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AYF Survival Course

Survival Course

© David Kerr 2001-2004

The Excalibur survivors credit this course with saving their lives (CH March 2003) yet the organisers of a couple of offshore tropical rallies have been highly critical. Our regular contributor, David Kerr, attended the course and interviewed a number of people and organisations to find out more and ascertain its relevance to cruising sailors.

In the July 2002 CH issue, we quoted that: "Woodhouse was particularly scathing of the AYF Sea Survival Course...." and "It is absolutely ridiculous to make liveaboard sailors......learn about hypothermia and helicopter rescue....". The event is now organised from Indonesia, with minimum safety requirements, compared with an AYF Offshore Race.

In February 2003, we reported that the 2002 AYF Dili race had only four contestants with the low numbers attributed to the requirement for the AYF Safety and Sea Survival Course (SSSC). As a result, the Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Association is resurrecting the Dili Dally Rally and running it from Australia. Like the Bali race, the event is being run with minimum safety requirements.

So, let's look at the course which appears to have raised so many hackles.


The SSSC was created by the AYF in direct response to the Coroner's inquiry into the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race. The coroner recommended that 50% of crews should complete such a course every three years and this is now an AYF offshore race requirement. The AYF put together the content from other existing courses and its "Blue Book", which covers the rules of racing as well as detailed safety requirements for yachts. Section 6.01 of the book states that the SSSC is required for Category One races (long distance and well offshore where crews need to be self-sufficient). It is recommended for Category Two (extended duration races near shorelines). Most cruising takes place in conditions similar to the above. The Blue Book also states that race organisers can accept other courses of equivalent content.

AYF Comment

In response to our questions, Phil Jones, CEO of the AYF says: "It is fair to say that this course was not originally designed with the cruising yachtsman in mind. However, it would appear that much of the syllabus is very relevant. On cruising yachts, emergencies do still occur, people sail in heavy weather, rigs can be lost, crews can lack knowledge of the safety equipment and how to use it. A continuing safety culture is important if sailing is not to become a victim of even greater government legislation."

Other facts

Approximately 2,500 people in Australia have done the SSSC certificate course. Others have completed the course, but not to obtain the certificate.

The SSSC is extremely similar to a number of other courses which are now required under Occupational Health and Safety legislation. For instance, one well known resort in the Whitsundays requires employees to do the course. It is also prescribed for most State Government and commercial employees working in maritime environments. I have looked at the instructors' manual for the course used by Sydney Ferries and the content is extremely close to that of the SSSC. Interestingly, it appears that the commercial and government requirements for courses were also introduced after the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race findings!

The SSSC and Rallies

Phil Jones has stated that there is no AYF mandatory SSSC requirement for Rallies unless they are run under the AYF Racing Rules of Sailing.

Events at the Top End

David Woodhouse, one of the original organisers of the Darwin to Bali Race/Rally is a very experienced sailor with considerable credentials. I found that he had moderated his views since those reported some 10 months ago. David is in favour of the SSSC but believes the syllabus needs to be geared more for tropical conditions. He has helped organise 20 major offshore races/rallies over 23 years with 1,000+ participants. The worst weather in that time was 35-40knots and the only need for rescue occurred in 1980 when David's own boat was dismasted and sinking while returning from Ambon. AUSSAR would not assist as the yacht was in Indonesian waters. They were picked up by another race participant. So, in terms of the statistics, it is easy to see why the Darwin-Bali organisers might view the SSSC as relatively unimportant for their events.

The Darwin to Dili Rally is another event held in tropical waters. The organisers commented negatively on the AYF SSSC requirements. At least one reader took strong exception to this (see Letters to the Editor, pg12, May 2003). Despite a number of requests, the organisers have not responded to Cruising Helmsman's questions for this story. The organising body is not affiliated with the AYF and can therefore make its own decisions about requirements for its rally which in 2003 will be held under COLREGS with safety equipment as defined by the NT Boating Safety Regulations.

The 2003 "Across the Top Rally" from Gove to Darwin has been cancelled due to low numbers. This rally has no SSSC prerequisite and the lack of numbers is attributed to cruisers' security concerns about continuing to parts of Indonesia and the Red Sea.

Liability, Costs and Insurance

Have you noticed that insurance is harder and costlier to obtain than previously? This issue is impacting yachting as much as any other area of life. More responsibility is being pushed further down the line. It seems inevitable that those of us who want insurance will have to do more in order to obtain it. The SSSC is tied up in this much larger issue.

The Shorthanded Sailing Association of Australia is very supportive of the AYF requirements and goes further in requiring both crew to do the course for double handed races. Rob Drury, spokesman, says "Race participants have mixed reactions to the requirements- most agree with the need and benefit but it all adds to the cost of racing which is killing the sport." Rob would like to see some form of subsidy or way of reducing the cost.

Coastal Cruising Club of Australia

The CCCA has run the practical part of the SSSC three times for 60 of its members and is organising further courses. I spoke to the organisers, Mike and Val DeBurca. I also spoke to some of those who took part. The response has been 100% positive with cruisers welcoming the opportunity to try out their own equipment and practise survival techniques under expert supervision. Val commented that some of the women were apprehensive before the course, but totally enthusiastic afterwards. Mary, a single-hander, commented: "It was great to try out my own gear. Training in the dark with rain pouring down made me realise the importance of simple things like always wearing my inflatable jacket and harness. I have been developing my body strength so I can handle situations better if I ever have to abandon ship."

