The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

11 Things We Do To Stay Rational About Safety

I have been writing a lot about safety lately: crew overboard, storm survival, fire at sea, and so on.

All important stuff. But I do sometimes worry about how this all relates to our primary goal here at Attainable Adventure Cruising, as stated on our homepage, of:

Helping you go cruising.

Now most people would say that writing about safety is part of that mission, and that’s true, but there is also another aspect, which Winston Churchill defined way back on 16th November 1943:

You may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman, or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together—what do you get? The sum of their fears.

He was pointing out that while each military adviser may be brave and decisive, they each have their own demons. And so if they are all in the same room planning an action there is a good likelihood that they will get mired by their collective fears and take no action.

The answer to this problem is the presence of a strong leader who holistically weighs the chances of success against the risks, cuts through that paralysis to order decisive action, and then takes responsibility for the outcome—in WWII that leader was often Churchill.

So what does this have to do with offshore sailing?

Never before have we boat owners had access to as much writing, and video, about safety equipment, techniques, and strategies as we do today.

Although that can be a good thing, it also exposes us relentlessly to “the sum of their fears”. To every:

  • Blog writer’s bad safety-related experience.
  • Marine journalist’s pet fear. (I will tell you about mine in a minute.)
  • Tale of disaster on FaceBook, YouTube, Twitter and so on.
  • Salty sailor’s hard and fast opinions, based on their own worst experiences, on what we must add to our boats and do at sea to be safe.

And here’s another important takeaway. We can’t arrive at action by trying to determine the validity of each fear, because many of them (maybe most) are valid.

Rather, each of us who skippers an offshore sailboat must be that decisive leader who filters all of that safety information to decide what’s important to our boat and intended voyage. Otherwise we will never leave the marina.

Easy to write, very hard to do, and yet the very essence of what it means to be a seamanlike skipper.

So how can we achieve that? Since each of us is different, I can’t give you hard and fast rules, but here’s how I have managed not to be paralyzed with safety fixation, but still skipper a safe (I hope) boat on multiple voyages, many to scary places like Greenland.

#1 Offshore Cruising is Not Dangerous

A mental trick Phyllis and I often use to fight down our own fears (we both have plenty) and avoid taking on too many of the fears of others, is to remind ourselves that when voyaging we are probably way safer than we are when ashore, simply because we don’t get in a motor vehicle much when cruising.

Yup, I firmly believe that, when done right, offshore voyaging is way safer than driving—after all, there are a lot fewer damned fools texting and driving drunk on the ocean—and that belief is a huge comfort when planning a voyage.

#2 A Fundamentally Seaworthy Boat

Another of Phyllis’ and my greatest comforts is that we have a fundamentally seaworthy boat. Seems obvious, but in these days of being constantly barraged by safety information it’s easy to forget that if our boat has weaknesses that make her fundamentally unsafe—things like a huge cockpit, poor hull form, or weak construction—no amount of added safety gear is going to make us safe.

And seaworthy boats don’t have to be silly-expensive either, at least relatively. In fact, rather the opposite, since basic seaworthiness seems to have gone out of fashion these days.

For example, we bought Morgan’s Cloud for much less money than many superficially comparable boats because the very features that make her so seaworthy are discounted by a market focused on huge fancy interiors.

#3 A Safe Boat is a Process, Not a Goal

We have owned Morgan’s Cloud for 27 years and even today we are thinking of new ways to make her safer and better. But we never forget that we have been on voyages, some of them pretty challenging, in 22 of those years, starting the first year we owned the boat.

At some point before each voyage, I, as skipper, said “safe enough for this voyage” and left, rather than delaying until everything was perfectly safe—an unattainable goal and a sure recipe for 27 years at the dock.

#4 Skill Over Gear

The more you know, the less you need.

So said Yvon Chouinard, climber, adventurer and founder of Patagonia.

Phyllis and I are constantly reminding ourselves that safety and the success of a voyage are far more dependant on our skills than the safety gear we buy.

#5 Start Slowly

But how did we get those skills? Sure, we read voraciously, and listened to experienced sailors. But all that is almost insignificant compared to our history of building our skills bit by bit, starting with easy cruises and then progressing to more difficult ones—experience, gained over time, in manageable bites, is the biggest contributor to our safety and peace of mind.

#6 Pick The Low-Hanging Fruit

When faced with trying to decide which of “their fears” we need to plan and equip for, we started with the low-hanging fruit.

For example, always rigging a bow preventer when running or reaching was a heck of a lot easier—even before we improved our system (see Further Reading)—than trying to equip our medical kit and train ourselves to deal with a head injury, or coming up with a crew overboard recovery system that will actually work if a jibing boom sends someone flying over the side.

#7 Prioritize

And, in the same vein, knowing that we will never make our boat perfectly safe, or have every piece of gear, or have done every course and drill that the pundits (me included) say we should, Phyllis and I have always prioritized the Big Five:

  • Keep the water out.
  • Keep the crew on the boat.
  • Keep the keel side down.
  • Keep the mast up.
  • Keep the rudder on.

