To sail anywhere with autonomy, ocean sailors prepare for unfamiliar horizons by training themselves to safely manage common dangers. Safety training begins before any voyage embarks. Safety habits build crew confidence in everyday sailboat operation, and greatly minimize the chance of catastrophe.
I organize safety training into four areas: A) the philosophy of safety; B) personal safety and responsibility; C) operation of critical sailboat systems underway; D) deck level safety and emergencies.
I begin my training sessions by emphasizing two points: 1) The goal of boating is to move the boat from A to B, have fun, pursue a personal interest in growing, and arriving safely without breaking equipment or hurting anyone. 2) The role of captain is to prepare and operate the vessel and manage the crew to complete each voyage while safeguarding human life, assets, and the environment.
These sentiments quickly summarize what sailors do on the ocean. If everyone aboard a boat conducts him or herself with these perspectives in mind, we’ve collectively made the boating world a great place.
The philosophy of safety
Let’s look at personal safety first because “safety” begins and ends with individual people and the things they do, pay attention to, and don’t do. The old saying, “one hand for yourself and one for the ship” is well known. It implies a sailor should hold onto the boat so they don’t fall down or go overboard.
But when I look deeply into this adage it speaks volumes about the many proactive decisions sailors routinely make to safely complete a voyage with crew and assets in mind. The words “self” and “ship” make us think about what it takes to be danger-aware. Great instructors realize the transformation toward safety-mindedness happens via mentoring and guided experiences. This approach takes time, and some instructional skill is paramount to properly convey this sentiment.
Frankly, students look at training from their life experiences first, and that either helps or hinders their understanding of how to apply safety awareness to sailing. Students must work hard to compare and contrast their life-experiences to specific safety facts taught in safety-training. I personally focus my instruction on specific dangers surrounding us before hammering home routine safety drills. Let’s be real, once a sailor is “trained” they often don’t routinely practice safety drills again. Instead they react to danger when it occurs later on.
I believe the best way to make sailors safe is to get them to consider safety precautions and create good safety habits. I accomplish this by teaching the philosophical perspective rather than how to react to danger.
In safety training, a perspective that recognizes danger will prompt the correct reaction more often than remembering hard procedural responses. It’s not the specifics of safety training that make sailors safe, it’s their understanding and practice of being safe that matter most!
I use the metaphor above to teach safety-minded awareness. I validate the idea that a self-centered perspective is valid if the sailor also considers how their actions affect the ship and crew. In other words: one hand for the ship and one hand to make decisions, take actions, and pursue the goal of boating.
Personal safety & responsibility
The practical side of safety training focuses on hands-on, action-based activities and routines that go beyond checklists. True practical training teaches a sailor to understand the mechanics behind each process. Checklists are rarely at hand when danger is faced. Checklists help outline a safety-training curriculum but a sailor needs solid understanding of a topic’s relation to the big picture.
Personal safety is subdivided into four topics.
Health – Without good health, a sailor begins the day unsafe. Every aspect of being healthy is important, from preempting sea sickness to managing it offshore. From mental perspective to physical fitness. Healthiness obviously doesn’t begin the day of departure. The number one thing a safe sailor does is live a healthy lifestyle. My students prepare their health weeks in advance of our hands-on session. I guide them to design their own pre-departure regimen which includes mental visualization. When these ideas are taken seriously, they embark healthy by building a foundation that prepares them to work safely aboard.
Clothing – Sailors who suffer in foul weather have donned the wrong gear. My clothing choices for an overnight sail are nearly the same as what I pack to cross an ocean. I pack gear for warm and cold weather, with versatility and layering in mind. Sun protective clothing is better than ever today. When I feel physically comfortable, my mood is balanced. To remain safe, my clothing choice must regulate my temperature while sitting and while working up a sweat. My choices must allow me to move freely without encumbering me.
Personal safety equipment – Gear that keeps me aboard, prevents me from drowning, helps me get found if I fall overboard, and preempts physical injury from falling or wounding my skin, muscles, and bones, is crucial. Anti-slip shoes that fit my feet are essential to my safety and the safety of other sailors too if I use my feet to brace myself when responding to danger. Safety harnesses and electronic locating devices improve my mood and make me feel confident. Sailing gloves for warm weather are different from those I wear on cold days. Headlamps with white and red lights (sometimes blue) for night use are required — the simpler the better. I find no use for the blinker-light feature and hope manufacturers eliminate the blinking-light option for simplicity’s sake. Sea boots? Yes, I always pack boots! A small roll of rigging tape in my pocket and a multi-tool allow me to effect a repair on the spot!
