The Single-handed Emergency Procedures
The Single-handed Emergency Procedures

As a single-handed sailor, knowing how to handle emergency situations is crucial for staying safe and in control while exploring the open sea.

The Single-handed Emergency Procedures

Sailing single-handed can be an incredibly rewarding experience, offering a sense of freedom and self-reliance that is hard to find elsewhere. However, it also comes with its own unique set of challenges and risks. One of the most important aspects of single-handed sailing is being prepared for emergencies. In this article, we will discuss some essential emergency procedures that every single-handed sailor should know and practice regularly.

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Before we dive into the specific emergency procedures, it’s important to emphasize the importance of preparation and prevention. Single-handed sailors should always ensure that their boat is well-maintained and equipped with the necessary safety gear, including a life raft, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), lifejackets, and a well-stocked first aid kit. Additionally, it’s crucial to regularly practice emergency drills and familiarize yourself with your boat’s systems and equipment.

With that said, let’s explore some of the most common emergency situations that single-handed sailors may encounter and the procedures to follow in each case.

Man Overboard Recovery

As a single-handed sailor, the prospect of falling overboard is particularly daunting. To minimize this risk, always wear a lifejacket and use a tether to secure yourself to the boat when moving around on deck. However, accidents can still happen, so it’s essential to know how to recover yourself if you end up in the water.

  1. Activate your personal locator beacon (PLB): If you have a PLB attached to your lifejacket, activate it immediately to send a distress signal and your location to search and rescue services.
  2. Swim back to the boat: If you’re close enough to the boat and it’s safe to do so, attempt to swim back and climb aboard using a boarding ladder or rope.
  3. Use a lifesling or throwable flotation device: If you have a lifesling or throwable flotation device onboard, try to reach it and use it to help you get back to the boat.
  4. Conserve energy and stay warm: If you’re unable to get back to the boat, focus on conserving energy and staying warm. Adopt the Heat Escape Lessening Position (HELP) by tucking your knees to your chest and wrapping your arms around them.

Dealing with a Dis-masting

A dis-masting can be a terrifying experience, but it’s important to remain calm and focused on securing the boat and preventing further damage.

  1. Cut away the rigging: If the mast is still attached to the boat, use a hacksaw or bolt cutters to cut away the rigging and prevent it from causing further damage or injury.
  2. Secure the mast and sails: If possible, secure the mast and sails to prevent them from being lost overboard or causing additional damage.
  3. Assess the damage: Once the situation is under control, assess the damage to your boat and determine if you can continue sailing or if you need to call for assistance.
  4. Set up an emergency rig: If your boat is still seaworthy, set up an emergency rig using a storm jib or spare sail to help you reach your destination or a safe harbor.

Handling a Rudder Failure

Losing your rudder can be a challenging situation, but there are ways to regain control of your boat and continue sailing.

  1. Drop anchor: If you’re in shallow water, drop anchor to prevent your boat from drifting into danger.
  2. Use an emergency tiller: If your boat is equipped with an emergency tiller, install it and use it to steer the boat.
  3. Create a jury-rigged rudder: If you don’t have an emergency tiller, you can create a makeshift rudder using a drogue, bucket, or spare sail. Attach the makeshift rudder to the boat’s stern and use lines to control its movement.

Managing a Fire Onboard

A fire onboard can quickly become a life-threatening situation. It’s crucial to act quickly and decisively to extinguish the flames and prevent further damage.

  1. Identify the source of the fire: Determine the source of the fire and the type of fuel that is burning (e.g., electrical, gasoline, or propane).
  2. Use the appropriate fire extinguisher: Use the appropriate type of fire extinguisher for the fuel source (e.g., a Class B extinguisher for gasoline fires or a Class C extinguisher for electrical fires).
  3. Shut off fuel and power sources: If possible, shut off any fuel or power sources that may be feeding the fire.
  4. Evacuate to a safe location: If the fire cannot be extinguished, prepare to abandon ship and deploy your life raft.

Addressing a Flooding Situation

Taking on water can quickly become a dangerous situation, so it’s important to act quickly to identify the source of the leak and address it.

  1. Identify the source of the leak: Check for leaks in the hull, through-hull fittings, and hoses.
  2. Use a manual or electric bilge pump: Use a manual or electric bilge pump to remove water from the boat.
  3. Plug the leak: If possible, plug the leak using a wooden plug, putty, or other temporary repair materials.
  4. Call for assistance: If the leak cannot be controlled, call for assistance and prepare to abandon ship if necessary.

Fog and limited visibility can make navigation challenging and increase the risk of collisions.

  1. Reduce speed: Slow down to a safe speed that allows you to react to any obstacles or other vessels.
  2. Use radar and AIS: If your boat is equipped with radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System), use these tools to help you navigate and avoid other vessels.
  3. Sound fog signals: Use your boat’s horn or whistle to sound fog signals according to the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).
  4. Maintain a sharp lookout: Keep a close watch for other vessels, navigational aids, and obstacles.

Handling Heavy Weather and Storm Tactics

Heavy weather can be a challenging and exhausting experience for single-handed sailors. It’s essential to be prepared and have a plan in place for dealing with storms and rough seas.

  1. Reduce sail: As the wind increases, reduce sail to maintain control of your boat and prevent damage.
  2. Deploy a sea anchor or drogue: In extreme conditions, deploying a sea anchor or drogue can help slow your boat down and maintain a safe speed.
  3. Heave-to: Heaving-to is a technique that allows your boat to maintain a relatively stable position in heavy seas, providing a respite for the sailor.
  4. Stay below deck: In extreme conditions, it may be safer to stay below deck and let your boat ride out the storm.

Dealing with Medical Emergencies

As a single-handed sailor, it’s crucial to be prepared for medical emergencies and have a well-stocked first aid kit onboard.

  1. Assess the situation: Determine the severity of the injury or illness and whether you can treat it yourself or need to call for assistance.
  2. Administer first aid: Use your first aid kit and knowledge to treat the injury or illness as best as you can.
  3. Call for assistance: If the situation is severe or beyond your capabilities, call for assistance using your VHF radio or satellite phone.
  4. Monitor the patient: Keep a close eye on the patient’s condition and provide ongoing care as needed.


Single-handed sailing can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it also comes with unique challenges and risks. By familiarizing yourself with these emergency procedures and practicing them regularly, you can be better prepared to handle any situation that may arise while sailing solo. Remember, preparation and prevention are key to ensuring a safe and enjoyable single-handed sailing adventure.