Many hazards face the seafarer, and ocean rowers in particular: hurricanes, electrical failure, broken watermakers, broken anything-else, capsize, sharks, pirates, injury or illness.
Some of these things are within your control. Some are not. My strategy has been to do all I can to mitigate the former, and to not waste valuable mental energy thinking about the latter.
I do highly recommend writing out SOP (Special Operating Procedures) for every possible eventuality you can think of, with a step-by-step plan of action for what you will do if and when that situation arises. Chances are (I hope) that none of them will ever happen, but at least you will have thought it all through in advance, and will have made sure that you have all the things you need on board to handle any eventuality.
Some specific tips:
If a hurricane strikes, your best strategy is to retreat to your cabin, seal all the hatches, and strap yourself to your bunk to avoid being hurled around. (So make sure you install those cross-bunk seatbelts before you leave land.) Stay buttoned up like this until the hurricane has passed.
There are various ways to issue a Mayday. If you still have electricity and a satellite phone, call for help, or if there is a ship within sight, issue a distress signal from your VHF radio.
You absolutely must have an EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon, 406 Mhz, Category 2) which will activate automatically when wet, or can be activated manually by pressing a button. You should also have a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) in your emergency grab bag, which is what you take with you in the liferaft if you have to abandon ship. It performs the same function as the EPIRB.
When activated, the beacons send out a distress signal that allows the beacon to be located by the satellite system and lets search and rescue aircraft know where to locate your boat. They have to be registered with your national EPIRB Registry – when the EPIRB is activated they liaise with any relevant MRCC’s (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres) to identify a nearby ship that may be able to divert to your last known position.
Other onboard safety equipment must include:
– Radar enhancer with audio alarm
– Global positioning beacon that posts your latest position to website (such as Argos, Spot, Field Tracker etc)
– AIS transponder
– Marine flares (4 red parachute, 4 red handheld, 4 white parachute, 6 white handheld, 2 orange smoke handheld)
– Signalling mirror
– Immersion suit
– Liferaft plus Survival Equipment Pack and grab bag (see below)
– Safety harness or ankle leash, attached to the boat in case of capsize
– Type-4 Coast Guard Approved Flotation Device
– Fire blanket
– Fire extinguisher
The liferaft grab bag contains such things as:
– High-calorie, non-perishable foods
– Bottles of water
– Anti seasickness tablets
– First aid kit
– Fishing kit
– Glucose sweets
– Grab bag
– Lightsticks (6)
– Personal EPIRB
– Pocket strobe light
– Silva compass
– Thermal foil blanket
– Tool kit
– Waterproof flashlight
A liferaft’s Survival Equipment Pack (included within the liferaft) will typically contain:
– Manual Inflation Pump – Spring Loaded Return w/ Adapter
– Repair Kit (Includes: Repair Tape, Repair Clamp (3”) & 2 PRV Plugs w/ Tether)
– Collapsible Bailer Bucket w/ Handle
– Paddles w/Retro Reflective Segments
– Signal Mirror (2”x3”)
– 3 USCG Aerial Meteor Flares
– 3 USCG Hand Held Locator Flares
– Raft Knife
– Utility Knife
– Pelican Flashlight
– Survival Manual
The Manual Inflation Pump, Bailer Bucket, Raft Knife, and Pelican Flashlight should all be on lanyards tied to the LifeRaft.
The Survival Equipment pack should also be tied to the floor of the LifeRaft and the contents be vacuumed packed.
Depending on where you are setting out from, and the level of helpfulness of your friendly local Coast Guard, you may be able to invite them to conduct a safety review of your vessel. I would highly recommend this.
Either way, you should most definitely liaise with the relevant Coast Guard service, and let them know your plans. In my extensive experience, they are highly professional people who just want to make sure you stay alive. And like most human beings, they like to be respected. So tell them what you're doing, and prove to them that you're well-prepared. They don't want the hassle of having to come rescue you, any more than you want to be rescued.
Of course, sometimes things get out of hand, and that is what the Coast Guard are there for. But if you go out ill-prepared and unready for the hostile environment that is the ocean, you do a disservice not only to yourself, but also to the entire community of ocean-rowers (and the Coast Guard - it is their lives on the line too).
So be fair, and make sure you're NOT the one to make the Coast Guard roll their eyes and say to themselves, "Oh my word, it's another one of those idiot ocean rowers about to make our lives difficult". We will all thank you for it!