Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Are You "Captain Safety?"

rev 1-3-2012

Every blog deserves one good, energetic, opinionated, unjustified rant. Here goes.

Caveat. I do my best to keep my posts factual and informative.  I often go back and edit edit post corrections months later, as better information becomes available.  Although I often state that the information is specific to the PDQ 32 and to the area and style of sailing that I enjoy, I make an effort to keep the information as broad practical. I really try. In this rant, it is probable you will feel insulted at least once. Sorry - my blog. In fact, I'll keep adding content to this post in the future, as long as more paranoia keeps coming across my radar. More to the point,  anyone who puts the information in this post into practice better be well acquainted with the concept of personal responsibility.  It will do you good.

Before I became a sailor I enjoyed other adventures.  When skateboards were the rage in the 70s, I was one of those teenagers doing crazy things in swimming pools and half pipes.  I wore a helmet and pads according to what I thought made sense. In college I took a bicycle racing and had some terrible crashes.  I almost never wore a helmet, though in retrospect it might have been a good idea. In one crash shattered my kneecap in the 16 pieces, but helmet wouldn't have helped that, only better judgment. Though I'm still a serious cyclist, I still don't wear a bicycle helmet; I like the wind in my hair too much. I rollerblade and wear a helmet and pads every single time; the odds of going over backwards striking the back of my skull are material, since I skate with a great deal of vigor. Finally, I discovered mountaineering and rock climbing after I left college. I wear a helmet if there are falling rocks or a good chance, and ice climbing where there is always a good chance of monster icicles coming down. When climbing good solid rock--never. I've helped clean up after a number of serious accidents in the mountains and found that a disproportionate number of the victims were wearing helmets; they thought it made them invulnerable... and they were wrong. Usually I use a rope and all of the appropriate gear. Not always--high-balling is  apart of our mountaineering heritage. I know my limitations and stay within them.

My choices.  I'm happy with them. I wouldn't change any of them, even in retrospect.

Every sailing forum has a least a few posts wherein someone asks an innocent question about a PFD or lifelines or harnesses or life rafts... and gets hammered by the safety police. Invariably, the original poster explained that he was a trailer sailor or lake sailor or coastal sailor, and further explained that he wasn't sailing around the world or even to Bermuda.  Nonetheless, forum sailors are quite proud to display their knowledge of government code, to show just how many ways there are to spend somebody else's money, and how willing they are to crowd another's boat with superfluous stuff. Oh, they'll scare the stuffing out of you, if you listen. 

My unsolicited thoughts.

PFDs. Hardly ever wear them.  Other than in the tender in very bad weather or with cold water, I can't think of a circumstance that wouldn't be better managed by wearing a harness. We keep two PFDs in the tender and enough on the main boat to satisfy Coast Guard regulations--I don't tilt at windmills. I don't really care for inflatables; I'd have to watch the maintenance, I don't find them as comfortable as a harness, and wouldn't wear them anyway. I imagine that dumping a 35-pound kedge on one, used to pad the bottom of the tender, is not recommended, but that's how they live in my world. I will admit that they make sense for round buoys racing, where multiple harnessed tethers will create an incredible knot.  Offshore jackets are absurd for inshore use.

What about PFDs for small children? We had one for my daughter when she was small and used it occasionally, but honestly it was too bulky and too hot. We used it in the water, but on the boat we always used a harness. I sewed up an extra small one--smaller than anything on the market--to fit her as she began to crawl. Of course, it goes without saying that she was NEVER out of quick reach and the attentive gaze of an adult. Personal responsibility.

Yup, that was a violation of the law. Whoopee.

I've seen boats with complicated written policies regarding PFD usage. Just obserd. The skipper should be able to make informed decisions and the guests should follow them. The skipper should know who can swim and who might panic (I can't imagine sailing and being skipper if I were not a strong swimmer, comfortable in very rough waters, and yet I know my limitations). If any of these conditions is not met, then there are deeper issues than PFDs.

