The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Can We Have Too Much Safety?

Scott and Amundsen

I have been thinking about safely a lot lately. I guess that stands to reason, given that I’m in the middle of a series of posts on crew overboard prevention—not to speak of the fact that I had a very nasty accident a few months ago—and, up until a couple of days ago I was OK with that.

But then I started to get uncomfortable and started to wonder whether I’m getting fixated on safety and on safety gear particularly. I also worried that my fixation might be colouring the posts I have been writing lately. So, I decided to take a step back from the details. To go back to basics. Here is what I came up with:

There is No Safety Finish Line

Morgan’s Cloud is a way safer boat than she was when we first started taking her to the high-latitudes. And that stands to reason. After all, we have had 20 years to make her safer and 20 years to become better seamen.

So when did she become a safe boat? Two years ago? Five? Ten? So, does that mean that I was irresponsibly risking my and my crew’s lives when we voyaged to Greenland and Baffin Island 16 years ago? That I was some kind of dangerous yahoo, and now I’m a safe and sober seaman? That at some point me and our boat crossed some line to being safe?

Of course not. There is no one moment when you become safe, the whole thing is on a continuum. In fact, as we add more gear and become more experienced, we can actually become less safe due to over confidence in our gear and hubris about our skills.

Also, none of this stuff is cut and dried. Who is to say with any certainty that I, who am almost always harnessed and tethered, am actually safer than Nick Kats, who almost never is? Perhaps Nick is more focused than I am on not falling overboard just because he is not tethered. Certainly, by not having a tether and jacklines, Nick has less to trip over. And, after all, if I fall with my tether on I might be drowned by dragging or maimed by the shock load on my harness. There is no right and perfect answer to being safe.

So the bottom line is, each of us must decide how and when our equipment, training and experience make us safe enough, and then, well…just go, dammit.

Safety is About Us

And another thing I have reminded myself of: Safety is not about the gear. We can’t buy safety. Sure, good gear can help, but if we don’t have skills and judgement we will not be safe and we are not seamen.

Let me give you an example: Back in the heroic age of exploration two men set their sights on the South Pole, one named Scott and one named Amundsen. They both had plenty of backing, lots of experience, and plenty of gear. One died and took his team with him. One triumphed.

There were many differences between the two expeditions and the styles of the leaders, but do you know what factor made the single biggest contribution to the respective result? It was nothing to do with gear. Amundsen and his men could ski. That helps when you set out to cross 1600 miles of snow and ice. Scott and his men, despite having taken a skiing instructor and skis with them to Antarctica, were too busy with other things, many of them to do with gear, to learn to ski.

The point being that we have to be really careful not to spend so much time thinking about and working on safety gear that we forget to learn the essential skills we need to be safe on our boats—to learn to ski, as it were.

The Picture

The graphic at the beginning of this post is the cover of Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford. Amundsen was an incredible expedition leader with an unmatched ability to do very dangerous things safely. Today we would call him a consummate risk manager. We can all learn a lot from Huntford’s masterful comparison of the two men and their different styles. The book is also a great read. One of the best about the heroic age of exploration.

Huntford’s book is now published in the USA and Canada under the title The Last Place on Earth.

And in the UK, under the original title of Scott And Amundsen

I highly recommend it.

Further Reading

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dick Stevenson

John, Well said.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Ed Seling

Thank you for adding some much needed balance and insight into the whole “Safety Onboard” discussion.

Victor Raymond

John, I am of the philosophy that if something is going to happen, it is going to happen. On the other hand, I don’t like to take risks beyond a certain point. I have skied the backcounty, piloted airplanes, driven cars at high speed and now sailed. All of these could be considered risky business. Nevertheless I worked myself up to a point in experience where I felt the outcome of any of these actions would be fairly successful.
However I am certainly less safety conscious than you but perhaps more so than the average man on the street. I will climb my mast with only a chest harness and tether because I have very secure mast steps. Brion Toss, my rigger, would not do such a thing. Who is right? I feel perfectly safe and he wants complete freedom from fear once he is up there. I can get up and back before he has assembled the gear and crew if there is a problem. Is time and circumstances ever an issue too?
I think it is important to be aware of the dangers and alert others who are new to the field what could happen. Take appropriate steps to minimize fatal danger. After that you have to trust your fate or karma or whatever you want to call it.


Hi John

Another recommended read? I’m still working on Heavy weather and avoidance… I’m having to lean about weather just to read it and thank you for that. The 500bm is changing how I see the weather. Even when I’m home in Colorado, I’m studying the Atlantic basin. Fly here to Charleston, I was fascinated by the cloud. It was like I’ve never seen clouds before. Tying this to the topic, it adds to my skill sets that are the measure for evaluating risk. As an edgy sport guy, it’s an honesty thing. Honest about your skills and being honest in matching them to your environment. My dad died getting out of bed at 75, he had to pee. where do we draw the line? Instincts and “Honesty”.

