Alan Lucas reflects on some of the dangers we face when venturing to sea in yachts.
Life at sea has a unique catalogue of potential disasters, many beyond the imagination of first-time sailors. Who would think, for example, that the simple everyday chore of stopping a small marine engine might actually kill you? Well it can and it did to at least one unfortunate fellow.
Anchored off a western Pacific island with his engine running to ‘pull down’ the freezer as he and his wife dressed to go partying ashore, he lifted the engine-box lid and reached down to pull the engine-stop, exactly as he had done hundreds of times before. But this time he forgot that his shore clothes included a dangling tie, which caught in the engine belts and violently snapped his head down, fatally breaking his neck.
This terrible accident was a reminder that loose clothing and running machinery do not go together. Nor do enclosed spaces and charging batteries, as tragically discovered by a trawler man’s son who was checking the vessel’s battery bank. Overcome by toxic fumes, he collapsed and died on the engine-room floor before anyone realised he was missing. In recreational boating, this scenario could easily be repeated aboard a snugged-down yacht with her engine running.
And talking of being snugged down, there was the professionally manned workboat that insidiously sank on the job, taking her three crewmembers with her. They were sleeping aboard after working overtime on a harbour project, sublimely unaware that a thru-hull hose had carried away to silently take them to the bottom. When a fully surveyed, always-busy vessel can be lost in this way, it’s a reminder that it can also happen to you.
Above deck, a common cause of minor accidents is ropes carelessly left lying around. You unseeingly step onto a rope and your foot rolls laterally producing a sprained or broken ankle - or at least bruising against deck hardware. It’s a reminder that all non-vital ropes should be stowed below deck or lashed to a rail. Better still, add on-site halyard and sheet bags, and to encourage yourself to use them bear in mind that lines over the side can wreck your ship if they foul her prop at a critical moment.
Arguably the most common accident is being whacked on the head by a gybing boom. This can render a person unconscious and toss him or her overboard with a single blow, virtually guaranteeing a fatality. And even at its most benign, a gybing boom hurts like mad, making a crash-hat seem like a great idea, but not as sensible as an overhead structure that identifies the vertical boundaries of safety and provides excellent grab rails when stepping into or out of a cockpit. Vessels too small for this luxury demand heightened crew awareness and the hope that the boom is small enough to be non-fatal.
Regardless of vessel size, the combination of vang and preventer is a vital anti-gybing tool plus (in some circumstances) the topping lift being pre-set to hold the boom above head level when squared away. This scandalises the mainsail but it beats having an unconscious crewmember overboard. When running off the wind always expect the unexpected and think hard about the potential for unanticipated accidents; like the one that caught me off guard early in my career.
Dozing on the bridge deck one dark and tempestuous night, my inexperienced helmsman suddenly did a flying gybe, the boom rushing from one side to the other in a split second, its slack sheet taking a half turn around my neck and snatching me outboard. My legs tenaciously hooked over the cockpit coaming, I was on the brink of choking when, more by accident than good management, he gybed again, returning me to the bridge deck in a dazed and breathless state with rope-burns destined to scar for months.
With or without the unexpected happening, decks require plenty of substantial handholds, a dangerous area being the foredeck where one is often obliged to let go and make a dash for it between mast and forestay. A harness is well indicated here while side-deck security can be enhanced by a single line rigged along the windward side between the shrouds of a two masted vessel or between a single mast’s shrouds and a cockpit structure such as a Targa Bar.
When it comes to having one hand for the ship, I am a proponent of pilot rails along the trunk cabin instead of (or as well as) standard cabin-top rails. Pilot rails provide the very secure feeling of grasping something truly substantial at a height complimentary to the human frame. Properly considered, they can also double as containment-pulpits when working at the mast or along the main boom. If a full cabin-length pilot rail is impracticable, look into the potential of adding a mast pulpit.
Lifejackets and harnesses
Life jackets and harnesses are vitally important equipment but keep in mind that they can actually cause accidents under some circumstances, a dramatic example being an incident in the Irish Sea, reported by Practical Boat Owner, September 2010. Yacht broker Prue Nash, sailing on a Beneteau 40.7, slipped through the leeward corner of the stern rail and was dragged along by her safety harness. Her life jacket then inflated and forced her head underwater, leaving her no option but to urgently squirm out of the harness and jacket to save her life. After two harrowing hours treading water she was found and winched out by helicopter.
Another example of over-encumbrance happened to a young family sailing their brand new trailer-sailer in Australia. Inexperienced handling had their TS rolling upside down in a severe gust, throwing the life-jacketed parents into the sea and trapping their two life-jacketed children below decks. The parents could not divest their jackets quickly enough to dive under and save both children and the children could not swim down against the buoyancy of their jackets to escape. As a result, one child was saved but the other was beyond resuscitation.
Harnesses make a lot of sense, but excess hardware can be irritating, especially on long passages. A friend, who circumnavigated the world engineless and single-handed, found commercial versions too cumbersome and distracting so she tailored her own with a simple bangle to which a permanent tether attached to the mast base was clipped onto every time she ventured on deck.
Essential in many emergencies are sharp knives permanently sheaved around the deck ready for situations such as freeing a sheet that has over-ridden its winch and is threatening the safety of the ship during a severe gust. Wearing a sheath knife on your belt is a logical alternative, but it is no guarantee that it will be worn during a critical moment.
Below deck there are many accident-prevention improvements to be made, dominant amongst them being plenty of grab rails with no gaps between them. To assess grab-rail positioning without going to sea, stay on your mooring and pretend you’re an orang-outang swinging through the cabin(s) from one end to the other. If it cannot be done without both hands always on a substantial handle then these areas may one day be your undoing, as they were for a very dear friend many years ago.
He was an American sailing around Australia when, safely in port, he returned aboard one dark night and missed his footing at the bottom of the companionway ladder, causing an unstoppable headfirst rush into the mast compression post. There were no handles to slow the rush, a fact that killed him.
Accidents are disasters you don’t see coming, a most tragic example being when two yachts were buddy-boating across the Atlantic Ocean. Teenage girls on each vessel had become as thick as thieves and begged their parents to let one of the girls transfer to the other yacht for the ocean crossing. Consent was granted and she swapped boats to share her friend’s fore-cabin. No one had considered the fact that she was accustomed to a traditional yacht whose sea-kindly lines and long keel made her docile when hove-to. Her guest boat was the very opposite: fin keeled, fast and hyperactive when hove-to.
Towards the end of a three thousand mile crossing, foul weather had the guest boat heavily reefed in mountainous seas, her bow flicking up and down to every wave. Asleep in the fore-cabin, the girl was violently slammed against the deck-head where she died instantly of a broken neck. I leave it to the reader to imagine the heartbreaking scenes when both yachts reached port.
Human beings will always find ways to injure and kill themselves regardless of intrinsic caution and the equipment they carry. The best defence is to soberly imagine the worst and modify both the vessel and your habits accordingly. The bottom line about survival is less about safety gear than it is about treating the sea with respect. Challenging it is a shortcut to disaster.
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