If you’re in a small boat and have to have a casualty lifted off by helicopter, what should you expect? David Harding finds out
What to do, step-by-step
Many of us have seen a casualty being airlifted from a yacht, either in a genuine emergency or as an exercise. Some of us have been involved in pre-arranged exercises too, or called up by HM coastguard out of the blue – or the grey – and asked to take part in an exercise as we were sailing along minding our own business. If we agreed, we would end our day much the wiser about what to do should it ever happen for real.
In this feature we’re going to concentrate principally on what might happen if someone needs to be lifted off a small motorboat. Although motorboats don’t have the same heavy and/or fast-moving bits of rig or rigging to bang you on the head, which account for a high proportion of the injuries sustained on sailing yachts, a fair amount of distress calls leading to a helicopter rescue come from motorboats.
Small motorboats present their own particular challenges to the helicopter crew. That’s why it was good to have an opportunity to see what happened when they joined forces with Will King and the Harbour Sea School for an exercise in Poole Bay. Will was skippering a Cap Camarat 755, crewed by Will Kennedy, and this was a new experience for both of them.
Start with the basics
To make sense of the reasoning behind the various methods used by the HM Coastguard search and rescue crews, it helps to understand a few fundamental facts and principles. n There is no such thing as a ‘standard’ rescue technique for any given situation. The methods shown here are examples of what might happen. All can be varied. The helicopter crew will assess each situation before making judgements and issuing instructions to the boat accordingly. n Instructions will be issued by VHF radio where possible. If you don’t have a VHF on board, it will come down to hand signals and alternative (potentially less efficient) rescue techniques might have to be used. n Helicopters prefer to be moving forward rather than hovering. Movement into the wind creates greater air-speed through the rotors, generating more lift so less power is needed and also moving the downdraught behind the helicopter. n Helicopters create a powerful downdraught (or downwash). If they’re hovering when there’s little or no wind, the downdraught will be almost directly underneath the rotors and therefore very close to the boat. It will tend to blow the boat around, often unpredictably, making life much harder for the pilot and winchman as well as the boat’s crew. The spray it also throws up adds to the discomfort. It’s essential to remove any loose items such as cushions, clothing and caps before the helicopter approaches in order to stop them being blown around, adding to the general confusion and presenting a potential danger to the helicopter’s engines. n Helicopters are noisy beasts. When you’re immediately underneath, or even a little way to one side, you won’t be able to hear anything over its noise. VHF communication will be impossible, as might talking to (or shouting at) your crew. A briefing over the radio (if you have one) will take place before the helicopter closes in, and crucial hand-signals will be explained. n The pilot and the winch operator are on the starboard side of the helicopter, so they need to be on the boat’s port side to see what’s happening. The pilot might still lose visibility of the boat – especially a small boat – whereas the the winch operator will maintain visual contact at all times. n If circumstances allow, the winchman will probably be lowered straight on to the boat to save time. In some situations – when there’s a lot of movement, for example – a hi-line will be lowered first. This is a weighted line that the boat’s crew pulls aboard to help guide and steady the winchman or any equipment that comes down from the helicopter. Rule No1 with the hi-line is that it should never be made fast to the boat! n On exercises like this, particularly one involving a small boat in choppy conditions, the winchman might not land on board. He would be risking injury – not a good idea if a genuine distress call is received immediately after the exercise, as it was on this occasion. As the helicopter was returning to base at Lee-on-Solent it was called back to an emergency in Poole Bay, where we had been on exercise.
The pilot and the winch operator are on the starboard side of the helicopter
The powerful downdraught (or downwash) throws up a lot of spray
Approaching from the port side allows the helicopter to maintain visual contact