Chapter 6 - Avoid problems and prepare for emergencies

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Voyage Planning  

The best way to avoid hazards and dangerous situations is to make sure you do a good job of planning your voyage before you set sail.

This is why Regulation 34 of Chapter V of the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the Charts and Nautical Publications Regulations, 1995 require masters to ensure the intended voyage has been planned.

The degree of voyage planning for small vessels will depend upon the size of the vessel, its crew and the length of the voyage.

Take the following into account when planning a voyage:

  • Weather – check the weather forecast before you leave shore, and get regular updates if you are planning to be out for any length of time.
  • Tides – check the tidal predictions for your trip and ensure that they fit with what you are planning to do.
  • Limitations of the vessel – consider whether your boat is up to the proposed trip, especially if the weather gets bad (even if good weather is forecasted).
  • Supplies – make sure you have everything you will need, as well as some extra in case you run into trouble.
  • Navigational dangers – make sure that you are familiar with any navigational dangers you may encounter during your voyage. This generally means checking an up-to-date chart and a current pilot book.
  • Contingency plan – always have a contingency plan should anything go wrong. Before you go, think about where you can take refuge if conditions deteriorate or if you suffer an accident or injury. If you use a GPS for navigation, be aware that it could fail at any time. It is sensible and good practice to be able to navigate yourself to safety without it, should it fail.
  • Sail plan – make sure that someone responsible ashore knows your plans and knows what to do if they become concerned for your safety.

Voyage Planning Stages

Voyage planning, as set out in the International Maritime Organization's (IMO's) Guidelines for Voyage Planning, involves four distinct stages:

  • Appraisal – gathering the information relevant to the coming trip.
  • Planning – preparing a detailed plan of the expected trip and alternate plans; this includes establishing waypoints, identifying hazards, setting the times for passing certain landmarks and decision points where you must decide to proceed or engage alternate plans.
  • Execution – implementing the plan and making the necessary decisions and, if necessary, implementing alternate plans.
  • Monitoring – keeping an eye on your progress and the effectiveness of the plan's execution.

For a more detailed explanation of the steps involved at each stage, refer to the IMO Guidelines for Voyage Planning. ( PDF file, 33 kB )

Putting the Plan into Action

Your plan is more likely to succeed if you carry out the following.

Before You Set Out

Check the Vessel

Running through a safety checklist before leaving shore can help you avoid a real emergency. It is better to invest a few minutes at the dock making sure your vessel, engine and equipment are in working order than to spend hours stranded offshore and/or in danger.

Sample Pre-Departure Safety Checklist

  1. What is the weather forecast?
  2. Do conditions match the forecast?
  3. Are there any local hazards (such as tides, currents, sand bars, rocks) on your intended route?
  4. Are there any vessel operation restrictionsChapter 12 on the route that will affect where you can go or the speed at which you can travel?
  5. Do you have updated charts of the operating area?
  6. Do you have the required crew for the number of passengers and intended voyage?
  7. Is the navigational equipment working?
  8. Have you given a sail plan that includes how many persons will be on board to a responsible person?
  9. Are there enough lifejackets of appropriate size for everyone on board, including children?
  10. Is all safety equipment in good working order?
  11. Is your VHF radio or other communication equipment working properly?
  12. Are navigation lights working properly?
  13. Are the first aid kit, basic tools and spare parts on board?
  14. Are drain holes / scuppers free of obstructions? Is your drainage plug in place?
  15. Is your bilge pump free of debris and working?
  16. Did you check the battery's charge and its fluid levels?
  17. Did you check for oil and water leaks?
  18. Did you check fuel, lube oil and coolant levels, hoses, and belts?

File a Sail Plan

A sail plan includes your travel route and basic details about your vessel. For long voyages you should file a daily position report, especially if your planned route or schedule changes.

File a sail plan with a responsible person on shore, such as someone at home, from your corporate office or at the local marina, before heading out. If this is not possible, you may file a sail plan with any Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) Centre by telephone, radio or in person. Include the number of persons carried on each voyageChapter 13 with the same person or in a visible place where it can be found easily, so it can be passed on to Search and Rescue authorities if needed. (Consult Ship Safety Bulletin 06/2007 – Information on Persons on Board, Counting, Recording, and Special Needs for more information.)

Be sure to report that you have returned or completed your trip to avoid a needless search for your vessel.

Tell the person holding your sail plan to contact the nearest Rescue Coordination Centre if you are overdue. The telephone number can be found at the front of or in the government blue pages of most telephone books.

While Underway

Plan for Contingencies

A master must plan for what might happen as the day progresses. Try to anticipate everything that can change or go wrong and make alternate plans ahead of time. During the day, as you pass different locations, hazards, etc., and see the reality of the area, you may decide to alter your plans. Keep alternate plans in your mind and know when changes in conditions mean you should put these plans into action.

