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
Self-care—staying rested, well-fed, dry, and clear-thinking
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 things.
|"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."|
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.
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.
Crew Overboard Gear by Tom Wood
SailNet Store Section: Rescue Equipment
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