Safety comes from expecting the unexpected


To the editor: It always starts with a question.

“Are you really from Boston?”

Someone wandering the docks has stopped nearby and is looking at our boat. I might be relaxing in the cockpit with a book and a beer, or Raine might have a winch disassembled, its 30-odd parts neatly laid out while she meticulously cleans each with a toothbrush laden in solvent.

“Yes, we are.”

The second question is forgivable — they’re not sailors after all — no matter the unintentional insult.

“Did you sail here in that?”

“We did.”

Now you can watch them screw up their courage, eyes widening to ask the big one.

“Have you had any storms?”

Donald Rumsfeld once famously said that there are “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”

In spite of being lambasted in the press for this, there is a fundamental truth in what he said. There are the things in life we know that we know (the known knowns) and there are the things that we are aware we don’t know (the known unknowns). But most important, there are those things of which we don’t realize we are blissfully unaware — these are the unknown unknowns.

This is certainly true of sailing. Storms are one of those known unknowns. I know they happen, you know they happen, everyone knows they happen. We just don’t know where or when or how strong they’re going to be. So, we prepare to meet storms.

I’m always a bit unnerved when I read the latest how-I-flirted-with-death-on-the-high-seas article or book. How is it that people could be so unaware of this or that danger or possibility, or of how some particular boat system is located, how it works or how to deal with its failure? It always reminds me that I have unknown unknowns as well. The list has grown shorter over the years, but I can never know how many potential eventualities still lie as yet undiscovered by me.

As I write, I am working as a pilot of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) on an exploration ship. A couple days back, it was mid-afternoon somewhere a few hundred miles south of Nantucket. I had just settled on an upper deck with a good book and had lit a cigar (no beer allowed on board) when I saw the operations officer run across the aft deck to a man hatch near the transom. How odd, I thought. Then began the ringing of the general alarm and the pipe: “Fire has been detected in aft steering. Man your fire and emergency stations. This is not a drill.”

No one knew that a fire was going to start in aft steering that particular fine afternoon. But fire is a known unknown on board ships. It happens. You prepare for it, you equip for it, you drill for it. And when it happens, you deal with it. Our small fire was out quickly and was little danger to the ship or crew because of the practice drills, the training and the preparation to manage just such events.

When we go to sea on a bluewater voyage, we become self-sufficient little islands, both literally and figuratively — we are floating collections of people, food, equipment, knowledge and skills, all surrounded by the sea. Prudently, we try to prepare adequately for the things we know could happen, and hopefully in the process we become better equipped to deal with some of those things we didn’t even know could.

Given that good judgment comes from wisdom, wisdom from knowledge and knowledge from experience — experience being a euphemism for all those troublesome things that happen to us because of our poor judgment and naiveté — how do we prepare without having to live through all of the experiences ourselves? Well, learn from the experience of others of course.

Read tales of voyages similar to that which you contemplate. Read some of the respected contemporary reference books on things like heavy weather sailing. Round-the-world racers deal with these things a lot — read their stories. I particularly liked reading some of Hal Roth’s books; the part about being in the Indian Ocean looking up at his keel was instructive (he lived to write about it, right?). Read stories of other voyagers and learn about the things that break, the things that don’t go as planned and how they dealt with them. 

Learn about the safety standards that have been set for ocean racing whether you’re racing or not. When we were preparing our J40 Gryphon for our circumnavigation, we used the ORC Category 1 rules as guidelines for safety equipment and practices. I strongly recommend these to anyone setting out to cross oceans. These regulations are now published by World Sailing ( Download a copy and read it. Believe it.

You can have confidence that these rules in particular have been won through experience, sometimes tragic. Go through your boat and set it up to meet these rules. I know SOLAS flares are expensive and, yes, maybe you’d be rescued with the firing of the first one. But why bother arguing against the recommendations of experts in order to justify saving a couple hundred dollars? Oh, and don’t store them all in the same place. What if that’s where the fire is?

Know your systems. There is no excuse for not knowing where all of your through-hulls are and where each of them goes. They also need to be quickly accessible. The same goes for fuel and gas shut-offs and emergency equipment. Draw it all up and post a safety diagram.

Think ahead about heavy weather management. Make sure all heavy furniture and other items are secured and cannot fly around the cabin in a knockdown. The gimbals on our stove are fine for letting the stove swivel as the boat rocks, but there’s no way they would hold the stove in place during a 360. We added locking bolts to ensure this wouldn’t become a secondary problem. Batteries tied down? Bilge boards? Fridge covers? Are your weatherboards tethered to the boat so they can’t float away?

The time to prepare for a storm is while sitting in a calm anchorage sipping a cool beverage, not when the seas are already up to 12 feet and growing. And speaking of seas, it’s not just storms that bring seas. The biggest seas we ever saw were on the edge of a massive Atlantic high-pressure system squashed up against tropical low pressure. That was an unknown unknown up until then.

Do several people on board know how to use the SSB to hail help in an emergency? How many people know how to plot a safe course to the nearest land? Is more than one person trained in first aid, or is it “physician heal thyself” on your island?

And practice. Practice, practice, practice. Where’s that drogue again? Which line were we supposed to use for that? How does that emergency tiller work anyway?

Electronic toys are great — I love them myself — but, to paraphrase Sterling Hayden, “You can’t engineer your way out of a gale.” (Sterling was much more, um, expressive.) Motor skills require practice, experimentation, repetition and repetition.

Don’t get me wrong, and please, please don’t let me discourage you! But do prepare. And learn. And practice. And when you’ve sailed across a few hemispheres and a couple oceans, through a storm or two, tell your tale to next year’s class.

—Jeff and Raine Williams circumnavigated aboard their J40 Gryphon and currently are based in New Zealand.

By Ocean Navigator