Shannon Johnson

The most dangerous pilots in the service are those with around 800 hours (the fear that comes with being new has worn off) and those with over 3,000 hours (who believe they’ve seen it all).

Great post, John, thanks.

Viv and Mireille

John: Good post and some good comments. Safety is for me about risk assessment. No matter how good the gear without understanding the possible risks will, as you pointed out, can lead one into a false sense of security.

Many moons ago I worked on oil rigs 180nm off the coast of Newfoundland. One rig at that time had a terrible safety record. To resolve this, the company brought everyone ashore in shifts and put us through a two day risk assessment course. We learned the tools of job analysis, pre-job meetings and go-no-go decisions. Oil rigs are dangerous work environments especially in Atlantic storms. The result was a rapid decline in accidents and a superb safety record for the remaining year I worked on that particular rig.

To cut a long story short – we take risks but if we are aware of those risks we can mitigate them.

How often does one climb out of the companionway and forget where the boom is or where it is about to hit in a gybe! Had I spared thirty seconds to orient myself and think before going on watch (risk assessment), that boom would not have hit me and knocked me out cold… but I’m still here!

Rob Withers

With all matters of safety, the most important thing is having an understanding of the risk involved. Only then can you balance the reduction of risk from, say, being tethered at all times when on deck, with the cost (hassle, time, cost etc). The debates on these pages show that the readership is divided about how to draw the risk/cost dividing line – but everybody has thought about the issues. That makes it much safer than regulation-based safety.

I was due to paddle the Devizes-Westminster Canoe race this weekend. 125 miles across England. Normally it’s just long and hard-work but the weather has meant that the river is flowing exceptionally fast and the forecast is for freezing easterlies (i.e. headwind). Rather than cancel the race, the organisers are running the race as normal but providing a clear risk assessment matrix for competitors to judge for themselves. I just hope the right people are grown-up enough to know when to pull-out. My partner is ill, so the decision was easy. Were he fit, I’d be chewing my fingernails wondering whether we should go or not! However, I applaud the organisers for treating people as adults!


I had the good fortune to visit Scott’s hut near McMurdo in 1984. The message that ghostly little clapboard building with its supplies and tack all appearing to wait for his return conveyed was self-reliance. There was nothing there that spoke “safety.” The hut whispered, “skill, preparation, self-reliance, most of all, self-reliance.”*

To the extent our thoughts about safety are really just about self-reliance, we should never stop thinking about it. To the extent these thoughts are a form of [subconscious?] buy-in to a cultural and governmental push to trade safety and security for freedom of action. As you say, “just go, dammit.”

*Their biggest safety concern was not cold, it was fire.

Kirsten Rohrbach

A brief but deeply thought comment. Thanks for sharing.

Colin Speedie

Hi John

Great piece, thought provoking and honest.

I’d agree with others here that a part of what we do revolves around risk assessment, and should stay that way. Lou and I broadly stick to what was (and may still be) called the RORC rule, where safety harness and life jacket were obligatory at night, when the boat is reefed or when full oilies are worn. Add to that when alone on watch, when poled out etc, and on any other occasion it seems like the right thing to do. That way we have a rule to remind us, and at the same time we can exercise our own judgement, too. Which, in my view, is how it should be.

Part and parcel of the cruising life is accepting responsibility for oneself, and we should defend that as a right, not a privilege.

Best wishes


Ed Kelly

Very thoughtful and true. Safety does not come in a box you buy. Judgment and Skill are necessary. Almost all the folks found dead from drowning had life preservers on board but probably not one planned to be in danger of drowning on that particular day or night. Ed Kelly on Angel Louise

Marc Dacey

John, an excellent post. I just finished a Marine Basic First Aid course last weekend and one of the key takeaways was understanding the limits of your ability to give aid. The first rule is “check to see if in giving aid you aren’t endangering yourself” and the second is “call for help” (as in a Mayday). Only third is “care” and that might mean simply “making comfortable” or “slinging and lee clothes and bolsters”, a process with which you have recent and unpleasant experience on land.

In risk assessment, I find it is possible to become overwhelmed with the percentages and the branching map of outcomes. It becomes helpful to step back, as you are doing, to examine not your safety regimen, but the tendencies of your preferences and prejudices, and to assess those in light of a broad sample of experience.

