This article was originally published on SailNet in March of 1999.
Compared to many sports, sailing is relatively safe. There are dangers, of course. The failure of complex and often highly stressed mechanical parts, the vagaries of weather, and the element of human error in an alien environment can add up quickly to an emergency situation.
While most of us find both entertainment and educational value in a good disaster story, we rarely reflect on how seldom disastrous events occur on the water. In fact, if they weren't uncommon, the tragedies that do occur wouldn't be news at all. Thus the awareness of the potential dangers of sailing has led to a phenomenon that I refer to as "Safety Talisman." Many sailors assuage their fears of the hazards of the sport by simply buying the latest piece of safety gear, as if owning the talisman wards off any future threat to them or their vessel. They stow the gear in a locker, never reading the instructions, and hope to never use it.
One of the major complaints of 406MHz EPIRB manufacturers is that just over 60 percent of the people who buy these essential items for offshore voyaging ever bother to register the signal. Life raft repacking stations lament how many rafts are damaged each year by owner's disregard of the servicing schedule. If the Coast Guard didn't threaten fines for not carrying life jackets, current flares and fire extinguishers, sales of those items would plummet.
A telling passage near the end of the recent book "Dark Wind" (a really good read for cruisers, incidentally) tells an important story. Faced with imminent shipwreck, the protagonists find that their EPIRB has been lost and the liferaft is un-launchable. Once in the water, the crew discovers that one inflatable life vest has a frozen valve and the buckles on both their preservers fail to stay snapped.
Lest I be categorized as a skinflint, hard-core "do-without" brand of cruiser, I assure you we are not. In fact, Sojourner
is tricked out with all the safety gear appropriate to our type of cruising. My hesitancy to enthuse over all safety gear lies not in the quality or practicality of the gear, but the owner's operation and maintenance.
The real problem is the fact that this expensive equipment mercifully never gets used on most boats. Until it is really needed, that is. And Murphy's Law of unused mechanical devices is that they deteriorate five times faster than equipment used frequently. Worse, safety gear has a tendency to gravitate to the most hidden corner of the locker where it can't even be located in an emergency. Here are a few basic elements to keep in mind regarding the proper stewardship of safety gear:
Paperwork When you unpackage it, read all the owner's manuals. Understand what the piece of gear will do and what it won't. If it has a registration card, fill it out and mail it back to the manufacturer. If it has a recommended service schedule, enter it in the maintenance log section devoted entirely to safety gear to remind yourself. Some things, like EPIRB and MOB strobe batteries, or repacking life rafts or renewing CO2 cartridges in inflatable vests or MOMs may need to happen as infrequently as every three to five years—so these are easy to forget.
Location If it has a mounting bracket, place it somewhere obvious and attach it firmly. MOB gear needs special attention. At five knots, a person's head disappears in a seaway in less than 10 seconds, so deployment of the rescue gear needs to happen without delay. Wooden thru-hull plugs should be tied to each seacock and not thrown into some forgotten drawer.
Testing If the item is new to you, take the boat out on the water and practice using it. There are obvious restrictions here for firing off liferafts, fire extinguishers, or flares, but a Lifesling has zero value if no one on board knows how to use it properly. It is imperative that you trust that the equipment works and that you will know how to operate it in a state of sheer panic. A pleasant summer afternoon on the water practicing man overboard drills may save a life on some future dark and stormy night.
Spares If it has bulbs, batteries, valves, CO2 canisters, electronics or disposable cloth parts, check the operation frequently and repair or replace as necessary. Don't neglect lowly flashlights, never-used personal strobes, and the MOB pole flag that has become tattered. Items with a definite expiration date such as flares, underwater epoxy, or first-aid items should be replaced on schedule. Carry spares in the event a replacement is needed where parts are not available.
We follow a dogma of "clean and lubricate often." Life jackets, harnesses and tethers get dirty. The snaps, buckles and metal parts that make them work corrode and become inoperable. Sea anchors and drogues live their lives in dark corners where they deteriorate unseen and tangle themselves into unusable rat's nests. Get these out at least once a season and overhaul them.
OK, you say this all sounds like a lot of work, right? You bet. But a safety device that can't be found, doesn't work, or fails to accomplish its assigned task due to operator error is worse than not having the gear at all. It's really nothing more than a Safety Talisman, held up in front of us to ward off future dangers.
Sydney-Hobart and Harnesses Revisited by John Rousmaniere
Spring Safety Measures by John Rousmaniere
Criteria for Successful Cruising by Liza Copeland
Buying Guide: Liferafts