A question a voyager planning to depart might well ask: “I bought my cruising boat, I read the books and watched the videos and it has the equipment they recommend. Why should I shell out more money for a course on safety at sea?”
From my perspective there are two answers to this question. One, a boat on the high seas is alone even if traveling in company and everyone on board must act in a way that contributes to safety and efficiency. And two, learning the appropriate equipment and safety measures is best done through a course.
“If you have an accident on the ocean an ambulance is not going to whisk you to the hospital,” I used to tell my sailing students, women taking weeklong overnight courses to learn how to cruise. I wanted them to absorb the concept of self-sufficiency. It was an integral part of the teaching I did; though we did not have formal lesson plans we were expected to cover chart reading, weather analysis, engine maintenance, first aid and man overboard procedures. The lessons were taught on the water and sometimes nature provided real-life problems to solve, like the engine not starting or a sail ripping.
For serious safety training aimed at offshore boaters, it’s worthwhile to look around your area because a number of organizations, such as yacht clubs and or clubs like the Storm Trysail Club or the Cruising Club of America, offer Safety at Sea courses throughout the year. Virtually all are given under the auspices of US Sailing (www.ussailing.org/education/adult/safety-at-sea-courses). These are not cruising courses designed to allow you to charter a boat, though US Sailing offers these as well.
US Sailing was organized as the North American Yacht Racing Union (NAYRU) in 1897 to encourage and promote racing, along with unifying the racing and rating rules in the United States and Canada and throughout the yachting world. Along the way it became USYRU, and in 1991 changed its name again and began to do business as US Sailing.
Online companion courses
Besides these charter responsibilities, US Sailing is also an educational institution for sailors of all kinds. In 2017 it launched the Safety at Sea online course as a companion to the in-person courses offered by clubs and schools across the country approved by US Sailing with US Sailing moderators and local experts. The online course format, designed to allow sailors to tailor safety education to their own time in their own spaces, was uniquely suited to the pandemic. Now that opportunities for in-person classes have resumed, US Sailing continues to give online courses, a combination of online and in-person, or all in-person. Offshore cruisers may take any combination but offshore racers whose boats or racing organizations require certification will have to complete hands-on work. Safety at sea is about prevention, practices and equipment but it is also a big part of seamanship, the broader base of knowledge that includes operation, navigation, management and maintenance of a vessel and is not limited to sailing. BoaterU (boateru.com/), created at Maritime Institute, a training firm on the West Coast and the East Coast focused on the needs of professional mariners, provides education to recreational powerboaters (Maritime Institute is the parent company of Ocean Navigator).
So what would you learn in a US Sailing-sanctioned Safety at Sea course and why, to paraphrase my first question, would you bother to take it?
I was fortunate to have access to the online course for purposes of this article. Its curriculum consists of 15 modules, the first five of which are mandatory for any approved course. It can be completed in 12 to 13 hours and each unit ends with a quiz.
Unit 1: Giving Assistance
Unit 2: Personal Safety Gear
Unit 3: Crew Overboard
Unit 4: Emergency Communications
Unit 5: Search and Rescue
Unit 6: Crew Health
Unit 7: Cold Exposure
Unit 8: Care and Maintenance of Safety Equipment
Unit 9: Signaling
Unit 10: Marine Weather
Unit 11: Fire Safety
Unit 12: Heavy Weather
Unit 13: Storm Sails
Unit 14: Damage Control and Repair
Unit 15: Life Raft and Survival
A glance at this curriculum underscores the fact that subjects covered are not, with a few exceptions, everyday situations but rather the kind of occurrences for which preparation is crucial because when emergencies do occur at sea there’s rarely the luxury of time to plan. Learning skills ahead of time, preferably under realistic settings (e.g., try out your Lifesling!) gives you a better chance of using them properly when needed. Though I’ve never had a serious emergency myself, I have been in situations which could have been bad, and have traveled in company with boats that have needed various kinds of assistance. All this helps voyagers gain both competence and confidence.
Most material is presented in language that adapts to long distance cruising as well as racing. “Safety is of paramount importance whether blue water cruising offshore or participating in offshore races,” says Betsy Alison, Adult Director at US Sailing.
According to Alison, about one-fourth to one-third of the participants in the larger in-person safety at sea courses are cruising sailors. There is a set curriculum for the in-person courses that involves deploying a life raft; testing inflatable lifejackets and practicing conserving heat and energy when in the water in full foul weather gear; lighting flares/pyrotechnics and firefighting; along with damage control and assessments.
Practicing what usually isn’t
Even the online course gives a birds-eye view into procedures that we don’t generally practice because it means using up parts of expensive equipment that must then be replaced or because we don’t have the resources. The course addresses a variety of each type of equipment. Going to a boat show or talking to knowledgeable marine store staff does not replace this kind of exposure, and the many YouTubers out there are probably not certified to teach this material.
“Knowing what safety equipment you have on board, knowing how to use and service it, and where it is stored can be the difference between life and death in an emergency,” says Alison.
Experienced mariner that I am, I still found plenty of information to surprise me. Some is evolution of equipment that I’m already familiar with. Other information was more interesting; i.e. under the unit Cold Exposure, which is relevant now that I sail in Maine and was not when I crossed the Pacific, I learned that people do not die of hypothermia, they die of cold incapacitation and if you can survive the first minute and get your breathing under control, you can plan and help orchestrate your survival. I developed a much healthier respect for emergency communications equipment and the ways in which changes in the lowly VHF radio and its near range capability make it useful in high seas rescue situations. As the medical officer on board our boat, a new emphasis on using a syringe to clean wounds (“the solution to pollution is dilution”) was sobering and useful.
