The Safety Brief - A Guide for Skippers - Below Decks

Anyone that has taken an RYA yachting course should be very conscious of the various hazards that await the unwary sailor. Why? Because the safety brief delivered at the beginning of every course points out the potential for danger and accident. In fact, delivering a safety brief is a formal part of the RYA training syllabus for aspiring skippers, so important is its proper delivery.

Failure to deliver a full safety brief to new crew is foolhardy and exposes the skipper to criticism (or worse) in the event that crew or vessel are injured. Furthermore, if you are the only experienced sailor on board, it is just simple self-preservation to ensure that at least one other crew member knows enough to drop the sails, start the engine and send a mayday.

Set out below is a safety brief checklist. By all means use it and add to it as you wish. Sail safe!

Welcome & Below Decks Safety Brief (aka Good Housekeeping)

1: Instruct on the safe way to board and depart your yacht. 

This should stress the importance of stepping off at midships (or off the stern if parking stern to) and stepping cleanly (not jumping) onto the dock. I like crew to step down from the shrouds, allowing them to step over the guard wires with both feet whilst still holding onto the boat.

2: Instruct on how to step down the companionway. 

In fifteen years of teaching for many schools I have seen too many silly slips and falls when people are running down a companionway forwards. Always backwards, always holding on. Admittedly this does sometimes have to be more ‘do as I say, not as I do’ but if you aren’t taught the correct way, you can’t choose can you.

3: Gas Procedures! 

No-one that sails should need telling, but gas leaks kill and they kill spectacularly. Make sure everyone knows how to isolate gas below and above decks and when to do so. 

Illustrate how to use the manual bilge pump and how to ventilate the boat if necessary. Also, light the stove or burner and talk your crew through how it works. 

4: Use of the cooker at Sea and in port. 

A great opportunity to also show your crew where the tea bags are kept and start a tea and coffee rosta! Make sure everyone knows how and when to use the gimbal and advise crew on wearing wet weather salopettes when boiling water. This is a great time to point out where the fire blanket is and where you keep the fire extinguishers too.

5: Fridge, Galley and Food Hygiene.

Boats are small environments that can be difficult to keep clean and tidy (especially when crew are inexperienced of feeling unwell). Stress the need to keep raw food (especially meats) away from cooked food. I always store raw meat at the bottom of a chest fridge and keep it wrapped. Cooked meats are kept away (and above) raw meat. Advise on how to keep galley surfaces clean.

6: Heads & Use thereof!  

The usual ‘don’t put anything down the heads that hasn’t gone through you first’ routine is usually enough. On a mixed boat I ask that male crew sit to pee or take the time to ‘tidy up’ when they miss! 100% accuracy can be hard enough at home for some of us after all, let alone on the high seas in a sporty breeze.

Make sure you have bags on board and available for sanitary towels and toilet paper (if you aren’t pumping it). I also make a point of demonstrating how and why we pump the heads clear, pump water through the heads and then pump them dry. 

Making the point that there is an anti-siphon pipe that needs to be cleared by extra pumping and then to pump the head dry and leave it dry usually avoids the horror of discovering regurgitated waste slopping around in the bowl on that cold wet beat to windward!

I also take time to make it clear that cleaning kit in the heads stays in the heads! Cross contamination to the galley is not a good idea if you want to enjoy your holiday.

7: What to do in the case of fire?

Point out the main causes of fire. Make sure everyone knows not to smoke below deck (I’ve never met anyone that would ever consider it anyway).

Highlight the importance of using the fire blanket for galley fires and the mechanism by which you intend to deal with an engine fire. Of course, the most important thing is to isolate the fire’s root from oxygen, fuel and ignition. 

Illustrate how to use a fire extinguisher (if you don’t have an automatic engine-room extinguisher fitted) through the companionway hole and illustrate how to (i) isolate the batteries and (ii) the fuel cut off and stress how important it is that we raise the alarm and try to safely stop a fire fast to avoid it taking hold. 

Illustrate the location of all the hatches and how to open (and close) them if necessary and remind your crew we have a liferaft. I illustrate where the liferaft is when I do the deck brief.

Make sure all crew know to inform the deck when opening a hatch to avoid people stepping into air and make it clear that all hatches must be closed at sea. It might seem obvious, but it’s not necessarily so to a novice sailor.

8: What to do in the case of a man overboard or emergency?

I always define a mayday and make it clear that a skipper makes the call on this - unless he’s the emergency! Then it’s important that crew know how to operate the VHF and EPIRB (if you have one on board) and any other communications equipment you might carry. 

I also point out where the grab bag is kept and if I have a DSC radio I explain how to send a Distress Alert via DSC. If the engine start is below decks I talk them through the start procedure and have one crew member do it.

9: What to do in the case of flood? Skin Fittings & Sea Cocks

I always make the point that of the few boats that actually sink, the most avoidable sinking is the failure of a pipe, jubilee clip or sea cock. Make sure your crew know where they are and what they do. 

If your vessel is MCA coded (which it is likely a charter vessel will be) then locate the wooden bungs at each sea cock, tied on by string so that they are easily located in an emergency.

10: Lifejackets, harness lines and how to use them

After a cuppa I allocate life jackets, show people how to fit them and stress the importance of crotch straps, harness lines and how and when to use them. If the lifejackets have head covers I illustrate how they are used and how to activate a lifejacket if it does not self-inflate. 

I also make it clear that each crew is now responsible for keeping their own life jacket safe and accessible at all times when off watch (and the importance of keeping it off the floor)!

I like to remind people not to wear a life jacket or harness line anywhere near a running engine. The consequences of catching a lifeline in a flywheel / drive shaft does not bear thinking about.

11: Where is everything kept?

After tea is a great time to highlight where everything is stowed below deck and set out any particular quirks or rules you might have for living in close quarters. I usually do all this immediately on joining when everyone is excited and keen to learn. I leave the deck safety brief until the next day or until after a cuppa, dependent on when you intend to sail.

12:  Opening the log and noting crew members’ next of kin details.

It may seem overkill but insisting on next of kin details is a very good idea. Keep a copy ashore with a trusted party and enter all crew names into the log. I also make a point of noting that the safety brief has been delivered. If I am teaching, most schools now require a signed declaration from students to confirm any health issues, next of kin and to confirm they have received a full safety brief.

13:  Charts, almanacs, day shapes, instruments, dividers, plotters, pencils and erasers - toaster?

It might sound silly but make sure you can navigate! Check the boat’s inventory for navigation (and other) equipment including the location of the bolt croppers or metal hacksaw and make sure you have everything you should have and where it is stowed.

If you have an electric kettle or toaster that works off a 240v shorebased supply and/or an inverter remind people of what can be used on which plug and when. Pointing out the main fuse panel and how to turn on lights, water heaters, etc is a good idea.

Remind everyone that if it isn’t stowed it will end up on the floor and acquaint your crew with how cupboard latches work. It’ll save you a fortune in broken plates and binoculars!.