How to abandon ship

Many of us are familiar with the one-line wisdom, ‘always step up into a liferaft’ – but do you know the details of abandoning ship?

Liferaft at sea from above

Photo: Shutterstock

If your vessel is sinking, a liferaft dramatically increases your chance of survival. It helps to prevent cold water shock (when entered dry) and hypothermia, and it keeps you and your crew together.

‘As a lifeboat crew member, there’s nothing more worrying than rescuing someone from the water, only to discover there are others out there,’ says Kevin Rahill, from the RNLI’s Community Safety Team.

Liferafts prove their value time and again. In May alone, Hunstanton lifeboat crew rescued two sailors saved by their raft, and five fishermen were brought to safety 74 miles west of the Isles of Scilly, thanks to the EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) and raft they deployed as their ship was sinking.

Follow the lifesaving steps below if you’re abandoning ship, but be aware most of the preparation comes long before an emergency. If your liferaft is stowed under lots of kit and padlocked on deck – or you’re not familiar with its functions – all you’ve got onboard is extra weight and bulk. But if you know how to deploy your raft, have it serviced regularly and are familiar with the kit it carries, you could very well become your own lifesaver.

To ensure you and your crew are fully prepared, consider a Personal Survival Techniques (Sea Survival) course.

1. Get ready

A liferaft is a last resort. A partially submerged vessel is still safer, and easier for rescuers to see. If there’s time, grab extra kit or your dry grab bag with clothing, blankets, hand-held VHF radio, flares, food, water, EPIRB and SART (search and rescue transponder).

2. Deploy the raft

Be familiar with your own liferaft’s process before it’s an emergency. Remember to tie it securely to your vessel with the painter before deploying.

3. Get onboard

Ideally, bring the raft close to your vessel and step aboard carefully. If you have to, enter the water as close as possible to sea level and the raft. If the raft’s further away, clip your lifeline onto the painter and pull yourself out to the raft. Do a headcount.

4. Cut, stream, close

Cut the painter close to the vessel, keeping as much rope as possible. Stream the drogue for stability and to slow your drift. Close up all openings to keep warm and dry.

5. Maintain

Time to look after the raft and crew. Bail out water, operate the EPIRB, make a mayday call, assign someone to keep watch, deal with sick/injured crew and take seasickness pills.

6. Keep communicating

If you’re in contact with the Coastguard via VHF, let them know of any injuries so they can prepare. If a helicopter’s coming, communicate early, as it’ll be noisy for VHF communications when it’s overhead.

Get more RNLI advice for safe sailing and motorboating here. Or take our Overboard quiz for sailors and see how you'd fare if you or a crewmate go over the side.