Cruising Risk Management Assessment & Plan


This post is a collaborative effort between myself and ‘Hope’ from Covert Castaway.  I heard her podcast episode titled Getting a Risk Plan and was very intrigued by what exactly a risk management plan for a cruising boat would look like on paper.  

Hope is familiar with risk management assessments through her job as a high-level executive in a large tech company.  Her and her partner put together a rough list of their biggest cruising concerns, and then applied risk management methods to some of the biggest safety challenges cruisers will face.

We both believe that by taking the time to do the simple assessment will help facilitate healthy discussion and debate to make sure all crew is on the same page – and ultimately help you more safely and confidently embrace your cruising adventure.

Risk Management in a Cruising Context

Risk management methods have been in place for years to help businesses, the public sector, or aviation/shipping companies make sure they are keeping their people safe, achieving operational best practices and complying with regulations. The idea is to have a proactive strategy for identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks to ensure good outcomes for the business or a mission. It’s also used to ensure there’s alignment across the organization/team so everyone is on the same page about what’s important and what to do if anything bad happens. It documents procedures and who is responsible for what so the people know what to do when an event occurs, or what the procedure is to avoid events in the first place. Often, just putting this kind of plan in place helps reduce risk because thought is being given to potential hazards which may not have otherwise been detected.  

The same basic approach has been applied in sailboat racing or organized passages, as anyone who has been involved in the ARC would attest. This type of risk management can be easily applied to cruising and can be a helpful way of getting crew (often a husband and wife) more aligned on what should be done in any given situation. The reality is there may be different levels of risk tolerance in the crew so when a high-stakes decision needs to be made without advanced context, there may be competing ideas for what the best mitigation is. And, we all know the worst time to problem-solve a serious problem is when you are in the middle of handling said serious problem. 

There is a difference between general safety rules (controls) and having a proactive approach to continuously managing risk and adapting to various circumstances or passages over time (the risk strategy). General safety rules might be… wear your dinghy kill cord while driving or clip into the jacklines while on deck. These are typically related to reducing the risk of injury or death. But a risk management plan is more holistic and accounts for the context of where you are and all aspects that could create a compounded set of problems that hinder the mission overall. It’s meant to break down a potentially large set of factors into tangible decision points and actions that reduce ambiguity of response and situation management. And just like the weather, it should be reviewed and on a regular basis. So safety rules and point in time procedures, like man overboard (drills, rescues?), are controls that act as part of a good sailing protocol. But taking a more holistic approach to risk as an overarching part of your sailing plan can set the stage for helping you operate better as a team to anticipate and mitigate risks as situations happen, and reduce the severity of the problems.

Risk Management Model

The basics of the model for risk management are simple and have been around for years, though different industries make adjustments to fit their specific needs. Here’s the basic steps:

  • CONTEXT – Establishes the scope, context and appetite for what risks you will be trying to mitigate. So for example, are you just trying to tackle the first six months or are you taking on a long passage? 
  • IDENTIFY RISKS – In that context that was set, this means making a list of all the things that could possibly go wrong which includes all kinds of things from bad weather, to system or equipment problems, or even a health problem back home for a family member, etc. Once that list is established, rank them (with a number) in order of impact on our overall mission so you have a hierarchy. When doing this you can collapse things into categories that are closely related, are root problems, create snowball effects or multiply the impact of an event. 
  • ASSESS RISKS – Of all those things ranked in order of severity of impact to the mission, ranked them in a second column (with a second number) in terms of how likely it is for them to happen. For example, having to abandon ship would be a huge risk, but of all the things on the list it may be low in terms of likelihood of happening – in the big picture. In business, you essentially multiply the two rankings together and you can get a prioritized Risk Matrix which determines the top risks you should proactively find ways to avoid or mitigate. 
  • MITIGATE RISKS – Now, with your list sorted by the highest scoring numbers first, (once you have multiplied the two numbers), tackle them ten items at a time to create risk controls for each item. This would come in the form of protocols, prevention tactics or a process…like agreeing to reef when the wind reaches a certain level, or who does what if a halyard breaks in high-wind.  

