Safety at sea – the real risks of sailing

Post updated May 15, 2018

When stories are reported as the recent “Man Overboard on Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag” was, it is a sobering reminder of the greatest risk we face as ocean-going sailors. Falling overboard. And though it is human nature to wonder at every incident “how could this have been prevented”, we are nonetheless faced with the reality that it is ALWAYS a possibility.

That, despite our best efforts, no one is safe 100% of the time.

If you haven’t been following the Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag story (which you can here), the team was part of the Volvo Ocean Race. Britain’s John Fisher, pictured above, was sailing on his team’s 70-foot sailboat in the Auckland, New Zealand to Itajai, Brazil leg of the race. There were 35-knot winds and accompanying extreme sea states.

According to the limited reports available at the time of this writing, the vessel was 1,400 miles (2,250 km) west of Cape Horn when his team discovered John was missing. He had been on watch and was wearing “appropriate survival gear”. With no vessels nearby to render timely assistance, however, and the reportedly “extremely challenging weather conditions”, his team were unable to locate him.

As of this morning, John is presumed lost at sea.

Wrapping your mind around the risks is critical

Josh and I have talked about this a lot as part of our preparations for our own coming journey. We know that the possibility of death at sea is a real risk that must be acknowledged and accepted as part of this lifestyle.

Even though there are many, many things one can do to be safe while at sea, there is no such thing as a fool- or failproof measure.

Understanding this involves just as much mental preparation as it does physical preparation. Though many would be very uncomfortable with this kind of conversation, it is necessary to imagine the unimaginable when you take to the water. You have to think about the conditions you’ll likely face, and how they will impact you if someone – or you – should fall overboard.

Strong winds, rain or other weather will create a hazard and low visibility. Choppy, roiling sea states with quick currents and frigid temperatures will affect survivability (and rescuability) of the person overboard. Add to this the fact that there are just two of us, and MOB rescue operations on vessels underway are difficult enough, let alone to single-hand.

Our conclusion for ourselves, given what the likely circumstances would be if a MOB event were to happen, is this: if you fall in, you’re dead.

This isn’t morbid, or meaning to say that we wouldn’t attempt to rescue each other. It only serves as a mental point-of-reference for all of our planning, MOB practice sessions, and protocols for being topside on our boat when it’s underway… especially in anything that resembles less than idyllic conditions.

How we plan to stay safe

So the corollary to our point-of-reference is “don’t fall in the water”. It sounds simplistic, but it is a powerful place from which to operate and prepare ourselves.

If we recognize that falling overboard means certain death, we will be all the more equipped, prepped, and tuned in when on our boat. This means addressing everything from the way our lines and rigging are set up, to the equipment we need to buy and install, to the discussions and procedures we need to understand about minimizing our exposure to scenarios that put us at serious risk.

Deck and Cockpit

It was no accident that we bought a boat that has designed into her many critical safety features. Knowing we’d be bluewater cruisers, safety as well as comfort were our primary considerations.

Ladara Star has a steering station inside the enclosed pilot house. This means that when underway – be it motoring or sailing – we have the option of being safe inside our boat. Also, all of our lines lead aft to our cockpit and on-deck helm. If we have to be on deck to adjust the sails or autopilot, we won’t need to leave the cockpit and can be on a short tether while we make our adjustments.

Last summer, Josh also took the time to weave his own netting between our lifelines and stanchions. Though these likely wouldn’t save a tumbling crew member on a hard heel, they’re better than nothing. We mostly have them for peace of mind when our dog is on deck.

Our boom is a significant hazard when under sail, as it does sit at head-height. The best thing we can do to prevent a runaway boom is rig up a preventer line, which our boat came equipped with (and which Josh re-rigged for safer handling). Otherwise, the mainsail and jib can be managed from within the cockpit. When in the cockpit, even standing, the boom is above our heads and does not pose a threat. This is why it is our protocol not to stand on the cockpit seats when making adjustments.

Tethers and Jacklines

“Why wasn’t s/he wearing a safety line?” This is always the first question when a story breaks about a MOB situation. The odd response to this is, sometimes, the MOB individual WAS wearing a tether… but drowned anyway.

Such was the case in one incident where another British sailor died after he fell off his foredeck while wearing a tether. The issue was that his tether was so long that he was in the water long enough to drown before he could be recovered by his crew.

There are other articles about tests on tether safety, as well. In one such study, the only time a tether was helpful to the MOB test dummy was when he used a short tether and happened to fall over on the windward side of a heeled over sailboat (which kept him completely out of the water). In every other scenario – long or short tether – the towing trials showed that once you are in the water, the speed of the boat’s wake and the movement of the waves conspires to force water up and around your head and face… which would make breathing impossible.

The conclusions from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report of 2015 state that if you are in the water and tethered to your boat, it will be the speed of the boat that becomes dangerous to you. And that it will be dangerous to you very quickly, with determinations stating that a person would drown in about a minute. Therefore, the best chance to save you at this point is to stop the boat (or slow to under 2 knots) in less than a minute!

So, as you can see, this is a set of conditions that are highly stacked AGAINST the person who has fallen overboard. Which is why not falling in at all has to be the priority.

From this report, we learn that short tethers are the way to go. And clipping them on the windward jackstay gives you the best possible chance of remaining on board if you fall to leeward (or clear of the water if you fall to windward).

Josh and I also plan to employ “double-clip” tether lines, so that if we have to move our tether up or down the boat we are never NOT clipped on.

Keeping Your Head

Awareness, awareness, awareness.

We can accummulate all the gear in the world from non-slip footwear to thermal polar-region undergarments and survival suits filled with Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), waterproof VHF radios, and smoking/flashing distress flares. However, at the end of the day, our best way to stay safe is to stay OUT of the water. And we do that by staying aware of our surroundings.

People get in trouble when they panic. They get in trouble when they get lazy and take unneccessary risks. And they get in trouble when they don’t think about what they’re doing and what the risks are.

I’m not saying that all those who have fallen overboard were any of these things, including Mr. John Fisher, who was by all reports a very skilled sailor.

The only thing we can do when we hear of a life lost at sea is to honour that life lost by learning what we can from what happened.

Life isn’t safe. And there are never any guarantees.

We accept this, and we do what we can to remember our mortality by using common sense and keeping our heads cool in times of stress.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below.


  – Morgan