The Shallow Water Sailor Sailing Manual

2.0 Safety

“A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drownded for he will be going out on a day he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again”

                                                    TheAran Islands by John Millington Synge

         I am a graduate of the New York State Maritime College. Just a few years ago I returned to the Bronx and followed Pennyfield Avenue out onto Throgs Neck to the college. Graduates call the college, “The Fort,”after Fort Schuyler, a magnificent old fort that guarded Long Island Sound in the old days.  In “my”day the Fort was where most of my courses in engineering and seamanship were given.
          As I poked about, as graduates do,I came upon a memorial wall in one of the Fort’s hallways. On closer inspection I got the shock of my life. The wall was covered with stories about graduates being lost at sea.  At least a half dozen from the Class of 1962, my class, had gone down in some merchant ship. Apparently, such disasters do not make front page news. It was a revelation to discover that men and women still perish at sea.  One story was of a classmate of mine who abandoned a sinking cargo ship and who passed his life jacket to another.  The man with the jacket survived while my classmate was never found.
          Now as to sail boating, the ultimate sailors are those “blue water” sailors that ply oceans in small boats with or without a crew. These individualists are self-sufficient. They train themselves to be able to overcome all adversities whether equipment failure or bad weather. When thousands of miles from land these blue water sailors must depend solely on the seaworthiness of their boats and their skill and training to avoid injury or death.
         Shallow water sailors do not ply the oceans of the world.  We are satisfied with the coastal bays,lakes, and rivers of inland waters. At first blush you might think such waters do not pose the same degree of danger as a ship or sailboat on the high seas. Yet far more people are drowned in inland recreational boating accidents than ones on the high sea.  We sail mostly within the sight of land.  We sail in the company of others.  Even so, the likelihood of immediate assistance cannot be counted on.  So, in many respects, we are just like the blue water sailor.  We, too, must be prepared to rescue ourselves without the aid of others.
          The shallow water sailor must also deal with the added dangers of the roadway where longer breaking distances and trailer malfunctions may cause an accident.  In fact, the roadway presents the greatest risk to our well being, so safe trailering should be on the top of the list of dangers to be prepared for.
          What are we, the shallow water sailors, to do about safety?  To be more pointed about it, what must a captain of a shallow water boat to do about safety?  As captain, you have the sole responsibility for the safety of the boat and its crew.  As captain, you should know the limitations of your boat, should have the right safety equipment on board and should train crew members to properly prepare and deal with various hazards.  As captain, you should recognize what hazards must be prepared for and ensure that boat, equipment, and crew training are adequate to guard against them.
          The captain should do extensive reading on sailing and boat handling written by authoritative authors. He or she should attend training courses given by the Coast Guard Auxiliary or equivalent.  But the captain is warned to regard all information obtained from any source with prudent skepticism.  The captain must view the information against his or her own experience and knowledge before deciding its validity and applicability to the captain’s own boat and sailing grounds.

2.1  Safety Knowledge and Experience

          Safe sailing is doing.  Reading is instructive.  Training courses are helpful.  But in the end, safety is attained by hard learned experience in the teeth of the wind.  So, yes, read all the sailing books you can find, and, yes, attend all the boat courses given in your area (they most always are led by dedicated boatmen with valuable experience), but remember all is for naught until you apply it while captaining your own boat, gaining first hand experience, and acquiring the necessary skills.
          First thing, make a list of the kinds of dangers that you will be exposed to on your boat.  I will begin with a list of my own, but you make your own up.  See Table 1 for an example Dangers List.  The list will grow as you experience close encounters with dangers.  The trick is to learn from a close encounter and avoid making the same mistake twice.
          Many of the questions about “what to do about dangers” are answered in boating classes.  Check with your local Coast Guard Auxiliary to attend courses in your area.  The “Boating Safely” and “Sailing Fundamentals” courses are musts.  You can find the CGAux’s national web pages at:  A study-at-home, self-study course entitled the “Skipper’s Safe Boating Course” looks good also.  Most of the concerns on your Dangers List will be answered at these courses and new dangers will be revealed.

