Tips for Piloting Your Boat in an Emergency Situation

Learn how emergency aviation maneuvers can be applied to similar boating situations.
Flying Lessons: A Pilot Offers Time-Tested Advice That Benefits Boaters
Flying Lessons: A Pilot Offers Time-Tested Advice That Benefits Boaters Tim Bower

Sonny Hendrix is a captain, but not the kind who pilots a boat. He pilots commercial aircraft. I found myself on the same boat with Hendrix during a Florida fishing trip aboard a Pursuit DC 325.

The conversation ­eventually gravitated to aircraft ­emergencies and how pilots respond to them. In an emergency, a pilot is trained to immediately address three things: 1) aviate, 2) navigate and 3) communicate, in that order, Hendrix said.

Aviate means to keep the plane flying. Navigate means head for the nearest airport. Only after quickly addressing these two facets should the pilot communicate with air traffic control.


Boat captains might apply the same principles to nautical emergencies, with some marine-related adaptations.

1. Stay Afloat
This is the boating equivalent of aviate. It’s a top priority in a boating emergency, whether stemming a leak, bailing out a swamped bilge, extinguishing a fire or getting the anchor down to keep the boat from drifting into the surf. I was reminded of this recently while returning from a fishing trip. A fellow boater excitedly flagged me down. He had lost power and was in danger of drifting into the jetty. He asked for a tow, but I had other ideas. I encouraged him to get the anchor down immediately.

He was no longer in danger of dashing his boat on the rocks. I stood by and offered advice while he attempted to restart his engine. It turned out to be a simple case of a detached safety-stop lanyard. He was soon on his way.


2. Head for Port
This is the equivalent of Hendrix’s second step — navigate.

For some boaters, however, having been successful in step 1 — staying afloat — might suggest that they can put off step 2, But it can be a mistake.

This was displayed vividly on a recent trip while amid a group of boats fishing the backside of Santa Catalina Island. The automatic bilge pump of a nearby 23-foot twin-outboard center console seemed to be cycling on with disturbing frequency. It was keeping the boat afloat, but at a cost.


After three hours, it drained one of the starting batteries. Now the captain was unable to start one engine, and the bilge pump no longer worked. He finally made the decision to limp home on a single engine as crew members manually bailed water from the bilge.

3. Communicate
Communicating is important, but don’t let it interfere with steps 1 or 2. For example, on an airplane, if the engines die, the pilot doesn’t rush to the radio. Instead he rushes to restart the engines.

Similarly, if a fire breaks out on your boat, don’t rush to the VHF mic. Instead rush for a fire extinguisher. Once you have done everything possible to resolve the issue, then grab the VHF mic and communicate with authorities. If you and your crew are in mortal danger or have injured crew members, issue a Mayday call.


For a guide to issuing a Mayday distress call, see ­ You can also issue an automated Mayday distress call using the DSC distress button on your VHF radio. To learn more, visit