The Triton


Optimize practice drills for safe yacht and crew


The recent sinking of a South Korean ferry prompted us to wonder how yacht crew prepare for emergencies. Most captains and flag states require fire-fighting, first-aid and survival skills taught in Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) courses. Drills are designed to practice this training. We talked with industry professionals to find out how this plays out onboard.


Drills are part of the equation

Capt. Ted Morley feels strongly that drills are important preparation for emergencies. He creates procedures, training schedules and audits for drills on cruise ships as chief operations officer at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale.


“Sometimes crew see drills as an interruption of work, but they are the most important,” Morley said. “Training without drilling is almost useless.” He compared the lack of practice to a medical school graduate who has never practiced with his tools before working on patients.


Without practice drills, crew may not react quickly and correctly to fire, abandon ship or man overboard in case of a real emergency, said Capt. Bryan Grant. Grant works on a 76-foot private motoryacht with his wife, but recalled his time as 2nd engineer with fire manifold responsibility on a 50m Westport.


Grant’s duties included using equipment that was not normally in use like the self-contained diesel power pump, and the fresh and saltwater fire-fighting systems.


“We did the drill once and I forgot how to do it,” Grant said. So he worked with the chief engineer to perfect his duties.


“We drilled five times after hours and then I knew how to do it,” Grant said. “I remembered each month after that. I mean, you’re looking at all these valves, but after multiple times it’s easier.”


Capt. David “Mac” McDonald has seen first-hand how monthly drills increase confidence on the 205-foot (63m) M/Y Lady Lola.


“Once in a great while, we have a smoke alarm go off; most of the time it is the laundry steam-cleaning or some galley steam sneaking into the pantry,” McDonald said by e-mail from Europe. The captain said his crew react as practiced to the false alarms.


“They go to their assigned positions and begin their appropriate duties with no fuss nor worry.” McDonald said. He believes the crew will be ready if an emergency occurs and they will work calmly and efficiently.


“I feel quite pleased to see how they react like clockwork to a situation that may or may not be valid,” McDonald said. “I feel the key is to be comfortable with what to do and when, and drills are the way to do that.’


Use practice to improve

Crew don’t always respond as planned during an actual emergency, so drills can help identify weaknesses and allow time to improve, Morley said.


“Say you’re the nozzle person in a fire,” he said. “That’s an airpack job that will be hard for a claustrophobic person.”


Crew may have a fear of drowning, get seasick or be prone to panic. Finding that out in a drill will let the captain say, “I can’t use you on this part of the drill,” Morley said.


When a captain isolates a weak link, he/she can decide whether to train, replace or shift that crew to a different position. Similarly, unforeseen emotional reactions may surface during emergencies and drills can bring them out ahead of time, Morley said.


Capt. Paul Preston recalled how surprised he was to his own reaction as a young captain.


“When I first started we had a near collision,” Preston said. “I couldn’t get it out of autopilot and I became like a deer in the headlights. I learned that day to think ‘what if’ scenarios and now I always present the question to myself.”


He uses his experience when training new crew. He tells them there is nothing wrong with taking seasick medication or trying to overcome their fears.


“Know your own shortcomings and try to help yourself,” Preston tells them.


As an instructor, Morley said he has seen many crew react differently than they expect.


“We do have a patriarchal society and some may look to the eldest male, but I’ve seen captains you wouldn’t expect to, just lose it,” Morley said.


“Sometimes people faint during the medical training when students spend two days in the emergency room,” he said. “All you can do is work through with experience and teach to work past emotions.”


Eng. Andrew Brennan has seen weak points isolated during crew drills due to cultural differences. In times of duress, crew from different countries may revert to their native language or phrases and use words unfamiliar to the other crew. Morley cited another example in which a crew member stood still during a drill. When asked why, the crew said he was awaiting instruction as he was taught to in the country where he lived.


Close quarters and long hours with the same crew usually fosters teamwork onboard and drills can build these bonds personally and professionally.


“When things go bad, a close crew may react better thinking, ‘that’s not just the chef, that’s my friend’,” Morley said.


When Eng. Ben Capobianco worked on the 258-foot (80m) M/Y Pegasus V, he said the crew worked together well and took drills very seriously.


“I think the tightness of a yacht’s program makes it successful,” Capobianco said.


Bonds also create an awareness of each other’s jobs, which helps when drills are practiced minus different crew, he said.


