Stay­ing With The Boat And Other Safety Myths

Soundings - - Seamanship -

I’m amazed at how long bad ad­vice per­pet­u­ates when it’s given in a catchy phrase. An ex­am­ple: Don’t leave the boat un­til the boat leaves you. This might be the most mis­guided ad­vice ever to cross the lips of oth­er­wise sen­si­ble men and women. An­other ex­am­ple: Red sky at night, sailor’s de­light. These stick around not be­cause they are al­ways true, but be­cause they sound good. Don’t be fooled. The ocean is no place for ab­so­lutes, even when they rhyme.

When I was a Coast Guard rescue swim­mer, I spent most of my time in the back of a he­li­copter fly­ing out to sea to look for the lost. Far too of­ten we came back empty, hav­ing got­ten the call too late or with too lit­tle in­for­ma­tion. I won­der how many of those sailors fell vic­tim to trad­ing pre­cau­tion for po­et­ics, pin­ning their hopes to some ditty such as, You don’t step off un­til you have to step up. These say­ings may roll off the tongue eas­ily, but stay­ing aboard your ves­sel un­til the last pos­si­ble minute is al­most al­ways a bad idea. With your safety on the line — as well as the safety of your res­cuers — you must con­sider the re­al­i­ties of each sit­u­a­tion when mak­ing de­ci­sions at sea. Of course, there are times when stay­ing with the boat is your best — per­haps only — op­tion.

Myth 1: You Are Safer On The Boat

Stay­ing with the ves­sel un­til it sinks is what sailors did when there was no other choice, be­fore we had VHF ra­dios. If you are off­shore with­out propul­sion and can­not ar­range a tow, you’re go­ing to aban­don your ves­sel, one way or an­other. Your choices about how and when will de­ter­mine the shape you’re in when you do.

In all like­li­hood, your boat is much tougher than you are. I’ve picked up more than one sailor whose de­ci­sion to stay with the ves­sel led to se­ri­ous in­jury. A bro­ken col­lar­bone off­shore will im­me­di­ately douse the ro­mance of self-re­liant sail­ing. That your ves­sel is still afloat is not rea­son enough to stay aboard. A cap­tain with a bro­ken rud­der once told my crew that he was go­ing to “wait it out tonight” and make re­pairs when seas lay down in the morn­ing. Low on fuel, we re­turned to base. We never heard from him again, and his ves­sel was never found.

Op­por­tu­ni­ties to aban­don a boat safely come in win­dows that open based on such fac­tors as weather, drift, sea state and the avail­abil­ity of rescue as­sets. The best time to aban­don your ves­sel is when it is safest for you and those who come to get you.

Although rescue or­ga­ni­za­tions will come when it’s dark and stormy, they pre­fer sunny and calm con­di­tions; the chances of success go up, and risk goes down. An or­derly day­light climb over the rail to a wait­ing ves­sel may make you feel like you gave up too early, but the al­ter­na­tive is of­ten a har­row­ing fight against waves in a high­risk night­time he­li­copter evac­u­a­tion, with the po­ten­tial for some­one to be se­ri­ously in­jured — per­haps worse.

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