This whole thing is a closed loop, so the idea is that as you create your risk plan, you find new and better controls to put in place that help you better manage over time. For example, if you know risk on any items is much higher if one or both of you aren’t well rested, you commit to getting the right amount of sleep during a passage no matter what. Or, choosing to invest in a high quality chain to lock your dingy down to avoid theft versus relying on the standard line. Or, a list of standing orders like the first reef is put in the main when the apparent wind speed hits 15 knots consistently. 

Individual Risks and Management

Each risk and how you manage it will vary depending on many factors in cruising.  Everyone has different concerns that are unique to them, and these concerns should be taken into consideration.  

Some risks will be location dependent.  For example, the possibility of hitting a FAD (fishing aggregating devices) is unique to Southeast Asia.  These platforms are unlit and made of wood, meaning the chances of a crew member spotting one while sailing at night are very slim.  The same goes for shipping channels.  A boat sailing from the Bay of Biscay to the Canary Islands will cross the shipping channels that feed into the Mediterranean.  This will impact the difficulties of navigating and the likelihood of a collision between two vessels.  

The way a vessel manages risk will also be dependent on the skill and comfort level of the crew.  For example, an inexperienced crew member sailing the Pacific Ocean might be given the standing order of waking up a skipper if another vessel is spotted.  In that case, spotting another vessel is rare and is unlikely to happen enough to disturb the skipper’s sleep patterns in a harmful way.  However, a crew member given this standing order while sailing up the Strait of Malacca would be waking the skipper up every hour.  

Therefore, a crew member might be given the standing order to wake the skipper up if they are unable to determine or mitigate the possibility of collision.  This gives the crew member the freedom to observe a vessel out at sea, identify collision risk, and course correct, without waking the skipper.

The above scenario is also dependent on the vessel’s equipment.  One of the steps that could be taken to identify collision risk is to check the AIS target’s Closest Point of Approach (CPA).  A vessel without AIS would not have that option, and would have to rely on other methods of identifying collision risk.

How to Create a Sailing Risk Management Assessment

  1.  List out every possible scenario you are worried about.  This could be your fridge or freezer dying, a crew member falling overboard, or pirate attack.
  2. Think on a scale of 1-10, how likely is this to happen, with one being the least likely and 10 being very likely.  
  3. Then rate the scenario on the seriousness level on a scale of 1-10.  A one would be a minor inconvenience, and a ten would be a disaster.
  4. Multiply the probability of occurrence with the likelihood of occurrence, and you now have the level of concern on a scale of 1-30.  
  5. Starting from the highest level of concern, write out everything you can do to prevent the scenario from happening.  These may be things that you do one and are set for a while (like purchase an item) or something that you have to do on a routine basis (like test or check expiration dates).  
  6. Imagine the scenario DOES happen.  What should you do?  These are your emergency procedures.  These items should only be items you do after the event has happened – if it’s something you should do before, then it needs to be in the preventative section.


  • Probability of Occurrence: 
  • Seriousness of Occurrence: 
  • Level of Concern: 

Sources & Notes

List anything relative to your crew, boat or equipment. List any sources you referenced so you can return to them later if needed.

Preventative Measures

What will you do on a one-time basis or a regular basis to ensure that this risk doesn’t happen or is mitigated?

Emergency Procedures

When or if this risk does happen, what are your next steps?

Example:  Crew Member Seasick

  • Probability of Occurrence: 9
  • Seriousness of Occurrence: 3
  • Level of Concern: 27

Sources & Notes

Preventative Measures

  • Research and purchase at least three different types of anti-nausea treatment, including a suppository for extreme cases
  • Try each treatment without seasickness to test for side effects 
  • Test treatment’s effectiveness while seasick
  • Check inventory and resupply as needed every six months or before a major passage
  • Purchase an enema kit and electrolyte solution for extreme cases
  • Purchase an Aqua-C subcutaneous hydration kit and procure IV fluids for extreme cases
  • Stock foods to ease nausea 
    • Examples: ginger beer, candied ginger, ginger biscuits, salted crackers
  • Began treatment 24 hours prior to departure
  • Prepare the boat in advance as much as possible to remove the need to do manual tasks at sea
    • Examples: prepare several days’ worth of meals, clean everything, put anything needed out


