Do Your Passengers Know What to Do if the Skipper Can't Function?
Date Posted: February 6, 2023
Source: Vincent Pica Commodore, 1st District, Southern Region (D1SR) USC

Many a skipper has blithely motored or sailed away from their mooring, with spouse and kids in tow, or some of the "Gilligan's navy mates," none of whom would have the slightest idea what to do – to save themselves or the skipper – if something dire happened. This column is about that.

M'aidez! No one is 100% sure where the term mayday, the universal maritime call for help, comes from albeit the most common inference is the French term for "help me!"  "S.O.S.", the old Morse code equivalent, is said to come from "Save Our Souls."  In truth, the derivation is less important than knowing how to call for help properly.  When I train new mariners on radio use, I ask them to take a walkie-talkie, go in the next room and, imagining that there is a dire emergency aboard their vessel, call me for help.  This is after I tell that the basic level of information is:

  • Who you are
  • The nature of your distress
  • Where you are and what the boat looks like
  • And how many people are aboard (so when the USCG arrives, they don't leave anybody behind.)

The results are so poor that it results in laughter after about 3 or 4 tries.  And this is without the pressure of a real emergency.  Eventually, because this is no laughing matter, we get it right.

Do you call for help immediately?  Well, assuming that the skipper hasn't just keeled over with a heart attack, calling for help immediately is probably a good idea.  Heart attacks have to be addressed immediately of course – but nothing stops you from yelling, between chest compressions, "somebody get on that radio and call the US Coast Guard – STAT!"  So, practice calling for help.  Before you need it.

Fire in the Hold! A skipper can be incapacitated by having to address another emergency – like a fire.  Skipper, does your crew know enough about your boat to get her to "a slow bell" (just enough underway progress to control the boat but not so much as to create a windstorm?)  Can they steer her so that the fire is now downwind of the rest of the boat (it is hard for a fire to make progress 'upwind')?  Do they know where the life jackets are if you have abandoned ship?  So, give them some time at the wheel.  Before they need it.

Maaaan Overboard! A skipper can fall overboard as easily as the next guy, given a single second of inattention.  Getting a power boat around to affect a pickup isn't the most difficult task – as long as they don't forget to put the engine in neutral once you are alongside.  You don't want them turning you into fish food with the prop.  Turning a sailboat about and bearing down on a head bobbing up is a skill that requires a lot of training.  But, in both cases, do they know to throw you a life jacket or a cushion – anything you can use to stay afloat – while never taking their eyes off you?  And, calling the USCG right away?

You are no doubt familiar that the USCG mandates certain navigation lighting configurations for various conditions of the vessel itself.  A boat without a skipper is determined to a "NUC" – Not under Command.  The light configuration is two red lights in a vertical row.  The poem to remember that?  "Red over red, the captain is dead."

Skipper, the life you save may be your own. Train, train, train. Before you need to.

If you have questions about this column or are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at [email protected] or go directly to the US Coast Guard Auxiliary "Flotilla Finder" at and we will help you "get in this thing."

Comment Submitted by Vincent Pica - February 22, 2023

Have fun, Julie. and be safe.

Comment Submitted by Julie Goodnight - February 15, 2023

Excellent article-- Love "the life you save may be your own!" Perfect timing for me as I am planning a long cruise, with multiple/changing crew. I've been working on crew qualifications and how to train them and I've added these points to my checklist. Safety is no accident :-) Thank you!

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