Prepare Your Vessel for an Emergency

What is your backup plan if YOU are the one with a medical emergency?

It was a sunny, windy day on the Strait of Georgia when the channel went silent after a distress radio call went out on VHF 16.

“Coast Guard, Coast Guard! I need help! “

The Canadian Coast Guard radio operator responded promptly, “Ma’am, could you tell me the name of your vessel and the nature of your emergency?”

In a wavering voice the woman said, “I am on the boat Indulgence and my husband has collapsed. He might be having a stroke.”

The Coast Guard came back, “Ma’am, could you please give me your location and how many are on board your vessel?”

The woman in a tense voice came back, “I do not know where we are. We left Bowen Island an hour or two ago. I am the only other person on the boat.”

“Ma’am – are you stationary or underway?”

The woman responded, “We are moving and I think the boat is steering itself. I am very worried about my husband. He is losing all color and I am very concerned. The waves seem to be getting bigger …”

“Ma’am – Can you stop the boat?”

“No, I do not know how…”

With some basic information to identify the boat, a nearby fisherman recognized the situation and saw the boat going by. His crew pulled alongside and one crewman jumped over to the boat. He was able to pull back the throttles and stop the boat. Coast Guard help arrived later. We do not know what happened to the stricken captain, but the situation raised a number of questions for all listening as the emergency unfolded. 

What is your backup plan if YOU are the one with a medical emergency?

Does your significant other, or your crew, know how to steer the boat and stop the boat? 

Does your crew know where the emergency equipment is stowed?

Do they know how to call for help on the VHF radio? Can they find the latitude/longitude on the GPS system to relay your position to authorities?

Do you have an MMSI number for your vessel and is it installed in your DSC equipped VHF radio?

Do they know where the RED Distress button is on the VHF radio? 

Do they know they have to flip open the cover, hold the button for 3-4 seconds, and then respond after the very loud DSC emergency alarm goes off?

Is your DSC equipped VHF radio connected to a GPS source, or does it have an internal GPS to transmit your position information? Your crew may see the red Distress button on your VHF and press it for help, only to have an alarm sent with no name or position or vessel.

Private airplane pilots have a several day training program called “Pinch Hitters” to teach non-pilot partners and significant others how to take over flying, use the radio, and even make an emergency landing in case the pilot is incapacitated. Boaters need the same type of program.

Consider doing the following for the safety of your loved ones boating with you. If you are the one incapacitated, it will be up to your crew to react, call for help, and get you to a point where you can receive emergency assistance.

Prepare Your Vessel for an Emergency:

  1. Is your VHF radio set up for emergency use? Have you registered for an MMSI number for your vessel? You can register here for free with BoatU.S.. For international use you can register for a fee with the FCC. If you are a Canadian boat owner, you can register at no charge hereOnce you have entered your MMSI registration numbers into your radio, connect your DSC equipped VHF radio to your GPS so it can transmit your location. On most radios, this is a two wire NMEA 0183 connection. Some newer VHF radios have a GPS receiver built in or use the newer NMEA 2000 network standard. If you are not comfortable wiring your radio to your GPS, have you local marine electronics shop do it for you.Next, prepare an instruction sheet with step by step directions on how to use the VHF radio in an emergency. Send us an email request at and we will send you an editable document for you to modify for your vessel.
  2. Consider creating an EMERGENCY binder of information with checklists for all of the key emergency procedures. Place it at the helm or in a prominent place on the boat where others can find it. Include pictures with arrows to point out the radio, throttles, gearshift, switches, and the key items someone should be aware of. Create checklists for:

    1. What to do in an emergency
    2. How to use the VHF radio
    3. How to control and stop the boat
    4. How to determine the position for the boat using the GPS
    5. Locating the First Aid Equipment. A diagram of the boat with illustrations to find: the First Aid kit(s), fire extinguishers, life preservers and flares.
    6. How to deploy the anchor in an emergency
    7. How to dock the boat
    8. Man Overboard Procedure for your boat, including how to get someone out of the water

The list of emergency procedures could go on. Best to keep it simple and cover the key things someone needs to know for your boat in an emergency situation. Even an experienced captain on your boat can benefit from an emergency information binder clearly showing where the emergency equipment is stored and the procedures for your particular vessel.

Consider a short briefing for the crew when you start a trip, even if it is your wife/husband or significant other. Cover the basics, such as the location of life jackets, first aid kits, emergency radio procedures and where the emergency information binder is stored near the helm.

When you think about it, the briefing you give and the emergency information you have for your family and guests could save a life – YOURS.

If you want more information or need help creating a binder contact us at or 360-299-8500.