Enough of the background

So, what is the course like? Does it have relevance for cruising? Is it geared specifically to high-powered yacht racing? To find out, I attended a two day SSSC run by Sunsail in Sydney. Sunsail kindly allowed me to attend the course as their guest. The course was the full SSSC and the participants were all racers. I also attended a CCCA practical course, where the participants were cruisers attending purely for their own benefit.

The Sunsail course attendees said at the start that they were doing so to fulfil the AYF requirements- the unspoken implication was that they had little to learn. They were all very experienced sailors who had crewed/skippered on some very well known yachts and their views changed totally by the end of the course.

I found the practical training the most interesting and educational. This was echoed by others with whom I have spoken. Despite that, even people with decades of experience learned from the theory sessions due to the group interaction.

We were fortunate to have the use of a purpose built survival training facility. Some other courses are held in suburban pools (not so good) or in a harbour at night (excellent and a little scary).

The practical session included comprehensive training in life raft usage, techniques to assist the injured, hypothermia, necessary safety equipment and its usage plus much more. It was interesting to note that a number of life jackets did NOT turn an unconscious person so that they could breathe. There was also an in-date life jacket that tore apart. The necessity for crutch straps also became clear. Even some of the very fit people struggled to get into the life raft or out of the pool when clothed in full wet weather gear. It all became easier with practice and new techniques. We also gained firefighting experience.

The theory section covered much of the safety part of the "Blue Book" It was tailored to the experience of the individuals attending. Sunsail had recently assisted the authorities in helicopter rescue practice and made a video. This was very interesting and the "victims" were present so we could quiz them on their experiences.

There is a multiple choice exam at the end.


Everyone who did the course was very positive. There were comments about sailing culture and how "we think we know things but until we try them, we really don't know." One skipper said he is now going to ensure that 100% of his crews do the course, despite the 50% official requirement. A Director of Sunsail said that all operational staff in Australia must complete the course.

Paul said "I now know that if I was out there in the ocean, I would have had no hope before the course, but now I have a flying start." Jamie said "It was hard- I did not realise just how hard and how little I knew about much of this."

Tailoring the course

Three different instructors have told me that the SSSC can easily be tailored to the participants as well as the environment in which they sail. I certainly agree with this. If Darwin organisers wanted to leave out helicopter rescue, they could do so. They could definitely gear the course for their environment. I would caution against leaving out hypothermia training as you can still easily die from it in tropical waters- it just takes longer!


Peter & Ruth, a cruising couple interested in a Darwin-somewhere Rally commented: "Safety courses are innately of value and are popular with the cruising community. Rescue demonstrations and day courses with theory questions should also be well attended, but an attempt to make entry to Cruises in Company or Rallies contingent on these courses argues against the inherent appeal of cruising, where two people (usually) set out in the belief that they are prepared well, in a seaworthy craft and can confidently assess and react to emergencies. Yes, they carry an EPIRB, but the entire focus is on preparation and self reliance."

"The decision to take part [in a Rally] hinges on international politics and the benefits of safety in numbers. The ability of an Indonesian sponsoring club or government entity to mount an effective rescue, or even weather and position skeds, would be welcome, but would not greatly influence our decision to enter, and would not induce comfort- nor would similar services based in Darwin."


The SSSC is excellent, particularly as it provides the opportunity for "hands-on" training and the ability to try out one's own equipment. The course can be tailored to the likely sailing environment and the experience of the attendees. I thoroughly recommend at least the practical sessions for cruisers. It is not a mandatory requirement for cruising in company or rallies, nor should it be. However, it should be recommended. Clubs such as the CCCA have put together their own courses, with accredited instructors at costs of under $100 per person. If you are a cruising couple with no AYF or Club affiliations, it will cost more.

I have spoken with the people from two different boats that sank who admit they knew too little about their safety gear and are extremely lucky to be alive; they wish that they had undertaken training like this before the events. Undoubtedly there are others, now deceased who might also have wished the same. Is it really responsible for a drop in tropical Rally numbers? Maybe, but I suggest that you weigh up the cost/benefits of the SSSC in a balanced manner and then make your own decision about its relevance for you. I unhesitatingly recommend it for those who cruise. It could save YOUR life.

With thanks

The AYF SSSC is run by a number of organisations. Sunsail and OTEN in Sydney made it possible to put together this story, so their courses are featured here. The Sunsail SSSC is run over two full days (an AYF requirement) and costs $375 each. Contact any Sunsail office or call 1800 803 988.

OTEN (NSW Open Training & Education Network) runs the half-day Sea Survival (Wet Drills) part of the course in Sydney for $105 each or $1,495 for a group of up to 20. See and find course number 22057 or call 1300 362 346.


The second half of the AYF "Blue Book" is worthwhile reading for cruisers, many of whom use it as a blueprint for their own preparations. It is available from boating bookstores and yacht clubs.

The SSSC syllabus can be found at then follow the links to "Training" and "AYF Safety and Sea Survival".

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