(Caution: the only near drowning we ever expereinced was while swimming at anchor. A teenage boy swam away from the boat, showing off, only to realize it wasn't a pool and he was out of his depth. We learned that a drowning victim doesn't look like they are drowning--they don't struggle in any obvious way or yell, because they can't--they just sink. Other guests were waving at the boy, thinking it was all just fun. I was in the water and didn't notice. Only my daughter recognized his actions for what they were and acted. Real lifesaving.)

Life Rafts. I've got a catamaran that can't sink (numerous sealed crash tanks), so perhaps I shouldn't weigh in on this... but I will anyway. For coastal sailors with inflatable tender I think the whole subject is kind of absurd. You'd be an idiot to get caught out in a storm of any real duration; nothing more than an intense thunderstorm which will soon dissipate. Otherwise, your boat sank because you caught on fire or ran into a log in fair weather; take extra gas, load everyone into the tender, and go for shore.  You've got a cell phone and you've got VHF. Clearly, this is a bit more of a concern if you have more crew than the tender can manage--I never have more than 4 crew off-shore.

 Lifeline Replacement. I've seen racing boats with the middle cable and toe-rail removed to save weight... and I've seen sailors slide under the top railing. I've read sailors obsess about replacing the railings every few years, that none can be made of coated stainless ( it's true--the coating does high corrosion--I had a jib bridle snap with no warning once due to hidden corrosion),  and that high tech line as a replacement is irresponsible (fiber lines are now ISAF approved). They think they've seen steel cable stretch, when it was clearly the stanchions that bent inwards. Man, just watch the maintenance.

Dockside Engineering. Which brings me to all of the discussions of the strength of lines for anchoring and rigging... by folks that will admit that they never had an engineering class! What did they base the guess upon? Most often, a rule-of-thumb from someone who:
*  Didn't know.
*  Wanted to sell them the next bigger size.
*  Was conservative and recommended what would last through a circumnavigation.
Perhaps it is just as well. If they don't know, they are likely to abuse the system without realizing they are. That makes sense, actually. Nowhere is this more discussed than anchors, where if the sailor doesn't know (can't figure out) what size anchor and rode he needs, he will anchor badly and bigger will be better. Never mind the designer and builder spent real money on epoxy, high tech lines, cored decks, special fibers, and vacuum bagging. Let's throw over-size chain and extra iron in the bow, so we'll sleep better. As little as many know about anchors and the relevant engineering, they shouldn't sleep at all.

One of my favorites "calculations" typically involves something like a 27-foot monohull rounding up to use the 30-foot AYBC storm anchor recommendation (conservative with an ample safety cushion), selecting a chain based upon safe working load (which has a 3:1 safety factor built-in) and rode based upon SWL (5:1 safety factor), and then going up a size, just to be safe. They end up with 5/16-inch G4 chain (11,700-pound breaking strength) attached to a 35-pound anchor that is poorly set in shells and mud, all to face a 350-pound wind force from 40 knots winds (1,700 pounds in 70 knot gusts, including the surge factor), if they are in a completely exposed anchorage in a strong gale. In reality, their system will never see more than 400 pounds in the gusts in any decent harbor, or 3.8 % of the breaking strength of the chain. Guys, the standards and SWL are very conservative in the first place. If they understood the loads on the shrouds when bashing to the weather, they would all need therapy, of this I'm certain. Let's not tell them.

OK, we'll tell them; on a catamaran the maximum shroud tension will be somewhere near the displacement of the boat (it will pick a hull out of the water and absorb wave impacts), which is generally very close to or slightly exceeds the standard SWL of the cable... which is why standing rigging doesn't last forever.

I love to rant on anchoring and rigging. I spent 25 years rock and ice climbing, where someone gets crushed or dead if an anchor is poorly conceived. I've also done construction rigging, often loads over 100 tons. You don't say "that looks good enough." You calculate it and get sure. Every time. Then you relax.

EPIRB. Great idea offshore.  Absurd inshore (within VHF range of the Coast Guard is a good demarcation line for this purpose), with VHF and cell phones. I wonder if anyone's ever triggered one on the Chesapeake Bay?

