Generally when i have written about small boats and safety the posts have been well received by the other sailors here.  The opposite view is one mainly from some colleagues who see me as foolhardy , thrill-seeking and a risk-taker particularly in that i often sail solo and am happy to do things like solo channel crossings.  In this post what i intend to do is write in a lot more detail about how i think about and manage risk in the context of being a small boat sailor but also drawing from what i know from my professional life and my time as a bushcraft and canoeing instructor.

Now i can well imagine that the post title will put many readers off as it could easily be seen as the dull and dead hand of ‘elf-n-safety’ once again.  Well i for one detest that world mainly in that my experience is that the very people who will often say “health and safety issues” really show themselves up very quickly as knowing nothing about the subject but just use the term for their own ends.  I have many examples in mind : just one concerned a local amateur football club where a self-important jobsworth managed to spoil the enjoyment just by using that very term to stop the young lads who acted as linesmen doing their job “because they might get cold” !    I could have dealt with that one in minutes with a fully written-up and signed-off risk assessment that would have blown the jobsworth out of the water but its the kind of thing that officialdom and petty beaurocracy thrives on.

This thread also goes hand in hand with a second thread (in draught) about the sailors mindset , i was originally going to combine the subjects but it made the single post over-long.   In this post i am mainly going to talk about evidence based risk and risk management related to small boats and seamanship.

I think it was Ted who was shocked that i might be even thinking about an offshore voyage in something as small and open as my Devon Dayboat project boat and its not sufficient to say that its been done in worse boats or that i am experienced sailor . It has been done in similar boats and smaller but that doesn’t change the risk involved with doing it in a small boat  myself .   Also as i want to explore in this thread experienced sailors do come to grief even in bigger boats ……its still a big, wet and cold dynamic environment out there.   Right at the start though i want to make a crucial point and its the opposite one of the common political soundbite “safety is our first concern  well it may be for the politico in question but it isn’t mine.  If safety was my prime concern i wouldn’t go to sea but of course i do go to sea and i do rather like coming back each time so that i can go and do it again.   Where then does safety and risk come in if it isn’t my primary concern ?

Here then is my principal standpoint about risks and risk management : it is that i use the process of evidence based risk management as a tool to help guide my boat and personal set-up, to help inform my decision making and to help balance an adventurous mindset.


Here are a couple of quotes that are relevant.

1.“If you build the guts to do something, anything, then you better save enough to face the consequences.” 
― Criss JamiKillosophy

2.“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!” 
― William Hutchison Murray

Last year when i made my solo channel crossing in WABI”’ i made a conscious ‘go’ decision immediately before i left the anchorage and after a quick mental recap of the boat, my preparations and ultimately the conditions on the day.  Leaving meant making a committing voyage relative to the size and capability of the boat but once i left i was completely focussed on completing the voyage.  Other sailors and certainly some of my non sailing colleagues might have viewed that voyage as a bold one and others a ‘risky’ one : rather than yes or no i would have given a more measured answer.  Essentially there were ,yes, risks involved and i will talk about the management of risk in this post but i would also say no in that none of the risks went into the area beyond the boat’s and mine own capabilities.

To actually talk about risks and risk management its best to have at minimum a basic understanding of the language and terminology even if only to not sound like the petty council beaurocrat mentioned earlier.  In no particular order i will briefly detail some of the terms that will be using in the post.

Adverse incident – something that goes wrong or when harm occurs.

Evidence based – events that have actually happened rather than things that we might conjecture.

Risk – something that could happen, usually something adverse or that causes damage or harm.

Hazard – something that when we interact with it a risk can occur (objective) or that is something we inadvertently bring to the situation (subjective hazard).

Error/human error – the act of making a mistake often in the realm of judgement and decision making.  (making an abnormal decision is a good example).

Ommission – when we fail by not doing something (not keeping watch is an error of ommission)

Outcome – the end result of an adverse incident.  We can also describe levels of outcome for example ‘no harm’, near miss etc all the way through to catastrophic damage and or severe harm/death.

Natural frequency – how often something actually happens (raw numbers)

Root cause – what it says on the tin….root cause analysis seeks to work out how an adverse event occurs at its most basic level.

Hindsight bias – being wise after the event (common problem among managers)

Risk taking/risk averse – the 2 extremes of risk behaviour : young men tend towards taking risks, many women are naturally risk averse.