#8 Prevention is Easier Than Cure

A lot of safety writing around cruising is about curing a problem, but buying all the gear and and doing all the drills and training required to cure every emergency that the vivid imaginations of every pundit can come up with is simply impossible. So Phyllis and I find it’s more practical to focus our efforts on prevention.

For example, it’s way easier to install a good crew overboard prevention system, than try to come up with a realistic way to recover someone in the water. So we spend way more time and effort making as sure as we can that we move around the deck safely than say practicing the Quick Stop manoeuvre or buying, installing and practicing with a parbuckle recovery system.

#9 What We Choose To Do, We Do Right

When constantly barraged by “the sum of their fears”, it’s very easy to slip into the trap of trying to mitigate all of those dangers. This approach will push us into spending a bunch of money on every conceivable piece of safety gear but not install it, or learn to use it properly, for lack of time. The consequence being we won’t actually be making our boats safer, or at least not much.

So Phyllis and I try hard to do the things we choose to focus on really right. For example, not just buy a series drogue and throw it in a locker, but rather:

  • Buy a series drogue.
  • Install massive chain plates to take the load.
  • Figure out, practice, and document deployment and retrieval.
  • Continuously update in light of new knowledge: Before going on our next long voyage, we will upsize the bolts on the chain plates, change the thimbles on the bridles, and replace the first section of the drogue with new cones.

(See Further Reading for details).

#10 Your Fears Are Not My Fears

As Churchill pointed out, each of us have our own personal demons. Mine are a major gear failure in a remote place and storms at sea. Phyllis worries most about me falling overboard and storms at sea. So that’s where we first put our safety efforts. Others will have different pet fears. But here’s the key point:

If we are to leave the dock on a voyage, we can’t take on everyone’s fears, even though many of them are perfectly valid. Like Churchill, we must weigh the odds and at some point take action (leave the wharf). And by prioritizing our own fears, at least we will feel better prepared, and therefore less anxious, and so have more fun.

For example, you may decide that that you value moving around on deck unencumbered over the risk of falling overboard, and so focus on recovery. (I’m not advocating for this, but it’s a perfectly valid choice.)

Or you might have had a terrible experience with fire in your life that may make you focus on learning everything possible about full-on firefighting, including doing a course with real practice in smoke-filled confined spaces. Whereas Phyllis and I make sure we have the basic firefighting kit and that our smoke detectors work, and leave it at that.

#11 Beware The Forums

If ever there was a cauldron that boils up “the sum of their fears” and then serves the result up in an ugly soup of terror, it’s the modern sailing forum, in which posters keep adding their own fears to a subject until the thread is scores (or even hundreds) of comments long.

Much of it is simply oft-repeated memes without much rational thought about validity. And a distressing amount of it is simply other cruisers trying to puff up their egos, or dampen their own fears, by telling the rest of us how smart and well prepared they are.

(By the way, although I don’t hang out on forums, I’m sure I have been guilty of the latter two sins here in the comments. I will try to do better in future.)

So sure, we can learn stuff from forums, but we gotta filter it…big time.


Before I close, I need to make clear that my purpose in writing this article is not to convince you that my fears are the most important, or that my decisions about prioritizing what safety equipment to buy and install are right, or that my decisions about what safety drills to do and which not to bother with are correct.

Rather, my purpose is to inspire you to filter “the sum of their fears” rationally, make your own safety decisions, do the stuff you do right…and get out there cruising.

Further Reading


So how do you wend your way through “the sum of their fears” to actually get out there cruising? Please leave a comment.

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Marc Dacey

I agree wholeheartedly. I would also add that there’s two factors I’ve noticed over the years that allay somewhat the “fear” (although I get a dry mouth until I’m out of the harbour!). The first is that I find the indifference of the sea to our survival comforting, not scary. The onus is on our crew to prepare the boat and preserve themselves, because with breaking seas and ominous squalls, it’s really, really “nothing personal”. People, on the other hand…well, who knows what they are or are not thinking?

The second thing is that I’ve been in enough sketchy situations at sea at this stage to realize I am not the panicky type. This is a direct result of racing and crew deliveries and taking RYA training in pretty challenging conditions. Knowing this, I just try to keep your “Big Five” top-of-mind and not take shortcuts in terms of safety or best practices in order to execute a task. I am not beyond crawling on hands and knees on a foredeck if that’s going to keep me safer, because, again, that breaking wave is not going to make fun of me, is it? I would add that “continuous learning”, such as what I read here, is of enormous help in consolidating what I already suspect into a body of knowledge of good seamanship, backed up by the discussion of good sailors, whom I define as “those who lived”!

