Yacht sailing and motorboating

Sailing or motorboating is great fun to enjoy with friends and family. But things can go wrong. Engines can fail, the weather can turn suddenly, and accidents can happen. It's important that you're prepared, just in case.
Yacht sailing: View from onboard a yacht at sea

Photo: RNLI / Nathan Williams

Yacht sailing: View from onboard a yacht at sea

How to stay safe

  • Always wear an appropriate lifejacket or buoyancy aid unless it is safe not to do so.
  • Always have a means of calling and signalling for help.
  • Ensure there is an emergency action plan in place and everybody has an appropriate onboard briefing (in particular on the location and use of the safety equipment, including the spare kill cord for powerboats).
  • Undertake the appropriate level of training for your craft.
  • Always check the weather and tide times.
  • Make sure someone ashore knows where you are going and who to call if you don't return on time.
  • Always drive your boat at a speed that is appropriate to the weather conditions and to the environment you are operating within.

You can find suitable courses and qualifications by visiting RYA (UK), and ISA (Ireland), the governing bodies for recreational boating.

The RNLI supports Emily’s Code, which honours the memory of 14-year-old Emily Gardner, and aims to prevent accidents at sea by highlighting key safety messages. Read more about Emily’s Code.

Our interactive publication Sea Safety: The Complete Guide is essential reading for anyone who enjoys yachting and motorboating.

Safe sailing

Click below for more information.

Wear a lifejacket

Always wear an appropriate lifejacket or buoyancy aid unless it is safe not to do so. It is vital to wear a lifejacket or buoyancy aid. We believe that lifejackets save lives and are useless unless worn.

Person in the water wearing a lifejacket and in the HELP position

Photo: RNLI / Nathan Williams

Person in the water wearing a lifejacket and in the HELP position

If you find yourself in the water, a lifejacket or buoyancy aid could save your life. But only if you ensure that it is the correct size and type for you, properly fastened and maintained, and that you understand how to operate it.

Of all the bodies that the RNLI have pulled from the water, few were wearing lifejackets. If they had been, they could have survived longer, perhaps long enough to have been found alive.

Find out how to choose, fit and maintain a good lifejacket in our interactive guide Sea Safety: The Complete Guide.

Carry a means of calling for help

Even in crowded waters and close to the shore, a life-threatening incident might go unnoticed.

Yacht sailing: Crew member at the helm of a yacht talking into a handheld radio

Photo: RNLI / Nathan Williams

Yacht sailing: Crew member at the helm of a yacht talking into a handheld radio

The ability to call for help or signal for assistance is imperative. With a VHF or DSC radio you can transmit a Mayday call to the Coastguard and other vessels and a distress or emergency beacon will transmit your location to the search and rescue services.

Waterproof handheld Digital Selective calling (DSC) VHF radio

A waterproof DSC VHF allows you to send a distress message with your location direct to the coastguard with a single button push. You then follow this with a voice call on channel 16, which is broadcast to all VHF radios in the area.

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

A PLB can send a distress message to the coastguard from anywhere in the world, providing there is a clear view of the sky. The distress message and your location will be sent to the coastguard, who will launch a rescue service to your GPS position. You can also use a PLB anywhere on land, so they can be used as safety kit for other outdoor pursuits.

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB)

An EPIRB can send a distress message to the coastguard from anywhere in the world, providing there is a clear view of the sky. The distress message and your location will be sent to the coastguard, who will launch a rescue service to your GPS position.

An EPIRB must be registered to a specific vessel.

Tracker

Some GSM or satellite trackers have an SOS function which allows you to call for help from a Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC). They will then pass on your distress message to the Maritime RCC who will task the appropriate rescue service for you. 

All trackers are different and costs, specifications and network availability vary.

Mobile phone

Always take a fully charged mobile phone with you and keep it stored in a waterproof pouch. If you get into difficulty, dial 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard. You may also want to use the RYA Safe Trx (UK) or ISA SafeTrx (Ireland) apps to track and log your passage.  These apps will also alert your emergency contacts if you fail to return before your ETA.

