In Response to the PFD Problem

Michael Robertson adds his thoughts on PFD's on kids to the mix in response to a letter from the editor in the April 2016 issue.

cw pfds
The photo in question from the February issue.Michael Robertson

"In spite of all the efforts of the Power Squadrons, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, state and local boating safety courses, etc., sailors seem to be oblivious to the risks of children (and adults) not wearing life jackets. In ‘Sailing into Paradise’ (Feb. 2016), there is a large picture of a child hanging over the side of a boat underway in a position to slip under the lifelines and go overboard….Is there a chance [Cruising World] editors could exert at least a little influence to encourage those submitting…articles to show people behaving responsibly?"

That is an excerpt of a letter to the editor of Cruising World, published in the April 2016 issue. The child "hanging over the side of a boat underway in a position to slip under the lifelines and go overboard" is my daughter.

My first reaction is to assure the letter writer that I’m on their side, that I agree how important it is to ensure the safety of kids around water and to set a good example.

But I’m not on the letter writer’s side. I’m not even sympathetic to their sentiment.

On what basis can the letter writer assert that this photo is evidence that, “sailors seem to be oblivious to the risks of children (and adults) not wearing life jackets?” I’ve met a lot of sailors—sailor parents in particular—and they’ve never seemed to me to be a bunch oblivious to the risks of children not wearing life jackets. But nor have I met any sailors who think those risks are fixed and omnipresent. Risks rise and fall with changes in conditions. Far from being oblivious to risk, we sailing parents are constantly gauging risk as conditions around us change. When we decide the risk of not wearing a life jacket is too high, we put one on and request our kids put theirs on.

Cruising World published the full-page photo of my daughter on the rail because it’s an awesome photo, capturing a happy moment of our life under sail. The letter writer can allege that we are not “behaving responsibly” and that is fine. The letter writer may have asked their daughter to don a vest in the same circumstances; that’s the letter writer’s prerogative. But I would ask the letter writer to direct his objection to me. I’d be happy to explain our rationale, in this particular instance, for not requesting Eleanor wear a vest. But to ask the Cruising World editors to engineer photo submissions so that the magazine might present a world in which all kids are in vests at all appropriate times…times deemed appropriate by whom?...accomplishes what?

We take the safety of our kids (and ourselves) very seriously. We are hyper-aware of the danger posed by a man-overboard scenario. We sometimes sail in rough conditions on the open ocean in pitch darkness where we know that the likelihood of recovering any member of our family crew who goes overboard, is close to zero. We are aware of the danger inherent even in returning to the boat by dinghy when the tidal flow is strong, when it’s dark, when it’s rough, when the water is very cold. We address the risks that are a part of our cruising lives with an arsenal of tools and strategies, life vests being only one.

Situations are complex, people are complex. Do I wear a seatbelt while driving and make sure my kids are buckled up too? Yep. But might I have last year let my kid sit on my lap, unbelted, so she could steer while we drove down an empty dirt desert road in Mexico at 15 mph? Yep. And allowing her to do that was probably just as responsible as allowing the same girl to sit on that rail that day without a life vest. How responsible? You’re welcome to decide that for yourself. But please let us not advocate a world where broad-brush edicts and assertions take the place of judgment and personal responsibility.

–Michael Robertson