How "afraid" should we be of sailing? - SailNet Community
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post #1 of 388 Old 02-01-2010 Thread Starter
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How "afraid" should we be of sailing?

In looking through various forums, there always seems to be a tendency toward and/or against "fear mongering". That is, there is the tendency to focus on disastrous stories, then leverage off those for the sake of the safety debate. Great examples of this are COB stories (which I've been really digging into lately). Then, there's the other end where it's about the fact that you can die stepping off the curb in front of a speeding meteor while getting hit by a why worry about it?

The bottom line is that one can never "lose" the safety argument. Safety always wins. So I'm definitely not arguing AGAINST safety.

But, the question I have is this: when considering the type of sailing 99% of the people out there do, do the stats support a "fear mongering" approach to safety? Isn't this sport, all in all, really pretty safe in terms of hours put in vs. fatalities (compared to sports like rock climbing, mountain climbing, skiing, etc.)?


Oh man, I just looked through the numbers in the USCG report provided by k1vsk - and this is going to raise some hackles. First the numbers...then what "seem" to be the take-aways (up for discussion of course):

First, the Executive Summary
• In 2008, the Coast Guard counted 4789 accidents that involved 709 deaths, 3331 injuries and approximately $54 million dollars of damage to property as a result of recreational boating accidents.
• Over two-thirds of all fatal boating accident victims drowned, and of those, ninety (90) percent were not wearing a life jacket.
• Only ten percent of deaths occurred on boats where the operator had received boating safety instruction.
• Seven out of every ten boaters who drowned were using boats less than 21 feet in length.
• Careless/reckless operation, operator inattention, no proper lookout, operator inexperience and passenger/skier behavior rank as the top five primary contributing factors in accidents.
• Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents; it was listed as the leading factor in 17% of the deaths.
• Eleven children under age thirteen lost their lives while boating in 2008. 63% of the children who died in 2008 died from drowning.
• The most common types of vessels involved in reported accidents were open motorboats (43%), personal watercraft (23%), and cabin motorboats (15%).
Now for some crunching - which reveals some very interesting stats:

Of the 709 deaths, here are the top 5 vessel types, making up 614 of that total (leaving 95 deaths for other vessel types):
• Open Motorboat
• Personal Watercraft
• Cabin Motorboat
• Canoe/Kayak
• Rowboat
(note sailboats don't make the cut, but rowboats and canoes do!)
So if you drill down on that a bit, look at the overall accident numbers for boat types:

Number of vessles in accidents per type:
PWC: 1459
Motorboats (open and cabin): 2399
Aux. Sail: 258 (a bit worse than canoes) + 58 for other sail
Pretty small number for sailboats - considering how many total are out on the water crusing, racing, etc. Now what about the deaths involved with these accident figures - and the causes?

Deaths by vessel type:
All sail (25 - 50%+ by drowning)
So out of 709 total deaths, 25 of those happened on sailboats (10% of total sailing accidents involved a fatality). And 40% or so of these deaths were by means other than drowning (the thing we all associate as the most likely threat to our lives) - knocking that number down to 15.

So what are the causes in these deaths?

Primary Contributing Factors of Deaths (in order of impact):
Hazardous Waters
Passenger/Skier Behavior
Now, initially I was going to say that because we can't really get actual "speed" out of our boats, that we were off the hook on that. But, other numbers showed that most fatalities happen at low speed! Interesting.

Now let's look at the bodies of water and conditions that are most likely to lead to these fatalities (this is where it starts getting ironic - and I love irony):

Weather & Water Conditions leading to total boating deaths:
Type of Body of Water: Sheltered waters (653), Ocean/Gulf (40), Great Lakes (15)
Water Conditions: Calm (335), Choppy (155), Rough (77), Very Rough (32)
Wind Conditions: Light (298), Moderate (153), Strong (87), Storm (over 25 mph) (23)
Oh lordy, lordy...

And what about the type of vessel most likely to kill you?