All good sailors are slightly paranoid, because they play in environments capable of killing them easily. But it is possible to drown in gear and safety drills, or worse, to have one elaborate procedure or technique cancel out another. So “assessing the assessment”, particularly when you are unable to actually sail, is, I think, a fruitful exercise. One may never labour under the delusion that they have gotten everything right, but “less wrong” is a worthy and attainable goal.

Marc Dacey

By the way, I think the best leader of men and manager of risk in the golden age of Antarctic exploration was Shackleton, who was a master of both motivating people and incorporating fresh ideas into his gameplans. The only casualities were a few frost-bitten toes and lots of consumed penguins.


For fellow Amundsen fans, I just finished the recently published ‘The Last Viking – The Life of Roald Amundsen, Conqueror of the South Pole’ by Stephen Bown and can highly recommend it.

Marc Dacey

While I was just referring to the people left on Elephant Island, I do understand where you are coming from. Shackleton was himself praised by Amundsen for the 1909 “near miss” of the South Pole, however; the two men respected each other in a way they may not have respected poor, possibly nutty Scott. I suspect Amundsen’s success was related to paying close attention as to how actual Arctic people lived and travelled, and in a willingness to live not as a European, but as someone pragmatic enough to depot seal carcasses and to feed one portion of his dog team to the others, and to maintain an almost uncanny “mission focus” that included a ruthless cutting of those who crossed him or questioned his decisions.

How much of such a focus we can bring…or should bring… to voyagine offshore remains to be seen. I find it interesting that Shackleton died en route to another expedition, and Amundsen himself was lost doing an Arctic rescue. I suspect neither man regretted not dying in a comfy bed.

David Nutt

Great article. All we have to do is be safe enough and that ultimately is our own decision. Your previous articles are all wonderful food for thought and it us our own choice from here on if we are so fortunate to be part of this discussion. If we are watching the transom of our boat receding into the twilight while we tread water perhaps we were not safe enough. As we age, that line between safe enough, the strength in our arms and hands to hold us when stuff is going badly, diminishes so ‘safe enough’ is a slow moving target. I hope to stay on this side of it.
Keep us thinking!


Great post and comments. In the dictionary, Safe means “free from harm” and for most of us the only way to insure or guarantee “free from harm” is to not engage in the activity at all. Sailing comes with inherent risks, the trick is to mindfully and prudently manage risk NOT to eliminate risk. Most of the risks we choose to take are inherent to the potential benefits (nothing ventured, nothing gained…) This is why many outdoor schools and programs assiduously avoid the mention of “safety” at all and actively promote risk and risk management as the key concepts because the terminology itself leads us astray. Just gave a talk on this very topic to a group of Denver educators (posted here if anyone is interested:

Henrik Johnsen

Is it possible to be too safety minded?
We don`t think so, but at the same time we´re very aware that it´s important not to let safety or “disaster” thinking, prevent us from doing the things we want to do.

During 25 years as a HEMS rescuer, (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service), I have executed numerous Search and Rescue missions involving climbers in high mountain area, avalanches, river rescues, MOBs, not to mention hikers having an accident sliding on a wet root, breaking a leg 😉
I´ve seen lots of different approaches made to be prepared for the unexpected, and my experience is that if there has been some kind of safety thinking beforehand, even just a little bit, the outcome of the situation, often is far better, than if the preparing was like; “ I could never dream this would ever happen to me/ us”.

When at work executing rescue missions, we (the crew) always have a moment during our “preflight” and “after take off” briefs where we discuss; ”What can go wrong in this mission, and what are the most likely hazards?” By entering into this safety-thinking mode, our mind is put into a kind of alert, and if something comes up during the mission, we´re all more likely to respond quickly and correctly.
My wife is also “airborne” and has through her work in the armed forces experienced exactly the same thing, conducting both search and rescue and combat missions.

Based on our job experiences, this has become second nature in our everyday life as well, having a short safety-minded talk-through on the “What If”s before we´re going sailing, hiking, skiing, diving or whatever we do. We believe this makes us mentally prepared and able to act correctly if something unexpectedly comes up.

Note that I haven’t mentioned one word on equipment here. That comes in second line.
The every day “safety minded thinking” is the number one when it comes to list the most important factors to success, when old Murphy shows up.
Crossing a street, walking in unknown docking areas, lighting the diesel heater or whatever you´re doing. Always start off by giving it a safety minded thought, or talk through, before you execute.

When it comes to Amundsen vs Shackleton there should be no doubt; Amundsen was absolutely best prepared for the expedition, Shackleton on the other hand, definitely was the best leader. When it came to survival and handling crises, Shackleton was the best, ever.

Happy Easter everyone..!

