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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Safety at Sea – Prevention and Preparedness

Ken Gillstrom

Voyageur 10.10
45' Custom Aluminum
December 22nd, 2014

I recall a number of emergency situations while sailing, both with and without students on board. When I was 18, the Quebec Provincial Police rescued two of us from our capsized dinghy when the mast became stuck in the muddy lake bottom. We had become hypothermic and recovered in hospital.

Sailing a dinghy requires constant attention and quick responses.

I still get a sick feeling in my stomach when I think about the grinding sound that the keel of a 38’ teaching boat made, as it slowed from 7 knots to a standstill, when encountering a shoal that was known to us. I had been distracted by another not-so-important task, at the same time that the students on watch apparently had their own distraction. They had lost focus of the reducing depth and found ourselves heeled over in 5’ of water in a vessel with 7’ of draft. The boat pounded on its keel for an hour in the 25-knot winds and five-foot seas. We managed to free the boat from the shoal as the Coast Guard cutter stood by and their helicopter hovered overhead. We lost a huge piece of the rudder, but all else was fine other than our rattled nerves.

Momentary inattention resulted in a damaged rudder.

I have sailed over 60,000 miles and taught on a multitude of boats, of various states of seaworthiness, and with students who were quite often being pushed to their limits. The list of incidents we have encountered are numerous; ones that happened to us, and ones to which we responded and provided assistance. All these incidences occurred as a result of a long chain of seemingly harmless events (decisions, mistakes, mechanical malfunctions, weather). This chain of events usually starts with something done or not done prior to leaving the dock. If we remove any one of these links or change their order of occurrence, the outcome would be totally different (better or worse).

Fortunately the outcomes in all our incidents have been positive. This can be attributed to being prepared to deal with emergency situations on the water. Preparedness is not just having the right equipment on board, but also having set action plans to deal with various emergencies and maintaining a proper frame of mind when they happen.

Having the right safety equipment and knowing how to use it means being prepared.

Having the right safety equipment and knowing how to use it means being prepared.

Out of all these incidents, and researching others that have been investigated by authorities, most would have been prevented, or the outcomes may have been less costly, had proper safety procedures been adhered to and/or proper boat inspections and maintenance completed.

As owners and masters of vessels, we must do everything possible to ensure the safety of crew and vessel during the voyage. The key to safety is prevention and preparedness . . . doing everything we can to prevent an incident from happening and being prepared in case an incident happens. I owned a construction company for 25 years, dealing with volumes of books on rules and regulations governing safety procedures on construction sites, yet most operators of pleasure craft head out on the water, a much more dynamic environment than a construction site, with little if any formal safety procedures in place.

The procedure for preventing emergencies on our vessels starts at the dock prior to casting off the lines, by creating a safety first attitude among the crew and creating a safe environment on and around the vessel.

We accomplish this by establishing an effective safety management system on the vessel. Start by completing a vessel audit that will identify unsafe conditions and practices on board the vessel. Note deficiencies so that modifications and repairs can be made as necessary. Then formalize safety and operational guidelines for all crew and the vessel. This doesn’t need not be too extensive but it should be written out and include when and where policies for lifejackets/PFD’s, and tethers are used and when alcohol is consumed. It should also address the frequency and extent of boat checks and maintenance.

Boating, as most other sports, has certain inherent risks associated with it. As masters we need to reduce these risks to a level that is acceptable to us in order to have a fun and safe time on the water. We can reduce the risks by, a) reducing the likelihood of having an occurrence and b) reducing the costs or consequences in the event that and one happens.

Take for example a crew-overboard-emergency. If there was a rule enforced to clip onto a tether when leaving the cockpit, the chances of the COB occurrence would be reduced. Likewise, if the crewmember is wearing a lifejacket or retrieval equipment is at hand, the cost or consequences of having a person in the water would be greatly reduced.

We sail in a dynamic and volatile environment where risks are ever changing. There are many factors that interplay to determine the success of each of our sailing excursions. As skippers our task is to evaluate the following factors; the crew’s mental, physical and emotional condition, the seaworthiness of the vessel and the condition of its systems and equipment. We also deal with the ever changing weather and sea conditions. Essentially, we are performing a risk analysis.

We identify the particular risks, assess them and decide whether the rewards are worth the risks. As situations change the increase or decrease in risk will be re-evaluated. As master of the vessel we will make decisions to accept the risk reward relationship or make an effort to reduce the risks to an acceptable level.

The first step in your safety at sea policy should be based on PREVENTION and PREPAREDNESS. If we set our boat and crew up for safe passages, before we leave the dock, we can confidently cast off our lines knowing that we have done everything we can to make our adventure safe and pleasurable.




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