After discussing Mayday calls with many of my students, I suddenly remembered one of three Mayday calls that I heard over our VHF in our many years of boating. It was frantic, and heartbreaking, as the woman aboard tried to get help for her husband, who had fallen and was seriously injured. She grappled with the VHF and her words were erratic as she pressed the mic on and off indiscriminately, which contributed to a delay in response. The US Coast Guard was able to piece together her whereabouts, send personnel to help, and rescue the couple.
An unrelated incident happened to my husband and I quite a number of years ago. We were on our sailboat on the Hudson River for a Sunday afternoon local cruise. Our dog loved sailing, unlike our kids who found it boring and preferred the power boat. A bird flew by, very close to where our dog was relaxing, and Lightening suddenly leapt toward the bird, and fell into the water! All I could see was this terrified little face as she frantically doggy-paddled to keep afloat. I was perched on the bow, ready to jump in after her, when my husband told me not to go into the water. He quickly turned the vessel around, asked me to steer toward the dog, and reached in and scooped her up with one arm.
Both of the aforementioned incidents contributed to the development of my placard and seminar on “Women’s Way of Handling Trouble at Sea”. Very often, when an emergency occurs, the adrenaline that is pumping in response to the circumstances can cause an inappropriate “fight or flight” response. Deciphering this problem led to the creation of my placard, which is meant to be a step-by-step guide, in order of prioritization, of how to handle most of the common dangerous situations that may occur when aboard. Available to the helmsman at a moment’s notice, the laminated guide, which should be placed within immediate reach of the skipper, “whispers” exactly what to do in the most advantageous order, mitigating damages from the emergency.
Following is a copy of the placard, and material outlining the appropriate preparation and practice which will enhance reaction to any of the emergencies addressed. The placard is meant to be laminated to guard against weather elements which will be encountered at sea. The preparation section outlines the necessary background information which will be required to respond in a suitable way, while the practice sessions will familiarize captain and crew with the best methods to follow the guide on your boat. Physically “walking through” the steps to be taken will provide the experience and confidence necessary to handle these emergencies at sea.
(Please review previous blog regarding VHF radios [January 8, 2019], which will broaden your knowledge regarding this most important tool. The inclusion of the DSC {Digital Selective Calling} component on the newest VHF radios improves its functioning, and allows Skippers to just press one button to transmit a Mayday call. However, be aware that other boaters who may be in a position to provide aid, might have an older VHF without DSC component and will not hear your call for help.)


In my opinion, anchoring out is one of the greatest pleasures of boating. Whether relaxing near the beach, rafting up with lots of friends, or hiding out in one of the little coves that can only be reached by water, anchoring out is awesome!!

However, there are some points that need emphasis to avoid problems with this aspect of boating:

  1. Be sure that the anchor is holding now and when, or if, the tide changes, that storm that is threatening with increased winds arrives, or any other eventuality alters the anchoring process. Set an anchor alarm which would warn if the anchor is dragging, or mark your position on a GPS and check to see if there are any measurable changes in the readings, or do a visual location check to be able to tell if the anchor is holding or not.
  2. Remember to take into consideration the possibility of the circular movement of your vessel around the anchor. And, don’t forget to do the same for any vessels in the anchorage with you.
  3. Notice the angle of the line leading to the anchor of other vessels in the area. Many people think that the weight of the anchor is what holds the boat in place, but that is erroneous. It is the horizontal pull on the anchor line that holds your vessel in place, and the longer the line from the anchor to your boat, the better the hold. So if you see a boat with the anchor line straight down in front of the bow, you want to avoid anchoring nearby, since they will be the first ones to lose hold and possibly run into you.
  4. Be sure that the anchor you are using holds sufficiently on the sea bottom in which you are anchoring.
  5. There are times when an anchor becomes a vital component in offsetting dangers or uncomfortable situations. If your vessel is in danger of running aground, its motion can be stopped by deploying an anchor. Also, if you are waiting for a bridge opening and you are being squeezed precariously towards the abutment  by other accumulating boats, an anchor will hold your position.


Constant Bearing, Decreasing Range

How can you tell if you are on a collision course with another vessel?

Let’s suppose that you are taking a little cruise on your local waters and you see a boat off your starboard side, approximately 1000 feet from you. It is angled slightly in your direction, but you cannot ascertain whether or not there is any eventual danger of collision. Rather than waiting until you get very close to the vessel  to find out if you are going to collide, you can obtain an early warning by locating a fixed object on your boat, such as a cleat or stanchion, and visually aligning it with the other boat. In a few minutes, moving along at the same speed and the same direction, you align the same fixed object with the vessel on your starboard side. If it is at the same alignment as previously, you know that you will eventually collide. Therefore, you must change speed and/or direction to avoid closer contact.