Pen Duick.


Last year i visited Lorient and the Eric Tabarly museum, the boat above is the original Pen Duick from which Tabarly was knocked overboard and died in the Irish Sea in June 1989.  Eric Tabarly was and still is my all-time sailing hero and probably the worlds most experienced sailor at the time of his death.

The full story is here : http://www.classicboat.co.uk/articles/people/eric-tabarlys-last-night-alive/

In a similar vein is the loss of 2 other sailors : firstly Rob James in March 1983 just off our coast here from the trimaran Colt Cars and secondly Peter Philips lost from the maxi yacht Creightons Naturally in the 1989-90 Whitbread race.


In the actual writing of the post you might think that i sit down at the keyboard and bash the post out , maybe from some notes, and then maybe come back and correct the worst of the typo’s and grammatical errors.  Well that’s the case with the simpler blog posts but not with this one : this post is actually one of the much harder posts to write even though i know the base subjects here : sailing, the sea, accidents at sea and risk quite well.  My difficulty here is steering a course through what can be a minefield of common errors for example by going down the route of making a judgement of what went wrong which ultimately tends to end up with either a judgement about human error (what mistakes were made) or a simplistic ‘solution’ to prevent the same event re-occurring.  Strongly in my mind is the response within the yachting press at the time of one of those incidents that had that person been wearing just a safety harness then the accident wouldn’t have happened….my answer is that we don’t know that, we only know thus far what actually happened.

Evidence then….

What we do have so far even with what i have presented is 3 small chunks of actual evidence : 3 accidents/incidents that although different had the same outcome ie that a very experienced sailor fell/was knocked/swept overboard into cold water and died there of the hypothermia/drowning combination.  For a moment just hold back on anything else for example why those things happened and just say that there is adequate evidence that such incidents have happened and are an indication (a strong one) that the same incident can re-occur.  A personal perspective here is that i have also fallen through the trampoline netting of a multihull (my self-built Wharram) but didn’t end up in the water, i have nearly been knocked overboard by a flying boom (my Deben) and come shockingly close to being swept off the deck of a maxi yacht.

Putting that into a risk management perspective using the risks language i would go on to say that there is strong evidence of this risk being a genuine one, that the evidence is backed up by personal observation/experience of my own near miss events and that the outcome can be catastrophic/severe (death).  I have of course used an extreme example but we can do this for any and all other incidents and events that we might consider as risks that have outcomes as widely differing as no harm at one end of the outcome spectrum right through to death and total loss at the other.  Remember though also that the risk assessment is only one part of just one tool that isn’t there to say “its dangerous therefore we shouldn’t even consider doing it” but rather it is a starting point from which we can begin to manage and reduce the risk and/or its outcome.

Just to re-iterate then , risk assessment can be our starting tool to help us ask the right questions : in this case what goes wrong and what will the outcome be if it does go wrong.  That risk management is then the more complete process of ascribing the risk a value and working to nullify or reduce it or its outcome.  What we then need is a tool in the middle because the events described are rarely simple and most often do need picking apart to find the crucial details which again might be as simple as a small constructional or fit-out detail eg the lashing system on the multihull trampoline or something as variable as human error and decision making.


I could, blow by blow, hammer the theme of risk management and it is a useful tool when used well.  If for example we took just the mutihull/trampoline problem we can at one end say that a failure here could/will lead to the risk of a crewmember being lost overboard, add that to the hazard of cold water and factors such as a fast moving boat , one which is too high-sided to climb back aboard and some human factors such as panic, inexperience and incompetence and we begin to approach the actual complexity of adverse events at sea.  I am here avoiding hindsight bias (being smart after the event)  and unproven but accepted simplistic solutions.  We might though take from this simple example that something like trampoline netting (or its lacing system) might not only be a hazard but it might be something that we would recognise and denote as a critical feature of the boat that needs examination in say a defined maintainence schedule and might go as far as being checked in a pre-sail (pre-flight) checklist as in aviation.  The aviation industry, parts of the military and some areas of healthcare (mine for example) routinely work to checklists….and they do work.

