July 9, 2013

It's really a very safe sport

IT’S INTERESTING TO THINK THAT sailing is one of the safest sports practiced in the U.S.A. In fact, more people die in their baths every year.

The sea is actually not as dangerous as you might imagine. Most of the famous singlehanded circumnavigators of the mid-20th century sailed without lifelines around the deck, and without safety tethers.

For many sailors, lifelines represented false security. “Better learn to cling like a monkey,” Bernard Moitessier once told me. He has a point. I suspect that if I fell from atop the house of a medium-sized sloop while she was well heeled, I would fall right over the lifelines without touching.

It’s impossible to know if the lifelines now so popular on small boats have added to safety at sea, but  I don’t think anyone can seriously say the death rate in the old days was any greater than it is now.

Perhaps the sea just seems more dangerous because we live in a society obsessed with safety, our own and others’. We are ordered to belt up in cars, wear helmets on bicycles, put on sunscreen, and swallow vitamins. Old-timers accepted responsibility for their own safety and relied on common sense rather than constant and irritating adjurations from so-called authorities.

I have reservations about lifejackets, too, especially inflatable ones. I cannot imagine how I’d get back on board most small boats if I were hampered by the bulky inflated bladders. Perhaps that’s why there’s always advice to carry a small knife attached to your lifejacket, along with a flashlight, a whistle, a personal locator beacon, a rescue mirror, a waterproof VHF radio, a rescue mirror, and lord knows what all else. You could stab the bladders, I suppose, before attempting to pull yourself on board. You could also stab yourself accidentally and die from blood loss and shock instead of drowning.    

The more I think about it, the more I like Moitessier’s advice to cling like a monkey.

Today’s Thought
A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
— John A. Shedd, Salt from My Attic

America is one of the few countries that have too many surgeons and not enough patients. In fact, it has got to the stage now where doctors are accusing people of staying healthy just out of spite.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)



Rado said...

John, Moitessier seems to not have been above having lifelines, in his later days at least - take a look at this footage of himself aboard Joshua: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gin5uMcNCE
Of course he seems quite in his element working on deck. Speaking of which, I wonder what happened with all the film he shot for the Times during the Golden Globe race - it was quite a lot apparently, and a couple of half-hour segments have made their way to youtube in the form of Italian and French documentaries. It would be good to see more of it.

FrankO said...

Wow. Reservations about life jackets and other safety gear. Just one more stupid person who has been lucky. So far.

Ken said...

Wow FrankO that's pretty bold to imply someone is stupid to have reservations about the hype of safety gear that's proven itself to fail many, many times.

Mark G said...

Before turning the knife on an inflatable life vest, I'd opt for deflating the vest by touching the stem value conveniently located right in front of me.

As for the amount and nature of safety items attach to oneself, it really depends on where you're sailing. It's right for sailors, especially offshore sailors, to be self-reliant for their safety and not assume the CG can pluck you out of a jam, but it's coming on a bit hard to mock them for donning a whistle, light, etc. with their vest. And for myself, of Scottish and English descent, I'm afraid the sunscreen is a must!