Staying Safe in the Boatyard


My pal Jimmys 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 arent always stable, or secured at the top. And the climbers arent 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.

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 Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), also called a 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).

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. This months 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, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


  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.


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