Sailing 101: The Safety Instruction Card You Shouldn’t Throw Away

Ahoy sailors, now that you’ve mastered the anatomy of the sailboat, next up is safety. Here is an in-depth breakdown of all the safety requirements you should know before setting sail. Stay tuned for next week when we break down how to get your boat out on the water.

SOUTHERN CALIF.— Harnessing the power of the wind and bending it to glide your boat across the water is beautiful. Sailing does, however, raise some safety concerns that should be entirely understood and practiced each time a sailor hits the open waters. This issue’s lesson will address all safety precautions. We did the research; you just have to read it!


Sailing Harness and Life Jackets:

A hiking strap or harness can help sailors avoid falling into the water, and caution can help you avoid the boom. Every crewmember or passenger onboard a sailboat should wear a life jacket. Yes, they can save your life, but only if you’re wearing them. New life jacket models are noticeably more comfortable than those of old, and some even come with a safety harness and tether built-in, ready to clip to a jack line along the gunwales of an offshore sailboat.


Other Safety Gear:

Safety goes beyond life jackets; other accessories can make sailing safer as well:

  • Safety glasses guard eyes against loose tackle.
  • UV-blocking sunglasses protect eyes better.
  • SPF-rated clothing and sunscreen block skin from the sun.
  • Fingerless nylon- or leather-faced sailing gloves make handling lines and cables easier and gentler.
  • An Automatic Identification System receiver can keep you posted on the paths of large ships and commercial passenger vessels so that you have extra time to avoid them.



Capsizing: How to Avoid and or Defeat:

Smaller sailboats have centerboards or daggerboards that help the boat track well but don’t do much to keep it upright. In one of them, there’s bound to be a time when your boat is “knocked down” by a sudden wind blast or a crew mistake.


When a boat tips over, it most often will capsize to leeward (the side sheltered or away from the wind) because the wind’s force overcomes the crew’s ability to hike or let the sails out. It is essential to practice capsize recovery drills before you need to use them independently. When the vessel is on its side and the sails are in the water, you should act promptly to right the boat (the act of reversing a capsized boat is called righting). The Scoop Method of recovery gets its name from one crew being “scooped” into the cockpit, as the other rights the capsized boat.


If you are the scoopee (the person being scooped up):

  1. Tread water near the stern until the scooper has control of the centerboard.
  2. Move to the centerboard trunk and free the mainsheet, jib sheets, and boom vang if possible. If necessary, throw the windward jib sheet over the high side to the scooper to assist the Scooper in getting up on the board.
  3. Hold on to a cockpit structure as the boat goes upright and gets scooped in.
  4. Balance the boat and steer it into a safe position.
  5. Help the scooper on board over the stern.


If You Are the Scooper (the person retrieving the other out of the water):

  1. Move around the boat to the centerboard.
  2. Climb up onto the board, using the jib sheet if it is unavoidable. Always try to avoid putting pressure on the tip of the board; you can break it this way.
  3. Once on the board, make sure the scoopee is ready for the boat to be righted. Place your feet close to the base of the board where it enters the hull and leans back, bracing yourself with the tail end of a sheet or halyard for leverage until the boat gradually comes upright.
  4. Swim to stern to climb back on board.


Capsize Recovery – Single Handed Boats

If the boat capsizes and the helmsman falls into the water:

  1. The helmsman should unclip the mainsail and boom vang.
  2. The mainsail should be lying to the leeward of the hull in the water. If the mainsail is lying to the windward of the hull, the boat can be rotated, so the sail lies leeward, or it can be brought upright, which will result in the boat quickly capsizing again but with its sail lying in the water to leeward of the hull.
  3. Helmsman moves to centerboard, climbs onto it, and, holding onto the gunwale, leans back to bring the boat upright.
  4. Helmsman climbs in over stem.


Grounding and Weather:

Ship grounding is the impact of a ship on seabed or waterway side. The relatively deep drafts of sailboats, thanks to keel fins and center- and or daggerboards, means extra attention is needed to avoid grounding. The 2017 investigation into the grounding of a Clipper Round the World yacht in South Africa delivered some interesting lessons for all sailors. The most important points learned were that the skipper was the only person in charge of navigation and became distracted by other tasks and lost situational awareness. The chart plotter (an electric navigation device) was below decks, and there was no route marked on it. The displays at the helm did not show depth, nor were there shallow water alarms set, and that started out clearing any dangers that became unsafe through gradual changes to the wind direction.