An added comment as a woman, the course includes several female instructors, entirely appropriate given the fact that roughly half of all liveaboard voyagers are women. The other instructors are excellent as well. Chuck Hawley, past chairman of the Safety at Sea Committee and overall moderator and instructor, has no difficulty in making the discussions of equipment and actions universally applicable.
Every US Sailing Sanctioned Safety at Sea Course covers lessons learned from safety incidents that have actually occurred on the water. The material is designed to circle back on itself so that discussions about procedures and gear crop up in different contexts, usually with expansion. For example, PFDs are discussed in the Personal Safety Gear module and also in Care and Maintenance of Safety Equipment module.
In terms of the gear discussed, US Sailing mentions particular brands not as promotion but because often that’s the only way to differentiate usefulness. Thus, the discussion of pros and cons of inflatable life vests from the Spinlock Deckvest, which is a molded style and comfortable but not USCG approved, to Onyx, Mustang and Revere conventional inflatable vests, to Crewsaver or Plastimo, which have hoods to reduce the chance of spray drowning a person in the water. Whistles, like the highly rated Fox 40 “pea-less” whistle used by referees and coaches and the Storm whistle, said to be the loudest in the world, and personal rescue lights like ACR’s C-Light and C-Strobe and Weems & Plath’s Personal Rescue Strobe, are treated not just as accessories but integral safety tools. This is also true of emergency position indicating rescue beacons (EPIRBS) or the smaller personal locator beacon (ACR, McMurdo, Ocean Signal), which are emergency signaling devices of ever increasing sophistication in new models that now can include AIS signals, for example.
VHF radios are also covered, particularly handhelds (Standard Horizon, Icom, Uniden) that are both fully waterproof and float and can include Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and perhaps an integrated GPS receiver with the ability to display the fix location on a screen where it is easily repeatable when calling for help.
Lighting off flares
One of the more helpful sections was on signal flares, which is something we definitely don’t practice with. Much of the information about handheld and aerial flares like those made by Orion, and the Sirius, one and two color eVDSD Distress Light electronic flares, was known to me, but in all my boating years I have never actually activated one. Getting to do so at a seminar is an invaluable bit of experience.
Also covered extensively in several units was man overboard (MOB) equipment, which, as Hawley points out, is increasingly referred to as COB for crew overboard. In an emergency, it’s wise to use the good old phrase “Man Overboard!” because it gets people’s attention and signifies a single person going into the water rather than the more ambiguous crew overboard, which could mean multiple crewmembers. The Lifesling product has been sold for 40 years but it is still the go-to tool for retrieving a person from the water, while various inflatable systems for marking locations, like the Switlik MOM 8-S and the SOS Marine Self-Inflating Man Overboard Dan Buoy, exist alongside conventional horseshoes and the Kent Rescue Throw Bag heaving line (make sure to keep hold of the grab strap!). Safety at Sea seminars demonstrate effective ways of deploying and also maintaining each item.
Other units are less focused on use and maintenance of gear. The course includes a good starting discussion of marine weather that is likely to be encountered by ocean-going sailors, how to interpret weather data and where to obtain appropriate weather products. As always, I find weather discussions depend a little too much on “this is what it is” rather than “this is how it gets to be what it is” but that is a personal perspective.
Heavy weather as discussed is not how to monitor weather when it pipes up but what to do; that module and the three units that follow, Storm Sails (including trysails and storm jibs but also how to adjust sails to meet increasing wind and when to reef and change sails); Damage Control and Repair and Life Raft and Survival are all in the category of “I hope I never see this” and likely to be encountered only by high seas sailors.
Repairing with adhesives
Nevertheless, I did learn some interesting information, like the degree to which adhesives are now used for repairs of all kinds, and that damage control kits like the SeaKits offered by Life Raft and Survival Equipment, Inc. are a great place to start, if nothing else as a memory jogger as to what else you have and where it is stowed. Sleeping bags can be stuffed into holes like the large one made by a missing rudder post, and while conventional line can be cut away with a knife when the rig goes, Spectra and Dyneema synthetic line probably cannot. Viking, Crewsaver, Revere and Winslow make life rafts, and the course goes into how to spec a raft for your particular boat as well as your float plan, how and when to get it inspected and repacked and where not to stow it.
Lastly, perhaps because it is so distressing and seemingly uncontrollable, is fire safety. Though I studied this to obtain my Coast Guard captain’s license, the information is largely forgotten and my recommendation would be to assign fire safety knowledge to someone on your crew so they are completely up to speed on fire fighting gear and procedures. It’s very important to understand the risks of fire on board, where they come from, how to prevent and contain and extinguish them. New types of fires caused by heavy metals — lithium in batteries and magnesium in flares — are rare but there’s no unique extinguisher and the solution is to remove the material from the boat. The convenient mnemonic device APASS — Alert, Pull the pin, Aim, Squeeze and Sweep helps overcome uncertainty about extinguisher use. The Vetus company makes a port to allow an engine room fire to be fought without opening the hatch and admitting more oxygen, and a humble fire blanket like Plastimo’s kept in the galley is perfect for fighting grease fires and doesn’t cause the mess of shooting off a Class A-B-C extinguisher.
Prevention, in the end, is paramount. As Chuck Hawley and the instructors stress throughout the course, if you take preventive measures ahead of time, keep your crew informed, practice procedures, know your gear, and follow maintenance schedules, there’s a good chance to avoid emergencies.
Contributing editor Ann Hoffner spent ten years as a liveaboard voyager in the Pacific and now owns the Sabre 30 Ora Kali and lives in Maine.