The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Safety: We Can’t Do Or Even Learn About It All

These days it seems like hardly a month goes by without the announcement of a new safety device aggressively marketed as the latest thing that we all must buy, with the underlying implication that if we don’t we are idiots who don’t care about our crew and families.

And even if we don’t buy, just keeping up with what the latest safety thing does and figuring out if we need one is a huge time sink, and stressful, too, particularly since the forums will be busy discussing it.

And, to make it worse, there will be people who think they understand it pronouncing on how it works, but who actually don’t, further muddying the waters.

And finally, there will be marketing claims and “tests” from the company pushing the gadget that purport to show why we all must have one, but that are often questionable at best, and even intentionally misleading—see Further Reading for a gross example.

And if you feel pressured by all this, imagine how I who make my living writing about offshore voyaging feel. In fact, about a year ago I was getting seriously stressed every time a member pointed out a new or improved safety technology and asked for my opinion.

And then I had three realizations:

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Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Nice article. Very much agree about the time and effort sink. There is a transition period I try to listen for where the “buzz” about a product shifts from excitement about the possibilities of the product to excitement about how the product has worked well and met needs. Then I start to pay attention and collect data. I suspect being on a budget helps many wait and see: some of these new products are not inexpensive.
With regards to DSC: I have learned DSC at least 3 times now: and then promptly forgotten it. I never found it useful.
7-8 years ago now, I was doing a bit of research on one country we were planning to visit and found the statement that their CG would only respond to DSC distress calls starting that season. This proved not to be the case and, a few years later, continued not to be the case although it was still talked about as such.
I have forgotten all I know about DSC but try to remind myself at the beginning of every season how it works, not so much as I think it will be of use to me, but because I would feel really lousy if I received a DSC distress call and did not know how to deal with it. I would not want to drop the ball for someone in distress. To that end (and because I seem to have no memory), I have a DSC crib sheet near the radio.
In casual reading, my take is that DSC is used mostly to facilitate the social aspects of boating: pinging a friend or communicating with a group such as a regatta of some sort.
I do recognize and appreciate that, if I hit the distress button on my radio, a DSC message will go out with my MMSI # and my l/l position.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Marc Dacey

I have yet to use DSC as a way to coordinate group sailing, but I did learn how to use it to use MAYDAY relays and other emergency comms. Of course, that was an adjunct to my Radio Operators’ Certificate, but I still found that I at least learned what it was capable of. And our big red button is there if needed.

Douwe Gorter

That’s fine!

Jo Blach

Another good criteria is how many vendors offer such a gizmo and how compatible are they (if applicable). As long as there’s just one vendor or everyone still brews their own sauce, waiting might be a good idea.

Good ideas are copied, mature systems work for as many customers as possible.

Yannick Piart

Hi John,

I totally understand your approach! I’m among the laser carrying guy and made a video about it trying to share the benefits I see in it. But I strongly believe there isn’t a single good solution and as you pointed out, the new shouldn’t necessarily dismiss the old option.
What I like about your work and the quality comments I read below your articles is the “intellectual agitation” that stimulates everyone into finding the right solution that they are comfortable with.

James Greenwald

Hi John,

Thank you for your intuitive articles and insights. Your sense of knowledge and humility is refreshing.

I find it intriguing in today’s web driven environment the number of so called “experts” out there who have too high an opinion of there innate knowledge. Always attempting to suck in the unwitting with the latest trend or must have gadget.
It has been my endeavor to filter out all the noise nowadays and apply some common sense and not to get held hostage at the dock worrying about every possible scenario; not so easy in my OCD head. All to often I will appy my career as an aviation professional to the same standards as my sailing hobby. Maybe not such a bad thing, although it has kept me a slave to the boatyard all to often. It is with a sense of ahh and jealousy to see the number of cruisers out there blissfully carrying on with hardly what I would consider the basics.
Knowledge can be a double edged sword. As I have found in life with any undertaking,
I start off knowing nothing, years later, with some experience under my belt, think I know a thing or two. Then sometime all to slowly, come to realize just how little I really do know.
Those who might end up experts of course understand that an expert is someone who knows an impressive amount about next to nothing, a workmanlike amount about a number of other useful things and zip about nearly everything else.

