One of the best things about sailing is that it's a great way to get in touch with nature. Because of this, however, it is also very subject to the tremendous power of nature -- power that often runs counter to the safety and health of people on the water. Careful preparation of your boat, equipment and sailing skills combined with a healthy respect for the forces of nature are important to your enjoyment of the sport.
Sailing safely is largely a matter of thoughtful prevention. If you know the possible dangers and take the necessary precautions, you can save yourself a lot of trouble.
Sun -- If there's one thing I've learned, it's that it is almost impossible to underestimate the effects of the sun while on the water. Not only does the sun hit you from above, but it is reflected from the water, the sails and the boat. Doctors are only now discovering how widespread skin cancer is. Nearly 10% of all people will get this form of cancer during their lives. We are quickly discovering that sun is not good for us; in fact, it's unhealthy.
I'm a redhead with very fair skin, so I know a lot about the effects of the sun from experience. I have always worn a hat while sailing; now you'll almost always find me with sunglasses and a strong sun block as well.
The most effective hat or visor is one with a dark blue or green underside to reduce glare. Sunglasses must have a very high blockage of the sun's harmful ultraviolet [and infra-red?] rays or else they will actually be more dangerous to your eyes by dilating your pupils and allowing in more harmful rays.
Several top sailors in the U.S. have only recently discovered that they have serious cases of ultraviolet [UV] keratitis (sunburn on the cornea), caused by overexposure and underprotection. Unfortunately an effective pair of sunglasses is fairly costly and should be taken care of carefully. There are many pairs of sunglasses at the bottom of the ocean.
With the heightened awareness of the harmful effects of the sun on your skin, the various skin care companies are now marketing high SPF (Sun Protection Factor) sun blocks, which provide many times your natural protection. Many are reasonably waterproof. I try to wear a white long sleeve t-shirt and light colored long pants in very sunny conditions, and cover my face, neck and ears with sun block. I do not come back from sailing excursions with much of a tan, and I do plan to avoid long-term sun damage to my skin and eyes.
Heat stress (Hyperpyrexia) -- I was a coach at the 1986 U.S. Olympic Sports Festival in Houston, which was held in mid-July. We were sailing on Galveston Bay and each day they would give us heat factor warnings (similar to wind chill factors), which took into account both the temperature and the humidity, both of which were near 100. The combination of high temperature, humidity, sun exposure and exercise can lead to heat stress. The body cools itself by evaporating perspiration, but this process is hindered by high temperature and humidity.
The best way to avoid overheating or sunstroke is to protect yourself from the sun as described above, try to stay in the shade, minimize your exertion and drink plenty of fluids. Cold water is most effective and should be drunk regularly before you feel thirsty or dehydrated.
If someone exhibits signs of heat stress (including sluggishness, loss of coordination and impaired reasoning), they should be taken to a shady place immediately to restore the body's temperature. They also need medical attention.
Cold and exposure (Hypothermia) -- There's a type of racing in New England that started more than 50 years ago called "frostbiting." Seemingly sane sailors venture out on harbor waters every Sunday afternoon all winter for a series of short races. It's a lot of fun, but not without its danger of hypothermia and over-exposure. That's why "crash" boats always stand by very close to the sailors.
The dangers of cold exposure are by no means limited to winter sailing. In fact, extended exposure to water or wind can lead to hypothermia at almost any time of the year. The danger of this condition is that it's hard to detect. Symptoms include paleness, shivering, bluish lips and a lackadaisical attitude. More advanced symptoms include violent shivering, drowsiness, confusion and breathing difficulty. The final stages of unconsciousness and irregular heartbeat and breathing are usually fatal.
Immediate medical assistance is a must for exposure victims, and this condition should not be taken lightly. Before help arrives or if it is not available, isolate the victim from further exposure. A slow warm-up process should begin first with warm bodies, then replacing the wet clothes with dry clothes or a blanket. Do not rub cold areas or give the victim liquids that are warmer than body temperature.
You can prevent hypothermia by wearing appropriate protective clothing and gear (see section on Clothing below) and by watching for the early warning signs.
Water/drowning -- If you are not a very good swimmer, you should wear a life jacket all the time you are near the water. Even good swimmers are advised to do this. Nearly 85 percent of those who drown in boating accidents are not wearing a lifejacket.
A very famous non-swimmer is Dennis Conner, who won the America's Cup in 1980 and 1987. Dennis loves winning sailboat races, but he doesn't look forward to the traditional "victory plunge" after big victories. In fact, after winning the 1987 Cup in Australia, Dennis had to be pulled out of the water. The moral is that everyone can enjoy sailing, but some must be especially careful.
Lifejackets -- Coast Guard regulations require you to carry on board one appropriately sized PFD (personal flotation device) for each person on board. There are a number PFDs on the market today that are very comfortable to wear. It is advisable to wear one of these vest-type lifejackets at all times. You never know when you might fall or get knocked overboard and get separated from your boat.
