Safety first! Best practices for crew safety.

As we mentioned in a previous post, we attended several seminars at the Chicago Strictly Sail Boat Show last month. While Jeff went to Safety Under The Water Line I checked out Safety At Sea which was put on by Brian Adams from US Sailing. Though I had hoped for information on emergency medical training, this seminar did not offer much of that but was instead jam-packed with great information about gear, weather, and equipment. This is the first in a two part series which will summarize my notes and include a bit of personal commentary.

The beginning of the seminar started with an overview of the Safety at Sea courses offered by US Sailing, including a 4-hour coastal course, a 1-day offshore course focusing on theory and demonstrations, and a 2-day offshore course that combines theory and on the water practice. After discussing these courses (price was not mentioned) Brian then went on to touch briefly on a variety of topics about both personal and boat safety.

Lessons Learned

By examining the conditions and situations that have caused the loss of life and vessels at races and rallies, the sailing community has updated personal safety gear, boat gear, and safety procedures. Tragic accidents at Fastnet (1979), Hobart to Sydney (1998) and Newport to Ensenada (2012) have all shaped the way we think about safety aboard and have led to revisions in the International Sailing Federation Offshore Special Regulations.


All crew should know the who, what, when, why, and how of communications during an emergency. The ‘who’ is who to call – what emergency communications organizations are available in your area. The ‘what” is what device do you use to transmit your issue. The ‘when’ is under what circumstances do you make a distress or SOS call. The ‘why’ is a matter of personal choice. Some sailors say things like “you should only step up into a life raft” while others think it is best to put in a call to alert the Coast Guard to potential problems as you can always call back and give the all clear should the situation resolve itself. The ‘how’ is about training your crew about how to communicate your location and nature of emergency. Be sure to tell the crew they do not need to speak in radio lingo. The emergency personnel are trained to talk at your level of comfort. Explain to ALL crew the way that the radio works. Discuss the monitoring of channel 16. If you have a newer VHF you can also train crew on how to send a digital selective call (DSC) which will send GPS coordinates, boat name, and captain, digitally. This cuts down on rescue time as it communicates the information practically instantly in the clearest method possible.

Personal Safety Equipment

Below is a list of recommended equipment for all crewmembers. All gear should be inspected regularly and labeled with individual’s names and/or vessel name.

• Personal Floatation Device (PFD) – this is not your average orange life jacket! A good offshore PFD will have both automatic and manual inflation modes in addition to a built-in harness. The harness allows the user to clip a tether line that can help prevent them from going overboard in rough conditions. Type I PFDs have a higher buoyancy than typical life jackets, and are meant to keep the user’s head above the water even if the user is unconscious or incapacitated. PFDs need to be serviced regularly to be sure that the automatic firing mechanism is armed. Leg straps are also suggested for PFDs to prevent the vest from riding up over the head. Landfall Navigation and West Marine are now offering retro-fit straps.

• Harness and 7’ Tether – each crewmember must be able to tether themselves to the boat when on watch or going on deck. A snap shackle is much preferred to a carabineer at the point of harness, as it allows the user to release the tether regardless of the pressure being applied to the closer.

• Knife – all crew should carry a knife. In the event that your finger gets caught up in line or you get tangled up in the sheets in a roll over, you want to have a knife on your body so that you can free yourself quickly.

• Flashlight

• Personal Location Beacon – PLB – a portable device that is manually operated to transmit a homing beacon that can send out a signal that can be accurate down to a 100-meter level.

• “fanny pack” that attaches to PFD to store and carry knife, flashlight, whistle, etc.

• Reflective tape on PFD or fanny pack

• Foul Weather Gear – avoid black or blue FWG, instead opt for bright or neon colors which are easier to distinguish from the color of the water

• Spray hood or face guard

Boat Preparation

• Secure everything – bungee cords, netting, and small lines can help you secure lockers. Consider what would become a projectile in a knock down or a roll-over.

• Have a place for everything

• Don’t hide the safety equipment – make sure lifejackets, fire extinguishers, first aid kit and other gear is visible.

• Weigh the location and accessibility

• Make a map/diagram of all safety equipment

• Walk each crewmember through the vessel and have them TOUCH all important safety items. It is easier to remember where things are once we physically touch them. Crew will also know what to expect in terms of weight and ease of use if they have to pick up gear and restore it once before getting underway.

• Make life jackets easy to retrieve – do not store them under the v-berth – consider a location that is easy and convenient to access

Pre-Sailing Briefing

• Review “what-if” list

• Mention written guidelines – alerting crew to written rules of the boat/captain will help emphasize the importance of safety regulations

• State your PFD and harness policy – i.e. crew must wear when on deck, when on watch alone, when in certain conditions, etc..

• Describe planned course and sailing tactics – discuss sail changing techniques and crew responsibility

• Do a weather briefing – outline the current and upcoming conditions for the passage

• Discuss watch protocol – horizon scans, plotting position, when to wake captain or crew, use of lights/headphones/etc. while on watch

• Emphasize safety in every action

In the second half of this post I will discuss fire prevention, damage control and prevention, crew overboard, search and rescue, medical issues, and weather.

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