Safety of Life at Sea – What You Need to Know

When you’re on board one of our luxurious yachts it’s easy to feel completely safe and secure. They’re so beautifully built, designed for safety, exceptional good quality as well as equipped with every device and system you could possible need. On the other hand complacency at sea can be a killer, even if you’re pottering about somewhere calm and warm like the Med.

We provide a popular ‘Princess Lifeline’ service that delivers 2 years’ free access to top class medical and security assistance’. But you also need to know about safety of life at sea, just in case you hit a storm, your communication equipment fails, or you find yourself in some other kind of trouble. Here’s what you need to know about staying safe at sea.

Safety at sea for pleasure vessels

If you have a pleasure vessel less than 13.7 metres long, your only statutory requirements are those set out under SOLAS V, which we’ll look at later in this article. Having said that, you should bear in mind that boats like ours, with eating and sleeping facilities included, demand different safety equipment from a day boat without those facilities.

As a yacht owner you have a legal duty of care under health and safety law when you employ staff on board. As an owner or captain it makes sense to make yourself familiar with the RYA and British Marine guide to safety equipment.

You or your skipper should check your vessel is properly equipped before every voyage, no matter how short or seemingly simple the trip might be. It’s very important that you or someone else on board knows what each safety feature does and how it works, so it can be checked for wear, tear and damage.

The Merchant Shipping Regulations bring a number of international safety conventions into English Law, namely the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Marine Pollution and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. According to the regulations, some safety equipment is mandatory when your pleasure vessel is at or over 13.7m in length, classified as a Class XII vessel. If that’s you, you need to either comply with the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection: Small Craft) Regulations 1998 and the Merchant Shipping Life-Saving Appliances For Ships Other Than Ships Of Class III To VI (A) Regulations 1999, or comply with the exemptions you’ll find in MGN 538. Many owners find it easier to take the second route and comply with the exemptions. Here they are.

If you’d like to view the full list of requirements and recommendations for vessels less than and more than 13.7m length, there’s a comprehensive table here.

Safety guidance – Your key responsibilities

You probably have a skipper. Many of our yacht owners do. But you, as the owner, might also want to acquire the knowledge you need in order to take control if needs be.

  • Check the lifejackets – It’s vital that every lifejacket on board is checked before each voyage to make sure it is in proper working condition, undamaged, and serviced and maintained in line with the maker’s recommendations. More about that later on.
  • Familiarise yourself with your craft – It makes sense, as the owner of a large and beautiful vessel, to get the training you need to know the essentials concerning the boat herself, her safety features and the systems you depend on. Getting trained means you’ll be less likely to have an accident or get into trouble in the first place. If you do, you’ll have a better chance of dealing with the crisis and emerging unscathed.
  • Beware the booze! – Having a few drinks on board is great fun, all part of the luxury yachting experience. But if you’re in charge of the vessel it’s safest not to drink at all. Drinking impairs your judgement and makes mistakes more likely.
  • Know the weather and sea conditions before you set off – The weather and ocean conditions can change in minutes. It’s vital to check the tides, shipping forecast and weather forecast before you set out, and prepare your craft and guests accordingly.

The safety equipment you should have on board – What is SOLAS?

As we’ve mentioned, there’s no mandatory safety equipment if your pleasure vessel is less than 13.7 metres long, except those outlined by SOLAS V. If your vessel is longer than that, you must also abide by SOLAS V. So what are the SOLAS V recommended safety equipment requirements?

Ocean safety is at the heart of the SOLAS regulations. You must follow international safety regulations at sea. This involves planning your trip, carrying a radar reflector, having an illustrated table of the recognised life-saving signals on board, helping other craft if necessary, and using the right distress signals. Failure to do so can result in prosecution.

It’s important to prevent collisions. You do so by fitting proper navigation lights, radar reflectors, and sound-signalling devices. You must steer clear of other boats, and stay well away from diving boats that fly the Alpha flag. And you have to be very aware of other boats near you at all times.