To learn from this event, remember to plan ahead! Good planning of your passage will not only highlight areas of concern but also enable prompt and effective corrective actions to be taken should the depth unexpectedly decrease and induce grounding.


Set an alarm! Alarms are a useful tool although, to be effective, like everything else on your boat they need to be trimmed (adjusted to your sailboat). Alarms should be adjusted to reflect conditions and set to a level that will ensure they are not constantly sounding and therefore get ignored. An audible alarm will allow less experienced crew members to comfortably stand watch and be sure of exactly when to call the skipper; they’ll also alert a skipper whose attention has been drawn elsewhere. In addition, having an XTE alarm onboard is very helpful. Cross-track error alarms will sound once your track has strayed too far from the rhumb line. Ensure there are sufficient waypoints in your route to make these effective.

Of course, the weather is always a consideration for a responsible boater, but a weather eye is even more important to a sailor who can’t pick up and run from storms as can one in a powerboat. The U.S. Coast Guard said in its “A Boater’s Guide to the Federal Requirements for Recreational Boats,” offers these tips to identify an approaching change in weather, which usually brings the most challenging conditions.


Signs of bad weather approaching for boaters:

  • Flat clouds getting lower and thicker.
  • Puffy, vertically rising clouds getting higher.
  • Dark, threatening clouds, especially to the west/southwest.
  • A sudden drop in temperature.
  • A halo around the sun or moon.
  • Increasing wind or a sudden change in wind direction.
  • Flashes on the horizon.
  • Seas becoming heavy.
  • Heavy AM radio static, which can indicate nearby thunderstorm activity.


If caught in severe weather, the Coast Guard advises:

  • Reduce speed to the minimum that allows continued headway.
  • Make sure everyone on board is wearing their life jacket.
  • Turn on running lights.
  • If possible, head for the nearest safe-to-approach shore.
  • Head boat into waves at a 45-degree angle.
  • Keep bilges free of water.
  • Seat passengers on the bottom of the boat, near the centerline
  • If the engine fails, deploy a sea anchor (or bucket if there’s no sea anchor aboard) from the bow.
  • Anchor the boat if necessary.



Stay Calm and in Control:

Sometimes, a sailor needs to stop everything during frantic sailing practice, pause, adjust, and adapt. That can seem impossible when the wind’s blowing. In his book, “Learn to Sail,” legendary sailor Dennis Conner highlights a “time-out position,” where the sailor needs to release the sheets of the mainsail and headsail—if so equipped—while the wind is at right angles to the boat’s centerline. When the boat has stopped, aim the tiller at the sails to release pressure on the rudder. You’ve effectively taken your foot off the gas and the “car” out of gear. Take a cleansing breath and purge the anxiety, figure things out, then return the helm to parallel with the centerline, trim (snug up) first the headsail, then the mainsail, and you’re back in action.


When The Wind Slows Down:

Sailing is powered by the momentum that it brought about by the wind. If the wind has died down, the sails will become slack, and your sailboat will just drift along. So, unless you have oars or a motor attached to a propeller, you might not go anywhere. You can rely on Hydrodynamics of the Water Flow. It’s physically impossible to have a total absence of wind while out there on the water. But if that happens, you can rely on the heat from the warm zone to the cold zone, which will create some form of hydrodynamics or flow, which would then create currents that will propel your sailboat, even if not in the same way as the winds.

Document Your Plans and Intensions Before Setting Sail

Sailors should document in writing who to contact if something goes wrong as well as keep a record of:

  • Where you’re going.
  • What your boat and tow vehicle look like.
  • Include sail numbers or logos on your boat.
  • When you plan to return to mainland.
  • When is an appropriate time authorities should be called if you’re not back by your documented return time goal?

While sailing requires special attention to the weather, water conditions, riggings, and responses, all these tips and advice will enrich the experience of riding on the wind.

This document should be given to the person whose judgment you trust best to help you if your plans don’t pan out.


This information can protect you when out on the water and riding the wind!

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