Personal safety gear

If you are crewing on a voyaging boat, you might trust a boat’s owner to put the right personal safety gear (life jackets, harnesses, signaling devices) aboard for your use on a trip. However, it is far better if you have your own gear and know how to use it. I have tested a lot of equipment and have chosen the best, in my opinion, for my use. You should make your choices as to the best gear for your situation.Life jackets

What life jacket should you buy for you and your children? The ideal life jacket is one that keeps you afloat under all conditions. You can go with a conventional life jacket, but the trend is toward a more comfortable, inflatable life jacket. Inflatable life jackets are available in both manual (pull a cord or string to inflate) and automatic (they inflate when the life jacket gets wet). In 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard approved automatic inflating life jackets. Due to their designed capability to inflate when wet, however, there have been cases where automatic life jackets have inflated after being hit by a wave or when soaked in a shower of rain. Automatic types should be carefully monitored and the water-activated device replaced on a regular basis. The single worst problem with inflatable life jackets is that they are not maintained as well as they should be. Just like your life raft, inflatable life jackets need to be regularly inspected and CO2 cylinders and water activators replaced every spring, whether your life jacket needs it or not.

In bad weather, take the Coast Guard’s advice and wear a PFD or life jacket. In fact, make wearing a life jacket mandatory on your boat as soon as the wind gets up. Inexperienced crews should wear life jackets at all times when they are on deck. In heavier weather, everybody should wear a life jacket all the time on deck. Having said that, I much prefer to wear an inflatable life jacket with a harness when I am out in the deep ocean.

Lieutenant Craig M. Jaramillo, assistant operations officer at Coast Guard Group, Woods Hole, Mass., drew my attention to the Coast Guard’s executive summary of boating statistics on life jacket use (available on the Coast Guard website ( It says that in 2000, 701 boating fatalities occurred. When compared to the number of registered boats, the fatality rate is down to 5.5 percent from 7.8 percent in 1990. The report says categorically that 519 people drowned while boating. It also adds that life jackets could have saved an additional 445 lives. Eight out of every 10 boaters that died were not wearing life jackets. If nothing else, that number should give you a good reason to wear a life jacket. The report mentions that 83 percent of the fatalities occurred in boats less than 26 feet in length. Of those, 337 died in boats less than 16 feet in length and that alcohol was a factor in 31 percent of all boating fatalities. The report also shows that 84 percent of the fatalities occurred on boats where the operator had not taken an approved boating safety course. These numbers clearly indicate that people aboard smaller boats should take proportionately greater precautions and that a boating safety course should be in your future if you have not already taken one.

Several easily identifiable and controllable factors led to accidents. According to the report, the primary causes of accidents are: operator inattention, careless or reckless operation, inexperience, high speed and no lookout. By taking care, watching what you are doing, running at a safe speed and keeping a lookout, you can eliminate most causes of boating accidents.

The report also mentions that hypothermia is a major killer, especially if the water temperature is less than 60° F (in spring and late fall) and that people going out on small boats should wear life jackets and dress for possible immersion. If nothing else, numbers like these tell you that you can significantly increase your chances of survival on the water by wearing a life jacket, dressing for possible immersion when going out aboard smaller boats and taking a boating safety course.

If you intend to buy an inflatable life jacket, get one with a built-in harness, that way, you have a double safety factor; however, some authorities do not recommend harness-type life jackets for women because of the waist-belt position relative to a woman’s breasts.

For small children, you should use both a harness (to keep them aboard) and a life jacket. The life jacket will keep them warm as well as protect them from falls. There are numerous manufacturers of children’s life jackets.

