Almost six years ago  I had about 50 seconds to prepare for abandoning my sinking vessel. We were cruising from Sydney to Yamba on the north coast of NSW, Australia. On board was my mate Rick and our two 11-year old sons Riley and Ryan. 

The boat, a 42ft flybridge cruiser, had been out of the water two weeks earlier and was in great shape but something went horribly wrong about three hours into our journey. From up on the flybridge I noticed black smoke billowing from the exhaust. I went downstairs to check it out; maybe a fuel filter I thought, but upon opening the engine hatch I discovered about seven tonnes of water swirling around the motor. A horrible cold feeling came over me and I knew we were going to sink. 

I yelled to get life jackets on the boys, who were asleep at the time. “We’re going down!” I screamed in a state of panic. I grabbed my EPIRB, said “Mayday” once into the radio and bent down to grab my flares from under the helm chair, but by that stage I had water up to my knees, the back deck was under and water was coming out of the floor and pouring down into the cabin below. Needless to say I decided there was no time to get the flares, I had to get out fast.

Instead I ran outside grabbed an Esky and dived into the water, the two boys jumped in from the flybridge, my mate jumped in and the boat turned vertical and disappeared in a second – not even a bubble. Scary s#*t to say the least. I think we may have hit an unseen object in the water and tore the  rudder stock away from the hull ... I guess I will never really know.

So I am asking you: What would you do in a similar situation? What do you need to survive?  And more importantly, can you put your hands on your safety equipment in seconds?

A life raft or float free tender are ideal, but depending on the size of your boat and your budget, this may not be possible. If this is the case, what do you need to ensure survival?

Keep life jackets readily accessible or better still wear a PFD (personal flotation device). There are many to choose from and they are extremely comfortable. Life jacket wear rate is only 40 per cent in Australia at best and with the new PFDs available I think we can all improve this statistic.

If you are travelling off shore an EPIRB is a wise investment. They can alert search and rescue services by transmitting a coded message via satellite. An EPIRB certainly saved my life!

When deployed, flares create a visual distress signal. They are, however, only effective if someone can see you. Good judgement is critical when using a flare and they should be saved until you can see a boat or plane passing by, or if there is a good chance someone on shore will see you.

This is an orange plastic flag with a black V on it. It's approximately 4ft by 4ft and is considered the international signal of distress. Whether you’re in the water or still on-board it can be seen from long distances.

A heliograph or mirror can be used to reflect sunlight to get attention. A proper heliograph has a hole in the middle to look through and ensure the reflection is hitting the intended target. Westpac Lifesaver Helicopter rescue pilots believe this to be an extremely effective tool in being located and can be seen from many kilometres away.

I think the benefits of this speak for themselves. I personally have a Cobra UHF radio and it has been unstoppable.

I recommend both. When I was in the water I had a yacht sail past within 300m but they did not hear our screams for help. I believe a horn would have worked in this situation.

All of the safety devices mentioned have a role to play in ensuring your survival. They are, however, only useful if you have time to access them in an emergency. Make sure you keep your safety equipment in one easy to access and highly visible location. It should also ideally be stored in a buoyant device so that you have a stable platform to operate everything from if you do end up in the water after abandoning ship. 

This article was written by Scott Smiles and originally appeared in the Dec/Jan Issue of Nautilus Magazine.