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Lesson 14 Safety

If we go on the water and something goes wrong, then help is not always nearby. Certainly if we go sailing at open sea, it often takes many hours before help can be available. We often have to completely rely on ourselves. That is why we must take extra safety measures to prevent and resolve accidents. Safety first! That is why there is a large arsenal of safety equipment on most ships. Actually, almost everything on board is built with safety in mind. All safety equipment must have a fixed place on board. On a drawing you must indicate where the various safety equipment can be found, so that the crew can find everything easily in the event of an emergency. In this lesson we discuss the safety equipment that is available on board for each type of hazard. The most important dangers are:

  • Man Overboard
  • Sink
  • Fire
  • Injury
  • Engine failure

Man overboard

The biggest danger of being thrown overboard is that the drowning person quickly gets out of sight in the waves and cannot be found again. Moreover, there is a high risk of hypothermia in our cold waters.

To prevent

First, there is the guard rail. This usually consists of 2 stainless steel wires that are kept in position by stanchions. In addition, there is a deck-line on both gangways. That is a line that is attached at the front and back, to which we can click our lifelines. The lifeline prevents us from falling overboard and getting lost in the waves. If someone falls overboard without a lifeline, hopefully that person wearing a life jacket. There are different types of life jackets: 50, 100, 150 and 275 Newton. 275 Newton is needed at sea to keep a person with a sailing suit and boots above the water in the high waves. Warn the crew on a sailing yacht that they must always stay low so that they cannot be hit by the boom. If crew members want to hang over the railing because they are seasick, immediately attach them with a lifeline. Peeing overboard is never allowed for safety reasons. It is one of the biggest causes of falling overboard. Skippers prefer not to go on the foredeck themselves, but leave that to the crew. Be aware that the skipper may never fall overboard himself.

As a solution

If someone does fall overboard, the coast guard must be contacted immediately if the skipper estimates that he cannot get the drowning person back on board very quickly. Don't wait until it's too late. Immediately throw a lifebuoy, upwind of the drowning person, so that it blows towards the drowning person. At night you also throw a Dan Buoy, that is a big "floater" with a light that switches on automatically, so that you can find the drowning person again. The biggest danger is that you lose the drowning person out of sight, something that happens quickly in waves or at night. Today many sailors have a PLB with them. That is a Personal Locator Beacon, a personal emergency radio beacon that ensures that you can be traced if you fall overboard. However an AIS-MOB beacon might even be a better way to safe your life as it makes you visible on AIS screens of all ships in the area.

Sinking due to a leak, collision with another ship or floating object, getting stuck or capsizing

To prevent

Good navigation, lookout and sailing prevent these types of accidents. In addition, you must make your ship clearly visible to other ships by means of lighting, radar reflector and AIS. Most ships have a spotlight on board to see, for example, unlit barrels, or even a night vision. And last but not least the construction of the ship is very important. Watertight bulkheads and strong material like steel instead of GRP could prevent the ship to sink. Larger ships have multiple watertight bulkheads, with watertight doors, so that not all compartments can fill up with water and the ship will not sink quickly.

As a solution

Firstly, you will have to alarm the coastguard with the help of for example, the VHF or EPIRB. If the vessel is full, you can pump out the water with the bilge pump or bilge pump. Often there is an electric pump and a manual one on board in case there is no more electricity. A bucket with a line is also very effective in the event of flooding and therefore it is a must to have a few on board. In the event the ship sinks, the crew will have to go into the life raft. Make sure you always have a so-called "grab bag" ready. It contains the basic necessities for life in the raft, such as distress signals, hand-held radio, GSM, water, food, seasickness pills, etc.


To prevent

Stay out of line with the boom at all times. Use a prevender to prevent the boom from swinging over the cockpit like a baseball bat. Lines on winches are often under enormous tension. If such a line breaks loose, fingers, hands, hair, and the like may be injured. Never open the hatches completely, but place them so that nobody can fall in. The sliding hatch of the cabin entrance must always be closed when people are working on the deck. Avoid oil, suntan lotion or WD40 in the cabin or on deck, which makes it very slippery. Gloves are highly recommended and essential when sailing with a spinaker. Cooking on board must always be done with sailing pants / sailing suit on.

As a solution

A good first aid kid on board and a full first aid course for the crew is essential if you are going to sail longer journeys.

Download The Ship Captain's Medical Guide

Fire on board

To prevent

Fire can occur because all 3 factors of the fire triangle are present:

  • Oxygen
  • Fuel
  • Heat

Fire can be classified into different types depending on the fuel:

  • Class-A fires: solids
  • Class-B fires: liquids
  • Class-C fires: gases
  • Class-D fires: metals (such as magnesium)

To prevent fire, we install a gas detector to prevent gasoline vapor and gas accumulation in bilge.

The ship will explode with a single spark. That is why gas bottles are always in a gas tank in the cockpit and never in the cabin. The gas bin has a gas and vapor outlet. Batteries must be installed in a ventilated way in order to remove the explosive gas that may occur during charging. Hot parts such as lamps, outlets, stoves, stoves and the like are a common cause of fire on ships. The on-board network is usually 12V or 24V. A low voltage means a high current and that can cause too thin wiring to melt and cause a fire. Make sure that the wires are sufficiently thick. The engine compartment of a gasoline engine must be ventilated before starting to discharge gasoline vapors.

