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The Ultimate Upgrade

Don’t leave home without it!

Disaster struck at seven o’clock on a wintry North Florida morning. Tim Martin and his buddies were idling along in Martin’s seasoned battlewagon, 30 miles offshore, having deployed lures for the early wahoo bite. “Hey,” yelled Adrian Heilman from the cockpit as one of the exhaust ports burped black smoke. From the helm station on the flying bridge, Martin turned to look and heard Heilman’s voice again, only this time from the saloon. “Fire!” Heilman yelled, standing over an open engine-room hatch belching greasy plumes.


Martin’s a safety-conscious guy. Just before his VHF went dead he’d fired off a MAYDAY call, although he wasn’t sure anyone had heard it. Then he descended to the cockpit, closed the fuel shut-off valves, and took a moment to think. He had five passengers onboard, one a first-time boater and another, a fellow with a spinal injury. The boat was most likely going to sink—the smoke was intensifying fast—and at 63F the water was frigid. Martin looked at his watch: 7:12, only a dozen minutes into a horrific, wholly unexpected affair.

Preparedness hallmarked what Martin did next. He initiated an emergency abandon-ship routine he’d been doggedly rehearsing for years with crew members (no matter how experienced and/or expert) before leaving the dock. It started with PFDs—Martin made sure every guy onboard was wearing one of the comparatively expensive but highly buoyant commercial-grade PFDs he favors over cheaper Type II near-shore models. Then there was the ditch bag—from a dedicated spot by the saloon door he pulled a water-resistant, large (29"x10"x15"), faded-yellow RapidDitch bag purchased from ACR Electronics years before. There was an ACR 406-MHz EPIRB in one of the outside pockets, a handheld VHF in another, and three big plastic containers inside, one filled with up-to-date aerial, handheld and smoke signaling flares, and the others with expired (but perhaps still usable) flares, signaling mirrors, crank-powered strobes, and an assortment of other survival items. Once he’d activated the EPIRB, Martin handed the ditch bag to his friend Scott Leaptrott saying, “Hang onto this!”

The final step was as well planned-for as the first two. Martin directed Heilman to remove the boat’s valise-type liferaft from its spot alongside the ditch bag’s former location, carry it to the stern, and stand by to deploy. Almost simultaneously, the starter motor on one of the engines began overspeeding, screaming like a banshee, and the curtains in the saloon burst into flame. “We’re gettin’ off,” Martin announced loudly, giving Heilman the nod. By 7:19, the raft was floating free with all hands safely onboard. A Coast Guard 47' motor lifeboat arrived within the hour, thanks to the EPIRB signal, well after Martin’s battlewagon had burned to the waterline and sunk.

The moral of the story? If you regularly visit the wild blue yonder in your boat, consider making the ultimate upgrade: add top-notch PFDs if you don’t already have them onboard, as well as a ditch bag and a liferaft. Then, every time you hit the trail, make sure every person knows how to use all three to save his own life and the lives of others.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.