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Hi John,
couldn’t agree more, and the “budget issue” that Dick mentioned is helping in that big time 😉
Just recently having bought “my” boat the backlog of what needs, what should, and what might be done is growing at a daily rate – and being on a tight budget certainly helps in grooming big time, as well as your eternal question “need or want?”. In the case of my old boat I’ll stick to the “as long as it works” rule – after all the boat worked for twenty years for the previous owner, so initially I will stick to fix issues I regard as security relevant (such as propane or electrics).

NB – too bad the subscription service isn’t currently working – would you mind to subscribe me to all comments on this article? Thanks!

David McKay

I come from a career in aviation and, of course, compare everything else including sailing and cruising to it. It’s not over yet, but so far it’s been a successful strategy. A friend and mentor, Al Ueltschi, the founder of Flight Safety International, coined the phrase that “ the best safety device in any aircraft is a well-trained crew.” I’m completely with you (and Al) that it is not really about the technology. I’ve grown up with amazing technological development in the business of aviation over the past forty five years, but sometimes the wisest and most appropriate choice in its operational deployment is “off, off, fly the airplane.” Safety devices no matter what the description likely all add to mission safety in some way if used as appropriate supplements to the safety plan in stead of being the safety plan. The more critical discussion may be to ask ourselves what do we as sailors need to know, do and practice to stay out of the box where safety devices become our last, or maybe only, line of defense. And if we find ourselves there, what do we need to know, do and practice to deploy the safety tools and technology successfully. Reading AAC is part of my personal recurrent training plan! Thank you.

Klaus Bonde Christensen

Hello David

Having the same aviation background as you, I totally agree with your thoughts. I also believe that no new smart device is a substitute for safety-training and a high level of awareness. This meaning, that you regularly have to think through possible critical scenarios, and ways to secure a positive outcome, ie MOB, water ingress, fire, engine fail and broken sail or rigging. And you must share these thoughts with other crew members to get a shared awareness, and through good communication establish a shared reality, so every crew member can contribute to the best possible outcome. In aviation we call it CRM, Crew Resource Management. Being an instructor for many years and having observed flight crew in simulators handel all kind serious emergencies, the crew that performes best is those, who at any given time, have a mental plan “B” ( awareness), those who have focus on priorities ( what is going to kill you first), and those who through good communication skills makes sure that all crew has an updated shared reality.
An example for a simple plan B could be during motoring close to shore to inform crew to have a genoa ready to hoist.
All these thought could be your best tool to keep you away from a serious emergency, and hopefully keep you from needing what ever tool or gadget you may have in your emergency toolbox. Find something not to complicated that works for you – KISS is a good strategy.
To conclude my thoughts: Awarenesses , training and communication are also tools, and they are the least expensive measures for preventing emergencies, and diminish the need for an ever growing technology driven emergency toolbox. And dont get me started on sailors need for checklists.

I would like to share with you a true story about the importance of structured communication and shared reality. A passenger flight at night has just departed Copenhagen. Using intercom the cabin crew informs pilots that there is smoke in the aft cabin. The pilots immediately stops the climb, and investigate possible system failure, and take some preventiv actions with reference to checklist. They call the cabin crew and ask for an updated situation report. The cabin crew states that “now it is really bad, it is all black so we can’t see.” The pilots concludes that with so much “smoke” that everything is” black”, they have to land ASAP. And so they did with declaring MayDay and all the whistle and bells, evacuation, firetrucks and a several people hurt- and no smoke in cabin.
The findings: There was an oven that overheated after takeoff, and light smoke came from the galley,. The pilots followed checklist and turned off electricity to galley and cabin, and with no electricity it does gets dark in the cabin, and maybe a little frightening . Cabin crew and pilots did not have a shared reality.
I think we all could construct a similar hypothetic sailing situation where a crew member at night reports som “water in forward lavatory”……….

