Sailboat safety: what you need to know


By Jimmy Cox

Sailing is one of the most relaxing, enjoyable sports imaginable. It’s one in which any member of the family, regardless of age, can participate, but there are some basic water safety rules which any good sailor should learn.


Capsizing is probably the most common sailing accident. Usually it occurs when it’s least expected. But if you will consider a capsize to be a part of the fun of sailing, you will be completely safe. That is, of course, if you know what to do. Actually, many of the really top-notch racing skippers practice capsizing and then righting their boats.

If your craft should capsize and throw you into the water, swim to the boat and stay with it. Most modern sailboats are equipped with flotation chambers so that even a heavy keel craft won’t sink. Never, under any circumstances, should you or any member of your crew leave the capsized boat.

All too many sailors have given up their lives because they have tried to swim to shore for help, while aid has always come to the capsized boat sooner or later. Remember that a boat is much easier to see than a lone swimmer. Therefore, hang on to your craft at all costs.

Man Overboard

While sailing it’s altogether conceivable that one of your crew members may fall or be knocked overboard. If this should occur and the person doesn’t have a lifejacket on, throw him a life preserver, a seat cushion, a floorboard, or an oar, but make sure of your aim if you toss anything made of wood.

Even if he’s a good swimmer, one of these items will reduce the effort he must put forth to keep afloat, and it will also mark his position. Immediately assign one member of your crew to point at the person with an outstretched arm and to keep pointing while your craft is being maneuvered for the pick-up.

Approach your man in the water slowly, spilling the wind from the sail as you go. The sheets should be loose so that the boat is almost dead in the water, and the centerboard should be all the way down during the actual pick-up operation to give your craft full stability. Then throw a line to the person overboard and help him in over the stern. Make the rescued party as warm, dry, and comfortable as possible.

Running Aground

If your boat should ever run aground, there are specific things that you can do to attempt to free it. Of course, if you are sailing a centerboard boat, you will usually be given ample warning – you’ll feel the centerboard strike bottom. That’s always a sign to go about unless you’re prepared to take the consequences of running aground.

If your centerboard boat goes aground with its centerboard down, raise it up in its trunk and you may find your boat free. Then head away from the shoal or retrace the course you came. But if your centerboard is up and you go aground; you may be able to free the craft by shifting your weight in the boat or by shifting any heavy gear aboard.

Weather Safety

Rough weather can cause many difficulties for any sailor. For this reason, it’s always wise before setting out to check the weather by radio and, once underway, to watch the clouds for weather changes. Here are some of the signs you can read that will increase your store of “weather lore:”

Nature puts weather signs right up in the sky for us all to see; for example, the colors in the sky itself and the shape and density of the clouds. Bright blue sky usually means fair weather, but a dark, gloomy blue sky is windy. A vivid red sky at sunset means it will be fair tomorrow. A vivid red sky at sunrise may mean foul weather that day. There’s a great deal of truth in the old proverb: “Red sky at night is the sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning.” Also, a bright yellow sky at sunset presages wind; a pale yellow sky, wet.

Keep these guidelines in mind and you should always be safe.

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