The Best of Safety-At-Sea

A Navy 44 sailboat heads upwind on the Severn River just before a crew member jumped into the frigid water.

A Navy 44 sailboat heads upwind on the Severn River just before a crew member jumped into the frigid water.

It was unnerving to see three people jump from Navy 44 sailboats into the frigid water of the Severn River in 20 KT winds on a bitter cold day in March. Witnesses were also struck by how long the rescues seemed to take, despite the superbly executed maneuvers both upwind (video)- and downwind (video). These were the strongest reactions to the live COB demonstrations performed by the United States Naval Academy (USNA) Sailing Squadron during the recent Safety-At-Sea seminar held at the USNA in Annapolis, MD.

Those drills impressed upon students that a throwable cushion- or even a special rubber duck gone overboard cannot replicate the impact of a person in the water. That was heavily reinforced the following day, during the interactive portion of the
seminar. When floating with about 20 other “victims” dressed in full foul weather gear and deployed PFDs, one finds a new perspective on- and appreciation for safety devices, along with some good and bad surprises.

Presented by Marine Trades Association of Maryland and Naval Academy Sailing for more than 35 years, the highly recommended Safety-At-Sea seminar offered tracks for cruisers and racers. I went for the latter, for a five-year International Sailing Federation (ISAF) Racing Personal Safety certificate that greatly increases opportunities to crew for international offshore racing. Sessions topics on Safety Equipment, MOB Prevention and Recovery, Damage Control, USCG Communications and Search and Rescue, Weather, Heavy Weather, Hypothermia and Medical Emergencies, and much more.

The in-pool interactive made the most powerful impact, even though we were in a heated indoor swimming pool. Water at 78F is not considered cold, but we soon understood how quickly one’s body heat is drawn off at that temperature. Foulies affected buoyancy to varying degrees, but were fairly neutral. This seemed good, until the instructor asked what we would do if trapped under the boat. After a brief discussion of potential obstacles to swimming out, the instructor had us try to swim under water in our foulies, and few could.

Next, the session leader had us put on our PFDs so we could experience them in working conditions. I had owned my Type V for about four years, and wear it almost always when on deck underway, but quickly learned that I was not sufficiently familiar with it and was fumbling for the oral inflation tube, whistle, and light. Also, I discovered that I need thigh or crotch straps to hold it down. My PFD rode so high it was hard to move or see. Straps also keep the wearer’s buoyancy lower, making her more visible and reducing spray in the face, which is so heavily taxing that some countries require a spray hood for offshore racing.

If you have never been in the water with your PFD, you might want to try this, as it drives home the importance of knowing your gear–especially if you are wearing foulies, too. Putting on your foulie hood for warmth while your PDF is inflated is a lot harder than you would think, especially when the hood is stowed. Know your PFD; how it works, and locations of the oral inflation tube, light, and whistle. You want this to be second nature when you need it.

We learned that a crew’s emotional status is more important than their physical condition. Keep them busy, and “convince them they will survive or they will give up.” I saw evidence of the latter in our life raft interactive, during which teams climbed from the pool into inflatable life rafts of varying designs and sizes. My team included two upbeat men, and a slightly older one who had a bad mindset. The negative one argued his limitations and refused helpful suggestions and physical assistance. That man’s demeanor cost his team crucial time and energy as the three of us struggled to push and pull him in, seemingly against his will.

Once aboard, our team inspected the raft, finding and operating the bilge pump, and identifying the rainwater catchment system. We soon realized that three square feet per person was highly uncomfortable. The crabby man’s attitude continued to poison the atmosphere, and I understood that he would be our greatest liability in a real situation.

One of the presenters had called life rafts something like “bucking puke vaults,” because movement, tight quarters, stale air, stress, lack of view and other factors combine to make vomiting a serious threat—not just to delicate sensitivities, but to survival itself. For that reason, presenters stressed that life rafts should only be used when the boat is sinking. After 15-minutes of life raft experience, I know it is best to carefully follow all other safety measures first, aiming to avoid the nightmare of being a human sardine in a bucking puke vault.

The Safety-At-Sea seminar covered far more than one can relay in a single article, but here is the most crucial.

Check and Maintain your PFD, the most vital lifesaving equipment on any vessel

  • Check the bobbin and CO2 cartridge. Manually inflate the unit and leave it overnight.  According to Henry E. Marx, president of Landfall Navigation, “If it’s not hard in the morning, it’s time to replace it.” Yes, it seemed he intended a sailor’s joke in there somewhere.
  • Make sure your PFD includes a whistle and light at a minimum. You are nearly invisible without a light. Consider adding a knife, and a personal flare, mirror, chem light, reflective tape, and/or rescue streamer to increase your visibility, and thigh- or crotch straps for better PFD performance. Add a small fanny pack to your PFD if necessary.
  • Add a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), a VHF radio that is Digital Selective Calling (DSC) enabled, or an MOB AIS (Automatic Identification System).

Safety Meeting First!

  • Hold a safety meeting before every cruise or race. You cannot keep your crew- or yourself safe without it.
  • Cover location/use of safety equipment, wind speed, navigation, and potential hazards. Complacency is your enemy.
  • Establish a clear chain of command. Making a decision is the job of one person. Designate a second in charge, someone who knows how to radio, can command a COB response.
  • Encourage newbies to speak up if they notice anything that seems wrong.
  • Implement “forehandedness,” to recognize what trouble or obstacles may lie ahead. It’s easier to prevent trouble than to get out of it. Know the boat: strength, stability, seaworthiness.
  • Train crew how to talk on the VHF, to push the red button on the Digital Selective Calling (DSC). Hold the red button, find out how long, and post a sticker with this detail at the radio.

COB Prevention and Readiness

  • Inspect lifelines
  • Make “pre-flight” inspection of clip-on places
  • Assure that you have a competent crew
  • Proper use of PFDs; inflatables are not USCG approved unless they are being worn
  • Keep recovery equipment aboard and make sure your crew knows its location and proper use
  • Review and practice COB procedures (USNA Sailing Squadron practices 30-50 times before ocean races)
  • Assign roles for each crew member; in the event of a COB, who is responsible for what?
  • Appropriate clipping on, including rigging jacklines at night and in heavy weather, and clipping on before exiting companionway
  • Know the handling characteristics of the boat in various sea states
  • Know your crew: their skills, how well they know each other, their equipment and their familiarity with it, how practiced they are with radio operations and on board COB equipment
  • Practice COB at the start of each season, rotating crew through helm. Don’t let your crew become specialists; at the minimum, have them rotate stations during return from race, to make a crew of generalists.
  • When you have new crew aboard, tell them, “I just fell overboard. What are you going to do?”
  • Teach your crew that, in case of COB, the helmsman should make an immediate tack and back the jib. This is quick, easy, requires only one person to move, and gives time to execute other actions.

Future Safety-At-Sea Seminars

To receive notice of future seminars, email Susan Zellers at or visit
2015 Safety At Sea Seminar

PDF files of most of the course presentations, some more valuable than others.

“The Helmsman” Spring 2015 Edition
USNA Sailing Squadron’s safety magazine, which presents “lessons learned” articles and welcomes submissions of first person narratives.
Boating Magazine Lab Tests Auto-Inflatable PFDs

Although a bit dated, this gives a good overview of features like deployment speed, and some food for thought.

First published in “The Azimuth,” newsletter of the Quantico Yacht Club

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