And John, I love your subjects, thoughts and discussions. It is also my recurrent training for future live onboard Bluewater sailing.

Bedst regards

Alex Borodin

Hi Klaus,

please, do get started on the need for checklists. I, for one, would be curious to hear. I suspect that they would be the greatest export from aviation to sailing if they could get hold in sailors’ minds.

Klaus Bonde Christensen

I respect how John wants us to stay with a given discussion subject . Even though I am positive that the use of checlists could be a major improvement for the safety af sailing, I need John to create a related subject that ” allows me to get started”, and I would be happy to pitch in.

P D Squire

Quote of the day:

“what is going to kill you first”

Alastair Currie

On my refit I ignored tech upgrades and junked out of date tech such as the CRT Radar and Neco Autohelm controls that were unreliable. At the time the budget had to be spent on stuff to do with integrity. I have sailed for an age without modern electronics so I did not feel the need to upgrade the existing stuff. The boat came with and ancient Navman plotter and I bought a new chart card to replace the 10 year out of date card. Fast forward to today and I still have the Navman and 2 years ago I bought new Polyester / Vectran sails and now have a new Raymarine ACU400 driving the old Neco motor. The Navman screen is dimming and Google suggests it is terminal, so I am looking forward to replacing it, maybe this year with an MFD of some sort.

There was a recent thread on a sailing forum where the poster quoted a sailing instructor as saying you need a lot of tech to sail single handed. I immediately thought about the Bristol Channel Pilot Cutters from the age of sail that were sailed by 2 people, the pilot and the boy; the boy had to sail the boat back himself, not much tech then.

P D Squire

Of course you’ve also gone to a lot of trouble to minimize the MOB contingency in the first place.

Colin Reid

Interesting points but while pyrotechnics are well proven they are not always ideal. They are potentially dangerous things to have on board, they are expensive, have a fairly short shelf life, you can’t test them, hard to dispose of and although I have had them on board for 35 years I have never used one despite having done safety at sea courses. So if I need to use one in earnest I’ll be learning in a very stressful situation. For coastal sailing a proven LED or lazer flare that you could test and practice with, and replace the battery, would be great. So I’m a bit disappointed that you didn’t look into the merits or otherwise. Unless maybe you have addressed it before? Best, Colin

Dick Stevenson

Hi Colin,
Agree about the knowledge of how to use pyrotechnics in an anxious, often night-time, situation. Especially when I have collected flares from other countries and manufacturers with different firing mechanisms. And the print is small and black on a dark red surface so, with my eyes, is impossible.
I take the 3M green “masking” type tape and put it on the outside of the flare with simplified instructions writ large and arrows indicating which way to point the thing and to “rings” and things necessary for firing it off.
And agree with John: it is easy to organize a local club/marina/ boating assoc. to do a “Flare day” (include fire extinguishing). This practice is particularly important for those in the crew timid about those kinds of things (same for fire extinguishers).
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Klaus Bonde Christensen

A “Flare day” in your local Club or marina- what a great idea!! I could ad that I have an outdated liferaft that could be blown, and on the same day give other sailors a chance to have some hands on training and experience. A day dedicated to share thoughts on safety. Thank you Dick. I will get on with it- though the liferaft part not until the ice has melted :-))

Dick Stevenson

Hi Klaus,
Yes, do the liferaft as well. I had an old raft which I was replacing and the marina I was in spread the word that I would blow it off on a Sat morning. Quite a few showed up and all felt they had learned something. Many climbed in and out and played with the gear inside and got a feel for the size (not big). The marina left it out for a few days for others to see and kids to play in.
It might have been better to have done it in the water, but I was up north and it was spring and the water was cold. The advantage would have been that enterprising people could have hands-on experience seeing how hard it was to get in and out and to practice righting an upside down raft. Could be done in a pool, though.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy


Hi John,

This article triggered me – in a good way, thank you.

