Staying On Your Feet

Staying safe on deck needn’t be an eyesore.

Question: What’s one of the easiest ways to sustain a serious injury on a yacht?
Answer.
A fall.

Question: What’s one of the easiest ways to prevent that happening?
Answer:
Decent non-slip everywhere!

So why is such a simple way of staying safe so often ignored? When something goes wrong in the middle of the night and you need to move up on deck fast, there’s no time to look around for a safe place to put your foot, so it’s best to make all walkable surfaces as grippy as possible.

I was reminded of that recently aboard a modern charter boat where, after the passage of many hundreds of feet, the moulded non-slip surface when wet had been reduced to the same level of grip as an ice-rink. The first time I stepped out of the cockpit my foot slid straight out from under me, forcing me to do the splits, something which at my age doesn’t just look stupid but is very definitely best avoided.

And it’s not just a case of poor or worn moulded in non-slip, there’s also the question of where it is placed. Take a look at most production boats where the non-slip is on the deck and sometimes on the roof, but almost never on critical areas such as the angled coachroof or cockpit sides, despite the fact that you’ll be walking along those surfaces in order to work the boat. Generally it’s going to be up to us to rectify this oversight, but fortunately that’s a straightforward task.

What Can Be Done

The problem of worn moulded in non-slip can be quite easily resolved the cheap and cheerful way by cleaning, abrading and then painting over with a good quality non-slip paint. The question of where it should go can also be easily addressed by either painting the whole deck and coachroof (sides and all) or by masking off panels in the most important areas and painting them in.

On our old boat we did the former, and painted everything with non-slip, which made her look like a workboat, but that didn’t worry us in the least because that was what she was. It wasn’t pretty, but we never had one single fall on that boat in many tens of thousands of miles, often in bad weather, with inexperienced crews – job done. But in terms of re-sale value, it wouldn’t do any boat many favours, so perhaps it’s best to do as we have done aboard Pèlerin and choose the second optio,n which looks much neater and also has the desired effect.

We have simply used Interdeck non-slip paint and we mask up and re-paint every year or so to keep it grippy and looking neat. It’s very low cost (around $1 per sq. ft.), has a good level of grip and is unobtrusive – we use white which is hardly noticeable against our white deck paint. On a steel or aluminium boat with painted decks, which may one day have to be sanded back to bare metal for a full re-paint, it probably makes most sense.

Recently, though, I have become aware of better paints, and have been particularly impressed with Sicomin Deckline (as used by Boréal amongst others), which is really grippy, durable and comes in a range of attractive colours.

Durabak is another product I’ve heard good reports about, which contains rubber granules in a polyurethane base to give it good grip and to allow some flexibility and chip resistance.

Other Options

There are also acrylic gelcoat type non-slip finishes that are suitable, such as Kiwigrip that can be applied by roller or spatula. Like a paint, the degree of grip can be varied by the method and/or the thickness of the application, and reports suggest they can be pretty aggressive if overdone (watch your knees or knuckles). And, as with most other apparently simple jobs, I’m sure that to achieve a neat effect, considerable preparation and practice would be needed. Cost is higher than a simple paint finish though (around $7 per sq. ft.), and perhaps this type of product may be more suitable on deck as a surface replacement for worn moulded non-slip than for angled surfaces such as coachroof sides.

Finally, there’s good old Treadmaster. I’ve owned two yachts decked with this excellent material, and there’s no question that it’s both super-grippy and protects the paint or gelcoat from items dropped on it in a way that other finishes simply can’t. For extreme (i.e. arctic) conditions it’s probably the best non-slip there is, and if it is done with real care (templates and a carefully marked deck) it can look pretty good in a functional kind of way. But as it comes in sheets there can be quite a lot of wastage in cutting it to shape, the glue isn’t cheap and so cost can run as high as $10 per sq. ft. Certainly it’s good for decks and cockpit soles, but perhaps not for more cosmetic areas, and certainly not for places where you might like to sit (it’s murder on your behind). But what a job it is – the glue is really powerful, gets on everything and sets rock hard, making the replacement of sheets of it what my German boatbuilder friend Gunnar calls ‘prison work’!