Marc Dacey

Oh, I agree already, particularly just at departure and arrival when a series of checklists is rolling at high speed through my aging cranial hardware…and I have too much assumed responsibilities. That said, the situation improves when the shore disappears aft.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Excellent article and lots of good points. And I agree, properly prepared, an ocean passage is safer than a road trip (and far more is in your control: bad outcomes to a road trip are very often the result of actions of others: not in any way in your control).
Good risk assessment is part of almost every point you make and has long been an interest of mine. To my observation, risk assessment is a skill that is decreasingly necessary in everyday life. I would go so far as to say that as civilization advances, the need for personal skill and practice assessing risk declines. I would also venture that asking a land-based person for an example of recent decision where he/she felt the need to assess risk: they would be hard put to do so. Cruising on a boat, I would guess that risk assessments are made by the skipper on an hourly basis: is the anchorage safe?, what is the way out at night?, what are the chances for a wind shift?, how close to shore can I get in order to find a counter-current?, reef now?, etc. etc.
Not so long ago, all of life held ample opportunity for risk assessment: do I harvest now or will the weather hold?, have I stocked enough wood for the winter?, or stocked enough food?, etc. I see far fewer opportunities in present everyday life for meaningful risk assessment. One result is that people get little practice reasonably assessing their own risk tolerance.
Which brings us to the question of repercussions for poor risk assessment. I believe that few would argue that the best teacher for honing accurate risk assessment is swift adverse repercussions for poor judgment and good outcomes for good judgment. Cruising can be a great teacher: going aground for example, or having the sail rip because you did not reef. Or feeling safe and cozy in an anchorage well chosen for the forecast storm. The examples are endless. Ashore, one’s opportunities to assess risk are fewer: park between the painted lines and no worries. And who assesses risk in the decision whether to “cruise” by car to Washington or to Boston from New York?
In our present world, I see developing risk assessment skills as being systematically undermined in everyday life. Among the few remaining areas, I think sports can be an excellent arena for developing risk assessment judgment. I think cruising, as John describes with a gradual accrual of skills, is also a superb vehicle to develop skills and experience with risk assessment.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Brad Manter

Thank you John. This might be the most valuable of all of your material I have read so far. Already I feel less overwhelmed and more prepared. “Safe enough for this voyage” is the line that sticks with me.
Thanks again, Brad Manter, s/v Jenny T.

Yannick Piart

Hi John,

Really enjoyed this article and the reference to (another) brilliant Churchill quote.
It also made me think of a TEDx conference from the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield I saw recently in which he adresses this subject in a way. Actual and perceived danger. Here it is :

My Best,
Yannick Piart, S/V Andanza

Steven D'Antonio


Well-done, a subject that should strike a chord with all cruisers. It resonated with me, especially #3, the part about safety not being an end in and of itself (and the Churchill quote, I’m an incurable Churchillian). I routinely say, safety is something you get by doing other things, so it’s no coincidence that my company tag line is “seaworthy, reliable and safe” in that order, seaworthiness and reliability are, among others, two goals that, when achieved, beget safety. I notice folks fixating on safety, and less on the skill sets, the give away is a new vessel overflowing with safety gear, that’s often still in its original virtually unbreakable plastic packaging.

All the “safety” gear in the world will do you little good if you can’t bleed air from a fuel system, repair a broken steering cable (or better yet identify the frayed cable before it fails, see “The Boat Genie…” article ), or don’t have a way of dealing with seasickness, evidenced by the number of perfectly seaworthy sailing vessels that are abandoned, floating on their lines, off the East Coast of the US almost every year, most often during the equinoctial gale seasons.

Matt Marsh

I see a strong tendency – not just in boating, but everywhere – towards thinking that all problems can be solved by Throwing Money At Stuff.

Quite often in the business world, that’s a good strategy. Your e-commerce site is too slow? Throw money at faster servers. Your production line is releasing too many defective parts? Throw money at QA tools. Your competitors are undercutting your prices? Throw money at automation equipment & tooling. To someone who made their money by making these kinds of decisions, “Spend Money, Get Benefit” is a very logical way of thinking.

What’s missing from their understanding is that all this expensive gear isn’t about “creating safety”; rather, each piece of gear is a tool, which – if used properly and with appropriate skill – can help to address a specific piece of the safety puzzle. The skill and understanding have to come first, and the tools then fill particular needs identified with the help of that skill set. On their own, the tools aren’t very useful.

Stein Varjord

Hi Matt.
I think you’re spot on. I also think it’s not only business attitude but rather a general issue. We want simple and quick solutions to problems. Immediate fix, no long waits. Instant gratification, like on the computer screen, maybe?

If we have pain, we take a pill. We don’t look for why we have the pain. If we’re fat, we look for a miracle quick fix “loose 20 pounds in 1 week!”. We don’t consider changing our life style. If we feel a fear of drowning, wearing a “life vest” will fix it…. We feel how that bulky thingy is constantly keeping us safe…. Or, adding an expensive item in the boat will immediately give us a good consolation. It contributes as much as it costs, right?

Many will actively not want to know if the item is enough. If they’re told that there’s a lot of issues that all interact to make up the whole picture regarding safety, they get annoyed. When I’ve been asked to help with improving boats and I politely and discretely try to hint that their slack jack lines along the side decks can be dangerous and there are better systems, some seem to feel personally insulted, especially if the installation is new.