A damaged flare can be extremely dangerous, potentially causing injury and fire. But you can’t just throw them away, either on land or at sea, and you certainly shouldn’t set them off. The best way to dispose of old or damaged flares is to take them back to the supplier, who should offer a special disposal service. Some marinas will take them off your hands for a small charge, as do some life raft servicing providers and coastguard offices. You could even try your nearest council recycling centre.

When your craft is over 13.7m long you must carry lifejackets, a life raft or rafts, distress flares and fire extinguishers. The fine details of what you need depend on your boat and how far from land you aim to travel. It’s also wise to carry a good first aid kit and a maritime radio, a special VHF radio that captures and sends signals in the 156 and 174 MHz radio frequencies, known as the VHF maritime mobile band. This enables craft to communicate with each other and with shore stations to ensure the safety of people at sea and the vessels they travel in.

There’s more to SOLAS than safety precautions. It’s your job to do everything you can to prevent polluting the seas. That means not dropping rubbish or oil into the water. If your craft is more than 12m long you must post a clear notice telling everyone on board how they should dispose of their rubbish.

Essential routine maintenance and safety checks

It’s good practice to create a checklist for every trip, another for monthly checks, and a third for vital annual checks. Then you always know your vessel and the safety equipment it carries will be in good condition.

For every trip:

  • Flush the engine afterwards
  • Clean your boat
  • Do a thorough safety check

Monthly checks:

  • Remove any grit from the fuel filter
  • Check the fuel lines for damage
  • If you see rust, make a careful examination to check it doesn’t indicate something more sinister going on underneath
  • Test the steering to make sure there are no leaks
  • Check the hull for cracks
  • Make sure the tool kit is present and correct
  • Check the boat trailer – a broken trailer can damage your hull
  • Unless your craft has maintenance-free batteries, check your battery fluid levels
  • Examine and clean the propeller shaft and strut
  • You might carry an air horn, in which case check it’s in working condition. The same goes for any beacons and flashlights
  • Check the fuel level
  • Make sure all the safety gear and systems are working as they should
  • Check your bilge pump is working.

Yearly checks:

  • Make sure none of your lifejackets have expired, and replace those that have
  • Ensure your fire extinguishers are operating properly and not out of date
  • Find out if you need to change the engine oil
  • See if your engine needs servicing
  • Check to see if your cowling could do with a coat of rust inhibitor.

Occasional jobs:

  • Check to see if the hull need to be cleaned, re-painted or repaired
  • Make sure the propeller is in good condition
  • Replace any worn or missing nuts and bolts
  • Run diagnostics on the engine
  • Check everywhere for mould and rot.

Checking life jackets

One of the most important of all is to routinely check lifejackets and buoyancy aids. Here are some essential examinations to make at regular intervals.

  • Make sure you have the right size and type of lifejacket for the people on board, including specialist children’s life jackets and baby life jackets
  • Check the CO2 cylinder is screwed in properly, ie. hand tight. If there’s any rust, take the cylinder out and make sure the rust hasn’t compromised the jacket in any way
  • Check the entire jacket for signs of damage or wear: tears, holes, missing bits and loose seams
  • Make sure the firing mechanism, often a fabric pull tab, is in place, not frayed or damaged
  • Check the firing lever is in the closed position
  • Make sure, if there’s a service indicator, that it’s set to green (which means the jacket doesn’t need servicing yet)
  • If it’s an auto-inflater, check all the components are armed and current
  • Inflate the jacket and leave it overnight to see if it leaks or there’s any lost pressure
  • Last but not least, always store lifejackets in a dry, well-ventilated place away from direct sunlight.

Peace of mind matters a great deal on the ocean wave. When you know every aspect of your responsibilities around safety at sea, your voyages and adventures are so much more pleasurable.

We are here to help. Please contact us if your have any questions. And if you want information about any of our motor yachts or to arrange an appointment to view one of our used Princess stock, contact our sales team on +44 (0)1489 557755 or email direct@princess.co.uk.