WHEN THE ALARM BELLS GO……By Jeremy J Buirski (CapMarine observer)

How many of you have lain in your bunk, and there’s a big storm outside and the boat is pitching and rolling all over the place? And suddenly there’s an extra hard smash from a wave against the hull and the whole boat wobbles in an alarming fashion until you can’t believe it hasn’t broken up yet. Or the boat rolls and it goes over further than usual, and over some more, and some more, and you hear heavy things crash all over the boat, and doors slam and cupboards and closets open and stuff fall out to roll over the deck. And you lie there and you go cold, and, if you’re a guy, your nuts shrink a little bit ….. yes they do ….. and you wonder, if the alarm goes off now or the boat broaches or whatever, what will you do? What clothes will you put on, what will you grab to take along, where are the survival suits, and so on and so on? Then you lie there and decide after a while that the boat won’t be sinking yet, so you forget about it and try to get some sleep, but only until the next crash or deep roll.

Now, I’ve been there too many times to count, and am fully aware that in the far southern oceans, where I have spent several years observing, we are many hundreds or even thousands of miles from the nearest assistance should we ever get into trouble. After vacillating about the matter for much too long, I decided to stop leaving it to the fates and to do something about it, and that is what I want to share with you all here today.

Life rafts and safety gear

  • Life rafts
    • Where are they?
    • Which one is yours?
    • Work out how to get to it quickly from several places on board, including your cabin and the factory. Try to plan more than one route
    • Have a good look at the way it is tied down, to make sure you can get it untied quickly in an emergency
  • Lifejacket
    • Where is yours stored?
    • Make sure you can get to it asap
    • Take it out of the bag, open it up and see if in order, does the light work and is a whistle present?
    • If an unfamiliar type, practise to put it on quickly
  • Survival suit
    • Where is it stored?
    • Is it easily accessible? Since these things cost a lot of money it is often stored in an out-of-the-way place to keep it safe and clean
    • Make sure you can get to it quickly and get your hands on it when you need to
    • Have a good look at the suit to see if you can get into it with the minimum of effort. Is it a good fit? How much can you wear underneath and does it have internal pockets?
    • If you are issued with a specific suit have a look at the zip, and if necessary, ask the chief for Q-20 and lubricate the zip until it moves smoothly
  • EPIRBs
    • How many are there and where are they stored or installed?
    • Have a good look at the instructions and make sure you will be able to get it off the holding bracket and can switch it on if necessary.
    • It should then go into the life raft with you

Now, this might all look very nice and basic, Survival 101 stuff, but there are a few other less obvious preparations that an observer can do long beforehand in order to abandon ship as well prepared as possible.


The chances are good that when disaster strikes the power will go off, especially if the engine-room is flooded or on fire. This will mean no internal lighting, and even if it should happen in the daytime, many large vessels have long hallways without any windows or portholes, so it will all be in pitch darkness.

You will therefore have to buy a waterproof torch, preferably a very good quality type that fits around your head since you will need to keep your hands free. Use long-life batteries and always keep a sealed pack of spares on hand. It will also be useful on the raft.


On at least one boat I have spent a lot of time, the survival suits are packed away on a shelf and covered all around with a thick plastic sheet. Also, the shelf has a steel railing running for its entire length and a network of ropes ensure that the suits will never fall off during bad weather.

Unfortunately this also ensures that nobody will be able to get at a suit without cutting the ropes and maybe the plastic sheet as well. To worsen things properly the suits themselves are also encased in a thick sealed plastic bag which will also have to be cut open. My prediction is that if there is ever an emergency on that boat there will be a riot as the crew try to get to the survival suits.

So you need to buy a good, sharp knife with a proper blade for cutting things, and a quality lock-blade should be the most suitable as you don’t want an open blade on an inflatable raft. Put a lanyard on it so you can hang it around your neck.

You can also use the knife to cut the painter rope between the boat and your life raft – don’t bank on that little metal thing hanging inside the raft when the boat is going down and you need to cut the rope NOW. Try to keep this rope as long as possible so you can tie it to any other raft to keep them together.


Personal EPIRBs are getting smaller all the time. Buy your own, period.

Stainless steel mirror

There is a very good book written by a marine biologist friend of mine, and one of the stories in it is how he and some friends once spent several days on the hull of a capsized ski-boat during some very bad weather, and how often the searching planes and helicopters flew right over them without seeing them at all. So you need something with which to attract the attention of aerial searchers and a small mirror is a good idea.

Personal effects

Here you have to face it, you will lose everything you took on board except maybe the clothes you have on or managed to put on at the last minute.

What all of us will begrudge the most would surely be our laptop or notebook computer, especially if it is personal property. In that case there will be literally hundreds or even thousands of things on it that you will hate losing. Even if you have backed these up at home, enough happens during a trip at sea for you to have a lot of new stuff, never mind the research data you have taken so far. I mean, it would look good if you can bring at least that home, right?

So one needs to invest in a small expansion drive or large-volume flashdrive that you can stick into a pocket or stuff down the front of your clothes. Do data backups daily.

If you are taking any chronic medication, for diabetes or whatever, ensure you take it along when you abandon ship.

Also, on being rescued, the last thing you then need is to be hassled by some country’s customs officials, so make sure the captain or first officer takes everybody’s passports along in a bag. These would normally be somewhere on the bridge or in the captain’s cabin and MUST go into the life rafts with you.


There are not much more you can do for sudden evacuations other than heeding the above and making sure your emergency kit is always kept together and close to hand if you should need it.

However, if there is enough warning before going overboard into the life rafts instruct the senior crew to collect as much water, food and blankets as possible. You will have to accept that several of the crew will be in a panicked state, and in cases like these you acting calm and in a reasoned manner could help their state of mind and so prevent a riot or hurried evacuation that might go completely wrong with disastrous consequences.

I would wager that safety drills are almost unknown on especially many Eastern ships, so it would be up to you, and whatever responsible officers are around, to show some leadership and to get everybody out alive if even slightly possible.

To conclude, there might be people who have had to take to the rafts or even to the water, and they will confirm that it is a most traumatic experience. Unfortunately, as marine disasters go, they are a fortunate minority. I would say that it is something that might never happen in a long career at sea, but if it ever does, be as ready as you can ever be. It only has to happen once, and then it could be game over.