I’ve gotten the impression that with properly knowledgeable sailors, safety is mainly linked to competence and reliability. If less experienced, safety seems to need an object to attach to. It seems it’s THE consolation item, like a teddy bear for kids and questioning its omnipotence, is like taking it away from them.

Marc Dacey

This is precisely why I want to send my wife (the co-skipper) off for some RYA courses this winter, as her time spent a) boat-handling solo in my absence and b) doing same in tidal waters is limited. It’s also the reason I want to take a course in radar operation in order to “go beyond the manual” somewhat to get the most out of my new piece of navigational gear. I’m aware I’m only scratching the surface of how to best use it, very much as when, almost as an afterthought, the guy who taught me celestial navigation demonstrated how to turn the sextant on its side (a Horizontal Sextant Angle Fix) to make pretty accurate “distance-off” measurements using two landmarks. The vertical version of using height-of-eye and known height from a chart of a chimney or lighthouse was obvious…but putting it on its side, less so. It’s the same with many pieces of gear.

Kit Laughlin

Steve: I will be making my own boat genie in a cigar box for my new boat. A brilliant story but with such practical implications! Excellent. Perhaps even smaller than a cigar box to get into even smaller places…

Steven D'Antonio


I like the variation on the theme, perhaps the boat genie in the match box?

Kit Laughlin

Yes: perfect. I will make sure it is sealed in tight (I used Tommy Tape for the first time today to rejuvenate some jumper cables, so it might do) plus a spell of some kind. I will do it at the full moon.

Seriously, though, it’s a brilliant idea, and my experience of these things says the outcomes are all about the intention. All the ancient ones had rituals, and all had practical goals in mind; this is one of those. Thanks for that story, Steve.

Stein Varjord

Hi John.
You handle my favourite “message to the world” better than I ever managed. This should be mandatory reading for all boaters. Among other things, saying kinda: “Yes, there’s a lot to worry about, but did you buy a boat to get worries or pleasures?”

As humans we believe that we mostly relate to the hard facts and make logical decisions, while in reality, we look at some of the facts, until we have enough emotions to make a decision. Hopefully we can be aware of this process so we can use it wisely and train our emotions into producing good decisions. The reason humans work this way is that it has proven to be good for survival. So, emotions, sometimes called intuition, can often sort things out quite a bit faster and better than logic. Cool. 🙂

I also totally agree with what Dick said, and I think this quote describes what’s missing in modern safe life: “…the best teacher for honing accurate risk assessment is swift adverse repercussions for poor judgment and good outcomes for good judgment.“ Maybe this void is why so many spend most of their free time with games or such on a screen, where one does indeed get fast reward/punishment?

I also keep preaching that the only way to become a really good sailor is to sail dinghies much. They give the judgement milliseconds after our decision, nonstop. Dinghies are the best and fastest teachers of sailing in the pure form and amazing fun too. The reason it’s so pleasurable is the immediate feedback to our judgement. It develops our way of sailing. “Logical” evaluations are too slow to do the job in a dinghy. It will throw us into the drink until we learn to react immediately and do intuitive sailing, or perhaps we could even call it emotional sailing?

Stein Varjord

Hi John.
I totally agree, of course.
What I tried to explore is that when we use observations, facts, experience, advice and any other good input, and then think thoroughly before we make a decision, we think that’s a logically reached decision. That can theoretically be true, but normally isn’t completely true.

Because we’re humans, our disposition is to get preferences and even reach decisions by emotion. We then use the observed good reasons to make us feel better about the emotional decision. Mostly this procedure does give us the actual best decision, but the danger is that we might cherrypick reasons that fit our preference/decision and disregard those that don’t.

I’ve certainly caught myself doing this, which is why the type of awareness and thinking you describe here is so useful and important. Our emotions, fears, loves, excitements, intuition and all, are invaluable resources in all aspects of life, giving us abilities we’d otherwise lack, like having joy and/or sailing a dinghy. Still, we all know that we can’t trust that side of us in every situation. We need to use the systematic, analytic, “cold logic” to make important decisions.

Probably the most important decision of our life is the choice of our life partner. How many can say they made that choice by pure logic and by good reasoning? At the time, we might have thought so, but…. 🙂 (I’m very happy with my choice, by the way, but that wasn’t because it was right. It was because we made it right.) All other choices, I think, follow the same route, but with greatly varying mixture ratios of emotion versus logic. I think the moment we think we’re dealing with only logic and no emotion, we’re the most prone to be fooled by ourselves. Try discussing politics or religion to get a sample of that certainty based on…. Or discuss the certifiably insane child of the two, the holy Sports! 😀

I think your list here has very useful checkpoints to validate or challenge our state of mind and our decision making. It’s a tool to see if what we do fits our goals and wishes in the boat related part of our life, or if we might be straying off course. (The implication that there can be parts of life not boat related, is purely hypothetical, of course.)