RDE (Richard Elder)

There is a common affliction that I’ve observed among modern cruisers. Surrounded by communication from fellow cruisers and access to multiple layers of information they become weather window hypochondriacs. While a delivery skipper moves five boats from Lauderdale to the VI, they sit paralyzed for half the season awaiting the mythical thornless path to descend from heaven and allow them to arrive at a windward destination without sailing to windward.

Doesn’t mean one should emulate the Bounty and go looking for hurricanes like its skipper said he intended to do, but there definitely can be too much safety if it leads to paralysis rather than accepting challenges as part of life.

Nicolas Kats

Here fear rules. Under the mantle of technology, fear trumps adventure & common sense. Nice example Richard.

Beth Leonard & Evans Starzinger, on their great website, say cruising is more dangerous than golfing but safer than bicycling. Yes, between golfing & bicycling!! Sorry I don’t know how to attach the link, but google bethandevans, go to FAQs, go to Cruising Life, go to #55, How Safe is Offshore Sailing?

What does this remarkable degree of safety in offshore cruising mean for liferafts ? Most sailboats are sunk & destroyed not at sea but on the coast. On rock & surf, exactly where liferafts are useless. Offshore the case against liferafts seem to roughly balance the case for liferafts, again see Bethandevans for this. The conclusion? That in a good sailboat with a good skipper, the benefits of liferafts are a tossup. Which, for me, means a liferaft is a waste of money, time & precious space. Exceptions would be for extreme cases, such as the flimsy round-the-world racers – they definitely have to have liferafts & all sorts of safety gear & procedures. But extreme sailing is no example for offshore cruisers.

Seems to me that much the conventional sailing world is riddled with fear. It oozes out of the sailing magazines & compels sailors to buy, buy, buy. Yachties communicate their fears to each other very efficiently. Fear can be really contagious.

When I understood this I threw out of my head everyone else’s fears. Which took a few years. I have my own fear, which is plenty, thank you. I find my own fear extremely useful and an ample marker for common sense. Taking on board the fears of others I really don’t need. The result? I get a clear head & I can push my envelope of sailing much more easily while feeling safe & free of fear.

The past generation has brought up a proliferation of safety experts & safety procedures & safety equipment. Like liferafts and a lot of other stuff. It makes me cringe to see sailors be so dominated by these procedures & equipment & safety experts & sailing schools – it builds up their fears, paralyzes them with fear. The opposite is to master these procedures, to take charge. What I’m saying is not about the procedures, equipment etc. Its about whether the sailor rules these procedures/equipment/experts or is ruled by them. Several people have said this beautifully on this posting.

I mean, gee, offshore sailing is safer than bicycling. Why get all worked up?

A standard I use is cruising in the 1950s & before. Before the explosion of technology & equipment & safety procedures. The cruisers of those days did just fine without all the must-haves & must-thinks of so many of todays’ sailors. The post-1950s technology I have on board are few. Joshua Slocum through the cruisers of the 1950s are my standard. They did more with less.

But my old fashionedness doesn’t matter. What matters is common sense & one’s own judgment & fear. To rule one’s own kingdom, and not be ruled.


Although I get nervous and anxious when I read about the dangerous and life threatening situations people experience at sea and around boats, I know that my awareness of those situations make me safer. Because of my awareness of the horrible injuries sustained by a husband a wife as a result of a malfunctioning electric winch, every time I raise someone up the mast using my electric winch, I am now more cognizant of the fact that I may need to run below to shut off the electricity; QUICKLY!!!! I also always have an additional safety line attached should the main halyard break or the need arises to remove the halyard from the winch in a hurry. I don’t think these lessons would have sunk as deeply into my brain if someone simply told me I should do it that way.


A timely topic – I just finished reading Overboard by Michael J. Tougias and I was deeply troubled by the book. As a pilot, I was trained in accident progression, being taught to recognize and correct small mistakes early on, breaking the chain of causal events that inevitably lead to failure, and often death. The book clearly shows this accelerating descent into disaster by two very competent and experienced sailors who, in the presence of adequate safety equipment, allowed their judgement to be clouded by both a schedule and misconceptions grounded in wishful thinking. After more than a quarter million miles of sailing, their momentary lapse cost one of them his life, and endangered the lives of the three other less-experienced crew members who were merely deferring to the more knowledgeable captain and first mate. Safety equipment is good, but no safety equipment in the world can save someone who drops their guard in complacency. There can be no mistake that Mother Nature ALWAYS wins. Respect, admiration, and caution are the order of the day.

S/V Kintala

Victor Raymond

You reminded me of something as flight instructors we always told our students. “It is not the first mistake that will kill you, or even the second but the third surely will.”
Thank you for the reminder.