Stay On Your Feet

Functional is good, though, and anything that can be done to reduce the risk of falls on deck has to be worth doing. I should know – I’ve had two or three really hard falls aboard boats over the years, one of which left me with two broken ribs, and I consider myself lucky that was the worst of it.

We know our way around our boat, but we’re not the only ones who sail aboard her so it’s not just a case of self-interest that’s at work here. A broken limb in the middle of an ocean doesn’t bear thinking about, and we feel we owe it to our crews to ensure that it can’t happen to them either, so we’ll continue to opt for practical over aesthetic, even if it does mean losing a bit of yachty gloss.

Comments

If you have had a good (or bad) experience with any of the products mentioned (or any others), please leave a comment.

 

{ 18 comments… add one }

  • Stan Carlyle August 15, 2012, 6:51 pm

    Hi Colin:
    Any comments on good old teak decks? Also what would you recommend on companion way stairs to keep them from being slippery.

    Thanks
    Stan

    Reply
    • Colin August 17, 2012, 7:20 am

      Hi Stan

      Teak decks look good, and the grips OK, but everything else about them puts me off. Maintenance, the risk of leaks, the provenance of the teak and the eventual cost of replacement are all major concerns for us.

      You’ve hit upon a vital area for good quality non-slip, on the companionway steps. And i’m entirely with Dick (see his comment below) that this is a place for Treadmaster. Choose a colour that suits your interior, do it neatly and it’s the best there is.

      Kind regards

      Colin

      Reply
  • Chris August 15, 2012, 8:10 pm

    Colin,
    Excellent rundown!
    We would add just one thing — not standing up. In all but situations that demand standing (or the calmest of conditions), we try to keep our center of mass as close to the deck as possible. Good polyurethane, neoprene covered knee pads, specifically those carpet layers use, are a well used part of our kit. We also keep elbow guards and mountain helmets for going aloft.
    Chris

    Reply
    • Colin August 17, 2012, 7:23 am

      Thanks for these good points Chris, and totally agree about keeping your mass low – definitely the right thing to do.

      Good reinforcing on knees and shorts of oilies is also essential, too, or you’ll be replacing them sooner rather than later!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson August 16, 2012, 3:06 am

    Stan, We have Treadmaster (if memory serves comes in smaller sizes with sticky back to make installation easy) on our steps which are an oiled wood and got very slippery when wet. It has been 10+ years now, mostly barefoot sailing, and we have been very happy with this nonskid. It really nails the foot in place and gives a great sense of security in this crucial transitional area. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
    • Colin August 17, 2012, 7:25 am

      Hi Dick

      Couldn’t agree more. We currently have a French version of Treadmaster (smoother though) from TBS, and it’s been good. it is starting to show its age somewhat, though, so we’re thinking or replacing it with Treadmaster soon.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Roland August 16, 2012, 7:24 am

    Excellent post. Injuries at sea due to falling is more common that you would think.
    Another thing to consider is to choose a boat that only have one level inside.

    Reply
    • Colin August 17, 2012, 7:28 am

      Hi Roland

      Good point about different levels, but unfortunately we can’t do that, as our boat (and many other French lifting keelers) have different levels due to their internal ballast. What you can do is install plenty of hand holds at the change(s) of level – something I’ve consistently advocated here at AAC.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • David W August 16, 2012, 1:05 pm

    I would add decent deck shoes and boots which are NOT worn out on the treads.

    Reply
    • Colin August 17, 2012, 7:32 am

      Hi David

      We have a variety of different boots/deck shoes/sandals that are for on deck use. Dubarry boots for cold climes and ordinary deck shoes are fine for general use, but only (as you point out) as long as the soles are in good shape.