First, tongue-in-cheek, Douglas Adam’s take on how we deal with technology came to mind: 1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things

More seriously: I have worked as a physicist and engineer for several decades, but I was a sailor long before that. As a young guy learning by doing, sailing taught me a vital survival lesson, a variation on maintaining situational awareness, that is: always know where my knowledge begins and ends. Years later that same lesson was key in doing well in science – starting with defending my dissertation during which I think the most important thing I said was “I don’t know.” That was 30 years ago, but the lesson has never left me and I think it is perhaps one of the most important elements of seamanship (and good science). Practically, like everyone else, I can only apply a finite amount of time and energy (and money) to sailing so prioritized choices are necessary, and knowing what I know is crucial in making good ones.

There are many ways to keep the water out, keel down, mast up, rudder on, and crew aboard, and a well-grounded knowledge base is crucial to doing so effectively. Fortunately state-of-the-art technologies are not generally required. You have described very well the need for informed choices, and the process of making them.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

This is a very worthwhile subject and you have expressed it in a better way than I have ever managed to.  I fear that far too often, safety is seen as gear you need to buy rather than skills and critical thinking you need to cultivate over time.  And related to this, if someone else has bought more gear than you, it can be easy to think that you are not being conservative enough.  I can think of several boats that are festooned with every piece of safety gear you can buy at the big boating store yet I wouldn’t even go on an evening cocktail cruise with the owner either due to not trusting that person or knowing that the boat has major safety deficiencies despite the bolt-on safety gear.  I sometimes read or watch a safety product review and finish wondering whether I have been unsafe for not having some product until I really dig in and discover that it does not fulfill a compelling need and would be one more complicated thing to divert attention to.  My process is not as well thought out as yours but in the end relies on many of the same ways to decide.  The comments from pilots on these subjects are always very interesting to me as they can be in very bad situations where clear prioritization and execution are key to a good outcome.

I did volunteer search and rescue for several years and one of the things that always bugged me is that the press releases always stated something like “the subject was not wearing a lifejacket”.  What the article didn’t say was that the river was in flood, they had put into a class IV rapid, the water temperature was 33F, they were in a rec kayak with jeans on and they had never paddled whitewater before so the lifejacket kind of didn’t matter other than making body retrieval easier.  I harped on this for long enough so that a few of the press releases started to focus on other things but then it would have said something like “the subject was an experienced kayaker having paddled at least 50 times previously”.  Of course, this caused me to blast it even worse because the subject had exactly 0 experience in the conditions and 50 recreational outings doesn’t make someone experienced even in recreational outings.


Dick Stevenson

Hi Eric,
One of my pet-rants lately is focused on the number of recreational boats out-there-doing-that which should not be out there doing much of anything at all and end up calling for help and putting SAR crews in harms way. The press needs to get on-board…but I am not holding my breath.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Chuck Batson

My personal pet peeve: I go to all the boating incident press releases / news articles (quite often from state SAR agencies) I hear about always hoping to learn something from the incident, but rarely is there enough information (like you describe) provided for me to take away a lesson. A missed opportunity for education.

Marc Dacey

I have read a few of the British MAIB reports and summations of the more notorious incidents in PBO magazine (miles ahead of the North American mags) and both tend to answer my questions about (insofar as can be determined) order of events, clues as to missed or taken opportunities to solve issues and how the “cascade” of problems became terminal. It’s my favourite type of detective drama, because I can apply the lessons to my own vessel and crew.

Prentiss Berry

I used to rock climb a lot with my son. In the beginning I focused on safety. One of the tools was a annual book “Accidents in North American Mountaineering”. I found that it gave a good account of the problem/accident so that as a reader I could learn from the accident to try to avoid such a situation. Good accident reports can be good teaching tools for the rest of us.