Sometimes it's when things go wrong that we learn the most. I remember just such an occasion early in my racing career. In 20-knot-plus conditions, we were competing in the annual Rolex Cup Regatta off St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, punching through steep, azure waves as we worked our way up the racecourse. Max-hiked with every possible pound on the rail of a J/29, our nine-person crew had sailed together for almost two years in this locale so we were accustomed to these conditions and most of the situations that they can create on the racecourse. But when we found ourselves obliged to execute a crash tack with an override on the leeward winch, we were facing novel territory.
Two of us jumped into the cockpit and struggled in vain to free up the bound jibsheet for about 10 seconds. Almost out of nowhere our skipper Dan Neri yelled, "Get a knife!" A warning signal went off in my brain, but in the heat of the moment someone produced a rigging knife and thrust it in my direction—already opened. Dan growled: "Cut the sheet at the clew on three!" And then he counted down the tack: "Three, two, one, helm's over." I sliced the line right aft of the knot making it fast to the clew of the headsail, and that taut bit of doublebraid sprang free like a jungle-bred viper. Luckily, no one was in its path, and I managed to get the knife folded safely before the crew came diving at me from the other rail. We retied the lazy sheet to the clew and got our heads back in the game.
I'd call that incident a reasonable example of baptism by fire. Without knowing beforehand what a razor tack was, we managed to safely execute one. What made it all possible though was that knife. Without that the frustration level would definitely have redlined. These days, when racing, I try to carry a knife on my person all the time. I look at it as an integral part of the arsenal that every sailor should own and carry. The list of these items is pretty short, but there's no two ways about it, having these things is imperative even for the casual racer: knife, life jacket, watch, sunglasses, hat, and sunscreen.
That's what I consider the short list. Some sailors would add a multitool, flashlight, personal EPIRB, handheld VHF, and a strobe light for offshore sailing, along with a handbearing compass, but ideally those things are already part of the boat's equipment. If you're looking at the season ahead and wondering what you really need to have in the way of personal gear, here's a quick rundown on your options, with a few recommendations. (You'll notice that safety harnesses, footwear, and foul-weather gear have gone unmentioned; these things are definitely important items, but we'll leave them for another article.)
Rigging Knives There are lots of options on the market ranging from single-bladed folding knives to sheath-held open blades, as well as those included in multitools. (Multitools are nice and handy to have. I prefer those that snap open with the flick of a wrist. But for emergency cutting situations, I find that I can't get to the knife blades in them as quickly as I can a simple rigging knife.) Serrated blades are preferable for cutting contemporary line made of exotic fibers (Vectran and Spectra, etc.), but there are models available that incorporate both serrated and straightedged sections in the same blade. Of course you shouldn't buy any blade that's not made of a high-grade stainless steel. Remember, the marine environment specializes in corrosion.
Some knives include a marlinspike or shackle tool or both, and these can definitely be handy. You should also look for a knife with a shaft or handle that fits comfortably in your grip and won't tend to slip if your hand is wet. I'm not a big fan of the more slender rigging knives that are encased in a stainless-steel sandwich because they're not as easy to hold on to as those with durable synthetic handles.
Gloves Not everyone uses sailing gloves and that's fine, but if you don't sail regularly or you're just getting started and you're going to be handling lines, particularly small wet ones or lines under heavy loads, you're better off with them. Few things sting worse than a severe rope burn, except one that's awash with salt water.
Most sailing gloves these days are constructed out of synthetic leather so that they dry faster and wear longer. Usually the backs are formed with Spandex mesh or a Nylon-Lycra. Most manufacturers offer full or three-quarter-finger-length models, but no matter what style or make you purchase, you want to be certain that both the palms and the fingers are reinforced and the wrist strap is adjustable. Several models are stitched with Kevlar thread for superior holding. If you like, you can even find models where the palms offer extra texture for a better grip.
Life Jackets Most sailors don't need advice about the importance of having, and using, good life jackets. But there are different kinds of products that suit different kinds of sailing and it's worth knowing the options. For example, if you race aboard dinghies or boats like E-Scows where you need ample upper body mobility—and you're also apt to end up in the water on occasion—a zip-up or pull-over style vest-like PFD (personal flotation device) is probably the way to go. Some sailors on larger vessels prefer the convenience of the more compact inflatable life jackets or belt packs, many of which have received approval by the US Coast Guard.
Make certain that the jacket you're relying on fits you well. Some life jackets have adjustable cinch straps on the side or around the waist, others have shoulder straps that adjust. Another desirable feature is body-conforming foam in the body of the jacket. This makes wearing the gear for long races a lot more comfortable. Also, you might want to look for models that offer a mesh pocket—a great way for keepting whistles or lights attached. Other than that, I simply prefer a PFD that's brightly colored so I can be spotted more easily if I ever become removed from the boat.
Sunscreen The one thing you really have to know about sunscreen is—use it. Sailors aren't only exposed to direct UV rays, but they also get it reflected off the water, the deck, and sails as well. Most manufacturers recommend specific sun protection factor (SPF) number based upon skin type, but it never hurts to go big as in more than SPF 30; and apply it often—enough said.
Watches Short-course racers don't necessarily need the multiple functions many watches offer. A good countdown timer for starting sequences and a lap-style chronometer for calculating finish positions under PHRF are really the two most important features. Anyone who sails offshore over longer distances will likely appreciate a watch that keeps time accurately, mostly for navigation. My personal preference is for a smaller, more streamline body where the face, bezel, or buttons of the watch don't protrude very far off the wrist.
Getting your personal gear entangled in any part of the boat can be dangerous. That reminds me of another anecdote from a Caribbean. In an event in Puerto Rico once, a guy came on board wearing all of his personal gear tied around his neck. His broad-brimmed hat was tethered with a lanyard, as was his handheld compass, a whistle, a stopwatch, and a knife. The guy not only looked like Webster's depiction of a goof, he was an accident waiting to happen. Fortunately no incident occurred, but the lesson was clear, when it comes to personal gear, keep it simple and functional—and preferrably not where it can garrote you.
The Well-Prepared Sailor
Professional sailor and former boatbuilder Brian Bennett advises traveling light when it comes to personal gear. He's raced competitively in boats ranging from Etchells 22s to America's Cup 12-Meters. These days he spends most of his competitive time on the water in the 1D35 Class.
"I guess the thing that's most important to me is sun protection. You just can't take chances with skin cancer, so I always have a hat, polarized sunglasses, and sunblock." Regarding other gear he says: "I don't use gloves; I never have. I think they sap the oil out of your hands, so I don't carry those. But I always have a wet notebook with me. If I'm trimming for that regatta, I'll have the rig-tune numbers written in it so that I can quickly reference them. If I'm doing tactics, I like to be prepared with a hand-bearing compass, a handheld VHF, the sailing instructions and amendments, and that day's weather forecast, all of which I keep in a little pouch that I carry from side to side on the boat."
Bennett prefers to carry a simple inexpensive watch when racing. "It doesn't matter what make it is as long as it has a good countdown timer. Of course you need a few other items. On our boat, we make sure that we have easy access to a knife and a multitool; they're kept just inside the companionway within easy reach of about four people. I don't really like wearing a knife on my waist or a multitool. If you're jibing the boat a couple of times in rapid succession you can be tailing a sheet and have it get stuck around the knife. That's not good. I like it clean on board, you know, a tidy cockpit."
Cold Weather Clothing by Bob Merrick
Should Sailors Wear Helmets by John Rousmaniere
Safety Harnesses and Tethers by John Rousmaniere