Whenever you change course, it is best to do so emphatically. If your turn will be to port, leave no doubt in any vessel operator’s mind as to where you are heading. Also, you will learn the navigation rules on meeting, passing and crossing in the Boating Safety Class, but keep in mind that not everyone knows or obeys the rules. Stay alert to the movement of other vessels, even if you have the right of way. Keep in mind that you must do all that you can to avoid a collision, even if it means that you must break the rules!

Also be aware that under the “Good Samaritan Law”, you are legally obligated to help another boater in distress, unless it puts you, your crew or your vessel in danger. This law has been practiced on the water for time immemorial, and it protects you as well as any other boater who needs help.


Sometimes the best way to make a point is with a parable:

In March 2009, four healthy, strong athletes, two of whom were NFL football players, went fishing off Florida’s Gulf Coast. Forty-six hours later, three had been lost at sea. Their story offers so many lessons to us boaters that I must elaborate. But let’s not lose sight of the most important part of the tutorial: THEY DID NOT HAVE TO DIE. ALL THEY HAD TO DO WAS PROVIDE SOMEONE WITH THE COORDINATES OF THEIR DESTINATION. Always file a Float Plan before going out into open water.

Rather than concentrating on the tragic personal stories of the above individuals, I will focus on the lessons that are relevant to us boaters.

When they awoke that morning, the weather forecast was indicating rough weather and seas a little later that day. They went 70 miles offshore in a 21-foot vessel, too far for such a poor forecast.

They dropped their anchor and began fishing. As the weather began to deteriorate, they decided to pull up the anchor and leave. However, the anchor was stuck to the bottom and they could not pull it up. Rather than cutting the line, they decided to move the anchor line to the back of the boat, near the engine, which they perceived would provide them with greater power to remove it. Instead, when Marquis, the boat owner, gunned the engine to try to release the anchor, the boat flipped over, dumping all four into the rough water. Never tie an anchor line to the stern of a vessel, as the pull on the line can submerge the back of the boat and fill it with water. Also, a stubborn stuck anchor may sometimes be released by riding forward over the anchor line, being careful not to go too far and entangle the anchor line around the propeller of your boat.

Before he was lost at sea, William Bleakley bravely swam under the overturned boat to retrieve three life jackets and a cell phone that did not work that far out to sea. Always have a life jacket for each person aboard and a VHF radio for communications. Also, remember to tie your life jackets and ditch bags to a cleat on your vessel so that the line can be reached from outside the boat in case of capsizing.

A Float Plan will let authorities know how to reach you in an emergency. The form is available on line for free.


In my opinion, every boater should have a VHF radio on board their vessel. Others will argue that this is unnecessary since most people have a cell phone which will suffice for communicating on a boat. I strongly disagree!!

Knowing full well that your Boating Safety Instructor will provide much information on the VHF radio, I will try to summarize why I feel so strongly about the need for it. First, there are two types of VHF radios: one is permanently mounted and the other is portable. I prefer the portable because, first of all it is portable!!, which means that I can take it with me on my dinghy or my kayak, or whatever. It does not transmit as far as a permanently installed one, but if I lose power on my boat, the permanently installed VHF will no longer function. However, the portable one has its own unrelated source of power in its battery pack and will continue to transmit.

While I know that your Instructor will emphasize this to you, I will still state this really important fact: your words will NOT be transmitted unless you depress the talk button!! Too often, in the heat of the moment, we forget this, and our voices cannot be heard. Mark the portable VHF with a red circle or a piece of red tape as a reminder to depress the talk button.

So, why isn’t a cell phone enough on a boat? Let’s examine a situation and follow it through to solution: you are on your boat and your significant other gets knocked overboard. You need to let others know of this emergency, so you pick up your cell phone and fumble to locate the number of the Coast Guard. You hope that your cell phone is able to transmit, then you hope that someone answers the phone, then you hope that whoever answers the phone is the person who can help you.

With a VHF radio, you depress the talk button and issue a “May Day” call. The Coast Guard monitors this frequency 24/7, and is made immediately aware of the situation. They will guide you on how to handle same and, in addition, your call for help has been heard by all the other boaters who have a VHF. The Coast Guard will take over, mobilizing nearby boats to help you and send their own people if necessary.

*Very High Frequency


Sound producing devices have become a bit antiquated since so many boats now carry VHF radios and communicate verbally rather than through sound. However, there are sounds that the recreational boater needs to be aware of, especially when their boating environment includes commercial vessels, which always seem to transmit their intentions with sound. There are two sound signals or blasts used on the water:  one short blast which lasts about one second, and one prolonged blast which lasts from four to six seconds.