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Well put, keeping it all in perspective is critical. I know that for me, the worst part has always been the anticipation of a trip and that once it starts, my worries are not a big deal. My biggest fear was always sleep as I tend to be a very regimented sleeper but after 3 days or so of watches, it always worked out and I could start relaxing.

The reliance on gear over skill bothers me and I hope we can work to reverse it. I groan every time I have to watch another powerpoint on some subject like machine shop safety because I know that it is the thoughtful and skilled operators who are the safest and that many people are checked off on the safety course who are neither of those things and are actually dangerous.


Dick Stevenson

Hi John & Eric,
It sounds like there is some despair (which I share) about where safety considerations might effectively be emphasized in the sailing/boating world in general. I am somewhat bewildered why, in the boating community, there seems to be such reluctance to address safety concerns.
My thoughts on the subject, such as they are, leads me to believe this safety emphasis could effectively be fostered by the various marinas, clubs, associations etc. related to boating in a grass-roots kind of way. Community efforts/interest/pressure can be a powerful force for promoting reasonable safety habits.
It is sad to say, but no vessel I am aware of, coming right from the factory or (of more concern) bought used, comes to its new home even close to being prepared to keep its crew safe when something unfortunate happens (and, like the “rogue” wave discussion, it is best to think that, given enough time on the water, it’s not “if” something might occur, it’s “when”).
This is an area where the skipper must take effective preparatory action for an event he/she hopes will never occur: completely voluntary action where there is little immediate reward or admiration for the considerable effort owners must put in. (And, although AAC is often offshore oriented, these safety preparations and procedures are, largely, just as important for coastal cruising and day sailing.) Casual observation has led me to believe that few vessels are well prepared for, say, a flooding event, an area that has been of particular interest to me over the years. Some thought, and a few hours work, can make a huge difference in a vessel’s effectiveness in responding to a flooding event.
A real safety boost could take place if one’s local marina sponsored a “flooding” (just to take one area) safety day (or even morning): flooding being defined as any leak exceeding pump capacity.
There could be a morning talk with emphasis on both developing a general vessel flooding plan and strategy. Then move on to suggestions for individualized procedures for each vessel including the preparation necessary so that, when the event happens (once for me), the tools are in place to deal with it.
Then serve coffee and buns.
Then have a handful of pre-prepared local boat owners ready to “consult” and suggest ways to upgrade fire preparedness with any vessel wishing a personal visit. This could be in tandem with a few boats inviting visits to observe their already executed preparations.
After lunch, crews could join their skippers to develop a “flooding response strategy” and then execute a few drills. The drills, inevitably, will allow for fine-tuning of the strategy and may suggest gear/changes in the boat to better respond to a flooding. And drills should be understood to become part of a regular regimen for the vessel. When an emergency occurs, I would suggest, is no time to be thinking: it is a time for practiced action.
But, regardless of the format, a community effort to value the time and effort and thought that must go into making a vessel safe will pay dividends. Every “news letter” should have a query: “When was the last time you did a fire, POB, or flooding etc. drill?”. Invite another boat’s crew to look over your practice drill and make suggestions and then do the same for their drill on their boat. Then retire to the bar feeling like you accomplished something important and share it with the other sailors. The momentum generated will be infectious.
And then, perhaps with enough momentum, our vehicle’s manufacturers will value and execute for their boats important safety gear (high water alarms, smoke detectors etc.) easy to design and install at the manufacturing stage: look at the safety improvements that automobile manufacturers have accomplished in recent years. I suspect factory changes will only occur when the boating community starts to recognize and act on the importance of these safety issues and then manufacturers, if smart, will give us what we want.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Agreed on all points:
The CCA Safety Moment actually gave me the idea of having all newsletters etc. include a safety reminder of some sort.
Buyers must start to agitate for better boats or they will not change. I would lean toward suggesting all boat show visitors asking safety related questions when visiting boats. I think individuals on a grass roots basis can find ways to raise consciousness about safety lapses in our recreational world: in part because so many are just plain egregious.
I also think individuals can suggest club/marina seminars on safety issues in addition to the get-togethers on sail selection from local sailmakers.
And, yes, the marine magazine industry is definitely more part of the problem than otherwise.
And, do keep beating the drum along with PS: you are in good company. I am not sure what tipped the scales for the automobile industry to start to really care about building and designing safer cars, but they seem very successful at having turned that corner.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Eric Klem

Hi John and Dick,

Good thoughts on what to do about safety education. Unfortunately, I think that sailing is a sport where it simply takes a significant investment of time to do it right. Based on the number of boats that I see which rarely seem to leave their moorings, it would suggest that a significant portion of people don’t get out much and if they don’t have time for the fun part, it is unlikely they will spend the time on the less fun safety parts (although Dick’s suggestion of food and good company would certainly go a long way to helping). We spend 7+ months every year where most of our free time is spent using or working on our boat and in many ways, I can’t imagine enjoying it if we did a lot less as our ratio of use to work would get out of whack. To some degree that can be overcome with money but it still doesn’t change the fact that it takes a lot of experience and learning from others to do it right so you consciously have to make the decision that it is a priority for you. This also means that when you are out, you need to be aware and thinking about how to do things better a significant portion of the time which luckily I find more enjoyable than simply trying to relax.


