Staying Safe in the Boatyard


My pal Jimmy’s inflatable dinghy sprung a leak. It was a simple repair. He hoisted the boat aboard, put a wire wheel on his cordless drill and began scuffing the surface in preparation for gluing. Seconds later, a two-inch strand of wire had pierced his cornea and he was on the way to the Northern District Hospital in Luganville, Vanuatu. After battling infection for several weeks and follow up treatment in Australia, he got most of his sight back.

It was just a second, he said, explaining why he didn’t wear goggles that would have prevented the accident.

The hazards boaters are exposed to each spring are many. One of the biggest risks is falling. Boats are propped up on jackstands, requiring a ladder to access. These ladders aren’t always stable, or secured at the top. And the climbers aren’t always as careful as they should be. Decks are almost always covered with dew in the spring making decks with worn or ineffective non-skid even more slippery. We recently addressed ladder safety in the November 2021 issue.

Mast work aloft requires special attention to safety. Whether you are using climbing gear or a bosuns chair, you want to have a secondary belay in case something goes wrong with the first. In the blog post Going Aloft Safely (July 29, 2015), we share important tips on going aloft safety from renowned rigger Brion Toss.

After falls, chemical accidents are among the most common. I’ve suffered a few myself, including chemical burns from some extremely potent solvents in a can of Venezuelan bottom paint. Whenever you are working with a potentially harmful chemical product, be sure to review the Safety Data Sheet (SDS), available online via the makers website or the EPA. Last year, we showed how to access and interpret these reports so you can stay safe (see How to Make Sense of Material Safety Data, July 2017). Cases of contact dermatitis from two-part epoxy products is becoming increasingly more common as the effects accumulate over years of exposure.

The other big hazard posed by boatyard chemicals are their toxic fumes. Hazardous vapors in enclosed spaces can be particularly dangerous. We recently reported on these risks and how to avoid them in our report on respirators (see Best Respirators for the Boatyard, PS September 2017).

Often, many of the bigger projects are saved for dockside, where shorepower service comes into play. A recent PS Advisor highlights our past reports on shorepower safety.

Getting power to your boat at the mooring introduces the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from generator fumes. In some accidents involving CO poisoning, the responsible generator was located outside (or even on another boat) but the exhaust was positioned near a hatch or inlet. We looked at carbon monoxide monitors in December 2005. Product lines in this closely regulated category have not changed greatly since 2005, so much of the information is still very useful.

Most of the injuries that happen each spring in the boatyard can be avoided with common sense precautions. One of the simplest things you can do to avoid injury is to be patient. Even the careful sailor can get hurt if they’re in a hurry. No one wants the rush to get out of the boatyard to lead to the emergency room.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at


  1. This subject is covered in a bit more detail in a free 20-page on-line publication from Alaska Sea Grant titled Boatyard Hazards: tips for protecting worker safety and health. It addresses not only a wide range of injuries, but also acute and chronic illnesses that result from exposure to materials and chemicals commonly used in boat construction and repair. It is available from the Alaska Sea Grant on-line bookstore.