Radar. Up in Maine with all the fog, great idea. On the Chesapeake...  I guess if you've got enough money and don't like to pay attention at night... but I got a sneaking suspicion that it can't see a lot more than I can with a pair of binoculars, even at night.

Chart Plotters. Lots of fun, but I hate the posts that call it a safety requirement. If you can't navigate inshore with chart and compass, learn right now. Turn the GPS off until you don't need it. I have experienced both failures and great inaccuracies. Don't trust them completely.

Radar Reflectors. I read a Coast Guard study were a tinfoil hat gave a better return than all of the commercial reflectors. I wonder if people remember to rig the thing at night--most don't because it gets in the way of genoa when they tack. I wonder if they check to see what the reflection looks like without it? I considered adding a reflector and then at a fellow sailor tell me that I showed up clear as day without it.  I don't really care if I'm visible from 20 miles; a big ship is considering avoiding me until I'm within 5 miles anyway.  If they're really paying attention all.

Harnesses. I have read...
* Toddlers will hang themselves. And the parents are ignoring a toddler on a boat? Wow.
* The tether could snap. I've been a climber for 25 years and taken thousands of falls on rope. No, it won't fail if properly designed and installed. In certain circumstances a soft tether may be wise. However, no West Marine $150 tether + $325 harness combo + $70 jacklines will keep you on the boat if you don't know how to install them or use them. I would suggest a climbing class.
* You'll drown while being pulled along by the boat. Well, if you haven't practiced a means of getting back on while underway, you're an idiot.
*  It won't fit with my foul weather gear. Figure it out.
*  I could slide out of it. Yup, if you put it on way too loose over your foul weather gear, then reach up to hold on to the tether with both arms (which you don't need to--that is what the harness is for--only beginners grab the rope), have no shoulders, and are an IDIOT and don't lower your arms when it feels as though it is sliding... yes it could come off, I guess. Run a rope between your legs, if it makes you feel better... but I bet it won't.
*  My feet will roll on the jackline. Don't put it in the walkway. Pick your feet up. Sheeze.
* You'll drown if the boat capsizes. Have a release on both ends. Boy, capsize on a cruising boat is a long shot if your not entered in the Volvo or the Sydney-Hobart.

All kidding aside, harness fit is important and often overlooked. Put it on with the gear you have in mind wearing and then hang from something, as a test. It won't be comfortable, but it should be managable for a few minutes. High and tight under the arms is best. Placement low on the chest is inviting suffocation and cracked ribs. Seat harnesses (the sort rock climbers use and that sailors use up the mast) are NOT suitable for use as deck harnesses (not good at taking a side impact and will drown the hell out of you when towed in the water).

Is the Water Safe? From the Chesapeake Bay Program:
"Is it safe to swim in the Bay? Though people do have some concern about water quality in certain rivers, especially near industrial areas, it is generally safe to swim in the Bay and its tributaries. However, swimmers, boaters and fishermen should obey any signs posted by state officials that restrict certain activities. Because potential human health impacts are an important issue, state agencies regularly test waterways for problems related to human health issues. Where human health concerns are identified, appropriate warnings are issued. For more information about the safety of swimming in your local waterways, contact your local health department.

Are toxic chemicals a problem in the Bay? Since the 1980s, Bay scientists have agreed that the nature, extent and severity of toxic effects vary widely throughout the Chesapeake system. Based on research, scientists determined that there was no evidence of severe, system-wide problems with toxic contamination in the Bay or its rivers. However, scientists have identified three localized Regions of Concern that are considered “toxic hot spots”:

The Elizabeth River in Virginia
The Patapsco River/Baltimore Harbor in Maryland
The Anacostia River in the District of Columbia.


You'd have to be mental to swim in those "hot spot areas" anyway. Stay away from marinas in general; the traffic, potential for electric leaks, and potential for head pump-outs are obvious. OK, the electric leak issue may not be obvious, but people have been killed by bad wiring around marinas, so if you have to do maintenance, be wary. I also understand that the much under the slips harbors all sorts of foulness - obviously - and has been the source of skin infections. So, all-in-all, it's better to find a nice beach and anchor out in chest deep water. My choice.