Track Your Course

Instruments can fail. Take steps to protect yourself from navigational equipment problems from the time you set off.

To protect yourself, regularly record your position on the chart with the time noted beside it.

Be sure to regularly check the accuracy of your compass. The Navigation Safety Regulations require you to have a properly adjusted magnetic compassChapter 14 and that you have a way of correcting headings and bearings to true, such as a table of deviation, on board at all times. Get your compass swung by a professional if necessary. Check it again whenever you reposition any large metal items on the vessel or when you add new electrical or electronic equipment.

Monitor Your Progress Along the Course Line

  • On open water passages, regularly check your position against the course line you have drawn on the chart.
  • In restricted waters, compare your position against the distance you expected to have covered. Regularly check your position against the chart to make sure you are in safe water.
  • Always maintain a dead reckoning position. If you lose your electronics, you may have to navigate using dead reckoning until you can get your equipment repaired.
  • Use all your navigational aids.
  • Develop your ability to navigate using the resources that are on board. Practice using alternate means to navigate.

Maintain Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is:

  • knowing what is going on around you;
  • understanding your vessel's position in relation to its environment and other vessels; and
  • being aware of how your vessel is behaving.

Enhance your situational awareness by paying attention to all the cues coming from your environment, and staying alert.

A United States Coast Guard analysis of navigational mishaps for cutters and boats revealed that 40 per cent were due to a loss of situational awareness.

Since situational awareness is so important, you should:

  • know where you are at all times;
  • form a mental picture of your environment and know how and where your vessel fits into the picture;
  • be familiar with your radar and its operation (use it day and night to increase your comfort level with the instrument – don't just turn it on when you need it the most);
  • pay attention to other cues and other systems of navigation, such as your GPS , compass, sounder, etc.;
  • continually assess and re-assess your situation and the relative position of other vessels, lights, buoys and navigational hazards; and
  • keep track of the tides and currents, and continually re-assess their effect in relation to prevailing weather conditions, shoals, etc.

Maintaining situational awareness gets harder when night falls or the weather is closing in. As weather conditions become poorer, you may lose so many clues that you lose your situational awareness. When you begin to doubt your own understanding of the navigational situation, you have lost your situational awareness, and must make every effort to regain it.

Clues that you are losing situational awareness include:

  • being confused or having a "gut feeling" that "this can't be right";
  • realizing that you are not watching or looking for hazards;
  • noticing discrepancies in information from two or more sources;
  • getting ambiguous or unclear information (if this happens, you must resolve the ambiguity before proceeding); and
  • being fixated or preoccupied (if you are fixated on one aspect of the situation, you cannot hope to understand all of the forces affecting your vessel).

Staying Safe

Here are some more requirements and tips for staying out of trouble and what to do if you do find yourself in difficulty.

Safe Speed

You must stay alert and maintain a safe speed at all times to avoid collisionChapter 15. Make certain you have a clear view in all directions.

Loads and Stability

Never overload your vessel with people or cargo. This will make your vessel unstable and it may capsize. Distribute loads so that the vessel is level, store them as low as possible and secure them to keep them from shifting (see Chapter 8 for details on vessel stability).

Severe Weather

In severe weather:

  • Turn on your navigation lights.
  • Reduce speed to match sea condition.
  • Maintain enough power to allow steering.
  • Have crew and passengers put on lifejackets. On small boats, seat passengers as low as possible and near the centre line.
  • Close and secure all doors, hatches and other openings.
  • Make sure that cargo and other objects are secure.
  • Make sure that all overboard drains that are designed to be open at sea and freeing ports are open and clear.
  • Head for the nearest port of refuge or shore that is safe to approach, if possible.
  • Direct the bow into the waves at about a 45-degree angle, if possible.
  • Keep bilges free of water.
  • Run out a sea anchor on a line from the bow to keep the boat headed into the waves if your engine fails.
  • If you have concerns about the safety of your vessel or crew, make early radio contact with the Canadian Coast Guard Marine Communications and Traffic Services (CCG MCTS) radio station to advise them of your concerns. Do not wait until it is too late (see  VHF Radio – Making a Distress Call and Early Notification in Chapter 5).

Cold Shock and Hypothermia

If, in water that is less than 15° C , you operate a passenger-carrying vessel or are responsible for a guided excursion, the Small Vessel RegulationsChapter 16 require you to carry equipment or have procedures for protecting people from the effects of cold shock or hypothermia unless you carry a liferaft. Workboat operators should also address the risk of cold shock and hypothermia by equipment or operating procedures, which may include requiring that workers wear flotation suits or other flotation devices.

People who fall into cold water drown more often from their body's initial reaction to the change in temperature (cold shock and swimming failure) than from low body temperature (hypothermia). Understanding the four phases of cold water immersion will help you react in case you or someone on board your vessel falls overboard.

