Safety at sea: beyond the basics
Posted on 24 February 2009
Written by Dieter Loibner
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There’s plenty of gear to help keep you safe, but preventing the preventable starts with your mindset
Since a new sailing season is approaching for most of us, and neither Poseidon nor Admiral Murphy, the Master of Mischief, are known to be swayed by economic circumstances, it’s time to talk about practices and gear that help increase safety at sea or minimize effects should disaster strike.
But before you mortgage the house to raid the shelves of your chandlery, take a moment to remember that prevention beats all other scenarios and that common sense trumps a collection of gadgets.
Safety starts between your ears: Sound judgment of conditions, vessel, crew and your own abilities, plus preparing for the most likely emergencies, is your best insurance. Attend a free boating safety class offered by the Coast Guard Auxiliary (www.nws.cgaux.org) or a safety-at-sea seminar by US Sailing (www.ussailing.org, select “Safety at Sea Training” under the “Education” button). Get a Vessel Safety Check (www.safetyseal.net) that tells you if your equipment is in line with federal and state requirements. Train your crew in man-overboard recovery and learn from the experts by downloading the report of the 2005 Crew Overboard Rescue Symposium (www.ussailing.org, select “Safety at Sea Training” under the “Education” button). And keep up on maintenance to reduce the likelihood of gear failures. A radical thought: Participating in the occasional race can help, because it will expose deficiencies in boat handling or equipment.
Consider your sailing style and venue: Preparing and fitting out for every worst-case scenario is a ticket to the loony farm. You have to set priorities guided by federal regulations
(www.uscgboating.org, click on “Regulations”) and applicable state boating laws. Then consider your kind of sailing — racing, daysailing, coastal cruising, night — the range of conditions you can expect, and the availability of outside help. The International Sailing Federation, which governs the racing side of the sport, issues comprehensive safety gear guidelines for every kind of racing, which can serve as a guideline for recreational sailors, too (www.ussailing.org, select “Safety at Sea Training” under the “Education” button, then “ISAF Special Regs”).
Know thy limitations: Wolfgang Hausner, a cruiser and circumnavigator who’s been at it for 40-plus years, used to sail without a radio during his single-handing years. Why? He considered the act of installing a convenient communications device problematic, because he feared it could corrupt his judgment by lulling him into a false sense of safety, thus causing shoddy planning and bad seamanship. Even though Hausner has changed his stance on radios, his notion wasn’t far off the mark, as the headlines prove time and again.
Gear alone is no insurance: Portable communications devices have increased the chances of survival for sailors in distress, as well as kayakers, hikers and climbers. But talk to case officers at the Coast Guard or a park ranger in the backcountry, and you’ll hear that PLBs, radios, cell and sat phones and the like often are mistaken as life insurance policies, which leads to imprudent decisions and puts people in harm’s way. In times of shrinking budgets, the demands to pass the costs of rescue operations to risk-takers who get in trouble through reckless behavior will become louder.
With these admonitions out of the way, let’s focus on safety gear that offers high usability and, thus, high value because it is simple, reliable and practical.
• Flotation: A no-brainer. PFDs are the quintessential lifesavers on every boat. Modern designs are comfortable and convenient, making life better for boaters. The popular inflatable PFDs are unobtrusive and come with smart features such as an integrated safety harness to clip on to a jackline during a rough offshore passage. However, they must be worn to count as a life jacket, require regular inspection and maintenance, and the CO2 cylinders are considered hazardous items by airlines. Boaters who are involved with the elements, like dinghy sailors or kayakers, are in my opinion better off with purpose-built foam life vests that allow movement and provide flotation without pulling rip chords or relying on automatic inflation mechanisms. Belt-pack PFDs might be convenient, but I’m not convinced I’d want to manually inflate my life preserver and slip it over my head while I’m treading water. For a broad PFD selection, check the big marine retailers, like West Marine (www.westmarine.com), Boater’s World (www.boatersworld.com), and Defender Industries (www.defender.com).
• Falling overboard: The best tactic is prevention, which includes wearing PFDs, appropriate footwear and a safety harness (or a PFD combo) that clips on to a jackline. If someone does go into the drink, the next line of defense is a man-overboard recovery maneuver (see the aforementioned crew-overboard report). Once the person in the water is spotted, it is important to connect by throwing a tethered horseshoe buoy or similar device, or the Lifesling, which is a Coast Guard-approved rescue system that was developed by The Sailing Foundation in Seattle (www.thesailingfoundation.org, click on “R&D”). The Lifesling also helps with the final step: getting a victim back on board in conjunction with a tackle system or a safety ladder that’s strung to the stern pulpit and can be deployed from the water.