I can't imagine taking swimming in the Bay away from my kid and her friends. You're only a kid once and life only comes by once, from my understanding. I'm going to live it.

Insurance/General. First, liability coverage is a matter of social responsibility; you must be responsible for your actions. Yes, if your balance sheet is good you can simply dig the money out of your pocket, but marinas are going to expect coverage before they accept you, so can't see fighting city hall on this. But take responsibility where ever you can and should.

Towing Insurance. I've had boats for 27 years and boats big enough to need a tow for 20 of those. I've never needed help getting back home, and it isn't because I've had new boats or because I've stayed on the straight and narrow. I sail older boats way out of the channel and to the edge of the chart. But but these are sailboats, after all, and the soul of sailing, I thought since I was a boy, was self reliance. I would be SO embarrassed after being towed in, I couldn't show my face. I would have failed, as a sailor.

Of course, if I were sailing one of those swank wing sail America's Cup boats, that would be different; loosing a mast or something is nearly a badge of courage, and someone else is paying for all of this play, anyway.
  • Engine failure. Fix it. Most common failures are things any jack leg mechanic can jury rig back to shore. Bad fuel; skim some good fuel off the top into a jar and run with that, change the filter, and dump the carb bowl if that will help, and yes this can all be done underway. Battery flat; find a way to handstart the engine, and no, I can't imagine having and engine that I couldn't start that way, as it invites disaster for those who like solitude. Use the tender to tow yourself. Use the anchor to kedge a short way. Sail, for heaven's sake. I've had numerous engine failures, but there was always a way home. I've sailed into the slip twice, but I was VERY careful. I'm betting I could get into any slip with a tender and ropes.
  • Grounding (Chesapeake Bay only, since rocky shores are a different animal). First off, if it is a hard-grounding, the insurance isn't going to pay anyway, so you screwed up. But true hard grounding in the Chesapeake Bay should be very rare. The bottom is soft and the tide comes back. Given the limited tidal range of most of the Bay and the soft bottoms, get off! Motor off. Lighten the boat. Wait for high tide. Row out a kedge and winch yourself off through the mud; only your momentum drove you on, so the winches should get you off. You may need multiple purchase to generate enough force, 2 anchors and plenty of rode, and pulley and short lines to rig the tackles; but all of this is on board and has been practiced... right?
  • Bad weather. Yup, some folks panic easy. Really, the Chesapeake is so shallow, I can't think of a place the hook wouldn't bite well before shore came up, and there are many harbors down-wind. Head for one, even if it isn't your first choice; should someone else, even the insurance company, pay for my lack of planning?
  • Taking on water. In a bad case, call for help, no question. On the other hand, what would you have done with no help? I've hit submerged trees and had a through-hull failure and found simple solutions.
I don't take the "throw the hands in the air" attitude and call someone approach. It smacks of poor contingency seamanship and the underlying attitude is... unsafe. Any skipper that can't deal with 99% of what comes at him needs to stay very close to harbor indeed.

