Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Sailor’s Mindset for Boating Safety

This week, Captain John explores three tips for developing a "Sailor's Mindset" to help you stay safe onboard...

Guest blog by Captain John
Author of Seamanship Secrets and publisher of the popular boating education website

Photo © Nautical Sites Media

I believe there’s a bit of overhype on what safety gear makes a sailor safe and keeps him or her aboard the boat. If you are anything like me, the first vision to flash in your mind would be the personal flotation device (PFD).

Before you even leave the dock there is one thing you can do above all others that will help keep you and your crew safe – develop the “Sailor’s Mindset”.  Step aboard a boat, and you might as well step aboard the planet Mars. After all, we are land creatures. Rolling, pitching, yawing, and other boat motions can feel as foreign as a “Martian” language to most of us.

Whether it’s rising from a cockpit seat or stepping down a companionway ladder for a cup o' jo--keep in mind that you are NOT on terra firma. You must use different muscles to balance and move. And your entire mindset too, must change to meet this new environment.

Sailors have learned the secret of this unique mindset for hundreds of years. And most did it without PFDs, harnesses, or the other high tech sailing gear now available.

Sure, the stories of missing or lost crew over the side make the news.  But that’s a tiny blip on the radar-screen compared to the number of injuries sustained by boaters that slipped, tripped, slid, fell, twisted, sprained, or broke something. Or, those sailors who got bonked by a boom. So what can you do to help prevent injury to your crew?

Begin today to develop your own personal “Sailor’s Mindset”.  Put these three sailing tips into play today for safer sailing anywhere in the world…

1.  Crouch and Grab as You Go
Have you noticed how a football linebacker crouches when running with the ball? This keeps his center of gravity lower to the ground. Even if hit, he might gain a bit more yardage because he’ll be harder to take down.

But you can take him down in one highly vulnerable area of the body—the back of the knees at the “knee crease”. Knock him in this area and he will crumble over backwards like a rag doll.
A bit inconvenient on land--but deadly on a boat. Here’s why… 

Imagine you are on a sailboat in a seaway. The boat rolls, you are pushed back; your knee creases hit the upper lifelines, and over you go. That’s because most production sailboats have upper lifelines that are much too short.

Are your lifelines too short? Make this fast five-second test. Step aboard any sailboat. Stand on the side deck (port or starboard). Turn around and face the mast or boom. Slide your feet back a bit until you just feel the upper lifelines contact your body. Where do they touch? If it’s within a few inches of your knee creases, you must adopt a “Sailor’s Mindset” strategy when sailing.

Crouch to keep your knee creases well below the upper lifeline. Grab a lifeline, hand rail, shrouds, mast, or any other support as you go (more on this later). Crouch lower in tough weather. Crawl on all fours in extreme weather. This will keep you on the boat in the toughest sailing conditions.

2. Install More Handrails Below the Deck
Add handrails down below to keep your crew injury free. Most production sail and power boats lack adequate handrails in the cabin, head, or galley areas.

In the cabin install extra horizontal handrails that enable you or your crew to move from the companionway ladder aft all the way to the forepeak. In the galley, insure the cook has vertical and horizontal handrails close by on both sides of the stovetop.

Give your boat’s head area special attention. Add vertical handrails on each side of the toilet and shower stall in the head. That way, a person can brace themselves no matter how the boat rolls or heels.

Money Saving Safety Tip: Instead of teak for handrails, use handicap handrails that you can purchase at home improvement centers. 

Teak handrails might look nice, but they can deplete a sailor’s pocketbook faster than a rushing tide. Save big money when you purchase handicap handrails for below deck. Find them at a warehouse home improvement center. They’re robust, strong, and cheaper than teakwood. Cover them with fancywork (sailor’s macramé ropework) for an attractive, salty finish.

3.  Make Safety Rules and Pass them Along
No matter what the books say, few sailors want to wear a PFD all the time—children being the exception. In hot weather they are uncomfortable and burdensome. Any PFD can restrict movement when sailing or grinding on a winch.

But you must have your personal PFD accessible (where you can get to it within 5 seconds) at all times, no matter when you are on a boat.  Wear the PFD based on the sailing conditions.

Most boats I’ve crewed aboard offshore have a set of standing orders that the crew reads when they come aboard. Common times that veteran skippers require crews to don PFDs are when...

alone on deck (day or night).
going forward in thick weather (heavy seas or fog).
sailing or under power in heavy weather.
reefing the mainsail or headsail.
entering or exiting an inlet - even in calm weather.
docking and maneuvering in stormy weather.
you think you might need one. If you think you do - you do!  
Other Sailing Safety Gear to Consider

Rig jacklines—long lengths of rope or webbing--to port and starboard if you intend to venture outside of protected waters. Require your sailing crew to wear a sailing harness along with tethers at night or in heavy weather. Clip the tether to the jackline when moving fore or aft on the boat.

Rig your jacklines the right way. Attach one end (or the eye) to stout bow cleats. Run the jacklines down the side of the deck. Cleat off the bitter end of the jackline to stout quarter cleats (cleats located on each side of the stern).

Tension each jackline to remove excess slack one or two times each day. Slack jacklines could become a tripping hazard. Always make jackline adjustments from the cockpit quarter cleats. This keeps your crew in or closer to the cockpit for safety.


Use these little-known sailing tips to develop a “Sailor’s Mindset” for safer sailing or cruising.  Enjoy sailing with less stress and more fun - wherever in the world you choose to cruise!

Captain John teaches sailing skippers the no-nonsense cruising skills they need beyond sailing school. Sign up for his highly popular FREE sailing tips newsletter at Become a member for instant access to 425+ articles, video tutorials, newsletters, and free eBooks.


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