Life jacket stowage is another problem that every boater should look at. Where do you stow your life jackets? On many boats they are stowed in a disused locker and are difficult to get at. They are probably mildewed and smelly too. Do a quick “what if” scenario when you are next aboard your boat. Try to get your life jacket out and on in under a minute. You can use many innovative places to stow life jackets where they are handy. Why not look at a second layer of canvas under a Bimini to keep life jackets nearby on your boat? Or if your sailboat has canvas dodgers around the cockpit, why not sew in pouches for life jackets. A good life jacket may be all there is between you and your obituary.If you end up in the water

I’ve fallen off a boat three times. Every time it hurt, but in different ways. One time I fell off my own boat when working on it in my yard. I missed a stone wall and landed in a privet hedge. The freshly cut branches gave me a bloody back and stung like hell, but at least I was not going to die from hypothermia or drowning.

The second time, we had a full crew and were racing. We were about 20 miles at sea, running hard under spinnaker. It was just getting dark, the winds were moderate, about 12 to 18 knots, and we needed to gybe. We had taken the lazy guy off the spinnaker pole and had to reattach it. I clipped the guy in just as a gust of air filled the sail. It lifted me off the deck, over the lifeline and dropped me neatly alongside the boat.

I surfaced spluttering and gasping for air. My first reaction was panic. What should I do? I was not wearing a life jacket and had to swim. But where should I swim? The seas made it impossible to see more than a few feet and I knew that I was at least many miles from the nearest land. Fortunately, the crew tossed a man-overboard (MOB) pole over the side and I saw it. I figured that they would see the pole first, and if I were near it I would be seen too. The pole had a drogue and a lifering attached to it, but the whole setup blew downwind faster than I could swim.

For 25 minutes I swam. (The crew said it took so long because they had to vote whether they should come back for me!) They came back under power with the spinnaker plastered all over the mast. They saw the MOB pole first and circled it. Then they saw me. They approached under power and two men leaned over the side and simply hauled me aboard. Safe again. But I learned some lessons I’ll never forget.

The first lesson is not to panic. I was able to concentrate on swimming toward the MOB pole. That simple act kept panic from overwhelming me. The second lesson is to stay warm. I was fortunate. It was late summer and the water temperature was near 70° F. I was wearing foul-weather-gear pants, a shirt and a sweater. I was also wearing a brand new pair of boots and probably should have kicked them off to make swimming easier, but being a frugal Englishman, I didn’t want to lose them. The third lesson I learned is to wear a life jacket or harness. Had I been wearing a harness, I might have been hurt by a stanchion, but I would have stayed aboard. Had I been wearing a life jacket, I could have leaned back and enjoyed the unexpected dip. But, on the other hand, if I hadn’t swum to the MOB pole, I suspect that the crew would have had a hard time finding me.

The third time, I fell off a J22, but I held onto the spinnaker sheet and got a tow until the spinnaker collapsed. As soon as the boat stopped, they hauled me back aboard. Not a big deal, just a wet moment.Rescuing an MOB

If you are on the helm and you hear the dreaded call “man overboard,” your first reaction should be to check the compass course, then hit the MOB button on the GPS. Make a note of the compass course if you have time. Next, you’ll need to turn the boat around and sail or power back along a reciprocal course.

One person should be told to watch the MOB for as long as possible. Nothing should distract that person from watching the person in the water. It is extremely hard to keep watching a head floating in the water and the watcher should not be called on for some other chore. If you are the watcher, do not take your eyes off the swimmer, even for an instant, as you’ll find it incredibly hard to make contact again in any kind of a sea.

Other crew should toss the MOB pole, horseshoe, cushions, liferings and other gear over the side to lay a trail back to the person in the water. These items will also give the swimmer something to focus on and to swim toward.