As a solution

There are many extinguishing agents, each with a different function:

  • Water
  • Powder extinguishers
  • Foam or light water AFFF extinguisher
  • CO2 extinguishers
  • Fire Blanket (Cover)
  • FM-200 (Negative Catalysis)

Fire extinguishers must be used correctly. So for example:

  • No water on B fires (then the fire spreads)
  • No water or some foam on electricity
  • No CO2 in small spaces

Engine failure

We check the propeller shaft. The propeller shaft runs between the propeller and the engine. The propeller shaft is in a tube that runs out through the hull. Because the propeller is of course below the waterline, the propeller shaft must be properly sealed to prevent the boat from becoming full of water. Certainly because the propeller shaft rotates under water in the propeller shaft case, it is difficult to seal it completely watertight. This sealing can be done by pressing grease in the propeller shaft tube every 6 cruising hours with a grease press. The disadvantage of this system is that the fat ends up in the environment in this way. Nowadays, propeller shafts are therefore water-lubricated with plastic bearings, instead of a grease-lubricated propeller shaft. On board sailing yachts we often see a diesel engine without a propeller shaft, but with a sail drive. This means that a watertight tail piece with the screw underneath the engine protrudes through the hull. This system can be made watertight, because a propeller shaft sleeve with a rotating propeller shaft inside can be avoided.


There must be sufficient oil in the engine for lubrication and cooling. We can check this with a dipstick just like in the car.

Engine cooling

There are three types of cooling system for inboard engines. Direct cooling means that the seawater goes directly through the engine to cool it. This system is old-fashioned because feeding seawater through the engine can of course lead to blockage. To prevent this, the more modern engines usually contain coolant that is cooled with seawater. This is called a semi-closed system. Before departure, you must therefore check whether there is sufficient coolant in the system. In these cooling systems, a seaweed filter or seaweed will filter the dirt from the cooling water (seawater). The cooling water is sucked in through a hose with a valve below the waterline by the engine. That valve must therefore be opened before departure. A valve is open when the lever is in line with the hose and closed when the lever is perpendicular to that hose. The cooling water is discharged through the outlet again. You should therefore also check whether cooling water comes out of the exhaust, because if that is not the case, the engine will not cool properly. On some motor ships you sometimes see a completely closed cooling system with coolant. That system is cooled by pipes that run underwater or through the keel. In this system, therefore, no seawater is sucked in at all for cooling. Outboard engines are cooled with seawater and to check that they cool well you must regularly monitor the water jet. If you no longer see that, the cooling water system no longer functions properly.


Of course you must check before departure whether there is sufficient fuel in the tank. Most marine engines are diesel engines. The reason is that diesel engines no longer need electricity once they run. Moreover, diesel is much less volatile than gasoline, so there is less chance of explosions on board. For petrol engines, you should therefore always ventilate the engine compartment with a spark-free fan before starting. In recent years, biodiesel has been in circulation, which has greatly increased the risk of bacteria in the diesel tank. Bottles with liquids are available that prevent the bacteria. You must add a small amount to your diesel tank. Another solution is to install a magnetic fuel conditioner. The magnetic fields kill the bacteria that can clump and clog your fuel system. The tank can also contain dirt, water and rust. On the East Coast of England there are engineers who earn a good living from dirty Dutch diesel tanks. The problem is that many sailors do not suffer from the dirt at the bottom of their diesel tank when they stay on the inshore waters. But in the turbulent North Sea, the dirt is mixed and can then clog the engine's fuel system. Changing the filter is then often not a solution, the tank must be completely cleaned.



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Questions & explanations

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Question 1: What is a Dan Buoy?


a: lifebuoy

b: floater with lamp

c: a flexible bathing ladder

Question 2: How many lifejackets must be onboard of a speedboat?


a: for each person onboard

b: only for skipper

c: only for crew on deck

Question 3: What should we always check before we start a petrol engine? 


a: if coolant comes out of the engine

b: if exhaust gasses come out of the exhaust pipe

c: if the engine room is ventilated

Question 4: What is a safety tether?


a: a floater

b: a line attached to the anchor

c: a line that you connect to the deckline

Question 5: What does the fire triangle consist of?


a: oxygen, fuel, ignition temperature

b: oxygen, fuel, catalyst

c: oxygen: fuel, mixing ratio 

Question 6: What is a C-Class fire? 


a: fire of gases

b: fire of solid material

c: fire of fluids

Question 7: How to extinguish a Class B fire? 


a: with foam

b: by covering

c: with water 

Question 8: Why do too thin wires on board melt quickly, compared to electricity wires at home? 


a: because the current is higher.

b: because the voltage is higher.

c: because the capacity is higher.

Question 9: What do you do when you see someone getting seasick? 


a: let them navigate

b: give them a dash of gin

c: let them take the helm 

Question 10: Where do we throw a lifebuoy in the water?


a: upwind of the drowning man

b: downwind of the drowning man

c: on the drowning man

About Elmar Teeuwen

Elmar is a CWO sailing instructor and RYA Yachtmaster® Offshore, Commercial Endorsement with STCW95 and certified coastal navigation teacher.
He has more than a decade of experience with teaching sailors on the North Sea, Atlantic, Med and Caribbean from beginners to instructor level, as well as regatta teams.
In addition to his native language Dutch, Elmar speaks English, German and Italian.
His knowledge and teaching skills could be off great value to anyone who wants to realise his sailing dreams.