Remember: Not all coastal areas have mobile phone signal, so you may need an alternative means of calling for help.

Read more about SOS devices and what to do in an emergency in our interactive guide Sea Safety: The Complete Guide. See sections Safety equipment and In an emergency.

get the right training for your boating

If you’re new to boating or returning after a break, the water will be an unfamiliar environment. But with the appropriate level of training to allow, you’ll be able to fully enjoy the pleasures and challenges of your sport.

Yacht sailing: Crew enjoying being out on the water

Photo: RNLI / Nathan Williams

Yacht sailing: Crew enjoying being out on the water

The best places to find suitable courses and qualifications for your sport are RYA (Royal Yachting Association) in the UK and ISA (Irish Sailing Association) in Ireland.

Check the weather and tides

Weather, especially bad weather, can spoil a day.

Even when the weather is fine, it can change suddenly to become uncomfortable or even threatening, particularly with changing tides and wind direction. This applies to both short and long passages.

Newcastle RNLI’s Mersey class lifeboat, Eleanor and Bryant Girling 12-29, in rough seas

Photo: Alan Bennett

Newcastle RNLI’s Mersey class lifeboat, Eleanor and Bryant Girling 12-29, in rough seas

Always check the weather forecast and sea conditions before you set off. Get regular updates if you’re planning to be out for any length of time.

Be prepared to change your plans or cancel the trip if the forecast is unfavourable.

Get more advice on weather and tides in our interactive guide Sea Safety: The Complete Guide. See section Before you go.

Let someone know where you’re going

The Coastguard gets many calls reporting vessels overdue. The emergency services must then decide where to start the search pattern. Knowing where the vessel is likely to be can increase the chance of a successful rescue.

Yacht sailing: Crew at the helm

Photo: RNLI / Nathan Williams

Yacht sailing: Crew at the helm

All vessels are encouraged to give the Coastguard information using either the CG66 form in the UK or the SafeTrx app.

You should inform someone ashore of:

  • your passage plan (intended trip)

This is a legal requirement under Chapter V – Safety of navigation – of the SOLAS Convention (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea).

  • your return time
  • how to contact the Coastguard and what to tell them if you are overdue.

Check the engine and fuel

In 2015, our lifeboats were called out 1,217 times to motorboats in trouble in UK and Irish waters. The largest single cause of callouts was due to machinery failure.

RNLI lifeguard checking the engine of a rescue watercraft

Photo: RNLI / Nigel Millard

RNLI lifeguard checking the engine of a rescue watercraft

If your boat has an engine, we strongly recommend that you know the basics of starting, running and maintaining that engine.

Get more advice on engine maintenance and engine breakdown in our interactive guide Sea Safety: The Complete Guide. See sections Learn the basics and In an emergency.

BOOK A FREE ADVICE ONBOARD SESSION

No matter how much boating experience you have, it’s important to keep up to date with safety equipment and procedures. The RNLI provides a free advice session with one of our expert volunteers. Find out more and book your session.

A boating safety advice session from the RNLI

RNLI/Nathan Williams

A boating safety advice session from the RNLI

Yacht sailing and motorboating safety: useful links and resources

  • Boat safety
    TV presenter Ben Fogle in a man overboard exercise from a fishing vessel
    Safety advice
    Sea Safety: The Complete Guide
  • RNLI lifeguard checking the engine of a rescue watercraft
    Download PDF 71KB
    Checklist for inboard and outdrive engines
  • Looking back at the twin Yamaha outboard engines on a B class Atlantic 85 lifeboat while at sea
    Download PDF 75KB
    Checklist for outboard engines

Figures taken from:

  • The National Water Safety Forum’s Water Incident Database (WAID UK) 2011-2015.
  • RNLI lifeboat return of service data UK and Ireland 2015.

Don’t be a statistic

65 yacht sailing and motorboating deaths in the UK between 2011 and 2015

1,492 lifeboat launches to boats with machinery failure in 2015 – the single biggest cause of RNLI launches