Saturday, September 26, 2015

Crewing on Sailboats (Part 3 - Safety)

In the 1950's Grouch Marx hosted a combination TV and radio quiz show called You Bet Your Life. Of course you didn't. But in offshore sailing you are betting your life. Fortunately the risks are small but every year boats sink and occasionally people die.

The International Sailing Federation begins their Offshore Special Regulations with a call to action for the person in charge of the vessel: “The safety of a yacht and her crew is the sole and inescapable responsibility of the person in charge who must do his best to ensure that the yacht is fully found, thoroughly seaworthy and manned by an experienced crew who have undergone appropriate training and are physically fit to face bad weather. He must be satisfied as to the soundness of hull, spars, rigging, sails and all gear. He must ensure that all safety equipment is properly maintained and stowed and that the crew knows where it is kept and how it is to be used. He shall also nominate a person to take over the responsibilities of the Person in Charge in the event of his incapacitation.”

I echo the same responsibility of the Captain in my "standing orders' (available as a page on this blog.) I take my responsibility seriously and Reboot has been outfitted with extensive safety equipment.

This is all well and good. But what is your responsibility as a crew member? I suggest you have two objectives:

  1. To assure yourself that the boat is safe,
  2. To know where the safety equipment is located and how to use it.
Is the boat safe?

The first time I ran the Chicago - Mackinaw Race I invited a couple with extensive offshore racing experience to crew for me. This was my first long distance racing experience and I had just spent thousands of dollars purchasing the safety equipment required by the race organizers. Nigel (of Ranger) and his wife showed up and Nigel said "let me help you go over Reboot and make sure it is ready for the race. He made a lot of very good suggestions that I followed. In 20-20 hindsight I realize he was also doing something else - assuring himself that the boat was well founded and ready to race.

Nigel handled his safety inspection in the most gracious manner. Of course he is a Birt (you figured that out from the name, didn't you?) and they are known for the courtesy. But he taught me a lot. The easiest way to assure the boat is safe is for the entire crew to go over it from stem to stern together before setting sail. This way no one's feelings get hurt and done properly it can be a fun crew experience.

Using the safety equipment

Reboot has lots of safety and communications equipment. I know where it is and how to use it all. Do you? On my last voyage I took on a crew member. We were offshore in bad weather (the whole trip was bad weather) when my crew member got tossed by a boarding wave across the cockpit and went head first into the winch. This resulted in a 4" laceration of his scalp and large quantities of blood everywhere. Fortunately he remained conscious and was not concussed. But what if it had been me? What if I had ended up unconscious and/or concussed? My crew member would have been elevated to "the person in charge." Did he know enough to be responsible for Reboot and his injured crew (me?)

You owe it to yourself (and the rest of the crew) to make sure that you know the location and operation of all the safety and communications equipment on board. There are numerous stories (some perhaps apocryphal) of people dying of heart attacks, boats running aground, etc. because the only people available on board did not know how to call for help or operate the boat. Again the easiest way to assure that everyone knows what they need to know is for the Captain and crew to get together as a group before getting underway and doing a hands on inspection and instruction of all of the safety equipment on board.

Pre-departure Excitement

The days leading up to a departure are exciting. Particularly if you are going to travel in the company of other boats there are meetings, seminars, and parties. There is work to be done - provisioning, buying charts, cleaning, etc. In this pre-departure euphoria it is easy to overlook the two most important tasks: assuring the safety of the boat and assuring the safety of the crew. 


What if you are new at the game and not sure what you should be looking for. The Internet has many great posts and articles on pre-departure checklists. To get you started I will link to one - the Salty Dawg rally post. It not only contains good advice but also links to further resources. You can find it here:

Parts 1 and 2

Fair winds and following seas :)

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