There are five types of PFDs, each with different characteristics. Type I will turn an unconscious person from face down to face up. These are obviously the safest. Type II has less flotation and will not turn an unconscious person consistently. Type III include the vest type lifejackets and perform similarly to Type II. Type IV is a throwable cushion or life ring (required on boats sixteen feet or longer), while Type V include water skiing belts, but are not considered appropriate PFDs.
Other Required Safety Equipment -- The Coast Guard and state governments have boating laws that require certain safety gear for different size boats including PFDs, navigation lights, registration numbers, fire extinguishers, distress signals, etc. Be sure to check with your local Coast Guard Auxiliary or marine police for the complete list of requirements for your type of boat in your state. Even if these items aren't required by law, most of them are good to have anyway.
Electric powerlines -- I grew up racing against a gifted sailor and a great person named Manton Scott. Manton won the Junior National Sailing Championship when he was 17 and then went off to college in Boston. The next thing I heard was that he had been electrocuted during a regatta on Cape Cod. While pulling his boat through the parking lot on its trailer, Manton's mast came in contact with an electric powerline. He was killed almost instantly.
Needless to say, this was very sad for me and the rest of the sailing community. Unfortunately, quite a few other sailors have been killed by powerlines before and after Manton's death. It's a combination of powerlines being in bad places and sailors not being very careful. Over the last several years, there has been an active campaign to rid sailing areas, boat ramps and yacht clubs of these hazards, but the task is not complete and it is still a very real danger! So watch out overhead. And if your sailing area has powerlines near a boat launching area, campaign to have them moved.
While most keelboats will not tip over because of the righting moment of their heavy keels, centerboard boats are subject to capsize. My first advice is to sail a "self-rescuing" boat that is easy to right in case you capsize. A "self-rescuing" boat has large flotation tanks so it will float high in the water when capsized and come up with little water in the cockpit when righted. Some boats have a self-draining cockpit that disposes of any water left in the bilge once you start sailing again. Otherwise you will need a bucket or bailer (tied to the boat so it doesn't float away or sink) to bail out the remaining water manually.
When you're sailing in windy conditions when capsizing is possible, wear your life jacket. If you do capsize, first make sure that everyone is all right, and that no one is trapped in the boat, caught under the sails or tangled in sheets or rigging. The next most important rule is to stay with the boat. Don't try to swim for land or recover objects floating away from your boat. Once you start swimming, you will get tired and cold much sooner than you think. It is also easier for rescuers to see a capsized hull than a person swimming.
Righting the boat -- When your boat capsizes, try to prevent the boat from turning "turtle," or upside down. It is far more difficult to right a turtled boat than one lying on its side. The best way to do this is to hop over the rail quickly and stand on the centerboard.
Once everyone is OK and settled down, you can begin to right the boat. Make sure the sheets and boom vang are eased so the sails won't fill with wind again and pull you back over. One crew member should hold on to the centerboard, initially to prevent the boat from turtling, then to right the boat. Pull down on the centerboard, or if you are on the centerboard, pull down on the rail, and your weight will slowly right the boat. If you need more leverage, pull on the upper jib sheet over the top of the boat.
While this is happening, the other crew is in the water on the cockpit side of the boat holding the mast up by the gooseneck. As the boat begins to right, the crew member by the cockpit holds on to a hiking strap, traveler bar or anything inside the cockpit and is literally scooped into the boat. This person has saved the struggle of climbing into the boat and can now assist the other crew into the boat.
The above technique works well when you capsize with the mast pointing away from the wind. When your boat tips over to windward, however, the problem in righting the boat is that the wind will catch the underside of the sails as they rise out of the water and quickly flip the boat over to leeward right on top of you. To prevent this, you can swim the bow around so that the boat is pointing into the wind. A more advanced technique is to use the "scoop" method described above. The crew member who gets scooped into the boat must balance the boat and prevent it from capsizing to leeward.
In shallow water, you can run into the problem of the mast getting stuck in the mud with the wind and waves pushing it farther in. In this case you may have to swim the bow around so that the mast is pointing to windward. Now the wind and waves will help unstick the mast.
A turtled boat is also difficult to right because you have less leverage and a longer way to go. It will be even more difficult if the centerboard slides back into the hull, so try to keep it sticking up. Stand on the windward rail and use either the centerboard or the leeward jib sheet, brought over the boat, to slowly right the boat.
When sailing offshore, one of the biggest fears of any crewmember is falling overboard or losing another person overboard. Unless you are a skilled sailor and disciplined at man overboard procedure, finding someone and getting them back on board can be very difficult.
The Sailing Foundation of Seattle and the Naval Academy Sailing Squadron recently conducted extensive trials on man overboard recovery and found that a method called the "Quick-stop" minimizes the separation distance and recovery time. The USYRU Safety-at-Sea Committee has published a report on these results. Anyone who is sailing offshore or in larger boats should take the time to read and practice the various search and recovery procedures.
Fortunately, falling off a smaller boat is not quite so serious. Daysailors are usually not too far from land, they don't sail as fast, they sail in calmer waters and they don't have as much freeboard, so it's easier to get someone out of the water. However, falling overboard is a definite danger and every sailor should know how to handle this situation. This includes all crew members as well, in case the knowledgable boat owner/skipper falls over.
