The High Cost of Safety
Your safety gear can save the day, but avoiding disaster is still the best option.
In an emergency situation, when it appears that the safety of the boat or crew may be compromised, the first step is to contact an appropriate search-and-rescue group—you should identify this coordinator before you leave. Once you’ve made contact, advise it of your location, your situation, and your needs. This is not a Mayday call; it’s a risk-assessment statement and can be done via VHF, SSB, or a satellite-communication system. The new Global Maritime and Distress Safety System communications protocol may make implementing distress calls easier, but the system isn’t up and running just yet. The key issue is to file a clear float plan before you head out.
The 406 EPIRB is a distress beacon monitored by satellites with global coverage, and through international cooperation, it links search-and-rescue services worldwide. Some regions have superior air and sea rescue capabilities, while these assets may be meager in some parts of the developing world. This means that the same-day rescues off the U.S. coastline may not be the status quo around the world, which is another reason why abandoning ship should be the very last resort.
The life raft is the most expensive item on the safety list, and if some regulatory bodies have their ways, the price, weight, and canister size will grow even larger. In an effort to make rafts even safer, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) are upping requirements for structure and stability as well as recommending such features as boarding platforms. Today, offshore life rafts come equipped with various supplies, which include such bare essentials as signal flares, bailers, and food and water. But what about the other tools vital to survival on a raft, such as watermakers, handheld VHFs, and EPIRBS? There’s debate between standards setters as to whether all portable supplies should be in a grab bag separate from the raft or packed in the raft itself.
Up until now, recreational-craft life rafts have been built to manufacturers’ specs, and trends toward double chambers, better ballast bags, and more efficient canopies have improved these products. Such rafts are specified for lighter duty than the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) rafts carried by inspected commercial vessels, but they’re a fair compromise, especially when it comes to having a raft that’s small enough to be effectively stowed and easily deployed. "Roomy" isn’t a term that often appears in life-raft brochures. In fact, the standard 2-foot by 2-foot space allocated for each person is a tough squeeze at best. Many cruisers buy rafts that will accommodate at least one more crew than they plan to take.
All too often, gale-force conditions cause seas to pluck items like horseshoe buoys and Lifeslings from their pulpit perches. Crewmembers who were washed overboard and recovered in the recent Newport-Bermuda Race reported that inflatable crew-overboard devices blew away before they could reach them. Add poor visibility to the mix, and you can see why having each crewmember take personal responsibility for staying tethered to the vessel in severe conditions is so vital. Harnesses and jacklines play a key role in this process, and to that end, many inflatable PFDs manufactured these days have built-in safety harnesses. Some say this gear complicates working on deck, but if crews spend time familiarizing themselves with the extra strings and straps before heavy weather sets in, they’ll find the constraints far less objectionable.
Keep It Simple
When asked about the perceived dangers they face at sea, experienced sailors will often list the things least likely to occur, such as being swept over the side by a rogue wave or striking a submerged container. Few focus on the more likely scenarios, ones in which they’re smacked by the boom, burned in the galley, or grounded on a rocky ledge—despite the marvels of modern navigation equipment. Avoiding these events is all part of the safety equation, and risk mitigation is your effort to turn the odds in your favor. It all starts by recognizing that your vessel itself is your primary piece of safety gear, and when it comes to improving your odds for survival, it’s best to look closely at your first line of defense.
CW technical editor Ralph Naranjo holds the Vanderstar Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy and served for two years as chairman of the US Sailing Safety at Sea Committee.