‘Ships are all right, it’s the men in them….’ Joseph Conrad
We cannot agree with Conrad that vessels are rarely to blame for incidents, but itdoes not mean we have to overlook its care and maintenance, or fail to grasp its basic systems and characteristics.
Even if we call ourselves sailors, the importance of the engine cannot be overstressed. Only a well maintained engine will be able to reach a safe anchorage, to help us fight a storm, to keep the batteries charged and the pumps going, or help us in mooring. The RNLI underlines this:
All research seems to indicate that engine failure is responsible for a significant proportion of incidents. The RNLI knows this from its records, and the MCA similarly is aware of the issues. Running out of fuel is also a common cause of service and fits neatly with engine maintenance as a simple safety message. If you have an engine in your craft then we would strongly recommend that you know the basics of starting, running and maintaining it. Appropriate spares should be carried on board and fuel should be calculated on approximately 1/3 for the outward trip, 1/3 for the return and 1/3 as spare. Do not reply 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.
Apart from the usual controls (water, oil and filters), we strongly recommend to know well:
- how to start the engine without the keys (bridging the cables, for example, but watch the sparks…)
- how the cable that stops the engine works: many times this jams and the engine cannot start again)
- the position of the seacocks, to be sure the cooling circuit is open;
- the fuel lines: sometimes diesel impurities stop the flow before the filter;
- the ways the engine starts and feeds itself: a diesel engine rarely stops alone;
- in case of a gale, start the engine frequently to make sure that cooling water does not enter the cyclinders;
Many sailors put more attention to the safety of the boat rather than its safety equipment. It’s the school of thought we belong to: it’s way more important to know how NOT to lose a man overboard than to know perfectly how to save him (a manoeuvre that in many cases is altogether impossible). Here is a list of the essentials one must have aboard:
- lifelines where crew can hook to and stilòl be able to move freely from stem to stern;
- storm sails;
- perfect knoledge of the reefing tecqniques even in the dark;
- lit compass;
- a good radio;
- radar reflector
a good dinghy, always inflated and well tied up on deck (some keep water tanks attached to it, that works as ballast and water reserve in case of emergency);
the usual legal stuff (fireworks, liferafts and lifejackets).
Remember that one never goes down into a liferaft, but only climbs in.
Before leaving harbour
And also in case of worsening weather, crossings and doubt:
- study the course, the lights, the characteristics and the location of the closest harbours and shelters;
- have some safe GPS waypoints ready;
- check the forecast well;
- close hatches and lockers. Close the air vents in case of gale;
- prepare harnesses, lifelines, compass light, and a wistle for the helmsman;
- prepare watches, the crew and a basic diet.
Anchors and anchorages
The importance of the anchors and the anchoring tecqniques cannot be overstressed. We have 3 anchors aboard, Faith, Hope and Charity. Always verify you have a second anchor aboard, with a complete rode for it. Also check the second anchor can be easily shackeld to the main anchor rode. This weighs down the main chain and dramatically improves the holding power. Remember that the anchor is not a magnet and one has to let go AT LEAST 3 times the bottom. Chose the anchorage according to the weather that is coming. SET THE ANCHOR WELL. Always have a safe anchorage in mind. Remember that sudden squalls with winds of 40 or 50 knots are common in the Mediterranean summer thunderstorms.