Safety at Sea for Coastal Cruisers

When sailors talk about safety, we tend to focus on the gear that might save us: life jackets, an EPIRB, flares and life rafts.

All these items are essential afloat, but for me, the most important thing you can take to sea is a really sound boat.

Filling your emergency grab bag with the right gear is fundamentally important, but it’s what keeps us out of trouble in the first place that constitutes a boat’s best safety features. 

Team a well built, well maintained boat with a skipper who knows how to run it (and fix it), and many of the failures that might put you in a life raft, are far less likely to occur.

Fierce weather situations are something we all try hard to avoid. It’s usually when the sea stands up that we have our toughest days on the helm.

Having been through more than enough storms and squalls, I’m acutely aware of the things I depend upon: a strong rig, a storm-proof headsail, an autopilot that I can rely upon, spares and tools, and a clear, cool head. 

Here’s why:

1. A sound rig

Ten years is the golden number when talking about the lifespan of a boat’s standing rigging, at least according to most marine insurance companies.

The condition of yours may well depend on how often and how hard your boat is sailed, but regardless of age, it pays to have your rig inspected regularly by a professional rigger.

These inspections should reveal wear points and breakages unnoticeable to untrained eyes, and will also give you an estimation on what needs replacing and when.

If your rig is found to be good, you’ve just bought yourself piece of mind for a tiny fraction of the cost of complete rig replacement. 

2. A storm-proof headsail

Sometimes, when I’m in a light following sea, I fantasise about unfurling a big, beautiful Code Zero.

It’s on my shopping list for all the breathless days that I’m spending sailing around the equator.

But when bad weather hits, my sturdy, well-cut jib can be swiftly furled in nice and small, and is tough enough to take the strain of all the equatorial squalls we commonly endure.

Ideally I’d have twin furling headsails, giving me the very best of both worlds.

If that’s not you, make sure there’s something storm-proof in your sail wardrobe. 

3. An autopilot you trust

I know what it’s like to have to hand-steer for days on end in big, heaving seas.

It’s utterly exhausting, and without frequent crew changes, potentially dangerous too.

With your hands on the helm you can’t easily attend to sail trims or the other dozen things that happen when the sea kicks up.

What this means for double-handed teams is that both of you are upright and on deck, wrangling sheets and sails and going without vital rest and sleep.

An autopilot enables you to run your boat hands-free, and, in my opinion, is one of the best safety features on a boat. 

4. Spares and tools

Last year, while transiting the shipping lane into Indonesia’s Surabaya Harbour, we hit an unknown underwater obstacle and ruptured our sail drive diaphragm.

In this one chaotic moment, fenced in by fishing boats, nets and bamboo fish traps, we had engine failure and began taking on water.

Within minutes, however, the tools were out, the leak was slowed and we had back-up bilge pumps at the ready. 

After we’d anchored, stopped the leak and had a stiff drink, we reflected on how a bunch of tools, a cable tie and lots of weekends spent tinkering in the engine room collectively saved the day.

Not to be underestimated, spares and tools are amongst the most important safety gear on any boat. 

5. A clear head

I’m not one of the cool headed sailors who barely raises an eyebrow in 40 knots.

Luckily I sail with one, because in a salty crisis I’m as wide-eyed as a deer. But I do know that staying calm and remaining focused is the best way to make good decisions on the water.

It also helps enormously if you are at your best: well rested, fed and ideally, not physically fatigued.

This means taking care of yourself on board, making sure you get some sleep (even if you’re a single-hander taking 20-minute power naps), and automating as much as you can on board to reduce your overall fatigue. 

You don’t get extra points for doing everything the hard way, and adding an autopilot, furling sails, electric winches (I wish), or any other feature that makes your life less physically taxing, is a smart way to run a boat.

Yes, automating your boat can be expensive, but no one ever regrets money spent when his or her worst day at sea finally arrives. 

6. Watch the Weather

After decades of mucking around in boats, my partner Dave and I stick to two important rules on passage: always reef at sunset, and always set out in good weather.

The weather you set out with is the only window you can be sure of, and while things might well change – for better or worse – you’ll at least make a solid start if you leave with favourable weather.

The accuracy of weather forecasts fuels lively, sundowner debates amongst sailors, but still we design our days around them.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) remains a solid predictor of weather at sea along Australian shores, but there are dozens of popular apps with free and premium services, including Predict Wind, Seabreeze, Windy and WillyWeather, to name a few. 

One perk of Predict Wind is that it allows you to download Grib files, and with a subscription, use forecasting tools to help plan optimal routes and departure times.

If you don’t have Starlink, you can team it with an Iridium Go satellite device for seamless offshore satellite weather forecasting (plus phone, internet and messaging too).

At the more affordable end of the scale (and to potentially take into the life raft), a small personal satellite communicator such as the Garmin inReach Mini 2, can offer you simple marine weather forecasts for times when your sailing adventures take you where there is no signal.   

Whatever kind of forecasting you use, don’t forget about all the other instruments on your boat that predict the onslaught of bad weather (including a barometer).

