We seem to be living in a dream world where reality is turned upside down—another Oz where we await wizards to fix our self-imposed problems. Strange to say, in an era blessed with the best safety gear in history, some sailors still can’t bring themselves to actually use the stuff. Since late May, six experienced sailors have gone overboard during ocean races. Although many of these incidents occurred aboard grand prix boats manned by professional sailors, none of the men who went into the ocean was wearing exactly the reliable, widely available piece of gear that is designed to keep people from doing just that—a safety harness
clipped to the boat. And the stories keep streaming in.
In June, four sailors fell off three boats in the Newport to Bermuda Race—Morning Glory, Boomerang, and Bright Star—and, happily, were quickly rescued. A month later, another sailor fell off Zephyrus V in the West Marine Pacific Cup race to Hawaii and was also rescued. And the sixth man died falling off Blue Yankee
during the Block Island Race on Long Island Sound in May.
Obviously, what’s missing is not reliable safety gear (there’s plenty of that available), but reliable seamanlike thinking. Here we are in the realm not of hardware and racing rules, but of attitude. In the days of commercial sail, even the most religiously devout seamen knew that prayers alone are not enough to save a crew. “Piety is no substitute for seamanship,” goes one summary of the logs of old-time sailors. Yet piety has its place in a vessel under way, for what is piety but the acknowledgment that humans have limits? Awareness of human limitation is fundamental to good seamanship. Seamanship allows people to engage in the brave enterprise of heading out there in a small boat with a feeling of challenge in one’s heart and with full respect for the sea’s dangers in one’s head.
It seems to me that seamanship has four elements: Sailing skills
—mastering the arts and science of boat handling Sound vessels and good gear
—having reliable equipment Forehandedness
—anticipating trouble Self-care
—staying rested, well-fed, dry, and clear-thinking
One of these elements is technical, another is equipment-focused, and the last two (which in importance are the top two) are attitudinal. In my experience, many if not most accidents are caused by failures not of hardware or of skills, but of attitude. People who allow themselves to become exhausted and wet do not think clearly. For example, the shipwreck that caused the death of America’s first great woman writer, Margaret Fuller, came about, I am sure, because the captain did not take sufficient care of himself, became exhausted, and forgot all the disciplines he had learned about double-checking his position. And we all are familiar with and secretly envy daredevils who have no conception of the potential consequences of their behavior. I know this from personal experience (I’ve done my share of swinging around in the rigging
untethered), and I can also tell you of a family that was destroyed because an incautious man was determined not to wear a safety harness
because he wanted to feel free to move about the boat unrestrained.
As crucial as attitude is, the item on this checklist that usually attracts the most attention is the third—equipment. Many sailors hang their hopes on hardware. As unfortunate as that may be, it is not wholly surprising. Sailing has technical fascinations and sailors are enthusiasts, so many sailors tend to become enthralled by a piece of gear that promises to be a seagoing “magic bullet” that makes all problems disappear.
In my last two columns, I’ve discussed two gear items that, judging from discussions in the magazines and sailing seminars, have risen to magic-bullet status. One is the double-headsail rig
, the other the life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD). In and of themselves, these are good things, but they are not the only
|"What bothers me about the PFD issue is the same thing that makes me itchy about the fad for double-headsail rigs—the dreamy magical thinking that says merely having one on board protects against trouble."|
To believe all we read and hear about the double-headsail rig
—with its large jib
set on the headstay and smaller one on the forestay about halfway back to the mast—you’d think it was just the ticket for getting by when the boat heels in a breeze. Simply roll up the big jib and, poof!, the boat is upright. But there’s little mention that the double-headsail rig
also clutters the foredeck, hinders tacking, and is expensive to install and complicated to handle. All this trouble may be worthwhile in a 40-plus-footer heading offshore for an extended voyage, yet the average weekend cruiser, who very rarely is caught in a hard blow, might first consider making smaller improvements that should be equally effective at keeping the boat on her feet when the wind comes up. One is to make reefing faster and more efficient. Another is to replace those old, blown-out sails that lay the boat over on her side in only 12 knots of summer wind. The restorative value of a new mainsail or a quick reef cannot be overestimated.
The second hot gear item of the season is the PFD, which until fairly recently was widely derided by many macho, mostly male sailors as a symbol of cowardice. Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that PFDs are bad. Far from it. For more than a decade I’ve regularly worn a combination inflatable PFD/safety harness
in roily weather, day or night. Last month, while discussing the very severe, almost insurmountable challenge of saving the life of an unconscious swimmer, I made a strong case for wearing them, especially the ones with at least 22 pounds of buoyancy high up so the head floats clear of the sea when the swimmer is helpless.
What bothers me about the PFD issue is the same thing that makes me itchy about the fad for double-headsail rigs—the dreamy magical thinking that says merely having one on board protects against trouble. It’s not enough to spend good money on a PFD or safety harness and leave the thing in a locker. Virtuous thoughts are no substitute for seamanship.
For talismanic value, consider the case of the Lifesling
. It is the best of all crew-overboard rescue devices. Time and again it has saved lives, but only after it’s been installed properly and after the crew has practiced with it. The Lifesling
really isn’t that hard to use; the directions are right there on the container. But it does require trial runs so the crew knows, first, how to turn the boat and pull the sling into the swimmer’s grasp and, later, how to hoist the swimmer back on deck. All too often, however, a Lifesling
is purchased with the best of intentions, hung on the after pulpit, and then forgotten—left uninspected, untested, and fading to a sickly yellow as the years pass and the exposed tether line
rots away. I’ve come across Lifeslings whose parts have never been untangled in the pouch. I’ve even seen tethers that were not tied to the boats. Last year, at the US Naval Academy, a crew of midshipmen who were demonstrating crew-overboard rescues became embarrassed to discover that their first step was to rescue the Lifesling itself.
The problem lies not with hardware but with our software. It’s time for a reboot. If we resided in Oz, we could count on a wizard to implant good seamanship simply by issuing double-headsail rigs or life jackets or Lifeslings, just as that same wizard bolstered the Cowardly Lion by awarding him a medal. But we don’t live in Oz anymore. The Coast Guard and race organizers are not wizards. Under the relentless pressures of pride, ambition, carelessness, blind optimism, euphoria, and other traits of human fallibility, we leave good gear neglected and well-intentioned rules ignored. All that stands between us and disaster are our own forehandedness and self-care.
Offshore Perils by John Rousmaniere
Modern Crew Overboard Rescues by John Rousmaniere
Crew Overboard Gear by Tom Wood
SailNet Store Section: Rescue Equipment