Practice for Safe Sailing

In calm conditions, try out your safety gear so you'll know it works when the time comes to use it.

Rescue devices
Eleanor Merrill found it easy enough to pull our colleague Herb McCormick alongside, but hoisting him from the water proved nearly impossible.Mark Pillsbury

Several years ago, a friend who's an accomplished and thorough skipper was preparing to sail his boat to the Caribbean for the winter. Several of us who would be involved with one leg of the voyage or another chipped in to help, and part of the prep included each watch team taking part in a shakedown sail.

On the appointed day, six of us who’d be bunking together headed out and spent several hours going through drills. We located seacocks, sorted through tools, figured out where fire extinguishers were located, and set every sail, including the storm jib. When a float was tossed in the water unexpectedly, the dan buoy was quickly deployed. A crew bellowed, “Man overboard,” and pointed unfailingly at our victim in the drink. We made quick-stop maneuvers under sail and returned to our fallen comrade by scribing big circles and figure-eights through the water. It was all textbook perfect.

Until it wasn’t. Ironically, despite all this attention to safety and detail, at one point I lost my ball cap to a gust of wind — and we collectively failed miserably at our attempt to retrieve it. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say when things turned dark.

This all comes to mind because after attending last fall’s boat shows, I came away with the belief that people no longer buy boats because they’re fast or rugged or vessels of discovery and capable of fostering a lifelong study of seamanship. No, boat salesmen these days mention only that sailing is easy and fun, which it is, of course — most of the time.

As it often does, the ocean quickly set things straight. Back home in Newport, Rhode Island, the shows behind us, my Cruising World colleagues and I loaded up a boatload of safety gear aboard my Sabre 34 Jackalope and headed out on Narragansett Bay to try it all out. You'll read about the details in an upcoming issue. But for now, I will tell you about one little test we did that involved plucking a mate from the water using a venerable Lifesling. You know, the device that's packed into the white pouch mounted on just about every stern rail out there.

Our volunteer in the water was executive editor Herb McCormick, a strapping lad dressed in a wetsuit on this late-October day. Our onboard rescuer was our rather petite managing editor, Eleanor Merrill. And the idea, of course, was to gauge just how easily a suddenly single crew might be able to retrieve a fallen mate. I've watched videos that made it look straightforward enough.

Let the games begin. Eleanor threw the Lifesling overboard so that the line it was attached to trailed astern. Under power, we steered a wide circle around Herb as the line and sling came to him. Then, with the engine off, Eleanor pulled him alongside and set to lifting him from the drink. Or tried.

Over the next 20 or so minutes, in absolutely benign conditions, we quickly discovered that pulling a person out of the water isn’t as simple as handing him a halyard to attach to the sling, leading the line to a winch and grinding him back aboard. Winches aren’t necessarily sized properly for the task or in the right place for the person cranking them. Adding a block and tackle to the mix (would you even have one aboard?) didn’t help much either, until it was raised to the proper height and its tail was led correctly to gain mechanical advantage.

Who knew? One thing for certain, had this been a real emergency, we’d have just wasted a whole lot of precious moments. All in all, it was a pretty instructional little session, even if Herb did emerge with a few bumps and bruises. So it goes.

And so here we are with May upon us. For many, it’s the start of a new sailing season. What better time to check over the safety kit and maybe spend an afternoon trying some of it out? Toss a Clorox bottle overboard and practice retrieving it. Inflate your PFDs and make sure they hold air and are up to date on servicing. Take inventory of tools and first-aid supplies. And though I know sailing is supposed to be easy and fun all of the time, imagine for a minute the worst that could happen and then think about what you’re going to do about it. And then? Go sailing.