Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Winter sailing safety

Last weekend I was running a boat handling course in the Solent. The aim of the course is for the students to be able to handle quite complex and challenging boat handling under power so that they feel confident to take a boat in to a marina or other berthing situation.

During the course we are never more that a 100m from a pontoon or marina berth and you would assume that the situation is very safe.

In the last few years I have made it a habit to wear a lifejacket with built in harness virtually all the time when I am on the water, mainly I started to do this after experimenting with recovering people from the water in situations that were as realistic as possible, I came to realise just how hard it is to recover someone from the water.

Especially when the water is cold, I always encourage my crews to wear lifejackets and harnesses even when the weather is not rough. The consequences of falling in to cold water can be very serious and far more quickly than most people realise. Anyone who sails in cold conditions should try stepping in to a cold shower one morning and try to stay there for a couple of minutes, not only will this wake you up but imagine the same effect when you can not step out of it when you have had enough.

Obviously if you fall in to the sea you will be wearing clothing but the insulation effects will very quickly be lost.

In all the years I have been teaching I have had 5 people fall in the water whilst yachting. In every case we were in harbour or manoeuvring around a marina, one thing I have noticed is that when there is a real risk of going overboard, such as in rough weather or when working on the foredeck most people clip on to the boat and are very careful to hold on.

Last weekend I had a student fall in the water whilst we were bringing the boat alongside to a pontoon in the middle of the river. The cause was the classic situation, with an offshore breeze, the student stepped on to the pontoon then leant back on the boat, the boat moved out leaving the student suspended between the boat and shore. Eventually he fell in.

Not a particularly dangerous situation, but were were not easily able to haul him back on board, although because he had a harness on, we were ready to haul him out using a halyard clipped to his harness. Fortunately he was able to pull himself along a mooring line and was recovered by the rest of the crew who were already on the pontoon.

There were 6 of us on the boat and it took 2 men to recover him from the water. Most yachts I see out have only 3 or four people on board in total. If there had been this few people on board, I think we would have struggled to recover him quickly. In this situation wearing a harness may save the casualties life.

In all the risk activities I have taken part in, most of the serious accidents I have been involved with have occurred when there appears to be relatively little risk. When there is obvious danger most people take precautions that make everything much safer, the trick is learning to see the real risks in a situation.

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