Could you take charge?

Are you crew on a multihull? Would you be able to take over from your skipper if they fell overboard? Try our spot quiz and find out.

By Caroline Strainig

The splash of my husband going overboard was hard to miss.

“Don’t worry, he jumps in often, to test my skills when he thinks conditions are safe,” I told the other couple on board calmly. “He wants to be sure I can rescue him if he does go overboard by accident. Can someone keep pointing to him while I brief you on what to do?”

Thankfully I never needed to rescue my husband in an emergency, although he did fall overboard once by accident when we were gunkholing up a creek. Sometimes in the wee hours when I dwell on our divorce, I wish I hadn’t rescued him on that occasion – but that’s a story for another occasion, over a few drinks with my girlfriends!

That was many years ago, but his approach to safety has stayed with me. My then-husband was an experienced single-handed offshore sailor and navigator. It would have been all too easy to leave anything remotely hard to him and just be crew. However, there were times when I was on deck by myself and had to be competent to manage. Apart from the man overboard drills, he used to give me pop quizzes, asking me things like: “Do you know where you are now?” which often involved looking on a chart because we had no GPS back then.

Does this ring any bells with you? Do you do that with your crew? Or, if you are crew, does your skipper do that with you?

Underwhelming majority

If so, you may be in the underwhelming majority. Talking to couples candidly about their knowledge while researching this article, I discovered a surprising lack of knowledge, especially when the crew was the female partner of the skipper.

One woman in her 60s, whose partner skippered a power catamaran, said she wouldn’t even know which side of a channel marker to go on, let alone make a radio call for help. This is even though they had boated together for years and her husband had already had one heart attack, thankfully ashore.

Learning the essentials

So, what are the essentials you need to know, and how can you learn them?

Obviously, you can train your crew yourself, as my husband did with me. You should also give anyone new on your boat an in-depth safety briefing. However, if it’s your partner, a boat licence course or RYA course could be a good idea to ensure marital bliss is not compromised because it can be hard teaching your partner.

In fact, the Coast Guard takes it a step further again, recommending anyone “remotely likely” to be left in charge should do a boat licence course. Remember the boat safety campaign, “You’re the skipper – you’re responsible”?

By law the bottom line is that the skipper is responsible and just like the regular skipper, the fall-back skipper should be licensed, know how to drive the vessel, know the rules of the sea-road and be responsible for passenger safety.

Nor does it have to be an emergency before a crew member has to take over sometimes. On one occasion, I was handed the helm at short notice when the skipper had been drinking and the Water Police were approaching.

Okay, but back to the ideal scenario, getting some training and ideally your boat licence or an equivalent sail-training qualification. What’s plan b if you haven’t done that?

Plan b

The Coast Guard says crew should only take over as skipper if they are competent to do so. If they aren’t, they should immediately take these five actions and skippers should brief their novice crew-cum-passengers accordingly:

  1. Stop the vessel, by either dropping the sail or putting throttles to neutral and stopping the motor.
  2. Drop the anchor.
  3. Get everyone to put on lifejackets.
  4. Establish the vessel’s exact location by using local knowledge, or the GPS chart plotter, or by identifying landmarks.
  5. Call for help, either by radioing Coast Guard on VHS Channel 16, or by dialling 000 on a mobile phone and asking for Water Police.

Obviously, some of those measures are impossible to take offshore, but you should take the most sensible measures you can.

The Coast Guard also recommends every boat should be equipped with a VHF radio because phone reception can be unreliable. Crew should obviously be taught how to use the radio as back-up. Radios should be tuned to Channel 16, the emergency frequency, and 73, the general communications channel, although the Coast Guard also monitors channels 21, 67 and 81.

For added peace of mind, boat owners can also join the Coast Guard’s marine-assist program, which is like an on-water RACQ.

“Ah, well, chances are nothing will happen to us,” I can hear you say as you read this. No, sadly, safety is not something that only “other” people need to worry about. Over the past five years the Brisbane Coast Guard alone has been called out thousands – yes, thousands – of times to rescue stranded skippers and their passengers. In six of these the skipper was also disabled because of a medical emergency.

While we all hope every outing will be idyllic, the reality is that accidents can and will happen, so it pays to be prepared. Safety may not be sexy, but it is something we all need to be aware of.


  1. Can you start and drive the boat by yourself?
  2. Can you anchor the boat by yourself?
  3. Can you take down the sails by yourself, if there are any?
  4. Do you know the basic sea-road rules, i.e. which side to pass a channel marker on and which side to pass an oncoming boat?
  5. Can you use the radio and do you know what channel to make an emergency call on?
  6. Do you know where the lifejackets, flares and first-aid kit are?
  7. Could you accurately find out where you are if something went wrong?
  8. Could you perform a MOB rescue reliably if your skipper went overboard?*
  9. Could you ensure the safety of other crew members?
  10. Do you have first aid and CPR training in case something happens to the skipper?

If you scored less than nine out of ten, it might be worth investing a little time in training before heading out on the water again with your partner. Or, as one bright spark commented after taking the quiz, checking that your partner’s life insurance is up to date!

* Please do not put your crew to the test by just jumping overboard; it is not safe. Practice the drill first with a fender and, if you do use a person, do it in a safe anchorage where the MOB can easily swim to shore, preferably under expert instruction.


Ten-point MSQ checklist for a safe outing

Maritime Safety Queensland advises all skippers to always complete these ten checks before going to sea:

*  Check the vessel is in good condition.

*  Check the amount and condition of fuel.

*  Check the weather.

*  Check that you have the correct marine licence and know how to handle your vessel.

*  Check the operation of your marine radio and know how to use it.

*  Check that you have the required safety equipment aboard and it is easily accessible.

*  Check that you know the sea-area you are moving through and going to.

*  Check that you have a trip-plan and make sure you tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return.

*  Log on with Coast Guard before going to sea, and log off when you return, so they can watch out for you.

*  Wear a lifejacket – if it’s not on, it can’t save your life.

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