASA Advanced Cruising & Seamanship book.  The textbook is the official manual for ASA 106 Advanced Cruising.  The textbook was produced as a collaboration between the American Sailing Association and North U. 

A central facet of risk management is prevention. As the old navy expression states so well, “The price of safety is eternal vigilance.” Our own actions prevent dangers from becoming disasters. By keeping concerns over safety foremost in our minds, most emergencies can be averted. While this may not match the romantic vision of cruising, it is a stark reality. The following shipboard routines in the name of safety can provide a satisfying rhythm to passage making. 


When prevention isn’t enough, we will need to deal with emergencies as they happen. Our preparations and practice will put us in the best position to deal with emergencies successfully and without panic. A few emergencies require an immediate and appropriate response – fire, flooding, and man overboard. For these, we will need to be particularly well prepared.


The four basic rules of preparation, are addressed throughout the chapters of Advanced Cruisining & Seamanship:

  1. Prepare the Boat 
  2. Prepare the Crew 
  3. Choose a Safe Route  
  4. Prepare for Emergencies


  1. Sound the alarm to alert all crew
  2. Locate all crew members and assess their physical condition.
  3. Treat the injured  
  4. Assess the situation and identify all hazards! 

Other serious problems are generally not immediately life-threatening and are often not made dramatically worse by the brief passage of time. Nonetheless, preparing for problems such as running aground, minor injuries or illness, broken gear and rigging, engine troubles, electrical problems, and navigation difficulties is prudent. 

In addition, there are challenges brought on by weather, seasickness, hypothermia, and heat stroke, to name a few.


Fire is the most serious of emergencies at sea. An uncontrolled fire can spread quickly, burning the boat and all onboard. Preventing a fire is paramount.

Fire Response

  • Shout “Fire, fire, fire!”  
  • Get everyone on deck and into life jackets. 
  • Shut off the electrical power. 
  • Locate the fire.  
  • Fight the fire.  
  • Assess the situation.  
  • If the fire threatens to get out of control, call Mayday and prepare to abandon ship.  
  • Other actions you can take, circumstances permitting, are to shut off the engine’s fuel supply and close the valves on the propane tanks


To prepare for a flooding emergency, test manual and automatic bilge pumps regularly and keep the bilge clean so pumps won’t clog. Also, secure soft wood plugs on lanyards near each thru-hull fitting. If a thru-hull or hose fails the plug can stop the leak.

Flooding Response

  • If water is entering the boat faster than you can remove it with pumps and buckets, you are sinking.
  • Call for assistance — Mayday if sinking. Have everyone don life jackets.
  • Look for the source and work to stem it as long as you are able. 
  • Keep pumping and bailing water to slow the rate of flooding. 
  • Make a plan to abandon ship — just in case.


Nothing shatters the composure of a crew like a cry of “Man Overboard!” In a situation that screams out for panic, your preparation and practice will provide the confidence and the composure necessary to complete a rescue. 

MOB Response

Successful rescue of a man overboard (MOB) has five steps:  

  1. Quickly turn back while keeping the MOB in sight.  
  2. Get flotation to the MOB – deploy the MOB dan buoy to mark the spot and provide flotation  
  3. Make physical contact with the MOB -Rescue Throw Bag or Lifesling. 
  4. Stop the boat – with engine off!  
  5. Get the MOB back on board – hoist with Lifesling, or halyard to PFD harness

Tip: If you are under power when the crew goes overboard, stay under power. If you are under sail, stay under sail until you are sure it’s safe to engage your engine and propellor. Cut the engine when approaching the MOB. Stop the boat well before reaching the MOB and move it toward them with short bursts in forward gear. Engage neutral for the recovery. Make sure no lines are in the water to snag the propeller.