Systems knowledge – Knowledge builds confidence when I know how to safely operate everything I need on a daily basis. I never leave the dock without training my students how to set the anchor. I can respond to an anchoring emergency quickly by calmly giving a pre-departure briefing about my windlass, anchor tie-down, rode-markers, hand-signal communication for deployment and anchor retrieval. Engine operation and monitoring is important safety training, including prop rotation, transmission shifting, and how to power up and down the propulsion system. Running rigging operation, reefing, sail-furling, halyard layout, line-handling, winch operation, even the nuances of specific components like cleat orientation, and how to best position oneself to crank a winch, are all important. The galley is an important area for safety training for obvious reasons. Here we need to know how to prevent fire or explosion, and reduce the risk of getting doused by boiling water or sizzling oil. I also discuss interior handholds throughout the boat, especially in the galley when two hands are often required for cooking.
Critical sailboat system operation
Let’s dive into the training that improves safety of operation and look at critical systems underway. It’s the captain’s responsibility to manage the boat overall, but crew must know their boat too, especially the ins and outs of the components the boat needs to sail and arrive safely.
Navigation – This is arguably the primary task aboard every boat underway because, without it, the crew simply has no direction. There’s one crew member designated as navigator (often it’s the captain’s role) but all sailors aboard need safety training to understand the navigation system and process to keep the boat on track, and to make log entries essential to safe operation. The crew should be trained on log-entry format with the important caveat that course-to-steer is derived from standing orders of the watch! This simple guidance is the basis on which all activity aboard the boat is centered. Training that addresses differences between the various course headings improves safety because as we know there are many headings, and a sailor needs to know which to follow: course over ground by GPS, ship’s magnetic compass, autopilot fluxgate heading, bearing to waypoint, etc. It’s no surprise these values can all be different all the time while sailing. Obviously the crew is safer when they know which heading to follow!
Piloting – This is fun because it’s sailing time! When trained how to pilot a specific boat, the confidence gained makes sailing even more fun, mostly because minute-by-minute management makes the boat run like clockwork. I’ll cover running rigging and propulsion below, but piloting in this context deals with keeping the boat sailing toward its goal, avoiding collisions, and routed where it needs to go. Keeping the boat on course via hand-steering or autopilot requires real skill, and safety training must address piloting nuances about points of sail, sea states, sail-power guidelines, helming techniques, and which wind/wave angles help the autopilot do its job. A well-piloted sailboat maintains the status quo aboard the boat, manages its mood (so to speak), whereby things run so smoothly that when danger crops up it’s easily identified as separate from the norm, making the response to the danger clear.
Routine mechanical operation – This involves running rigging, auxiliary propulsion, electric power supply and anchoring. Operational safety training for these systems deals with the when, why, and order of operation by singlehanded effort or via teamwork. Essentially, there’s a symphony happening underway that requires routine monitoring of system status, so the appropriate action can be taken to manage the boat, analogous to jazz music where the band follows a score but has freedom to improvise. Holding a course from A to B requires a certain amount of sail power to drive the boat through a sea state at every moment in time. Demonstrating how to balance the boat under sail, and when to shift gears is essential.
Driving a boat under auxiliary power is an art, especially motor sailing. Knowing when to switch between sail and engine power alleviates stress by knowing the threshold to do so. There’s a lot of electric demand aboard sailboats underway: fridges, freezers, autopilot, entertainment, navigation, water maker, etc. There are also several types of generating equipment: wind, alternator, solar, hydro. Knowing when, how and in what order all components should be operated is powerful safety training. It’s not good when a battery gets so depleted that a tired sailor is now forced to hand-steer because there’s no electricity to run the autopilot.
Deck level safety & emergencies
Good safety habits avert emergency responses, but, accidents happen and things break down. Problems at sea require human intervention before an emergency places extra responsibility on the crew. The additional time and stress an emergency puts on a crew may reach an unmanageable level.
Safety training that details how to respond to fire, collision, grounding, sinking, crew overboard, etc. must be covered. A self-centered, safety-minded perspective is valid at sea if the sailor also considers how their actions affect the ship and crew. In other words: one hand for the ship and one-hand to make decisions, take actions, and pursue the goal of boating. Be safe.
Paul Exner is the owner of the sail training company Modern Geographic Sailing (www.moderngeographic.com).