Table 1 - Example Dangers List

The Dangers
What Do I Do About Them
1. Backing the trailer
  • damage to pride
  • damage to other boats, people
  • damage to your trailer and boat
Become skillful by practicing in an empty parking lot.  When backing up do not over-steer. Place hand on lower part of steering wheel - the direction you move wheel, is the direction the trailer will move.
2. Trailering
  • forgetting you’re pulling a trailer
  • longer breaking distance
  • trailer lights malfunction
  • boat, equipment not secured
  • flat tire
  • getting trapped in a tight spot
Make sure trailer is well designed, maintained, and balanced; check State regulations. Make a pre-trip checklist, do a last minute slow tour around car and trailer with checklist in hand.  Check your car and trailer brake and signal lights for correct function.  Drive with extra care and “forehandedness.”  Always check tire pressures.  Carry a jack and other tools and spares necessary to change a tire, light, or fuse.  Know your route.
3. Ramp accidents
  • close quarter collisions
  • overhead power lines
  • injury during set-up
  • injury or embarrassment during launching
Take a walk around the ramp area looking for hazards and ramp conditions.  Ramps can be slippery for both the sailor and his vehicle.  Become skilled at the set-up and launch routines.  Take care when moving on boat while parked.  A launching checklist might be useful. 
4. Common injuries
Learn to move about the boat safely, be prepared to deal with simple injuries.  Have a first aid kit onboard, know how to contact medical help in the cruise region.
5.  Falling out of boat
Install and test an emergency ladder that is reachable from the water.
6.  Drowning
Wear your PFD, if not all the time, at least when conditions warrant, i.e., all the time.  Conduct man overboard drills.
7.  Fire
Yes, even small boats have burned.  Be very careful with combustibles and carry a Coast Guard approved fire extinguisher.
8.  Heavy wind/waves, capsizing
Maintain a weather eye, learn to predict conditions, know how to sail your boat, reef before you need to, stay home or at anchor when bad weather threatens.  See section on Sailing in Heavy Air.
9.  Loss of wind/engine
Know how to solve easy engine problems, keep oars, paddles, or poles aboard for emergency propulsion.
10.  Collision
Know the rules of the road, make avoidance moves early, never trust another boat to make the right move, and don’t ever fool with big ships.
11.  Flooding due to leakage or seas
Carry a pump and/or bailer of adequate capacity to remove large amounts of water.  Keep them handy and in good condition, remember you might really need them sometime!
12.  Loss of communications
Use a marine radio, be disciplined in its proper operation, keep flares, horn, and whistles on boat.  Consider a cell phone, but only as a secondary communicator.  The use of Family Service Radios are becoming popular when sailing with SWSer members.
13.  Simply being lost
Always know your position and practice dead reckoning.  Test your skill at keeping a compass course.  Know your GPS and practice using it.   Carry spare batteries for the GPS.

2.2   Preparations

Trailer preparations are covered in the section on Trailering.  Boat preparations include:
  1. Check rigging, electrical system, and boat hardware to ensure they are in working order and all parts and connections are well tightened.
  2. Install and test Coast Guard approved running lights.
  3. Check boat floatation, add more if necessary.
  4. Check grab rails, hand-holds, and safety harness attachment points , add more if necessary.
  5. Add and test emergency boarding ladder.
  6. Check adequacy of bow eye and cleats, strengthen if necessary, with backing plates.
  7. Check all safety equipment aboard:
  8. a)  a life jacket for each crew member
    b)  signal light and whistle for life jackets
    c)  horn
    d)  distress flares, signal mirror
    e)  fire extinguisher
    f)  extra pocket compass
    g)  flashlight
    h)  First Aid kit
    i)  well sized anchor & chain, 150’ of rode
    j)   throwable life cushion or ring
    k)  bailer
    l)   safety harness
  9.  Install a marine radio, train in its operation and test it.
  10. Carefully review the cruising area charts, make sure they’re up-to-date and aboard. 
  11. Gas tank(s) sealed and secured in a ventilated storage location.
Before leaving on a trip, a FLOAT PLAN should be given to a trusted individual who has the responsibility of calling cruise participants and, ultimately, the authorities if you do not return or have not checked in at the time agreed upon.  An example float plan is shown below.