At work i use a formal checklist just before we start a clinical procedure, a lot of the ideas and practices come directly from aviation : ‘sterile cockpit’ is one which basically means that when the pre-flight (pre procedure) briefing is being given everyone has to be quiet and listen and except for an emergency cannot be interrupted.  In teaching the subject i often used the example of the first demonstration flight of the awesome Boeing B17 Flying Fortress….it crashed killing all 7 crew : the problem was that it required such a complex take-off procedure that it could not be memorised even by an experienced crew and the solution to that complexity was to have one crew member reading off each stage from a checklist.  Human factors teach us for example that we have a limited and variable ability to remember stages of procedures when under pressure : in teaching canoeing or kayaking say in whitewater the learner who should be under some degree of pressure to perform will only be able to take in a limited number of instructions usually expressed as 3 plus or minus 2 and what that means is that sometimes an inexperienced person can only take in one crucial instruction/order at a time.   Human factors are one of the most interesting and variable factors in the study of risk and adverse incidents and one of the hardest to fit into a risks framework but it can be done.

For those whom are interested in the wider subject there is some very good and easy to read literature out there : ‘The Checklist Manifesto” by surgeon Atul Gawande is a very good starting point as its not just about medicine or surgery just as one example.

Much of the literature that i have used in the past is of course specific to clinical patient safety or derived from aviation safety which doesn’t always translate well into the clinical setting : its much more like a battlefield !.  One general book that i would recommend is simply called ‘Risk’ by Dan Gardner as its a much more general look at the subject dipping into both psychology and maths but it also exposes many common misconceptions about current fears.


I am going to finish today’s post with some very small and practical ideas in no particular order.

First is that my past experiences with IOR boats include being in the water myself and not being able to get back aboard unassisted despite at the time being a decent climber. My last 4 boats : Wharram 26, Deben 4 tonner, Frances 26 and the Hunter Liberty i have made simple changes with each one to make sure that i can climb back aboard from full immersion with clothes on.  The Frances i found the best approach was to swim to the bow and use the bobstay as the crucial step : i did initially have a step on the rudder but once i fitted the windpilot it was more difficult to climb over the stern.  The liberty is very easy having a ladder at the stern which can be deployed while in the water alongside.  Of those 4 boats the Wharram was the most difficult to get back aboard because of its sectional shape and even though it had the lowest freeboard and my self rescue technique ultimately derived from a kayakers technique .

Each of those last 4 boats will spontaneously heave-to and stop once the helm is let go in fact with the Liberty the heave-to has become my standard technique for any jobs like reefing.   Compared to that the one situation i was most wary of was aboard the Frances with the windpilot engaged and that is the time i was most likely to use a tether when solo. The Liberty obviously being my current boat is still one that i am developing simple systems that for example allow me to do more things from the cockpit because the boat is so difficult to move forward on while sailing.

Canoeing and kayaking teach me an entirely different approach : rather than being fearful of falling overboard both disciplines accept that we will end up in the water and teach us self rescue strategies and such basic things as cold water familiarisation .  Today i am much less convinced about the value of lifejackets and safety harnesses : a fisherman i know says of lifejackets “it just makes it easier to find the body” . Today i tend to wear a bouyancy aid rather than an inflating lifejacket because with the latter i know i can still swim effectively.

Getting used to being in the water is i think a positive step although initially uncomfortable : as i write i am out of practice of being a cold water swimmer.  A degree of physical fitness is i believe crucial and i am working towards a measureable statement on that one for example that if you can do something like 5 pull-ups you are more likely to be able to do a boat self-rescue.   Mindset is crucial and a future post will just be about my thoughts on the sailors mindset.

Meanwhile…..lets be careful out there, oh, and if anyone would like to comment about the lead photograph i would like to see the comments.


1 Comment

  1. Thought-provoking stuff — looking forward to more. As to the lead photo, I see a small, overcrowded boat. They can’t all fit in the cockpit. Some could go down below and clear the deck I suppose — the youngster for a start. No one is wearing any kind of lifejacket/PFD either but they could have them below ready to deploy if needed and although the sea looks calm enough at first glance, there appear to be breaking waves on the horizon at the harbour entrance. At least they’ve got a lifebouy on the back, though that dinghy they’re towing on the overly short painter is blocking what looks like a boarding ladder. I suppose it might be a bit easier for the old bloke to climb into the dinghy if he falls in, rather than trying to get back on the boat, providing the cold-shock doesn’t incapacitate him first of course. Even though I’m a only little bloke who doesn’t take up much room, I wouldn’t be joining ’em for a day sail!


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