Skip to main content

Safety at sea: beyond the basics

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.

Image placeholder title

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 ( or a safety-at-sea seminar by US Sailing (, select “Safety at Sea Training” under the “Education” button). Get a Vessel Safety Check ( 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 (, 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

A safe day on the water begins long before getting under way.

(, 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 (, 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 (, Boater’s World (, and Defender Industries (

• 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 (, 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.

• Apparel: A comfortable sailor is a better and safer sailor, so clothing should match the style of sailing while protecting from wind, water and sun. Breathable foulies have set new standards, as they keep water out and let moisture pass from the inside. To make the most of them, it is important to layer and use garments that wick moisture away from the body. The thickness of the outer shell depends on air and water temperatures. Sizing is important, too, since it must allow enough movement, so make sure the stuff fits when you sit, walk and bend down. Manufacturers include Atlantis

(, Gill (, Musto (, Helly Hansen (, and Henri Lloyd (

• 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 (

• 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 ( 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 ( 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 (, 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.