I cruised for a decade without radar but now regard it as an essential tool for navigating bad weather and night passages. 

7. Lifejackets, harnesses and tethers

A UK study of lifejacket use and marine accident fatality rates deduced that in a life-at-risk situation, you are at least twice as likely to survive until rescued if you wear a life jacket (Pitman, Wright and Hocken, 2018).

Indeed, Marine Safety Queensland reported that in 2021, none of the 13 fatalities reported from three boat sinkings, 21 man overboard incidents and 43 capsizes were wearing life jackets.

Sadly, nine of the deceased were masters of their vessels at the time.

The statistics don’t lie: you are far more likely to survive a life at risk situation on the water if you are wearing a life jacket. As a full-time liveaboard, I don’t always wear a life jacket at sea, but I do put it on when things get rough and whenever I’m helming at night, and ensure that all crew follow suite.

If you use self-inflating life jackets, be sure to regularly check their CO2 inflators and cylinders, and get the jackets inspected before servicing is due.

The jacket you choose should have a whistle, light, a crotch strap to prevent you sliding out when unconscious, and reflective strips to help rescuers locate you in a night-time POB situation.

Few cruisers I know bother with harnesses and tethers, but you can’t go overboard if you are tethered to your boat.

How you set up a jackline system and tethering points will depend on how you move around your boat, but if you are going to tether yourself to the boat, be sure to attach a compact sailing knife to your harness too. 

8. Medical Kit

It’s easy to order a ready-to-go, marine medical kit online, or use an online checklist to help you purchase all the supplies you’ll need.

But it’s what you add to that kit that personalises your medical supplies to suit your sailing adventures, and the unique ages and afflictions of your family and crew.

Consider likely scenarios that might occur on the sailing trips you tackle. Are you taking mostly day trips around the harbour, heading out overnight, or daring yourself on offshore passages to remote isles where timely medical assistance might be difficult to access? 

Consider just how likely it is that you’ll have to step up and dispense more than bandaids and paracetamol, and pack your kit (and hone your skills) accordingly.

It pays to remember that you really don’t have to be far, faraway to experience an urgent medical situation at sea. As with all things sailing, you can have your worst moment within sight of the coastline, so work out all your worst-case medical scenarios and pack supplies that help you deal with them.

Stick to the front of your kit any relevant phone numbers you might need to call in a medical emergency: coastguard, hospitals, and an after-hours number for your local GP.

9. Making the Call

When things go wrong, you need to rally help any way that you can.

Everyone on board, including capable kids, should know how to make an emergency pan pan or mayday call, how to use your mobile and satellite phones, and, as a last resort, how to switch on your EPIRB.

As the skipper or co-skipper, you may be occupied with trying to save the boat, providing emergency medical care or launching a life raft, so you’ll need to rely on crew members to pitch in.

But an emergency can be a paralysing time for crew members (I often go blank in such situations, forgetting how to tackle the simplest of tasks).

Lead your crew through the necessary safety procedures before you head to sea, and stick ‘how to’ instructions beside any of the gear they may need to use, just in case.

Never underestimate the helpfulness of capable kids on board because they can have some of the clearest heads in an emergency situation, and know how to follow directions to the letter. 

10. The Grab Bag

I recently involved my 12-year-old in the process of overhauling our grab bag. To her delight, she discovered a stash of our favourite Aussie muesli bars (which we swapped for inferior Indonesian ones), and added a host of things we declared essential if a life raft scenario should happen in our remote, tropical sailing grounds. 

To our voluminous collection of safety and survival gear she added reading glasses (which I rely upon but hadn’t thought about), sunglasses, sunscreen and hats, and a few fishing hooks and line: all things we might rely upon given that we frequently sail where boat traffic is rare. 

Preparing for possible disaster might seem a macabre exercise to undertake with kids, but I’m a big believer that kids can feel very empowered by knowing that there are systems in place should things not go to plan.

I’m also a firm believer that kids have the right to learn techniques that will keep them safe and might ultimately save their lives. This includes teaching them how to put on a life jacket by themselves (if they are capable), make a radio call for help, and locate the first aid kit and grab bag if asked to do so. 

When packing your grab bag, prioritise all the things that could accelerate your rescue, then add backup items to keep you alive should no help come swiftly.

Start with a satellite phone or personal satellite communicator, flares (and gloves), a V sheet, lightweight, drinking water, medical supplies (including prescription and seasickness medication), a waterproof torch, signalling mirror, glow sticks, a whistle, air horn, handheld GPS and/or compass, emergency blankets and rain ponchos for all crew.

Pack low-salt, high-carbohydrate food (proteins use more water to digest), toilet paper, tampons and/or pads, and a small multi-tool with knife. 

Pack an extra EPIRB in your grab bag as you might not remember or have access to the main unit if you have to leave the boat suddenly. Other items you might add to your kit include a handheld VHF, a PLB (personal locator beacon), a credit card or stash of cash, and a flash drive for your personal documents.

A version of this feature by Catherine Lawson first appeared in Club Marine magazine Vol 38:4.