Vessel Info:
Less than 16' (292), 16' to 26' (281), 26'-40' (59)
And finally, let's look at the operators in these fatalities:

Operator's Experience (in boat related deaths):
None (7), Under 10h (36), 10h-100h (78), 101h-500h (155), Over 500h (64)

Education of Operator:
Informal (16), State Course (28), US Power Squadroms (4), USCG Aux (6), None (277)
So, taking these statistics into account, am I correct in surmising that,

[IRONY ALERT] statistically speaking, any sailor's best chance at survival is to get 10 or so hours of some informal training on how to sail, take a 40' vessel into the open ocean in rough to very rough conditions, wear a pfd, don't drink, stay on the boat (regardless of make or year), sail REALLY fast, and, in all probability, you'll be just fine?

It seems the most dangerous sailing out there is sailing a small boat on a sheltered body of water in calm conditions. Could that be right?

Surely that's not it.

I just want to make it known what we lake sailors have now been vindicated. We are truly the gnarliest sailors around. Those chumps that make fun of our "duck ponds" just don't have the numbers to back them up.

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Last edited by smackdaddy; 02-02-2010 at 01:05 PM.
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post #2 of 388 Old 02-01-2010
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Interesting Question Smack,

Statistically,'s a very safe sport/activity

also, sailors are the least likely have a fatal accident.

Small boats power boats, 21 feet or less, alcohol use, no life jackets..and no safety training.....are the at risk groups.

Naturally 90% or more of the deaths are from drowning, and they occur on a clear sunny day.

If one stays sober, wears a life jacket, and sails...chances are you'll live a long .....but boring life.....( just kidding)

Here's the stats, that I use in class.

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post #3 of 388 Old 02-01-2010
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"In 2008, the Coast Guard counted 4789 accidents that involved 709 deaths,
3331 injuries and approximately $54 million dollars of damage to property as a result
of recreational boating accidents".

Entire text can be found here:

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post #4 of 388 Old 02-01-2010
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My thought on it is that all of the things you mention are dangerous, so there is no good way to argue against the danger. You can get hurt rock climbing, and you can get hurt sailing, even die, it happens. I think it is best to just face that head on and not try to argue against it when people say it is dangerous, fine, it is dangerous, but we keep sailing anyway.

Originally Posted by Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence: // puts out a match with his fingers //

Hartley: You'll do that once too often; it's only flesh and blood!

Lawrence: Michael George Hartley; you're a philosopher.

Hartley: And you're balmy!

Potter: // tries to put out a match with his fingers, burning himself //

Potter: Ow! It damn well hurts!

Lawrence: Certainly, it hurts!

Potter: Well, what's the trick then ?

Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

What are you pretending not to know ?

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post #5 of 388 Old 02-01-2010
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A friend of ours just lost the best man from his wedding in an avalanche. My comment (to my wife, not her friend) was it's better than dying in a nursing home.
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If a person can't handle any danger, they ought to stay in bed.

Not a bad idea some days.

If its fun, it has risk.
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post #7 of 388 Old 02-01-2010
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How afraid should you be of sailing?
Less risky than driving to the mall and slightly more risky than walking around the block. Pretty much the same risk as eating fried snacks while watching TV from your couch.
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post #8 of 388 Old 02-01-2010
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Whatever doesn't kill you makes a good bar story.

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post #9 of 388 Old 02-01-2010
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I can say this, I'm a newer boat owner and I can safely say this. I've rarely been as terrified as I've been trying to navigate my boat down the New River. I know I'm insured and the worst case scenario is I'd sink or damage the boat and swim ashore...but not being in control and having the elements drive your fate is a terrifying feeling.

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post #10 of 388 Old 02-01-2010
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Safety is something you should take seriously, but not to the point that it prevents you enjoying your chosen hobby/sport. When I used to rock climb, I had proper training, I paid for quality gear and I made sure I knew how to use it. Never had an accident, never let an accident happen to someone else I was climbing with, but always had great fun. Same goes for sailing. As for fear, well, that's part of the fun isn't it? The first time you dunk a rail, the first time that the collision seems inevitable etc.
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