The Big Wind's Float Plan
Boat Name:  The Big Wind
Crew:  Kenneth Murphy, 39,  301-330-4000
Boat Description:    A 21' Dovekie trailerable sailboat
                              Blue sides
                              White top
                              Single sprit sail, tan bark color (reddish brown)
                              Serial # XX0088756
                              Maryland Registration #  MD 5152
Boat Capabilities:   600 pounds, lee boards
                              for sheltered waters
                              3 1/2 horsepower engine, 4 gal. gas (60 miles)
                              Food/water for four days
                              VHF Marine radio, 12 volt battery
                              Cellular Phone 301-919-9000
Boat/Car Info:        Trailer license number - 239954G
                              Ford Van, blue & white, Maryland License Plate – XYZ900
Schedule:               Leave home 0700 Friday, April 28, 2000
                              Ramp   - Secretary, MD
                              Cruising on 4/28, 4/29, 4/30  North and South on Choptank River and up the La Trappe
                              Return home 1800 Sunday, April 30, 2000
Contact Phone Numbers:       Numbers of other cruise participants
                                             Coast Guard, local police, and hospital numbers in cruise area

2.3   Drills

          Drills test the crew’s and the boat’s preparedness to perform specific tasks in response to a danger.  Man-overboard drills are the best known for sailboats.  But you can devise others such as a dock maneuvering drill that build and test the skills required to safely dock a sailboat.  Also design drills that will improve the skill level of all crew to ensure they can handle the boat on their own.  Make the drills fun, pick conditions and locations where training can be done safely, with no hassle.  Skills take a long time to develop, so go slow and build one skill at a time.
          One of the simplest training devices is a small, easily seen float that you anchor in the middle of a small bay or lake.  The float could represent a man overboard or a pier.  Now you can practice maneuvers under sail and engine.  Imagine the float is a man overboard as you pass by it at top speed.  The idea is to practice maneuvers that will bring you back to the float and stop to rescue the “man.”  Repeat the drill on every point of sail.  All permanent crewmembers should practice until comfortable with the maneuvers.
           The same float can be used to practice approaching a pier, both under sail and engine.  Make sure all crew members can perform these maneuvers.  Some of these maneuvers take real skill such as shooting into the wind to take off way and coming to a stop just alongside the pier.  The crew must practice such maneuvers. Then allow them to perform the real maneuver.  Think how neat it would be to see a teenage child maneuver your boat to the wharf in a seaman-like fashion, while you keep you hands in your pockets, jump on the wharf and give him or her a wink!  That’s how sailors are made.
          When a visitor comes aboard, explain the operations of the boat.  Hand the visitor his or her life jacket and ask them to put it on to test its fit.  A good idea is to make a checklist of the things a visitor needs to know and make it a habit to go over the list with the visitor before you get underway.

2.4   Wearing PFD's

           Before getting into sailing I did lots of canoeing.  The region around Washington, DC, including Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, has wonderful canoeing rivers and creeks.  At first I did solo trips, but soon got involved with a number of canoeing organizations.  Sometimes going out with 20 boats at a time, and attending weekend training courses.
          In all the hundreds of trips I took, I never once saw an experienced canoeist without a Personal Flotation Device (PFD).  The wearing of the PFD was a not so subtle sign that said, “Hey, I know what I’m doing.”  It was group pressure that made you wear the thing and after a while it became second nature and you felt naked without it.
          It’s a different story with sailing.  More times than not sailors do not use their PFDs.  There is no question that canoeing results in more spills.  But, as I sail, I’ve found myself in so many situations where I said to myself, “Gee, I should have my PFD on.”  Such situations should never occur.  The best move is to wear your PFD at all times.  There are now, a number of PFD designs that provide adequate floatation, as well as being very comfortable to wear.  If you select a comfortable model your more likely to wear it.  If wearing your PFD goes so much against your grain, then at least wear the thing when you are alone or when the water’s cold. That’s minimum matey.

2.5   Keeping Up To Date -- Seaworthy

          Keeping up with the latest issues concerning safety can be very helpful to the SWSer. Take a look at the magazine,Seaworthy, a safety newsletter published quarterly (Jan, Apr, Jul, Oct) by BoatU.S. Marine Insurance. See: -- past PDF issues of Seaworthy. Take a look at thjese past issues for informative interesting articles.

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