Andy Schell

Been catching up on all I’ve missed this summer. This is great John, really nice distillation. I’ve mentioned this before (and it’s easy for me to say as a 30-something), but I’ve found that of the 200 or so crew who have sailed with us offshore, the ones who are fittest (in a holistic sense), are the ‘safest’ on the boat. Meaning, they’ve got the balance, basic strength and agility to move around both inside and outside the boat to avoid hurting themselves (inside) and to more securely keep themselves on the boat (on deck). And I’m not talking marathon running or bodybuilder fit – just basic balance and sense of your own body, which, unfortunately, a lot of people who work a 9-5 don’t have unless they deliberately train for it.

Those who understand their fitness shortcomings are also safer – my dad, for example, is 66 now, 20 pounds overweight and has had a few back surgeries. He knows he’s not as safe on deck as he used to be and always makes sure to bring crew with him who are fit enough to go up the mast or go on deck so he can run the show from the cockpit. He can still do it of course when he needs to, but if he doesn’t need to, then all the better.

The most dangerous are those who are both not fit for the task and who don’t know it (or won’t admit it). And this is not age dependent. We’ve had several 70+ sailors onboard who were far better prepared for working on deck than some 50-somethings.

Anyhow, I’ll continue catching up on the rest of the site, but really enjoyed this one. Thanks.


Marc Dacey

I make “tut-tutting” noises at boat shows for the reason that there are too few (if any) handholds inside the cabin of many production boats and a lack of positive locking on cabin sole stowage and many cupboards. This also plays into Andy’s point of balance and agility: it’s easier to surmount if you can move around with four limbs. I’ve been in situations at sea rough enough to call for crawling to the companionway steps: the sea doesn’t care about your dignity! Do what is necessary to stay safe.

It’s as if the designers of the interiors have no idea how a boat actually moves at sea, and want to make interiors as condo-like as possible. Me, I like wedging myself down below against something before I reach for another thing and am installing further cheap (knurled institutional SS bath rails, mostly) handholds to accomplish this.


*lol* this reminds me when I asked at a boat show about ceiling handholds near the companionway steps. The sales type replied “you can have this as an extra”.
Not to mention the bilge boards that are “just there”, staying put at their own weight. Asked about how they stay put at a knockdown the same guy replied “don’t worry, this is a big boat, it won’t happen”.
This was a 48′ of a french production type.

Marc Dacey

Indeed, most of boats I’m thinking of were French production boats, or, as I call them, “the usual suspects”.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Marc and all,
One of our mantras, aboard Alchemy, is to always have the head-set, when underway, of moving at 2/3rds speed. Rarely is it necessary or desirable to rush and, having that 2/3rds speed head-set tends to set the stage to do all boat operations with greater deliberation and thoughtfulness.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

Lucky we’ve got a steel boat then, and don’t have to consider moving faster than two-thirds speed! Good point, however, in that deliberate and considered movement is safer movement on a platform as mobile as the average deck.

Andy Schell

Great point Dick. Matt Rutherford, a friend of mine (the guy who sailed around the America’s in an Albin Vega), said something similar when talking about sleep deprivation. He said then his brain worked faster than his body, so he deliberately slowed down everything, even thoughts, to avoid making mistakes. I like your philosophy of going 2/3rd’s speed at sea, I’m going to use that from now on in our briefings, really clever. Thanks! I’ll give you credit 😉

David Proudfoot

Great article and in my case, well timed. I finally bought my boat last year to cruise and have spent most of the time modifying my boat. Recently it occurred to me I really needed to JUST GET OUT THERE and build experience.
I especially appreciated your five priorities and a comparison to something I can relate to. I ultralight hike and tell people ultralight hiking basically is trading your knowledge, experience, and judgement (and sometimes money) for weight and equipment. Your comment about sailing allowed me to apply that insight to what I need to do to confidently sail.
Time to head out to the San Juans with shortened sail …
Thanks and please keep it up!

Igor Asselbergs

I guess my approach to risks is a bit personal. I take risks all the time. In business, in relationships, with my kids and yes, while sailing. I see nothing wrong with a bit of risk. It keeps the blood flowing.
However, I go to great lengths to avoid worst case scenarios. I analyse each risk to that end. In case of my boat, there are 3 points of failure that may lead to a worst case scenario: buoyancy, steering and propulsion. So I take great care that it won’t sink, that there are enough spare parts to improvise a rudder and that I can set up a jury rig. Which, as far as I can tell, is already a heck of a lot more than most yachts provide. Everything else is pretty much redundant to me.
Offcourse there’s also the crew. Points of failure: food, water, navigation and serious injuries. And perhaps I should add mutiny. 😉 Everything else is -again- luxury. I do have luxurious items on board. But I treat them for the expendable items that they are.
Looking at it that way makes my life a lot easier. I only need to prevent the worst case scenarios, everything else is an acceptable risk. Does that make sense?
I am preparing for a life of cruising. As far as I’m concerned, worrying about anything else but worst cases will only keep me from untying the lines.