Phase 1. Cold shock (occurring in the first two to three minutes after immersion) starts with a big gasp, followed by shallow, rapid breathing and a sharp increase in heart rate. It may cause small muscle spasms. Death due to drowning is not uncommon during this phase because victims are unable to focus attention on keeping their airway above water. Making your crew and passengers aware of the symptoms so that they can try to control breathing while their bodies adjust is the best preparation you can give other than having them wear lifejackets. Don't panic. Don't try to swim during this phase. It will pass and you can then attempt to self-rescue.

Phase 2. Swimming failure (which occurs after three to thirty minutes in the water) is when the victim's muscles stop working normally; for example, the fingers curl up and won't open. As time passes, the victim, often healthy and a good swimmer, is no longer able to make swimming movements. Wearing a lifejacket is still the best defence, but it may help people to know, before they start swimming for shore, that swimming has a massive impact on body heat loss and that the colder the water, the greater the likelihood of swimming failure. Do anything that needs finger movement, like putting on lifejackets and opening flare packages, as soon as you can. If possible, climb partly out of the water on the vessel or any floating debris. Getting your body out of the water will reduce the speed at which it loses heat.

Phase 3. Hypothermia (occurring after more than thirty minutes in the water) is the lowering of the body temperature until the victim loses consciousness and drowns or the heart stops. While waiting for rescue, curl up like a baby in the H.E.L.P. (heat evacuation loss prevention) position and, if there is more than one of you, huddle together to reduce heat loss. Don't move unless you have to.

Phase 4. Post-rescue collapse Sadly, 20 per cent of immersion deaths occur during or within hours of rescue. Knowing this, you should keep a close eye on rescued victims and keep them as still as possible.

Check out the website or read The Chilling Truth about Cold Water, and Transport Canada's Survival in Cold Waters (2007) ( TP  13822) to learn more about surviving in cold water. Information on treating people suffering from hypothermia can be found on the Transport Canada website as well as in the State of Alaska's Cold Injuries Guidelines ( PDF Version, 524 kB ).

Guidelines for Operating in Cold Water

If you operate a passenger vessel or are responsible for guided excursions in water that is less than 15° C , you must carry equipment and/or establish procedures to protect persons from hypothermia and cold shock.

Inform people on board of the symptoms of cold shock and swimming failure so that they are prepared for it and know what they have to do to get over the initial stages.

Equipment may include a Jason's cradle to help lift a person from the water without having to lean over or get in the water. The horizontal recovery position provided by the cradle helps reduce post-rescue collapse. Other means of reducing the amount of time a person is in the water can also help meet this requirement.

Once the person is safely out of the water, focus on helping to make them dry and warm. You may consider removing wet clothing and starting to warm the person through body contact and/or drinking warm fluids. Having blankets available and a way of preparing warm liquids are additional ways of meeting the requirement.

What to do in the event of capsizing is a bigger problem since everyone on board and all equipment will be in the water.You may want to consider wrapping blankets so that they are water-resistant, or travelling with another vessel that can come to your aid should you capsize.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible, silent and deadly danger. It is a colourless, odourless gas produced during the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. It cuts off the oxygen supply to the body, causing death in minutes. Symptoms of CO poisoning such as headaches, nausea and fatigue can be mistaken for seasickness or the flu because you can't tell the deadly gas is in the air without a CO detector.

The risk of poisoning by carbon monoxide is also increased in the case of divers because any CO present in the blood will have its effect magnified by the pressure divers are exposed to at depth.

Be aware of the warning signs and get anyone who complains of these symptoms to fresh air immediately. Install a marine grade CO detector according to the manufacturer's instructions so that you'll be alerted if CO is present.

Become familiar with and avoid situations that cause CO to build up:

  • Do not heat cabins or cook unless the cabins are well-ventilated.
  • Be especially careful in areas such as the stern, cabin extensions and areas fitted with canvas tops.
  • Be aware that engines left idling in poorly ventilated areas can create dangerous concentrations of CO ; a tail wind can easily carry CO back on board.
  • Be aware of other vessels. Exhaust from a nearby vessel may cause a build-up of carbon monoxide even when your engine is not running.

More Information

Contact your local Transport Canada Centre to find out about the laws and regulations that apply to your vessel and situation (see Appendix 2).


12. The Vessel Operation Restriction Regulations set out waters in which some vessels may be prohibited, where speed limits may apply or where water-skiing may be prohibited at certain times. ^
13. Small Vessel Regulations, Section 402. ^
14. Not required if the vessel is eight metres or less in length and is navigated within sight of navigation marks. ^
15. Collision Regulations, Rules 5 and 6. ^
16. Small Vessel Regulations, sections 302 and 417. ^


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