Small boat safety.

One of my more serious posts.

At work last week i accidentally let slip that i was starting my voyage and then with some interest coming from some of the staff i wrote the blog address up on the staff notice board.  One of the staff then saw that and later approached me with some questions about the trip, the boat and my preparations : one of the questions was along the lines of “so you will have all the safety equipment then”….meaning i guess a liferaft, flares etc etc.  I think that member of staff was a bit peturbed when i asked in return exactly what he meant by that and the returning answer was a ‘sort-of’ list of the kind of thing that gets people into even more trouble when they are already deep in it !.  I did try and give a considered answer about what i think really does constitute boat safety and the answer was getting the whole mystified look….so today i am going to try and put across what i think of as being boat safety, and not much of it is about shiny never-used expensive equipment.

Over the weekend i had a lot of time to relax and read having made the decision to hole-up and anchor in shelter : my first ironic reflection was that the places that i chose to shelter from ‘Doris’ and her cousin were my equivalents of the hurricane holes that i used to know in the carribbean…if a lot muddier !.   I tend to read several books at once, for the weekend i had borrowed a couple of the Aubrey/Maturin series from the honesty cafe so for some of the time i was back in the Napoleonic era yardarm to yardarm (and thoroughly enjoying it) and then some of the time i was reading American open water swimmer Lynne Cox’s book about the open water swimming genre.  The book is a bit specialist : i used to practice ‘wildswimming’ but never to the extent that i attempted multi-mile swims and swimming races, it was good training though to practice cold water immersion especially when i was an active canoeist and sea-kayaker.    The book is a lot about the long distance ‘challenge’ swims such as our own English channel crossing which is way beyond my interest but there was a lot that did grab my attention , for instance that Lynne Cox had clearly spent a good deal of time talking to the US Navy ‘Seals’ about their open water swimming training, preparation and above all their safety and risk management.  I always had that world down as ‘do or die’….ultra-macho…and had little notion of how seriously they regard trainee safety : for sure they push at the limits but that they also do so inside a careful risk management strategy.

I’m sure now that many readers would see the words ‘risk management’ and be quickly heading back to their internet porn sites , those that haven’t might be surprised to know that in my job i am deeply into risk management and patient clinical safety and that i apply the same process and thinking to my sailing as i do to my ‘professional’ life. I won’t bore you with all of the details here as its a big field and not much of it ‘cross-decks’ easily but that much of the process is very valid to what i do with my small boats.  I will posit an opinion here that many in risk management inside the NHS don’t get it right : i can sniff out a bullshitter pretty damn fast these days ! and we have plenty of those but equally working in the field i can see how to get it right.  One thing that i want to bring in here immediately is that i believe strongly in ‘evidence’ that is to ask “what does actually happen in boating/water-borne accidents, what has gone wrong historically and crucially WHY have those things happened.    Ok : it must be said that “shit-happens/does happen” occasionally and yes, weird stuff does happen but many boating and water accidents are very predictable and sadly preventable.  One thing that i gained from Lynne Cox’s study with the Seals is that they regard the problem of perceived time compulsion as a major cause of the more serious incidents….the literally ‘got to go now’ syndrome which so often has proved fatal only in hindsight.   Once again though i will say that serious and proper risk management is my base and starting point and no : its isn’t anything like common sense which in my experience isn’t at all common.  I won’t go any further with the details here but feel free to comment and ask questions.

Where does that leave us and in a short-post internet blog about this peculiar corner of activity and can i say anything useful that readers might go away with >>>>maybe !.     Here i will try and give a few examples then : i don’t for instance believe that safety is an expensive liferaft sitting on the cabin roof but do believe that it might well be in an over-sized anchor and strong gear that will pin a boat to the seabed.  I don’t trust to high-end electronic gizmo’s and staring at a small screen, rather i put my faith in keeping a lookout, the ability to read paper chart and actual conditions, to trust to sail, anchor and paddle (or sweep) rather than the beast under the companionway.  Above all i trust in a well-found and diligently maintained boat, in good sails (with simple manual reefing and good cordage), in practice and training, in the long experience of getting our butts kicked occasionally and crucially in thinking and making good decisions.

Be safe out there peeps.


  1. Very well put, we have just come back from a few days up in the Bay of Islands as you know the boat is very light and small 6.1 m, so watch the weather pick the right window and go, got it right and had 0-15 knts which was perfect. No pile of “safety” gear is going to be much use to us.


  2. Thought-provoking stuff Steve. Did you read the story yesterday about the delivery skipper, the ipad chart plotter and the fog in the Humber? “The 50ft wooden vessel had no compass and faulty radar, and was relying on an iPad for navigation until the wifi signal failed.” Proves your point. I’d rather hurry up and wait than press on into a potentially hazardous situation any day — leaned that the hard way in the mountains a long time ago.


    1. I hadn’t heard that one, good story : when i start to write my sea stories section i will talk about the superyacht with every gizmo, all electric and i mean everything….then the power failed !


      1. Not wishing to steal your story but, Try about 3 miles off the straights of Gibraltar everything down and I mean everything main engine both gen sets and a selection of dead battery’s so no way of starting anything, rob the tenders of battery’s, hot wire the whole lot with the radio battery’s and get a gen set going, whew we can steer and get some sail out then start on the main and this was only about 3 weeks after taking the boat on ! Next stop refit time and sort a few things !

        Oh and one other what happens when your superyacht has electric doors into the salon and the gen set shuts its self down with everyone on deck and the doors shut and your sailing in confined waters and pretty much everything is electric or hydraulic….

        The book is old but the rivers are still there enjoy, The Medway and the Thames area are where I first sailed with my parents out of Benfleet yacht club, Dad had the boat yard at Potton creek which is still there I think.


  3. Just a note on liberty 22 safety, as far as I know nearly all original lib 22 main masts have snapped due to proctor masts supplying a batch of unsleeved flag poles to hunter boats,I’ve been on two boats where the masts broke without any warning and under no particular stress, they were both repaired by needlespar at the time who told me they had quoted for the original masts but were turned down on cost ! I now own my second lib 22 and have double sleeved both masts.
    I am dead interested in reading about your journey and I know Dylan as I helped him fit out his first centaur, how do I get back to where I left your last blog without having to go through all of them again pressing next ?
    Best wishes Bill W


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