No one wants to spend money foolishly, and no one wants to be subjected to unnecessary risks. How do you figure out how to spend your safety dollars efficiently to minimize the risks associated with going to sea in sailboats? Risk analysis generally boils down to the likelihood of something bad happening, the cost incurred when it does happen, and the expense of avoiding the problem in the first place.
In fact, very few of us are this analytical, although we likely apply this logic when we shop for safety items because either something a) seems to expensive for what it does or b) solves a problem that we deem too unlikely.
Speaking of unlikely, dying while sailing is pretty unlikely. In an average year, 600 boaters die in recreational boating accidents, and of those, about 24 or 4% die while sailing. In the last five years, 66% of those deaths are due to drowning, so this is a pretty good place to start to make sailing safer. The challenge is that, even though sailors are about 5 times more likely to wear life jackets than people who boat in open powerboats, adult sailors have an observed life jacket wear rate of only 26.5% or so. This breaks out as 55% in “day sailors” and 18% in “cabin sailboats”. The rate of life jacket use has approximately doubled since 1999, so sailors are on a good trend, but that leaves 73.5% of us who don’t wear life jackets while sailing.
Presuming this is the case; the most cost-effective way to reduce sailing fatalities is a change of behavior, not a change of equipment. While we can point to examples of incidents where a better life jacket (more buoyancy, greater turning performance, greater freeboard) may have made a difference (the Dauphin Island Race incident and the Low Speed Chase incident come to mind) the principle issue is one of wear rate, not buying the best life jacket money can buy.
It’s likely that you’ve made up your mind at some point if you’re going to wear a life jacket, or when you’re going to wear a life jacket, so I leave this to your own judgment.
What about other potentially life-saving devices? What makes a difference? Unfortunately, other than occasional stories about the benefit of certain safety products, there’s not a lot of hard evidence about the likelihood of most safety products saving sailors’ lives, but we can take a shot at some possible candidates for “good safety value”.
- Whistle, $5
Much more effective than yelling, and uses less energy. Every life jacket and every foul weather gear jackets needs one.
- Waterproof LED flashlight, $20
Practical for so many functions, and also becomes a great Person in the Water light if you find yourself over the side.
- Medical kit, $80
Yes, you can assemble one yourself, but my preference is to buy a competent kit and bolster the supplies with a trip to the local pharmacy. Add a SAM Splint, additional bandages, a pint of antiseptic, and an Ace wrap.
- Lifesling, $190
Long history of helping short-handed sailors rescue their crew. Requires some practice but it works.
- Handheld VHF radio with GPS and DSC, $250
Takes full advantage of Rescue 21, and is independent of vessel systems that might be compromised. Cost effective and versatile.
- PLB/EPIRB, $250 to $400
You’re not buying a piece of hardware; you’re buying a worldwide rescue system. Exactly how the rescue agencies of the world want to be contacted.
- Crew overboard beacon, $260
For fast downwind boats that may not return quickly, a crew overboard beacon is practically the only way to find the person in the water.
- Fixed VHF with masthead antenna and GPS and DSC, $300
Like the handheld version, this is how to take advantage of the $1B investment in Rescue 21. But it’s obviously the sailor’s communication link to other vessels, bridge tenders, race committees, and virtually everyone on the water.
- Masthead tricolor light, $350
Has several advantages over other running light solutions. Isn’t blanketed by sails, has very sharp cut-off angles so right-of-way can be determined, draws less power, and can be seen dramatically farther. Only disadvantage is when operating with city lights in the background.
- Inflatable life jacket with harness and tether $400
OK, this seems obvious, but this is the required “kit” when offshore. Add a whistle and a light if yours doesn’t come with one. It allows you to survive long enough to be rescued.