Morley said good drills should randomly include taking key people out.


“What if the captain dies or the engineer is burned, that’s when the fun starts in a drill,” Morley said. “Now the mate is captain. He does his own job well, but he’s not used to doing the captain’s job.”


Make your own guidelines

Commercial ships have guidelines on how to drill, but they are not spelled out as clearly for yachts. Many yachts adhere to guidelines set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for safety onboard and one of these components is the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).


SOLAS requires drills for fire and abandon ship, said Stuart Biesel, director of Megayacht Technical Services International (MTSI) in Ft. Lauderdale. The company provides safety management and regulatory services.


“But there is little, if any, guidance on how to perform these drills,” Biesel said. “And there is no formal training on how to perform excellent and efficient drills.”


Biesel said most captains formulate their drills using information that has been passed down or learned from others in the industry.


“Drills are an enormous hole in the system,” Biesel said.


“And they are vital. When faced with emergency you don’t want to find yourself there for the first time,” he said.


Regardless, drills are required monthly on cargo ships, (the category that yachts fall under), and weekly on passenger ships, (basically, yachts that are considered to have more than 12 paid guests), Biesel said.


Gene Sweeney, manager at International Registries in Ft. Lauderdale, said guidelines don’t tell captains how to do drills, just what standards must be incorporated, so each yacht complies differently.


“Captains are professionals at what they do and they decide how best to meet the requirements,” Sweeney said. “They don’t have much latitude. They have to do A, B and C.


“There can be big differences between a 400- and a 150-foot yacht,” he said. “You may have department heads that manage or you just may yell up to your six crew.”


The IMO does not enforce the guidelines; that falls to the flag states. Training and certification regulations can be found under flag states; conventions including the Safety of and International Safety Management (ISM) Code under MCA and the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations 46 and the U.S. Coast Guard Navigation and Vessel Inspection circulars.


Challenge crew

Although yachts are built well and crew are usually well-trained and aware, Morley recommends captains do more than the standards set forth by regulatory bodies and flag states.


“The STCW code is the minimum standard with IMO, but do we want to stay there?” he said. “The difference could be life or death.”


Drilling differently and more often can increase safety, plus keep things more interesting to crew.


“After a year onboard, drills became boring,” Capobianco said. “But in case of an actual emergency, doing them so often takes stress and panic away. Plus, we can do it if it’s smoky or there are rough seas because we practiced so many times. You should be able to do it in your sleep.”


One way drills were enhanced on M/Y Pegasus V was when one of the crew made up unique simulations such as fires in various spots, fluctuations in water levels and crew in different locations, Capobianco said.


Varied incidents are typically what happens during an emergency anyway, Preston said. And disasters usually include several incidents at the same time, so the key to survival or saving the vessel is often whether crew can solve multiple problems, he said.


Preston suggested to read books about heavy weather and tragedies at sea, learn from others’ experiences and try the “what if” challenges he has used for himself since he began in yachting.


“What if the towed Boston Whaler turns downwind? What if the rudder breaks? What if you have a beam sea, the mate is hurt, the genset overheats and the fridge comes loose?” Preston said. “Emergencies are a series of smaller things, and it’s hard to drill for those. Out of all those things, what was it that sank the boat?”


Every practice scenario, whether mental or physical, gets crew thinking what they personally would do, he said.


Morley said he learned to avoid complacency when he worked on a commercial vessel with weekly drills.


“We got tuned in to having a fire drill at 2 o’clock each Tuesday until one day the captain said, ‘Why are you all doing a fire drill?” Morley said.


The crew responded that they always do the fire drill on Tuesday. But the captain had called for an abandon ship drill.


“It was an early lesson for me as officer and it stuck with me to today,” Morley said.


That is why Morley tells crew that when they repeat the same drills, the expectations are the same.


“We have to get away from drills on a sunny day, at lunch time,” Morley said.


He recommends captains add pressure and intensity because that’s how real emergencies happen. And don’t just drill for the big three (fire, abandon ship and man overboard), get creative, Morley said. Add steering failure, collisions, weather, groundings, fire on neighboring vessel, critical plant failure, flood, medical injuries, oil pollution and piracy to your drills.


“Captains have to step up because the more drills, the better you get. Knowledge is power,” Morley said. “You want to turn out thinking, acting and doing crew members.”

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at

About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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