Many factors are at play in safety at sea. One is a good weather eye, another is a decisive mind, and a third is knowledge of fundamental sailing seamanship. But even the best sailor can’t do it alone. Without good gear addressing typical safety problems, we’re not just at a disadvantage. We’re at risk.
The problem is that so much safety stuff is available that we can become addicted gadgeteers careening down the crowded corridors of chandleries and the packed pages of catalogs in search of perfect solutions to ever more narrow safety problems. Or we can decide to be ultra-minimalists who have only the cheapest versions of the very least amount of gear required by law. A more sensible approach is to start not by surveying (or ignoring) the equipment available, but by identifying the real problems that have to be addressed.
Personal experience and anecdotal evidence are helpful guides, though their objectivity may be compromised by emotion and selective memory. A more reliable survey of the problems we all face is the roster of common accidents in the U.S. Coast Guard’s most recent annual report, Boating Statistics, 2002. (It’s available on the web at: www.uscgboating.org/statistics/Boating_Statistics_2002.pdf.)
There we see that most injuries in sailboats involve contusions, broken bones, back injuries, head injuries, or hypothermia, and that almost three-fourths of all recreational boating fatalities are caused by drowning. The lessons here are clear: (1) Keep sailors from falling down on deck and going over the side. (2) Tame the boom. (3) Keep bodies dry and warm. (4) Anyone who does go overboard must stay afloat and be quickly rescued.
Obviously, then, “safety gear” is a broad category. Good foul weather gear and sticky-soled deck shoes fit here, as do well-placed grab rails. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on essential hardware: safety harnesses, life jackets, rescue systems, and preventers, with a few words about fire extinguishers and distress signals.
The Safety Harness
While most safety talk concerns life jackets, what keeps people from going overboard in the first place—while at the same time preventing injurious falls—is the safety harness. However, too often it’s considered to be gear only for ocean sailors.
Ever since the first modern harness was developed by Steve Lirakis in the ’70s, we have had gear that’s easy to put on and wear and that’s up to the job, with heavy straps, stainless steel D-rings, and hooks strong enough to take the 2,000-pound-plus load of a falling human body. Among recent developments are the combination safety harness/inflatable PFD (personal flotation device), which addresses two big problems in one package, plus dual tethers—one about 3 feet in length, the other about 6 feet with an elastic cover to keep the latter from dragging underfoot. I use this combination. By fitting my SOSpenders combination harness with dual Wichard tethers, I can triangulate my support when I’m steering or move around with one tether always attached to a deck fitting. When the boat’s heeling, I can sit on the windward side with the short tether looped tightly around a winch or cleat to prevent a long, bone-crushing tumble across the cockpit.
Tether hooks are also better. Not too long ago, one type of carabineer was disturbingly quick to unsnap itself from a padeye if it was twisted just so. But when the Wichard locking safety hook is hooked into a jackline or through-bolted fitting, I know I’m hooked on for keeps. If I have to release it in a hurry—say if I go overboard and am towed—I open a conventional snap shackle at the body end of the tether.
As for where to hook on, the only reliable metal fittings are masts, stays, and through-bolted cleats, winches, and padeyes; Wichard and other manufacturers make folding padeyes that flop down out of the way when not in use. As an obsessive worrywart about lifelines and stanchion bases—I’m perpetually tightening set screws—I’ve never been impressed by their ability to withstand shock loads.
For moving around without unhooking, there’s the jackline—a misnomer for a length of strong, brightly colored webbing or wire secured at the bow and running aft on both decks to about 7 feet from the stern (so someone who goes over won’t be towed astern). Webbing’s better than line and wire because feet don’t roll on it, because it doesn’t look or feel like anything else (few things are more embarrassing than accidentally hooking into a jibsheet before a tack), and because it stretches a little to absorb loads that might otherwise compress the safety harness and break the wearer’s ribs. Until recently, all jacklines were nylon, but now we also have polyester, which stretches a little less. Because jacklines, like sails, degrade quickly in sunlight, stow them below when you don’t need them.
