If you have a helicopter coming to your aid you are likely to be sailing fairly close to shore as their range is not vast. It’s also likely that you have a mayday situation. Either a man overboard, a flooding, fire or casualty. Or perhaps you are being evacuated as a precaution. The first thing to remember therefore is to not forget your casualty whilst preparing for the arrival of the helicopter.
If you have the crew available, have one crew below on VHF Radio controlling comms. Until the aircraft arrives this will probably be you, but after arrival you will want to go to deck to take the helm and / or control proceedings at deck level. Even if you have had experience of a helicopter rescue before, listen carefully to instructions. They may vary dependent on weather and sea state and the size and type of vessel you are on. Smaller vessels (under 7 metres) may be asked to stop whereas larger vessels over 7 metres are usually asked to set a specified course and sail on a port tack. A steady course is important so that the helicopter can match your speed and course on approach.
The very fact that you are moving helps increase the helicopter’s airspeed and lift and thus assists the helicopter, which takes a huge amount of power to hover.
Brief your crew before the helicopter arrives if possible. Communicating after the helicopter is nearby will be very hard as it becomes very noisy. This is why someone monitoring VHF below deck is a good idea. If you have a deck speaker or handheld, you can listen to that on deck.
In most cases the winchman will approach on the port quarter. He may drop a line down to the deck with a sand-filled weight on it. Let it land on deck to earth. Then, as the winchman is lowered you will be required to pull the winchman toward you. He may give you hand signals. DO NOT tie the line to the vessel or yourself!
A bucket is a good place to coil the line as you pull it in. This reduces the chances of it snagging or grabbing deck furniture and stanchion posts when the winchman leaves.
If you have a casualty being evacuated, make sure they are briefed on what is happening. They should be wearing a lifejacket and warm clothing if possible and keep them calm. Include details of their suspected injuries and any medication they take habitually or that has been administered recently. Also make a note of when they ate, whether they are lucid and whether they have lost consciousness. Including a waterproof grab bag with medication and their passport and wallet, plus insurance documentation, is also prudent. If you do this, make a note of the policy numbers and passport number to keep on board.
Once the winchman is on board it is sensible to listen to his instructions. He’s the expert after all! But remember, you are still navigating your vessel and protecting your crew. Don’t lose sight of that.
In most cases the winchman will use a strop to place over the evacuee but if injured, they may be evacuated on a cage stretcher. As the winchman leaves the deck, control his swing with the line, paying it out smoothly but quickly and under control. Don’t let it snag (hence the bucket)!
As the casualty approaches the helicopter, they need do nothing. The crew will manoeuvre the casualty inside. If it’s you, don’t be tempted to help. If you lift an arm you risk falling out of the strop (at a height). Not good.
Finally, once all the drama is over, maintain a radio watch, make a plan and sit down with your remaining crew and reassure them, briefing them on your plan. Remember, this is likely to have been quite a traumatic experience. This is where you need to settle everyone and reassure.
About this time a cup of tea usually goes down very well.