• Communications and navigation: The trend goes toward integrating and networking GPS, electronic charts, radar and autopilot. But beyond the purchase, there is a price to pay for so much sophistication and convenience: You have to keep on top of it with maintenance and regular upgrades. Reducing this to the bare essentials, I’m intrigued by a hand-held VHF radio with integrated Digital Selective Calling and GPS, like the Standard Horizon HX850S (www.standardhorizon.com). This allows the skipper to communicate and send emergency messages that include vessel name and position. If it is waterproof and/or floats, like the HX850S, the better.
• Distress alert: Get used to commercial services that operate outside the traditional COSPAS-SARSAT distress alerting system, used by 406 MHz EPIRBs and PLBs. One example is the SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker (www.findmespot.com). It costs $150 over the counter — a lot less than a PLB (around $600) or EPIRB (around $800 to $1,200), but it requires a $150 annual subscription to make full use of its tracking and alerting features, plus $8 for insurance that covers up to $100,000 for rescue services and extraction. Unlike EPIRBs or PLBs, SPOT contacts Geos Alliance, a commercial outfit that decides what authority to alert to your predicament. The SPOT concept is new and needs to build a track record before we see how it balances the mandate of making a buck with the mission of saving lives. Let’s just hope it doesn’t become an HMO for rescue services.
• Medical and seasickness: A sick sailor is a bad sailor, and that’s not safe. To prevent or treat mal de mer, I’d opt for drug-free relief. The ReliefBand (www.reliefband.com) is an FDA-approved $150 wristband that stimulates the median nerve in the wrist with electric impulses to counteract motion sickness. Treating injuries on board requires a presorted medical kit and a good manual (like “Marine Medicine” by Drs. Eric Weiss and Michael Jacobs) in case you don’t have a doctor or a registered nurse on the boat. Medical kits are available in many configurations that cost anywhere from around $6 to $840, depending on crew size and trip length (www.adventuremedicalkits.com).
• Signaling: A good set of SOLAS flares that are not outdated, a waterproof flashlight and a personal marker light are sensible choices alerting others in the event of an emergency. A waterproof laser flare with a focused and far-ranging beam (www.greatlandlaser.com) has been proven effective for night signaling. Multifunction lights like the ACR Doublefly help alert rescuers to a victim’s presence with a strobe and let them home in on the exact position for the final approach in incandescent mode (www.acrelectronics.com). Don’t forget emergency whistles and/or air horns for acoustic signaling in bad visibility.
• Miscellaneous items: Your ditch bag should be configured to suit your plans and the level of self-sufficiency you need to achieve peace of mind. Items to pack include survival blankets, signaling mirrors (or Jimmy Buffett CDs), manual watermaker, emergency food rations, water desalinator, backup radio and GPS, and a good utility knife with built-in flotation. For long offshore passages I’d also consider a collision avoidance system, such as the AISWatchMate (www.vespermarine.com), which uses the shipborne Automatic Identification System (AIS). Mounted in the cockpit close to the watchstander, the AISWatchMate doesn’t require a computer or separate software, and receives data from all AIS-equipped vessels in the vicinity, sounding an alarm if a potentially dangerous situation develops (see On Sailboats, November 2008).
Stuff can and will happen on a boat, but that’s the point: Sailing, like other worthwhile pursuits, isn’t 100 percent safe. The basics — flotation, communications and signaling — have to be covered, but beyond that the choice of gear depends on your assessment and sailing style. Developing safety consciousness and internalizing procedures that help prevent what is preventable will go a long way in managing risks and creating a satisfying experience for everyone on board.
One last thought: Don’t buy cheap. It could be the most expensive mistake you’ve ever made — because Poseidon will tell Admiral Murphy.
Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.