March 31, 2009

The safety of the sea

MOST SAILORS don’t die at sea. The majority die of heart attacks when they get their boatyard bills. Seriously, very few sailors die in storms at sea but the prospect of sinking far away from land is what keeps many would-be ocean cruisers at home. In fact, sinking, from whatever cause, is our biggest fear. We pack our sailboats with liferafts, dinghies, lifejackets, drysuits, flares, VHF radio, SSB radios, satellite phones, and Epirbs just in case our boat sinks.

But the plain truth is that our boats are safer than we think. Probably safer than our cars. Very few small yachts sink in deep water even in the worst storms. Some get rolled over and dismasted, but they don’t sink. Almost all make it back to shore under power or a jury rig.

Size, of itself, doesn’t equate with seaworthiness. Small is not necessarily dangerous, and large is not necessarily safer. If a boat is designed so that it will admit little water if it’s turned upside down by a big breaking sea, it possess one of the major components of seaworthiness. And even the smallest boats can be designed that way.

Small boats are certainly more uncomfortable, but small boats, especially light-displacement ones, have the advantage that they yield to the seas and offer little resistance, whereas bigger boats offer solid surfaces for heavy water to damage. The disadvantage is that deep-sea sailing in a small boat is like living in a busy tumble drier — only it’s a whole lot colder and wetter.

The last time I looked, the record for crossing the Atlantic in the smallest sailboat belonged to Hugo Vilen, whose boat, Father’s Day, was just was 5 feet 4 inches long, the size of coffee table. Soon the record will go to a boat that is deeper than it is longer, because the occupant will have no choice but to stand the whole way. I imagine it will be almost as uncomfortable as flying coach.

John Guzzwell circumnavigated the world in a boat he built and called Trekka. She was just 20 feet 6 inches long. That was regarded as quite an achievement … until Sege Testa went round the world in Acrohc Australis, which was 11 feet 10 inches long. Now, I hear, there’s an attempt to race around the world in sailboats just 10 feet long. When will they ever stop?

Anyway, the message is that few sailboats are lost at sea, and there’s no evidence to suggest that small boats sink more frequently than big ones. So, if you’ve always wanted to cross an ocean in a small boat of your own, don’t let fear stop you.

Today’s Thought
Rivalry is good for mortals.
—Hesiod, Works and Days.

Advice to nubile women:
A man resembles a fine wine: He starts out like the grapes on a vine and it’s your job to crush him underfoot and keep him in the cellar until he matures into something you'd like to have with dinner.

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