Calling for Help

Safety Equipment - Gavin Millar and Steve Robinson

About two months ago, following some discussion concerning distress signalling and flares on the OCSG Facebook page, Gavin was looking at the RNLI website for their recommendations and spotted an offer of practical flare demonstrations. On contacting the RNLI they explained this had been discontinued on the grounds of cost, safety and the difficulties of forewarning the emergency services that the exercise was not ‘for real’. However, instead, they very kindly offered to come to the recent April OCSG meet at the Rutland Water to provide a talk and discussion on ‘Calling for Help’.

So, at 10.00 on a beautifully sunny but almost windless Sunday morning next to Rutland Water, twenty OCSG members gathered in the ‘Pico Room’ at the Watersports Centre to meet Pete Barnard and Kieran Caulfield from the RNLI. Pete explained that the Calling for Help session was new and the feedback from OCSG members and other participants around the UK over the next month or two would help to decide whether this presentation would continue.

After an initial introduction we split into three groups and two scenarios were presented to us;

  • In the first, two groups of OCSG members were asked to imagine they’d been sailing on Rutland Water alone in daylight and the mast had fallen down breaking their arm, making it impossible to sail or paddle
  • In the second, one group of OCSG members was asked to imagine they were in a group sailing to an island in the Hebrides, two miles offshore, and a member of the party had become unwell with a suspected heart attack just as it was starting to get dark

All three groups were given around 25 cards with the pictures and names of a wide variety of distress signalling and communication items. Each group was asked to consider which equipment would be useful in one of the two scenarios and to place each item into one of four categories which were ; useful, not useful, not relevant and more information needed. The wide variety of items to choose from included; a wide selection of flares and orange smokes, EPIRBs, personal locator beacons, a small laser signalling device, a mobile phone in waterproof case, a foghorn, a whistle, several sorts of marine VHF radio and more. A number of interesting discussions ensued. Several of us had good ideas of what to select but none had all the answers. The need to balance what communications and signalling equipment we might ideally like to have in an emergency against considerations of practicality, weight and budget soon became part of the discussions.

After some brief wider discussion of our choices and some of the points we were unsure about, Pete then made use of a wide ranging display of distress signalling and communications items and discussed each in turn. We were able to handle the kit and ask questions about pros and cons, use in different situations, alternatives and RNLI recommendations. Kieran supplied an approximate cost for each item. Pete was often able to illustrate the importance of some of the items and highlight the relevance of the discussion from his extensive Search and Rescue and Lifeboat experience.

All agreed the talk had been very interesting and informative and some stayed on to watch an RNLI training video on cold water shock. After which, a few met with Pete on a one to one basis for an RNLI ‘Sea Check’ which included a check list and talk through the safety equipment we each carry on-board our sailing canoes. We were all able to take away a free booklet and DVD called ‘Sea Safety: A Complete Guide’. An on line version is available from the RNLI website. See for more on safety and for a further link taking you to the RNLI Sea Safety download. Additionally, an RNLI pdf download intended for kayakers but also very relevant for canoe sailors can be found by following the link,

Afterwards, the wind had increased a little, so some drifted about on the lake in the sunshine while some of us chatted over lunch about the RNLI talk and the very relevant questions raised about what safety equipment to carry on a sailing canoe. The discussion went on to the possibility of providing some guidance to OCSG members concerning the not only ‘Calling for Help’ items but the general safety equipment OCSG members might consider carrying in a variety of situations.

Such lists can only be recommendations of what to consider as each canoe sailor must take the final responsibility for their own safety and choice of what to take based on; the voyage, thinking through possible scenarios and how to deal with them, their experience, personal preference and budget. Suggested lists of what OCSG members may wish to consider for five scenarios are shown below. When sailing as part of a group staying in close touch, it may often be OK for some items to be carried by just one member of the party. Ultimately the list is intended for ‘the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools’. In good weather, and when sailing with a group who are very competent, it may be appropriate to carry less. If you or another member of the group is operating at the limit of competence, it may be appropriate to carry the gear listed in the next category up.

For a sail in company across the lake to the cafe and in all situations you should always have;

  • A buoyancy aid or lifejacket with whistle
  • Bailer of appropriate size
  • Clothing suitable for the season and the weather
  • And a paddle

For a 2 hour voyage on a familiar river or inland lake in good weather consider adding to the above;

  • A mobile phone in a waterproof case
  • Something to eat (e.g. cereal bars) and a drink
  • A drysuit or wetsuit if the weather conditions or the water temperature so require
  • Extra warm or waterproof clothing in a drybag (consider carrying a complete change of clothing).
  • An additional means of calling for help such as a personal day / night flare

For a day sail on inland waters you may not be completely familiar with and in reasonable weather consider adding to the above;

  • Sufficient food and water for the day
  • A map
  • Pocket compass
  • Additional means of propulsion such as a spare paddle
  • Simple spares kit which could include items such as; cord, a shackle or two, cable ties, a short length of gaffer tape, a spare pulley block and a multitool
  • Throwing line in bag
  • First Aid Kit
  • Additional flares such as a handheld orange smoke and a handheld red flare, and / or a laser signalling device
  • A buoyancy aid strobe light
  • Lock and chain to allow boats to be left safely in the event of bad weather / darkness and while going off for a retrieval vehicle
  • Bothy Bag.

For sailing on coastal waters you may not be completely familiar with and where weather may be a bit more unpredictable, consider adding the following;

  • Marine charts for the area
  • Marine VHF handheld radio
  • Waterproof torch
  • Anchor and short warp (a non floating nylon throw line can be used to extend the warp)
  • Foghorn
  • All round white navigation light
  • A means of reliably obtaining weather forecasts, such as a small longwave radio
  • White handheld collision flare
  • Small binoculars
  • Steering compass
  • Tide Tables
  • Additional items for the spares and tool kit such as, a small hacksaw and a small hull repair kit appropriate to your boat’s construction
  • Parachute flare(s)
  • Sea anchor
  • Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or Spot Messenger
  • Portable GPS
  • Inflatable radar reflector

As I’m sure you’ll have worked out by now, the total cost of all of the above adds up to a tidy sum. Although shopping around on the internet revealed lower prices than the stock prices listed in the RYA presentation,  it’s certainly not intended anyone should buy most of the items in one go. We’ve acquired much, but not all, of the above over several years, adding items as needed and as our canoe sailing voyages became longer and a bit more adventurous. Some of the items can fulfil a similar purpose so you don’t always need to take the lot. For example, a PLB might be sufficient for signalling distress / raising the alarm when offshore and make it less important to carry rocket flares. Find out what the items are for and how they are used. A real life emergency is no time to start reading the instructions! Practice dealing with some emergencies. No amount of safety gear can be a substitute for being able to right your boat after a capsize. Think about what safety gear you need for the sailing you’d like to do and if your budget does not stretch to all the items, then beg, borrow or share the rest. If nothing else, you won’t be stuck when friends or family ask you what you’d like for Christmas or birthdays and remember; sailing should be fun as well as safe.