PS Advisor: Complacency and the Experienced Sailor


The past few years have made it clear that age and experience doesn’t necessarily translate into safety on the water. In fact, a number of recent fatal accidents have made us wonder if there is some truth to the notion that experience breeds complacency—enough complacency that it can offset many years, even decades of accumulated wisdom.

Or perhaps it is simply that older, experienced sailors tend to deny the effects of aging. We sail as if we were our younger selves. Agile, with perfect balance. Our eyes and ears sharp. Brilliant night vision. Strong as an ox.

In fact, several of the accidents that drove us to examine this issue seem to suggest the victims did not recognize their own limitations. Most of the fatalities of older, experienced sailors involve going overboard. Of course, that could be said of sailors of all ages. However, when you dig a little deeper into the nature of the accidents involving experienced sailors, many victims did not follow common safety protocols that novices around them did—like clipping into a jackline. Many victims simply didn’t believe they were in danger.

As an avid climber, I’m more than familiar with the costs of complacency. I’ve lost a few friends in the climbing community. In no case did the accident result from pushing limits. Some fell victim to the randomness of nature; rockfall and avalanches. Like experienced sailors, they rack up a lot of miles, and whether sailing or climbing, there is always a level of objective risk. But complacency or even forgetfulness also factored into these accidents: a simple knot was tied incorrectly or some bit of gear was clipped wrong. It was something they had done correctly a thousand times. Though usually meticulous by nature, even the expert climbers can mess up.

If we look at the average age of guided Mt. Everest climbers and guided Clipper Around-the-World sailors, it is clearly above the average age when people normally engage in vigorous and potentially dangerous activities. These mature people (usually men), often well beyond middle age, make a conscious decision to court risk, or at least to enjoy deeper adventures.

Of course, cost is one reason why organized “adventures-of-a-lifetime” attract older men. We can better afford the guided trips at the top of our bucket list when we are older.

But there’s an emotional aspect as well. For many people, as we age, we better appreciate the satisfaction of testing ourselves. Even overachievers who spent years pursuing external goals, personal growth begins to seem like a more honest measure of success. If we’ve never been truly tested, the more strongly we are drawn to the idea of taking some risk­—at least that’s how it seems.

Finally, there are the reasons for taking risk that are more difficult to recognize. Once a risky situation becomes familiar, our fear of it diminishes. The raven sitting on your shoulder has become an old friend.

Not to be a killjoy just as summer sailing season approaches, but we are listing here some of the most common situations that put even experienced sailors at serious risk

• Singlehanding. While not a risk-seeking behavior in itself, sailing alone can requires a higher degree of vigilance. There is no one to catch your fall.

• No safety tether. Experienced sailors know when they should clip-in, but many don’t, finding it too troublesome.

• Cold shock. Most of the serious accidents we reviewed happen in cool or cold water. The risk of going overboard in cold water is easy to underestimate.

• Microbursts. After going through hundreds of squalls, it’s easy to underestimate the threat a powerful microburst. A number of fatal capsizes have occurred because sailors refused to drop their sails.

It is easy to enter into a complacency cycle. It’s harder to recognize when this has happened. Mastery requires experience, but mastery isn’t just mastery of your craft, but an awareness of your own limitations—when to challenge yourself, and when to be cautious.

Drew Frye
Drew Frye, Practical Sailor’s technical editor, has used his background in chemistry and engineering to help guide Practical Sailor toward some of the most important topics covered during the past 10 years. His in-depth reporting on everything from anchors to safety tethers to fuel additives have netted multiple awards from Boating Writers International. With more than three decades of experience as a refinery engineer and a sailor, he has a knack for discovering money-saving “home-brew” products or “hacks” that make boating affordable for almost anyone. He has conducted dozens of tests for Practical Sailor and published over 200 articles on sailing equipment. His rigorous testing has prompted the improvement and introduction of several marine products that might not exist without his input. His book “Rigging Modern Anchors” has won wide praise for introducing the use of modern materials and novel techniques to solve an array of anchoring challenges. 


  1. I lost a cruising cat because I stupidly refused to release the mainsheet during what I thought was a normal squall but turned out to be a microburst with winds over 60 knots. I had trouble previously with the standing rigging (defective turnbuckles) and was concerned that the violent banging of the boom into the rigging would cause me to lose the mast — so instead I lost the whole boat!