Surviving an Ocean Emergency, Part 2: When to Abandon Ship

The number of articles detailing the processes for determining exactly when to abandon ship are too many to count. Slate.com even published an article about the etiquette surrounding ship abandonment. Recent maritime disasters — the grounding of the 4,300-passenger Costa Concordia off the Italian coast being one of the most well-known — have reignited the discussion.

In his business-focused “At the Helm Blog,” Bob Roitblat reminds us that “there’s an old adage in seamanship that you never abandon your boat until you have to step up into the life raft. That’s the benchmark — when the boat’s deck has sunk below the sides of the life raft, it’s time to abandon ship.” In the business world, Roitblat discusses management guru Peter Drucker’s “purposeful abandonment,” which urges business executives to review potential business outcomes and for each one decide how the company will respond. But transfer that thinking to the maritime world and can the same hold true?

According to U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety in a www.boatingmag.com article titled “What to Consider Before Abandoning Ship,” author Mario Vittone writes, “No one takes the decision to abandon ship lightly, but I have seen it made too soon, and too late, both with tragic results…there are few absolutes when handling at-sea emergencies; you must consider all the variables. Loss of an engine 30 miles from shore is not the same problem as losing it 300 miles from shore, with a line of storms approaching. You may be able to keep up with flooding in calm seas, but that doesn’t mean you will be able to when water starts shipping over the bow.”

At the root of his advice, Vittone asserts that “human limits can be reached long before the vessel is in any real danger.” Assessing your very real options and then taking thoughtful, strategic action can change just a “search” to a “search and rescue,” which is truly the better option.

Once the decision is made to go, it’s time to go, Vittone explains. “Half-leaving the boat – staging the raft or dinghy ‘just in case’ – can be dangerous. If seas are rough, the rocking hull could ruin the thin-walled inflatable before you have a chance to board. If high winds take your raft after inflation, it’s going to be difficult — if not impossible — to get it back. In all but the calmest weather, you’ll want to go in with it. Don your life jackets (and immersion suits if you have them), send the final distress signals, grab the EPIRB, and leave, taking all possible emergency gear with you. Everything that floats goes over the side, too; the life rings, seat cushions, and even the fenders will all help you to be more visible, and being visible is everything.”

Next up: You’ve Abandoned Ship. What Now?

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