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Vessel transfer: A how to guide from Pip Hare

Pip Hare talks about the problems involved in a rescue using a vessel transfer from a yacht to a rescue ship or other boat

Whether it’s a medical emergency that requires a single crewmember to be evacuated, or a yacht suffers damage that means it’s impossible to navigate safely to the shore and the whole crew need to abandon, any call for help will most likely be answered by another seafarer, and that will probably mean some sort of vessel transfer.

When a rescue vessel arrives at your position it will be a relief, and it may be tempting to allow them to manage your evacuation and become passive. But the reality is that performing a vessel transfer from your boat to another can present significant challenges which must be addressed by both sides.

Make yourself visible

An EPIRB will give the rescue co-ordination centres your GPS position at around 45-minute intervals, or less depending on the age of your device.

This will give a rescue vessel a ‘ball park’ to aim for. Once there, they will need to home in on your exact position. If the rescue vessel is able to receive 121.5MHZ signal then it will be able to home in on your EPIRB.

During the Vendée Globe Kevin Escoffier transferred from his rescuer Jean Le Cam’s Yes We Cam! to a French naval vessel by swimming – made possible because he was wearing a survival suit.

Normally only aircraft, maritime rescue vessels and commercial shipping monitor 121.5 MHZ so it is sensible to carry other means of signalling your position such as a SART (search and rescue transponder), which can either work with radar or AIS and has a range of around six miles.

Personal and boat AIS devices can also be used to indicate position, but are not recognised distress signals so should not be used as an initial way to call for help.

Even with an electronic position it can still be hard to spot a target, so make your vessel as bright as possible – you can get creative with this. Hoist storm sails or drape them over the hull, turn on lights, use flares, torches or strobes.

Be ready for your vessel transfer

Performing a vessel transfer in a big sea is going to be fraught and potentially dangerous so start planning how the rescue will be made as soon as contact is established with the other boat.

The important things to consider are keeping your crew safe, and wherever possible dry, and avoiding any risk to the safe operation of the rescue vessel.

Dress all crew appropriately, wearing lifejackets and each with a torch or signalling device. If one of your crew is injured, communicate this to the other vessel as early as possible. Pack only essential items such as medication and identification documents – do not allow crew to take nonessential items.

Before beginning a transfer confirm your plan

Unless you are in perfect conditions it may be unwise to attempt a direct transfer from yacht to yacht, so you must consider transferring the crew by other means, using your own rescue craft. This could be a liferaft or tender, and any such transfer vessel should be inflated and made ready to use. If using a liferaft, don’t stream the drogue.

Tidy up before the arrival of your rescue vessel, this is for your protection as well as theirs. If there is debris in the water around your boat that might damage or hamper them, try to haul it aboard.

The rescuing vessel should send a line to the stricken yacht, which will be used to pull the liferaft across. This could be a heaving line which is thrown at shorter range, or a longer line floated down to the vessel on a fender or life sling.

With the floating line method, a rescuing vessel can drag the line through the water into position, keeping good control so it doesn’t drift into props or rudders. It is a good idea to use a light weight floating line for initial contact, then swap this for a more substantial rope to pull the raft across.

The boats should be as close as possible to allow shortest time of transfer, but with minimal risk of the two boats colliding.

Once the transfer line is passed across, ensure it is secured onto an appropriate point. Both liferafts and tenders have external lines that are not designed to pull them – look for the point where a painter is normally attached.

Load your crew into the raft, keeping them dry if possible. Put one strong crewmember in first and last so they can give assistance to weaker or injured crew.

The best scenario with rescue from a large commercial craft is that they launch a fast rescue vessel – such as a RIB

The rescue crew should pull the raft across while inside the raft one crewmember monitors the vessel transfer line and the others distribute their weight evenly. Once in contact with the rescue vessel, help the weaker crewmembers to disembark first.

No rescue will ever follow a textbook pattern and the plan will change, depending on conditions, crew numbers, and kit available. However, in all cases, putting a crewmember in the water to transfer between vessels should be a last resort. If this must be done, ensure it is at the closest proximity possible to the rescue vessel and use a transfer line in the same way to maintain contact with the person.

Rescue by commercial ship

If a commercial vessel has been tasked with your evacuation do not assume they will have an effective plan for your recovery on arrival.

It is rare that crew on commercial ships have any understanding of the difficulties of handling a yacht. Don’t be afraid to tell a commercial vessel what you need and to refuse a rescue plan if it will put your crew in danger.

The best scenario with rescue from a large commercial craft is that they launch a fast rescue vessel (such as a RIB) and it can come to you. Suggest this first.

It is rare that crew on commercial ships have any understanding of the difficulties of handling a yacht

In some cases the ship’s captain may suggest a direct vessel transfer from one vessel to the other by bringing the ship alongside. Consider this option carefully – the ship will provide great protection from the elements but it will continue to make way through the water and the potential for further damage to your vessel or injury to your crew through entrapment between the vessels is high.

The most likely scenario is again transferring using your liferaft or tender. In this case, the ship can be positioned upwind to provide protection from the elements.

A heaving line may be fired from a line launcher – stand well clear and allow the line to land on the deck before picking it up – these typically have a range of up to 80m.

Once your transfer vessel is alongside the ship you will need to get on board. Be clear with the crew of the ship about your needs and capabilities.

In some cases the ship’s captain may suggest a direct vessel transfer from one vessel to the other by bringing the ship alongside

If you have injured or extremely weak crew then climbing up a 12m ladder or scramble net on a moving vessel may be impossible. In that case the crew would need to lower down a sling or net to bring survivors up to deck level.

Don’t assume the ship will have the equipment you require and try to talk this step through before leaving your own boat in case you need to take something with you.

Vessel transfer tips

Put a spare, fully charged VHF battery in your grab bag (these can be purchased for most handheld radios).

If making regular ocean passages in colder climates, consider investing in an immersion suit for each crewmember. If you have to go in the water for a transfer these provide vital protection.

Use orange smoke flares or sea marker dye to indicate wind direction and drift to a rescue vessel that is preparing to float or throw a messenger line over.

Sea survival courses teach and refresh many of the skills and techniques required for rescues. Even if you have done one before, consider booking your whole crew on before any significant offshore passages. There is no substitute for practical and recent experience.


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