A couple of good rules for safety harness use are: (1) When the most unsteady person on the boat wants to put a harness on, everybody puts one on, with no exceptions for captains, sailmakers, 17-year-olds, and anyone else who suffers under a fallacy of invulnerability; (2) If you’re not hooked on all the time, at least do it when moving around on deck and performing a two-handed job, including steering and coming out of a companionway.
Most bodies require about 8 pounds of buoyancy to float, but keeping the face clear requires treading water. In time, a swimmer without buoyancy assistance will either tire or be numbed by hypothermia until helplessness sets in, the face goes underwater, and the person drowns. The goal, obviously, is to have enough buoyancy—whether fixed foam or an inflated bladder—to provide sufficient freeboard so the face is clear even when the swimmer is unconscious.
]Among personal flotation devices (PFDs, a.k.a. life jackets) with fixed buoyancy, the classic “Mae West” PFD, with 22 or more pounds of flotation does the job best, but it’s too voluptuous for active sailors to wear. In the interest of getting people into any kind of life jacket, the Coast Guard introduced fixed-buoyancy types with only 15½ pounds of flotation. These are the float coat, a parka insulated with flotation; the Type III flotation aid favored by dinghy racers; and the U-shaped Type II near-shore vest, which is the cheapest of the lot at about $12. The common problem of these PFDs is that 15½ pounds of flotation is not enough to guarantee that all unconscious people will float face-up with sufficient freeboard to prevent drowning. I have heard the Type II described scathingly as a “body finder.”
So I prefer inflatables. (See PS’s latest test of these products in this issue.) For more than a dozen years, now, whenever I feel unsteady, I have been putting on my combination inflatable PFD/safety harness with an automatic water-activated inflator. Uninflated, this PFD is compact and light enough that I can do anything I want without feeling confined. When I go in the water, it automatically inflates with 35 pounds of buoyancy, which is more than enough to keep my face high above the water whether or not I’m conscious. Unlike the so-called “fanny pack” PFDs that are worn on a belt and must be pulled over the body while the swimmer’s struggling to stay afloat, mine inflates in place.
Yes, I’ve heard tales of automatic PFDs inflating in a heavy rain, but it’s never happened to me, maybe because I replace the inflation system with a new, dry one after every long cruise. Today’s automatic inflators are better protected from spray and rain. Anyway, if the auto- inflator doesn’t work, there’s a manual backup, and if that doesn’t work there’s an oral inflation tube. My PFD also carries an ACR Doublefly emergency light that works as either a strobe so I can be spotted from a distance, or as an incandescent light that’s easy to locate when close up (pinpointing a flashing strobe is like trying to grab a firefly). Because this light is operated manually, in anticipation of the worst-case scenario of going into the water unconscious, I’m considering also having a water-activated light.
I’ve tested and studied many rescue devices and the best one is still the Lifesling. When invented almost 25 years ago by the Sailing Foundation of Seattle, it was aimed at the cruising couple’s worst nightmare, which involves the smaller person trying to save the larger person. Yet the Lifesling provides so many services—a buoyancy aid for the swimmer, a connection between the swimmer and the boat, and a hoisting system—that it works in a wide range of situations. As a member of the committee that nominates people for US SAILING’s Arthur B. Hanson lifesaving award, I’ve read accounts of rescues of many types made with Lifeslings. Although the instructions are so simple they’re printed right on the container in a large type, the device requires attention, maintenance, and most importantly, practice. Lots of owners I’ve encountered have never even taken it out of its container or tied it to the boat. Everybody should steer through a rehearsal using the Lifesling and the crucial quick-stop turn that keeps the boat near the swimmer.
The second most dangerous item on a boat is the boom (the first is the liquor locker). My neurosurgeon-sailor friend Garry Fischer has identified 23 boom-related fatalities (19 in accidental jibes) plus another 21 non-fatal injuries. He tells me that even in light air, the force of a swinging boom is so great that no helmet will protect a brain from damage. In fact, in my experience most collisions between booms and people occur in light winds. Just when our guard is down, the boat rolls in a light swell or motorboat wake, and the boom bangs across.