      We tend to relegate those that are getting worn to shore use only, and replace them with new for on deck whenever necessary.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson August 16, 2012, 1:18 pm

    Colin, One of Ginger’s and my offshore” headsets” (or in boisterous conditions) that we attempt to institute is to do all activity, especially deck work, at 1/2 or 2/3rds speed. For me, doing things slowly improves focus and feels (no real evidence, thank goodness) to make a fall or accident much less likely. It is rare that activities need doing in a hurry, and, if remedying an error, more likely to make things worse if done in a rush. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
    • Colin August 17, 2012, 7:37 am

      Hi Dick

      I thought long and hard about this and realised that, in fact, I’m doing the same thing, too. However, it’s largely due (in my case) to creaky knees as i used to dash about the deck like a gymnast.

      Over time I think we all reach a point (call it wisdom?) where it becomes clear that doing the first thing that comes into your head and at full speed isn’t always the best option. You’ve put that into words far better than I could, and I can only heartily agree.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Nicolas August 16, 2012, 1:44 pm

    My biggest injury on a boat was working the jib halyard in F8. Heaving seas & the slippery deck threw me; fell & landed on my side & slid backwards, slamming into the bulwark, the small of my back taking the brunt. For a couple weeks I sported a figure 8 black bruise, horizontal & centered on my spine, and great tenderness locally. No further damage. Without the bulwark I’d have shot over the side, and the injury could have been permanent. Thereafter, in heavy seas I worked the halyards kneeling or lying on my back, until I repainted the deck with grippy.

    Reply
    • Colin August 17, 2012, 7:40 am

      Hi Nicolas

      It’s so easy to do this when it’s really blowing hard.

      In my racing days I was bowman, and handled all the foredeck work, and after a really windy race would go for a shower and be horrified by the bruises sustained – never even felt most of them happen, either.

      Deficiencies in simple things like non-slip often don’t become apparent until we get hurt – and then they become glaringly obvious.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Steve August 16, 2012, 5:28 pm

    Tracy and I are finding that the new style boat shoes have become a big problem working on deck. A lot of the new shoes are too stiff in the soles and when you get on the shoe sole edge while working on a boom the shoe slides out from under you. We now look for boat shoes that have a softer sole so when on the edge of shoe more of the sole surface is flat on deck. We have also found that the most expensive shoe is not always the best.
    I was talking with a guy recently who crews on racing boats all over the world and he likes to use rock climbing shoes because their soles flex enough to give his feet more surface area on the deck.

    Reply
  • Colin August 17, 2012, 7:48 am

    Hi Steve

    You’re right – many of the traditional deck shoe styles aren’t the best in terms of grip. In many cases the material the soles are made of is too hard, and the ‘ edges’ of the soles catch on things, tripping you rather than keeping you on your feet. Soft soled versions won’t last long if used for walking ashore, which is why we keep our boat ones for ‘best’use.

    I can certainly see how rock climbing shoes would work, though, and they ought to be fairly rugged, too.

    And I’ll be putting up a quick post on some really great deck sandals we’ve been using very soon – watch this space!

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply
  • RDE August 22, 2012, 1:07 pm

    The topic brings to mind one of my pet peeves common in boat design–especially in center cockpit boats where the “priority” is to have a nice walkway to the aft apartment.

    Combine a large wheel with a straight sided cockpit and you are forced to stand up on the seat in order move from the cockpit to the helm position. (or crawl on your hands and knees which nobody does) So you stand up with nothing fixed to hang on to, at a position where the roll motion is maximized, just when you need to switch harness attachment points. And furthermore this position of vulnerability comes when you really need to move rapidly from the security of the center cockpit and take control of the helm.

    Designer, if you prioritize interior appearance over safe movement on deck you should be designing condos instead of sailboats.

    Reply
    • John August 23, 2012, 8:58 am

      Hi Richard,

      Very true. My personal hate list is topped by “rabbit hole” companionways separated from the cockpit by a long and high bridge deck. On one boat I sailed on, that was set up like this, we called going below from the cockpit “the dance of death”.

      Reply

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