There are numerous methods to get back to the MOB as quickly as possible. Most of these methods have been developed by sailors, as sailboats are notoriously slow to turn around under sail. For example, if you are running downwind and a person goes overboard, getting the spinnaker down, turning around and sailing back to the MOB could take 20 minutes. For that reason, I recommend that as soon as somebody goes over, the boat is put about and the engine turned on (you should check that lines are clear before putting the engine in gear.) With quick reactions, you can spin the boat around very quickly (even with the spinnaker plastered against the mast) or simply cast off the headsail sheet and start motoring back to the MOB. In some tests I have witnessed, the boat continues to sail away from the MOB while the crew makes decisions. Turn the boat around! Even if you are stopped, you are not moving away from the MOB. A boat moving at 8 knots moves away from a person in the water at about 13 feet per second or 800 feet per minute. At that rate, it takes about two to three minutes to be a quarter-mile from the person in the water. (In the example above, taking 20 minutes to get the spinnaker down could put you nearly two miles from the swimmer. Sailing back upwind would take at least another 20 to 30 minutes.) The faster you can turn around, the nearer you will be to the MOB. Going back to the lost crewmember is a matter of motoring up the line of cushions and floats that were tossed over the side until you get to him or her.

There are books that suggest continuing to sail and tacking back to the MOB or making a figure eight and approaching the swimmer from windward (theory: the boat is blown down toward the MOB), or coming up to the MOB from the leeward side (theory: the swandmmer is blown down toward the boat). `hese books rarely discuss maneuvering under power, preferring to assume that powerboaters have some magic wayXof getting back to the swimmer. My opinion is that you turn on your engine to dock the boat, to leave the harbor and to maneuver in tight corners, why not use it to rescue an MOB? Of course, when you get near the swimmer, you will have to stop the prop rotation to avoid injuring the swimmer. But saving minutes getting back to the swimmer by motoring is far better than trying to sail a figure eight and not reaching the MOB in time or losing track of the swimmer entirely.Personal location devices

According to Lt. Cmdr. Paul Steward of the Coast Guard’s search and rescue office, the current trend in lifesaving is for the boat to act as its own rescue platform. This means that instead of every set of foul-weather gear coming with a whistle in case you fall over the side, boats are being equipped with personal tracking devices to enable them to find and rescue an MOB. These devices range from a personal flare pack to a pocket EPIRB and should be seriously considered if you plan on going offshore.

Mini-flare kit. The Miniflare 3 by Pains Wessex is a personal kit of eight flares that you can carry around in your pocket. Each flare can be fired to an altitude of 240 feet, where it burns at an intensity of 10,000 candela for six seconds. According to the manufacturer, this allows the flares to be seen from one mile during the day and five miles at night.

Radio-based alert device. The Emerald Marine Products ALERT (automatic lifesaving emergency radio transmitter) system is designed to operate at 418 MHz and has a 2,000-foot range. (Note that because the system operates on 418 MHz, it cannot be tracked by a Coast Guard vessel, nor is it part of the COSPAS/SARSAT rescue system.) This product can be set up to shut down the engines, initiate an automatic turn, broadcast an automatic radio mayday, sound an onboard alarm and other programmable reactions. When the Alert System transmitter is worn on a life vest and the wearer falls overboard, it automatically starts transmitting. It also has a strobe light operating at 10 flashes per second to help locate the user. The transmitter runs on two AAA batteries.

Personal radio rescue beacon. The Alden Satfind 406 Pocket PLB (personal locator beacon) is a satellite-based system that operates just like a normal EPIRB. If the wearer falls over the side, the PLB emits a homing signal, allowing the wearer to be rescued quickly and easily. ACR Electronics also has a small, personal 406 EPIRB that is worn by a crewman. Should the crew fall off the boat, the EPIRB automatically starts transmitting.

Strobe lights. If someone falls off a boat at night, one of the biggest difficulties is finding the person in the water. Don’t rely on their having a flashlight and being able to wave it around, they may lose the light on impact with the water or get knocked unconscious as they go over the side. For these reasons, every crew should have a personal, water-activated strobe light attached to their harness or life jacket. ACR Electronics makes a number of different types, all of which can be easily worn.

Personal laser. One new type of personal signaling device is the Rescue Laser Flare from Greatland Laser. This device produces a line of laser light that can be used to get the attention of searching boats and aircraft that are up to 10 miles away.

Roger Marshall is a naval architect and writer. His latest book is The Complete Guide to Choosing Your Cruising Sailboat.

By Ocean Navigator