Hence the preventer, a line that prevents the boom from swinging uncontrolled. Like the safety harness, preventers are often considered gear for offshore sailors only, even though a boom on an inshore or daysailing boat presents the same dangers. The traditional preventer is a long line secured to the aft end of the boom, then led forward along the leeward side to a block or fairlead on or near the bow, and then doubled back to the cockpit so that it can be adjusted easily on a winch (which you’ll need because the pull can be strong). Because this preventer arrangement exerts no downward pull, it’s favored for use in big seas, when the boom should be allowed to lift if it trips in a swell.
Coastal cruisers who don’t face such seas can rig the line from the middle of the boom downward and forward to a block on the leeward side of the foredeck or near the chain plates. It should be secured to the boom at a reinforced point, like a mid-boom bail for a mainsheet block. (When used in a preventer, nylon line will absorb some of the shock load.) This preventer serves also as a vang to hold down the boom and reduce wind-spilling twist in the leech. A preventer can be set up temporarily and shifted from side to side as the boat changes tacks. Better yet, rig two permanent preventers, with one single-part line on each side running through its own block on the rail and back to a winch in the cockpit near the mainsheet. When changing tacks, cast off the old leeward line and, as the boom comes across, pull in the new one without having to send anyone on deck, into the path of the boom.
Instead of preventers, some sailors like the Boom Brake and other devices that slow the boom’s swing.
It’s easy to find good fire extinguishers. They carry labels showing that they’re Coast Guard-approved and have been tested by Underwriters Laboratory or another reliable testing agency. But some choices still must be made. Extinguishers for all but the largest boats come in two sizes—I (small) or II (medium). For instance, a 26- to 40- foot boat without an installed fixed extinguisher system by law must carry two approved, portable, Class B-I extinguishers or one portable Class B-II. (A Class B fire is one with liquids like engine or cooking fuel.)
While it may seem smart to buy the largest extinguisher, a B-II may be too big to stow in a visible, quickly accessible place in the cabin, and too heavy for every crewmember to deploy and use quickly. This is why many boats have a B-II in a bracket on the side of the companionway ladder so the cook can grab the extinguisher quickly to deal with a galley fire without reaching through the flame.
Several types of extinguishants are available, including: dry chemical, CO2, foam, and Halon. All except foam can be used on Class C (electrical) fires as well as Class B fires. CO2 can be disbursed by the wind. Halon shouldn’t be used when the engine is on and is unhealthy for the ozone layer. Dry chemical types are the extinguishers of choice for recreational boats because they don’t have those problems, are compact, and some of their chemicals can extinguish a Class A fire (fiberglass, canvas, or other combustible solids) as well as B and C fires.
The law requires most boats to carry audible and visual distress signals. The most ear-ringing sound signal I know is the old-fashioned, environmentally incorrect Falcon compressed-gas horn, though some compressed-air horns are said to be equally noisy. You want the loudest warning horn close at hand in a dense fog or when you’re backing out of a slip into traffic. The main problem with horns is that we neglect them until they’re needed. They’re often left out to rust in the cockpit, and we never have enough backup canisters.
As for visual signals—unless we’re talking about a signal mirror or the new laser flare—the subject is parachute or hand-held flares. The choice is SOLAS grade vs. non-SOLAS grade. SOLAS refers to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, an arm of the International Maritime Organization that has been setting standards for safety equipment for mariners since soon after the sinking of the Titanic.
Each grade meets Coast Guard requirements, but SOLAS-grade devices exceed them healthily. If I were to fire only one distress signal in my lifetime, I’d want it to be a Pains-Wessex SOLAS-grade flare. A handheld SOLAS flare or a SOLAS smoke canister burns longer than and at least as brightly as non-SOLAS flares, while SOLAS-grade rocket-propelled parachute flares shoot higher and have a far longer hang time than the familiar meteor flares fired from pistol-type launchers. And SOLAS flares are waterproof. SOLAS-grade products do cost more than non-SOLAS ones, though the difference is not as great as it initially seems once the cost of a pistol launcher for rocket flares is factored in. Ignition can be tricky and packs a wallop; they’re called rockets for a reason. That’s one more reminder that choosing equipment is only the first step toward boating safety. Maintenance and practice remain essential.