Dave Meindl

I’m new to AAC and absolutely love the sound, well thought out and honest articles that you and Phyllis write and deeply appreciate the knowledge and tone that is maintained by the people who post comments. I wasn’t sure where to put this post because it can cut across a variety of places but decided to put it here because, for me, it relates to items 2 and 3.
After 23 years with a Catalina 27, my wife and I just purchased a Beneteau 473. Most of our sailing has been in Long Island Sound, the Hudson River, and BVI charter boats. I have crewed on a few offshore trips between Newport, Bermuda, and the Caribbean and absolutely love being offshore!
Our intent is to build our skills on the boat, sail it back to Florida, spend some time in the Bahamas, and eventually do some extended sailing in the Caribbean. After that – maybe cross the pond and spend time in the Med. We spent two years looking at different boats and the 473 was the first boat that met BOTH of our needs/desires. We absolutely love the boat but after reading many of the articles/posts on this site and after taking a 4 day offshore safety class last October, I was left with a feeling of “Gee, this boat doesn’t have an inner forestay (which can be added), a skeg rudder, and a fuller keel for heaving to, and it has a large cockpit (with great drainage); did we really buy the right boat for crossing the Atlantic?”. It was very deflating. In addition, reading so many other articles on the site which caused me to think about the maintenance list, upgrades, things needing improvement for cruising/offshore sailing, etc., did not help to give me the free and easy feeling I had with our last boat.
But then I thought about some other principles that you and others have espoused many times and in different ways and it completely changed my outlook. Most importantly, that everything does not have to be perfect, it has to be good enough to conduct the mission safely, and my feeling at the moment is “yes it is”.
My main point here is that it’s important not to get so caught up with everything being perfect because it never is. What’s important is to get out there and sail with a vessel that can meet the 5 requirements of water out, crew on, mast up, keel down, rudder on. If the day comes that I don’t feel this boat meets those requirements given the type of sailing we are going to do at that time, we’ll consider a different boat, but in the meantime we’re simply going to go enjoy cruising – even if everything is not perfect ?

Dave Meindl

Thanks Jon,
I understand what you’re saying and just to clarify, I do understand that we can heave to without the full keel but one of the discussions we had in the offshore course I took was that we might find after getting to know the boat and practicing heaving to, is that if we are in a situation where things really pipe up, we might find that there comes a point where forereaching might be a better/safer tactic than heaving to (after taking all of the factors of wind, sea state, crew fatigue, etc. into account). My understanding is that this point could happen sooner on some boats (read not full keel) than with others (read full keel). Any thoughts on that point?

Rob Gill

Hi Dave, 4 DAY course – WOW – no wonder you got the wind up! We have a 2 day course in NZ that includes life-raft training and that was scary enough. My worst moment was jumping in the wave pool, only for my lifejacket to not inflate (automatically), nor when I pulled the manual inflation cord. I had to duck my head under water and blow into the tube. Weighed down by full wet wether gear, I was sinking fast and not just because of the lack of buoyancy. When I spotted the gas bottle lying in the bottom of the pool at the end of the exercise… well enough said. Note to self – check all life jackets, each season.
We absolutely love our 473 and with 20,000 nm under our keel, honestly, there is no other yacht we would do even a straight swap for – not the alloy adventure yachts we have been marvelling at the last few weeks, not a Swan, not an Oyster or even Morgan’s Cloud. We own the perfect yacht.
But boats don’t make passages, people do, and my biggest fear was never losing our boat. My constant worry is our first mate (not born to sailing) having a big scare and deciding “never again”. And so John’s Point #3, slightly modified to “safety is a series of processes”, is my sword and shield in this battle.
To go offshore in NZ we need to complete Cat 1, which includes having a documented safety manual. We created one for our B473 that includes every safety process you could possibly point a stick at, including stranding, hull breach, dismasting, rudder loss, fire, of course MOB, even helicopter evacuation! If you would like a copy, with our safety diagrams specifically for the 473, message me from the 473 FB page.
Doing this thinking, and reading everything (at least twice) on this wonderful site gave me the confidence that we could cope just fine. I look forward to hearing how you feel about your 473 after your first offshore adventure, and to seeing your first 473 FB post from the Caribbean. Pretty sure your last worry will have been your boat.
Br. Rob

Dave Meindl

Thanks Rob and I will definitely take you up on the private message offer. Your last sentence makes me chuckle a little because I keep telling friends that at this point the boat is far more capable than we are. I think the fact you have developed a safety manual is outstanding – kudos to you. In my business (aviation), processes, procedures and practice are the absolute building blocks to a safe operation. When things go wrong, they almost never go wrong in the exact fashion you have prepared for through training, standard operating procedures and various protocols, but having developed, studied and practiced those protocols, you develop a huge box of tools to draw from and use in the moment. I think going through the process of writing a safety manual for your boat and your permanent crew/partner is a process every sailor should go through. When you write it down it forces you to think it through and understand it better. It also leaves you with a great framework to use to help others with.
The 4 day safety course I took last Fall was outstanding and I would recommend that cruisers at least take a look at one and consider it. We had some great classroom learning and discussion and launching and boarding a life raft in the Chesapeake was eye opening and educational. My wife and I are taking an offshore safety course in the Caribbean next year and are very much looking forward to it.

