Where I am, north of the Mason-Dixon line, it's fitting-out season—otherwise known as Spring—and superb weather has the boatyards and backyards full of people preparing their boats for the summer. This is a good time to take a few moments to think about three fundamental issues that are too often taken for granted once you're afloat and distracted by the joys of sailing. One of these issues is crew-overboard rescue. Another is flares. And the third is the invaluable skill of handling squalls and heavy weather. All three subjects require attention to equipment, forethought, and dedicated practice. So I invite you to engage in three fitting-out projects that may well end up saving your boat or even your life.
Using the Lifesling In two talks that I've given recently in Annapolis and Westport, CT, I asked how the audiences prepared for the dreaded crew-overboard emergency. Well over half the boat owners reported that they carry Lifeslings. This response was gratifying, for the Lifesling is a superb rescue device that, if properly set up and employed, goes a long way toward solving the problem of getting a person who is in the water reattached to the boat and back on deck.
"Great news," said I. "So how many of you have actually practiced using your Lifeslings?" Half the hands fell. It turned out that a lot of people hadn't even taken their slings out of the pouch. They knew nothing about a piece of equipment that exists solely to save their lives.
Every sailor should put in the time to get to know his or her Lifesling. Take a couple of hours to study the manual and the simple directions on the pouch. Inspect the system for wear, chafe, and weakness in the line and stitching. Select a halyard to use as a crane to hoist the swimmer out of the water. Determine if you'll need a tackle (a big, self-tailing winch might be enough). Then mark the halyard at the right height. (At a demonstration this spring, the halyard was set too low to raise the victim to deck level, much less over the lifelines.) Install the Lifesling packet on the inside of the after pulpit so it won't fall into the water if the fittings fail. Then tie the line securely to a through-bolted fitting on the afterdeck. When underway, stream the sling astern in order to stretch the kinks out of the line. Then practice: throw a cushion in the water and try a quick-stop or Figure-8 maneuver under sail and under power. Walk your crew through the drill. Also, schedule a warm-water practice session using a live victim in the water, but have a small boat standing by to assist.
All it takes is a little time and focused attention. Think of the pleasure you'll give your significant other when you're finally able to provide a detailed, convincing answer to the question, "Dear, if you do fall overboard—how do I to get you back?"
If your flares are older than the legal limit of 42 months, you must buy new ones. You should seriously consider the decisive cost-benefit advantages of upgrading to SOLAS-grade flares. (The S
ea convention is a division of the International Maritime Organization, the maritime world's chief safety body.) SOLAS-grade flares greatly exceed the Coast Guard's minimum requirements for brightness and burn time. A SOLAS hand-held flare is as much as seven times more effective than non-SOLAS hand-helds, while a SOLAS parachute flare may be 15 times more effective than a non-SOLAS meteor.
Yes, SOLAS flares do cost somewhat more—but so do the best PFDs, the best safety harnesses, and the best life rafts. As somebody once said about foul-weather gear, "You won't begrudge the added cost of the good stuff if you're forced to actually use the cheap stuff when you really need it." Anybody who has seen the startling difference between SOLAS and non-SOLAS flares at a safety seminar knows what I'm talking about. If you can't afford to carry a whole inventory of SOLAS flares, at least have one of each type. If you have never lit or fired off a flare, practice with an outdated one, say in the middle of the fireworks display on the fourth of July. (It's important to notify the Coast Guard before firing off a flare from your boat.)Heavy Weather
Anticipate stormy weather by inspecting your reefing gear (replacing chafed lines), marking your halyards at reef levels, and practicing until you can tie in a reef in less than three minutes. Now you're ready for that sudden black squall. One common reefing problem is that the leech line pulls down but not aft, leaving the sail too full with a cupped leech. This line should be rigged so that it pulls equally down and aft.
If your plans involve going offshore, consider buying storm sails for your boat. Because a storm trysail and storm jib are extremely small, they usually are inexpensive and easy to stow. If heading out there for a couple of days at a time or more, think about the tactics you'll need to use in a storm. There are four storm tactics, and the one to use usually is the one that fits the prevailing sea conditions. "It's the seas, stupid!" should be the mantra of any crew when debating what to do in a gale. The next time you're caught out in rough weather, give as many of these as you can a try.
- Lying Ahull—Take the sails off and let the boat drift. Because the boat may lie broadside to the sea, this is often counter-productive in breaking waves.
- Heaving-to—As the accompanying illustration from The Annapolis Book of Seamanship shows, put the boat at about 60 degrees off the wind, back the jib (trim it to the windward side) and trim the reefed mainsail or trysail flat, adjusting the sheet or traveler until the helm balances. This is also a terrific way to pause in moderate conditions in order to take a break, because heaving-to slows the boat to a knot or two and eases the motion considerably. This approach may not be successful in breaking seas, however.
- Bow Into the Seas—This is the first of two tactics that use "drag devices" to orient your bow (or stern if it is pointed) into the waves. The drag device here is a sea anchor—something that provides a lot of friction that's hung over the bow, and preferably a large parachute set at the end of a long line. Lying-to a sea anchor, the boat ideally has her sharpest end pointing into or almost into the approaching seas. (As Larry and Lin Pardey stress in their Storm Tactics Handbook, a sea anchor may also be set while heaving-to.)
- Running Before—Running before a storm is an active tactic because the boat must be steered (unlike the other three, which are passive tactics). In high winds and big waves, the boat must be slowed by shortening sail and by deploying a drag device over the stern. This drag device may be warps (lengths of line) or a drogue (a small parachute or a line of small parachutes).
The last two tactics are much-debated and often confused, but a recently published book can help you clear up any confusion. In his Heavy Weather Tactics Using Sea Anchors and Drogues
(published by Paradise Cay), Earl A. Hinz, a seasoned, thoughtful Pacific Ocean sailor, describes times when drag devices can be helpful if not crucial to surviving hard blows. Citing numerous examples (including reports from the landmark 1979 Fastnet and 1998 Sydney-Hobart storms), Hinz digs deep into the practice of storm management, the physics of waves, and various theories of drag device design. While the amount of detail in this compact book is less than in other sources on the subject (such as Victor Shane's Drag Device Data Book
), Hinz's succinct presentation should make this a standard for anyone considering heading offshore.
As for which tactic and drag device to use, Hinz properly explains that everything depends on the boat and the prevailing sea conditions. He approves the use of sea anchors up to the point where plunging waves hurl large amounts of white water. When the seas are big and wild enough, he thinks the crew should try to run before a storm under control, towing a drogue. One question is not up for dispute: as Hinz writes, "In terms of dollars, space, and weight, a drag device is like a stash of gold—small and valuable." No less can be said of a Lifesling and a good flare, but only if the sailor knows how to use them.
The Value of Leadership Offshore by John Rousmaniere
Safety Essentials by John Rousmaniere
Maintaining Safety Gear by Tom Wood