Most relevant of all sounds is the danger signal. Five or more short horn blasts in a row indicate danger. If you hear them, respond immediately by finding the source of the hazard. If you become aware of an immediate peril, you must initiate the five blast signal to warn other boaters of the danger.

Sound signals can become confusing when explained in minute details. When studying for my captain’s license, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the inland rules and the international rules, and who was conveying what. On a practical level, I figured out that the first vessel to sound one short blast is going to move to his right or starboard, and the first vessel to sound two short blasts is going to move to his left or port.

At the Boating Safety Class, the Instructor will elaborate with many more details on the rules that guide sound producing devices.


There is no greater influence on safe boating than the weather. Multiple sources should be perused to insure that you are prepared and will make proper judgment on whether it is safe to be on the water. One sure measure of your staying on the dock is the issuance of a small craft advisory. Be sure that it pertains to your planned location and do NOT venture onto the open waters if a small craft advisory has been issued.

It is difficult to generalize regarding sea conditions. We have had boats that are very capable of handling rough seas and others that a sneeze could cause discomfort. It will take some experience for you to judge your vessel, but there are some environments that are conducive to overwhelming seas.

Inlets* are one location where you can experience exaggerated conditions. Usually running between the ocean and inland waters, inlets “squeeze” the differing conditions into a more narrow stream of water, creating stronger waves and currents, many times muscling boats into the usually rocky perimeters. Combine this with a strong wind, and you may have a harrowing occurrence. Avoid inlets if the weather is iffy.

A “Local Notice to Mariners” is a publication issued weekly by the US Coast Guard Navigation Center and may contain timely information on hazards on your local waters. It is available free online and can be reviewed for any relevant information.

There are some areas of the country where the possibility of thunderstorms is nearly a daily occurrence, so this must be taken into consideration. If I encounter a thunderstorm while on the water, how will I handle the situation. Do I want to be able to find a safe harbor until the storm dissipates? Would it be best to just stop my boat in a safe place, hopefully pointing the bow at a fixed object to maintain my location and issuing the proper sound signal so others can ascertain my position? Planning for these eventualities prevents negative outcomes.

*As an aside, handling rough seas in inlets can be a real challenge. Unfortunately, too many boaters make a mistake in this environment. In an effort to get out of the choppy seas as soon as possible, they gun the engines and go as fast as they can. This can cause the bow of the boat to dig into the waves in front of them, stalling the engines, as the next wave hits from  behind and causes loss of control. Going too slow is also not a good idea, because the sea will control your boat instead of you. In my experience, staying with the same wave and riding it through the inlet has been the best way to handle this situation.

Don’t Be Scared Be Informed

As I write these blogs, I keep reminding myself of a most important issue: how do I share with you various boating experiences without scaring the heck out of you. Please keep in mind that boating is a safe sport, safer yet when you learn the pitfalls. So, following is an issue that deserves full attention: fires on a boat. By the way, the other issue I try to keep in mind is to NOT teach you what you will be learning in the Boating Safety Class!

When we lived aboard in the mid-1990s, we spent three months at anchor in heaven, i.e., Elizabeth Harbor, off the Exuma Islands, in the Bahamas. We had been to quite a few islands, both in boats and as land tourists, but I had never see water this color. Can’t put it into words, but it took three days of staring overboard to convince myself that it was real! In this amazing environment, I learned a very valuable lesson. A couple who had just returned from an adventure in the Mediterranean Sea, offered a lesson in man overboard at 2pm one afternoon. Inflatable dinghies encompassed their vessel at the given time, and the couple, with their niece as the “victim”, demonstrated the difficulty  in bringing her aboard, and the techniques which worked best to accomplish that goal. This experience was so enlightening that practicing for eventualities became our mantra. Hopefully it will become yours.

Soooo, back to the fires…. Since evidence suggests that most vessels are overwhelmed by fire in three to four minutes, expeditious actions are a necessity. You must determine whether to fight the fire or to abandon ship. Your Boating Safety Instructor will provide you with the tools to determine which path to take. It is invaluable to have a waterproof, handheld VHF radio with DSC (digital selective calling) on board. Anyone on board can summon help immediately by pressing one red button. While it would be great to also have a “fixed” VHF on board, fires usually disrupt the electrical system on the vessel. When this  occurs, the fixed set will lose its power source. Keep in mind, that you may want to show your guests which button to press in an emergency (once again, they may turn white with fear at the suggestion!!)

It is advisable that you walk through the steps that would be taken in case of a fire. By practicing with the individuals with whom you usually share your vessel, you will feel more confident that everyone is familiar with the procedure to be followed.