Charles Starke MD

Dear Dave, Rob and John
A manual for the boat is an excellent idea! Dick and Ginger on Alchemy, sent me some individual pages like. “fire” and “flooding” which I individuallized for our boat.
It would be a great resource if you could put your B473 manual on this site so subscribers could tailor the manual for their boat. Thanks!!
Best wishes,
Charles L Starke MD FACP
s/v Dawnpiper

Rob Gill

Hi Charles,
I have emailed our safety manual and diagrams for our Beneteau 473 to Dave as discussed above and would be more than happy to share them, if you would like to email me robogill at gmail dot com. The processes are in a word document for ease of editing and our safety diagrams are in PowerPoint, for ease of editing by non-graphic artists.
But our processes are tailored to our boat and our crew situation, so it would be dumb, even dangerous for someone to plain copy them with a different boat, rig and crew. Not that you would, but because of that I’m not sure how useful it would be to generally share them.
Br. Rob

Paul Gudelis

The human factor in safe decision making while sailing.

I recently read an interesting article in the New York Times ( about managing avalanche risks in the mountains. I realized that there are applicable lessons to be learned about while preparing for safety at sea. Skill, equipment, and experience are all very important elements for safety offshore. Less written about, but probably just as important, is the human dimension in safe offshore passages. Specifically, the role of psychological heuristic traps in decision making. While the NYT article discusses avalanches, I have witnessed the similar heuristic traps while sailing.

When a rule of thumb gives us an inaccurate perception of a hazard, we can fall into what is known as a heuristic trap. Following are some examples I have witnessed at sea. The good news is that the “penalty” of falling into one of these traps at sea can be mitigated by skill, experience and equipment. Falling into any of these traps, does not necessarily spell trouble. Instead, awareness of the traps and honestly asking yourself “why am I doing this?” will mitigate risk.

Trap #1: Familiarity
The familiarity heuristic relies on our past actions to guide our behavior in familiar settings. Rather than go through the trouble of figuring out what is appropriate every time, we simply behave as we have before in that setting.
Example: Relaxing, and lowering our guard, when entering a familiar anchorage. Could this be a contributor as to why (according to BoatUS) 2/3 of boat sinking insurance claims occur at the dock as opposed to 1/3 of claims while underway?

Trap #2: Consistency
Once we have made an initial decision about something, subsequent decisions are much easier if we simply maintain consistency with that first decision.
Example: The boat is provisioned, goodbyes are said and off you go on an long anticipated passage. Enroute, unexpected equipment failure or foul weather threatens the passage. Inertia to keep going could cloud a more rational decision to turn around or to seek the nearest safe harbor.

Trap #3: Acceptance
The acceptance heuristic is the tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted by people we like or respect, or by people who we want to like or respect us.
Example: Bragging rights. Embarking on a difficult passage, perhaps pushing your skill and preparedness beyond safe limits, so that you can lay claim to having done it.

Trap #4: The Expert Halo
Out sailing, there is a leader (usually, but not necessarily, the skipper or owner) who, for various reasons, ends up making critical decisions for the boat . Sometimes their leadership is based on knowledge and experience; sometimes it is based on simply being older, a better sailor, or more assertive than other group members.
Example: Anyone who has spent any time on a boat, has witnessed the good, bad and ugly results of such “expert” decision making on a boat.

Trap #5: Social Facilitation
Social facilitation is a decisional heuristic where the presence of other people enhances or attenuates risk-taking. In other words, when a person or group is confident in their skills, they will tend to take more risks using those skills when other people are present than they would when others are absent. Conversely, when a person or group isn’t confident in their skills, they will tend to take less risk with those skills when other people are around.
Example: Flotillas. The concept of “Safety in numbers” attracts sailors who otherwise might not undertake a long passage on their own. Other sailors, might decide to opt out of a flotilla, or race, because they are concerned with not being able to keep up.

Trap #6: Scarcity
The scarcity heuristic is the tendency to value resources or opportunities in proportion to the chance that you may lose them.
Example: Weather window. Great weather may encourage moving forward a departure date, thus rushing provisioning and final preparations for the passage.

NOTE: The descriptions of the heuristic traps above are quoted from
“ Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications” by Ian McCammon. Avalanche News, No. 68, Spring 2004