Captain's Tips

Preparing for Emergencies on the Water


Many of us watched the course of events in early November as the 92-foot Viking Pastime lost power to both engines and the generator and ended up grounding at Delray Beach, FL. According to Viking, the boat’s manufacturer, Pastime lost all power and the crew attempted to drop anchor by releasing the manual brake on the windlass. Unfortunately, the anchor’s devil claw got jammed in the deployment chute and rendered the anchor useless.

Author Scott Miller and Charlie

The fire suppression system seemed to shut down the engines falsely and make the boat think a fire started, so all engines and power shut down, alleges Viking. No fire was onboard, and an active investigation is still running about why this happened.

In another incident, a 51-foot sailing sloop ran aground off Ocracoke Inlet after experiencing electrical and mechanical failures. The boat was fully covered in sand and water within 24 hours.

If you’re like me, I started to think “what if ” something similar happened aboard my boat or if I were captain of a vessel when this happened? I wonder how I’d react and if I’d know what to do. What would you do? Should captains know how to react in similar situations and prepare themselves and the crew? Absolutely!

Whether you’re cruising a few miles off the coast or down the Intracoastal Waterway and your boat loses all propulsion and everything shuts down (engines, generator, electrical), as the captain, what is your first step?

It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback or captain in those situations but understanding what to do is more complex than it may appear, especially if no preparation for these types of events was considered. The only way to be ready is to run these types of “what if ” scenarios and make a plan. As a captain, it’s worth the time and safety of the vessel and crew to map out the steps and practices to make sure they are effective.

Step 1: Stay calm and don’t panic.

Having a pre-planned routine for “vessel with no power” or similar emergency will reduce your anxiety regardless of traffic, weather or other factors.

Step 2: Pull out your pre-planned checklist for these situations. Common items on the list should include:

• Assess the vessel’s current state with respect to propulsion, AC/DC power and function of relevant systems.

• Check all breakers and switches that affect the propulsion and generator systems. Remember to check safety or man overboard (MOB) switches and/or fire suppression systems integrated into engine shutdown controls. Assuming this is done while in port and tested, you won’t have to try and remember everything you need to check.

• Check relevant electrical connections such as generator and start batteries to ensure they are all tight.

• Check fuel system valves and filters for proper position and that they are free from debris.

• Reset all systems and switches to start-up positions to restart the vessel.

• Turn off any systems that are not needed for propulsion and safe operations (air conditioning, microwave, coffee maker, etc.).

• Attempt to restart the generator and engines in the proper order for your vessel.

Step 3: If the vessel starts back up, head to safe harbor and troubleshoot the issue.

If not, continue following your plan for securing the vessel with no power.

• Call for help appropriate for the situation. Coast Guard, Sea Tow, the boat manufacturer or mechanic are good to have on speed dial or know how to reach by VHF. Turn on navigation lights and alert the U.S.C.G. station closest to your location and keep them apprised of your current condition.

Sea Tow rescue | Courtesy of Sea Tow

• Assess whether troubleshooting can continue prior to deploying an anchor or getting a tow to protect the vessel from grounding.

• If deploying the anchor is the correct next step, it’s important to not only know how to manually deploy the anchor with the power out on the boat, but also to practice this with your crew. Deploying the anchor allows you to keep the vessel’s bow into the wind and hopefully into the waves and swell.

• Run your checklist for manually deploying the anchor.

• Once all safety devices are removed, release the manual brake and let the anchor deploy to the desired length based on depth and weather conditions. Once the desired amount of chain or rode is released, tighten the brake and secure the chain/rode with the proper safety devices or claws to take pressure off the windlass, if possible.

Step 4: Troubleshoot or wait for help to arrive. It’s wise to first make sure the vessel is safe from grounding or drifting into heavy traffic or other objects. Weather or sea state may impact the order of your emergency procedures.

It’s easy to practice and plan things out while sitting at the dock or cruising along in flat seas. But as many captains know, most situations don’t happen while the wind is calm or the sea is flat.

This is not just Murphy’s law at work (which can easily be blamed), but rough seas and weather can cause electrical connections to fail or loosen, mechanical components to break, or fuel tank debris to clog filters and shut down engines. 

While the list of steps is by no means comprehensive or applies to every boat, the main steps apply to all captains. Staying calm and having pre-defined emergency procedures are key. Knowing whom to call and when, as well as practicing emergency procedures will allow every boater to be prepared.

Do you have boating questions or problems? Send them to, and we’ll see if Marinalife’s captain can help.

Want to Stay In the Loop?

Stay up to date with the latest articles, news and all things boating with a FREE subscription to Marinalife Magazine!

Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Marinalife articles