Full Coverage Insurance. I carry a really high deducible and believe everyone should. I have NEVER made a claim, though I have had some damage. I like fixing things. I don't blame the weather and wear and tear for damage. I don't let one thing lead to another. Some of the piddly things I hear claimed are a shame:
  • "I hit something in the water and it damaged my prop. Then I needed a tow and temporary dockage and... but the insurance wouldn't pay for it all." Off course, the whole story relates the fact that weather was poor so Tow Boat US wouldn't do it under their towing coverage, hitting a floating object is generally treated like a flat tire, and so of course dockage and such were not covered. The boat was not in real jeprody due the to the storm, so the insurance won't cover a convenience tow. The sailor was thinking like a driver, not like a sailor. In this particular case, the sailor could have easily sailed to a harbor 10 miles down wind, anchored for the night, and sorted it out in the morning, but that wasn't what the guests wanted, and the captain was offended, I think, that nature wouldn't bend to his wishes. Darn. I hear a lot of variations on this theme.
  • Water damage after sinking at the dock. I'm sickened by the number of boats that are totaled because after they sink, the owner does NOTHING to reduce the loss. He stands back and waits for the insurer to examine things, by which time the salt has been in the boat for weeks and weeks. If the boat had been hauled the next day, washed and dried, yes, the electronics would be toast, but the rest is savable. I spent a lot of time in New Orleans (my company runs a plant there) and I was disgusted by the volume of things that were ruined, not by getting wet, but because indivduals, families and companies would stand around and watch everything mould but not lift a finger. I watched the Vietnamese community jump into action, since typhoons were a part of their culture, and pull their neighborhood back together. They didn't wait for insurance or the government.
  • The whole culture of repainting and major repairs for a mere scratch bugs me, whether car or boat. We pay for this as a society. More cars should drive around showing a few scratches and battle scars. It shows character, that we live, and that we are out there. I don't trust a  real cruising boat without some dock rash and wear. They're being too careful and not staying in enough rough marinas. 
My marina asked for a complete liability release, and after long consideration, decided it was OK, since it was symmetrical; they handle their problems, I handle mine.
     Insurance is a valuable means of spreading risk, but too many see it as a means of work avoidance, planning avoidance, or responsibility avoidance. "I'll just sit back and get someone else to fix it good as new, and if they don't, I'll whine about it."

    Monitoring Channel 16. Yup, I know we owe this to each other, for we all make mistakes and get caught in a tough spot now and then, or will someday at least. It's even the law (if you have a radios, comercial or not , lisenced or not, it must be monitired while underway). But if I have to listen to inane and often garbled calls, one after the other for hours, nope, I'm not doing it. It's too bad a few blowhards ruin the system. A few examples:
    • Calling the same marina or boat 3-10 times, getting no response. If two calls doesn't do it, give it a rest. Try your cell phone. They've got the number in the cruising guide, they're just to lazy to pull it out. In fact, cell phones can't replace VHF, but they sure can reduce the chatter.
    • Using 16 on the highpower setting for local hailing. If you are going to use VHF docking directions or to hail a passing boat, set it on low.
    • Radio checks. Some guys do this every day, as though it could fail every day, as though they don't have cell phones, as though they were heading off on a serious voyage. If they broadcast once when heading out, OK, though the equipment is more reliable than that. It's the ones that call someone, then ask for a radio check because they didn't respond, then call someone else, and then ask for another radio check....
    • Long conversations unrelated to navigation and safety, even on working channels. "Did you make it to... last night? How was it? We went to... and then we.... Tomorrow we're going to... or may be.... Can you meet us there?" " I don't know, have you heard the weather (of course we all have)? NOAA says...(the full report, repeated)... but I don't know. Have you heard from...? What are they doing?"
    • Profanity. Swear in private, by all means. Elevate it to an art. It doesn't offend me, but on the radio it is always associated with unproductive chatter.
    I do monitor 16 on cold winter days, stormy days, and week days in general. With fewer boaters on the water and better radio discipline among those that are, it's worth it. The Coast Guard operators do try to keep 16 clear, but it's a problem.

    Icy Docks. More specifically, folks that can't check on their boats because it too icy. I don't know how they manage sailing in a breeze. Just move slowly or wear Yac-trax.

    I feel better now.


    1. I think you should tell us how you REALLY feel, Drew. :)

      By the way, I love the pic of the chain and the Coke can!


    2. This thread ( was the trigger, though it was tame.

      Demolition Man was one of my favorite movies. I'm sure you can think of a few quotations that might fit my views. I want to do what I want to do... because I just want to do it. I know how to be cautious... but I reserve the right not to be!

    3. Love it. I think the most frustrating thing about advice-givers is that they forget:
      - what type of boat the other person has
      - where that person sails
      - what type of risk taker the person sailing is (some people are comfortable accepting more risk for more enjoyment)

      And they substitute their own boat/region/risk aversion for the other person's.