  • Crew member should stay above deck as much as possible, preferably where there is a view of the horizon and a breeze
    • Examples: sit at helm, brush teeth at galley sink, sleep in main salon
  • Consume as much fluids as possible
  • Avoid focusing attention on tasks
    • Examples: no chores, reading, watching tv
  • Once vomiting begins, take suppositories
  • For extreme cases, use Aqua-C subcutaneous hydration or electrolyte solution (or chicken bouillon) enemas for nutrients  
Amy napping in the cockpit when she doesn’t feel well.

Event: Water maker inoperative

  • Probability of Occurrence: 3
  • Seriousness of Occurrence: 7
  • Level of Concern: 21

Sources & Notes

  • FEMA recommends storing one gallon of water per person per day.  On a 20-day passage for two persons, emergency water supplies would be 40 gallons.
  • Additional sources of water include rain catching, water rations packed with a liferaft, hydration packs with electrolytes, and a solar still.
  • Helia 44 has 200 gallon water tank
  • A normally active person needs to drink at least two quarts (half gallon) of water each day
  • Food and Water in an Emergency by FEMA and Red Cross:

Preventative Measures

  • Run the watermaker every 4-5 days or fill water tanks when the water tank level reaches 50%
  • Perform routine maintenance per Cruise RO manual
  • Stock watermaker spare parts

Emergency Procedures

If the watermaker is deemed inoperative, take emergency measures:

  • Inventory water supplies
  • Calculate water supplies needed to arrive at the destination (excluding rainwater or solar still water in the calculation)
  • Do all washing of persons and dishes with saltwater
  • Set up the rain catchment system
  • Set up the solar still
  • Cook foods that do not require water to prepare or cook foods that can use saltwater in their preparation (e.g. boil pasta with saltwater)
  • Do not drink diuretics such as coffee, tea, soda or alcohol
  • Evaluate the food supplies for items with high water content and low salt content (e.g. fruit juices, low sodium broths)
  • Contact any vessels within range asking for assistance
  • See event:  Potable Water Expended
Our watermaker

Event: Potable Water Expended

  • Probability of Occurrence: 3
  • Seriousness of Occurrence: 9
  • Level of Concern: 27


  • FEMA recommends storing one gallon of water per person per day.  On a 20-day passage for two persons, emergency water rations would be 40 gallons.
  • Additional sources of water include rain catching, water rations packed with a liferaft, hydration packs with electrolytes, and a solar still.
  • Helia 44 has a 200-gallon water tank
  • A normally active person needs to drink at least two quarts (a half gallon) of water each day
  • Food and Water in an Emergency by FEMA and Red Cross:

Preventative Measures

  • Purchase water bottles
  • Purchase baby wipes for personal sanitation
  • Design, install, and test a water catchment system
  • Install a saltwater pump at the galley sink
  • Verify the availability of water rations in liferaft
  • Purchase hydration pack desalinators
  • Purchase solar still
  • Check water bottles before every passage, including expiration dates
  • Check hydration packs before every passage, including expiration dates
  • Test solar still every year
  • Test saltwater tap in galley every six months
  • Keep a blue jerry can or large water bottles designated for emergency water

Emergency Procedures

  • Begin emergency procedures five days before potable water runs out 
  • Prepare for evacuation
  • Send out emergency beacon using EPIRB or InReach

What scares you about cruising?

Doing a risk assessment like the one proposed here is a great way to evaluate what scares you about cruising and what you can do to alleviate those fears. It’s also an important thing to do on any cruising boat – whether you have been sailing for one day or one decade – to better situate you and your crew for when a dangerous situation occurs.

Have you done an assessment? What were your top five biggest concerns?

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  1. What do you do with a drunken sailor?
    Probability – 10
    Seriousness – 1
    Level of concern – 10
    Mitigating actions – why is all the rum gone?

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