When someone goes overboard, head up immediately and let the sails luff to stop your boat. Keep an eye on the person in the water to make sure they are OK. Then head away on a beam reach, tack back to a beam reach, and aim just to leeward of the person in the water. Adjusting speed with the sails, head up just to leeward of the person and slow the boat to a stop. Then help the person over the windward side or transom, being sure to balance their weight with your own.
It's a great idea to practice this maneuver, using a flotation cushion, to understand how to handle your boat and best approach a person overboard as quickly as possible.
Dangers on the boat -- Watch your head on the boom, especially going dead downwind when a sudden jibe is possible. During the past decade, several crewmembers on big boats have been knocked overboard and killed by a boom blow to the head.
Be sure your equipment is in good shape and properly working.
Frayed line or wires should be replaced and all fittings should be securely attached. Watch out for "meathooks" in wire halyards. Always wear some kind of footwear on smallboats, or be willing to risk a severely snubbed toe, or a cut foot. And be sure your air tank hatches and plugs are secured to ensure the integrity of the flotation.
High wind and waves -- It is very important that you know both your limitations and those of your boat. Pay close attention to weather forecasts and your observations. If there are extreme conditions, if the wind is blowing off shore, if you are going out alone... perhaps you should wait for a better day. If you do decide to go out, stay close to shore and try to get another boat to go along.
Whenever you do go out, it is a good habit to let someone know where you will be sailing and the time of your expected return. If something breaks or the wind builds or dies, it is good to know that someone will be thinking about you. When you return from sailing, be sure to check in with your contact to let them know you're back.
Getting seasick is a good way to ruin a nice day on the water. If you are prone to seasickness, don't worry, you're not alone. Some of the very best and most experienced sailors get sick in certain conditions. I know that's true for me. The last time I did the Bermuda Race, we got into some mixed up waves during the first night when we were out of sight of land, and I got very sick. Fortunately, I recovered fairly quickly, but I can tell you it's not a fun experience.
There are several things you can do to prevent, or minimize, seasickness. If you or anyone in your crew is prone to seasickness, try the following:
1) If you go out on a windy day, sail mainly in protected areas where the water is smoother.
2) If you're on a boat with a cabin, stay on deck and don't go down below (don't even look down below).
3) Keep your eyes focused on something off the boat that is not moving, like the shoreline or horizon.
4) Take a turn on the helm. For me, steering is often the best way to stave off seasickness.
5) Use a medication such as standard over-the-counter pills for motion sickness, Transderm Scop or a prescription (there are some good drugs that NASA developed for the astronauts). With any of these, be sure to take them well before you get into rough seas, so you won't get sick before it takes effect. Also be sure you read the label on every medication, since some have undesirable side effects.
Getting in Shape
Sailing, like other sports, makes physical demands on your body, especially if you exert yourself in an activity like hiking, pumping the sheets or grinding winches. People who spend a lot of time racing small boats have to spend just as much time getting their bodies into shape as any other athlete.
If you're a casual sailor, the physical aspects usually aren't so demanding (and that's why you will enjoy this sport for many years to come). Still, there are a few ways to train for sailing, especially if you're looking for a good excuse to get some exercise.
- Strength -- In windy weather, it's helpful to have good arm and leg strength for trimming and hiking. During the 1986 America's Cup trials in Australia, our crew used special machines that simulate the motion of grinding winches to build up their arm strength.
- Endurance -- Aerobic exercise such as swimming, running or bicycling helps increase your endurance by improving oxygen delivery to exercising muscles.
- Flexibility -- The best way to prevent sore or pulled muscles is to increase their flexibility by stretching. You should warm up your muscles before exercising and cool them down afterward with a complete stretching routine.
- Nutrition -- Like good physical conditioning, any athlete needs good nutrition. Especially important for sailors is the intake of liquids while sailing. It's very easy for your body to get dehydrated in the heat and sun. A rule of thumb for sailors is to drink at least one pint of liquid every hour. The best liquid you can drink is water. We usually freeze water in a couple of bike bottles the night before going sailing. These melt and stay cold while sailing, and they're easy to squirt in your mouth or onto your face or sunglasses when they get salty.
Dressing for a day on the water is not usually as easy as getting ready for a tennis match or a golf game. The reason is that sailors are exposed directly to the weather. The combination of water and wind can turn even the hottest day into a chilling experience. And, unless you're on a boat with a cabin, there's nowhere to go to get out of the elements.
There are several qualities that you're looking for in sailing clothing:
1) Lightweight and non-restrictive so you can move around easily.
2) Waterproof so you're protected from the spray, but also breathable so you won't get all sweaty inside.
Sailing gear has improved a lot during the recent past, but it has also gotten quite expensive. The amount that you'll want to invest in specialty clothing is probably proportional to the amount of sailing you're planning to do during the next couple of years.
Footwear: Boots, boating shoes
Inside layers: Polypropylene
Foul weather gear: Two-piece suits, one-piece suits
Head wear: Visor or baseball hat, wool watch cap
Gloves: Leather sailing gloves, warmer gloves
Specialty: Wet suit, dry suit, life jacket