In some of the great voyaging ports of the world you will find cruising boats that have sailed many thousands of miles. Along the way, these boat's skippers have refined their vessels, adding and eliminated gear, to the point that they have created efficient and safe ocean sailing boats. The first time I encountered this type of vessel was in the Canary Islands, many years ago. The boats gathered in Las Palmas — most of which flew European flags — were girded for the transatlantic push to the Caribbean. As these craft swung on their anchors in the oily harbor in front of the Yacht Club de Grand Canaria, they each had an aura of seaworthiness and experience — even though most had only voyaged a few thousand miles or less.
This same impression can be found in the boats at anchor in ports such as Balboa, Panama, or Papeete, Tahiti, or The Bay of Islands, New Zealand. Here you find boats that are tried and true, sailed by skippers who have tested their initial ideas of what should be aboard a cruising boat against the real experience of sailing far and wide.
In most cases, the boats you find moored in such places have a businesslike attitude. Their decks may be somewhat laden with gear, but the on-deck systems are simple, efficient and arranged for easy and safe handling in bad conditions.
Equally important, down below on these boats, you will find cozy floating homes, that are fitted out not for life at a marina, but for life at sea. Everything has a place from which it can not fall. All hatches have positive latches and all heavy accoutrements — from batteries to the galley stove — are well secured.
Moreover, both on deck and down below, you will find on these bluewater boats hand-holds everywhere. Skippers who have spent a few thousand miles or more on the open sea know that the old adage "One hand for the ship and one for yourself" is as true as the day it was uttered.
It is time, here, to take a good look at how safety principles can be put to practice in the layout and fitting out of a safe deck arrangement, and in the arrangements and fittings down below.
Every skipper when he sets out to sea has two primary objectives when it comes to safe deck and down-below layouts: First, the crew must be able to stay on board; and, second, gear and objects below must never be lethal flying hazards, no matter how far the boat rolls to a gust of wind.
For some veteran sailors, the need to secure the furniture and objects below and the need to arrange the deck to make sure everyone stays on board arises after the first heavy weather passage. For most, experience has taught them to prepare for difficulties before setting out and to provide systems that will ensure the two main seafaring objectives.
The Safe Deck Layout
Every sailing boat will have its own deck arrangement so the need to apply the basic thoughts for safe decks will vary from design to design. Yet, there simple and basic practices to follow on any boat that will keep the crew on board and prepared for whatever may come.
Beginning at the foredeck, it is important for crew members working forward of the mast to be able to work head sails, lines and gear while attached by their safety harnesses to stout and readily available fittings and jacklines. On either side of the foredeck, it is useful to tie stops through the toerail or stanchion bases, so a crew member always has a quick length of line or sail tie with which to tie down a sail or other gear that might come loose.
Many offshore sailors and those who cruise with children use netting — commercially available — in their lifelines on either side of the foredeck. The netting, reaved of nylon line, will prevent a small person from falling overboard, will catch a headsail that has come adrift during a sail change and will help to keep loose items such as sail bags, docking lines and other equipment on board. The netting should be stretched firmly into place and secured at the top and along the bottom with a strong piece of line. If possible, it is best to weave the top course of the netting right onto the lifeline. To do this you will have to unmake the lifelines and remake them again with the netting attached. Yet, despite the trouble, this arrangement is both the safest and the neatest looking.
Foredeck gear, such as anchor tackle, line, spare headsails, spinnaker poles, even a life raft, should securely fastened to the deck, either with sail ties or with strong line. Loose gear is a hazard to the crew. Also, loose gear becomes lost gear very quickly.
Slipping and sliding about a foredeck as you are struggling to tame a headsail is no fun and can be dangerous. In rough weather, old foredeck hands will sink down on their seats and pull in a sail or manhandle loose gear while well planted by the rear end on the deck. Yet, on larger boats, with wide foredeck, the need for a place to brace your feet, either while standing or while sitting, can be a real problem.
It should be remembered that on the foredeck, it is always safest to work while on the windward side of the boat, away from the leeward lifelines and away from the bow wake. To keep yourself to windward, it is necessary to brace your feet against something. A solution favored years ago on some classic one-design keel boats was to fix a wood strip, approximately an inch square, that ran from the deck house to the bow. The strip served as a foot brace, or in heavy conditions a bottom stop.
Installing such a strip — or two strips off center — can be a good solution on wide form modern cruising boats. However, before installing such a strip, you should consider the hazard it will present to bare toes, to sunbathers and to those in the crew who tend to hurry about on deck.
Working around the mast, a crew member should feel secure and have the ability to use both hands to operate a winch while raising a halyard, or while coiling lines. It is important that sturdy pad eyes be fitted, either on deck, or near the base of the mast onto which safety harnesses can be clipped. These pad eyes should be situated in such a way as to keep the harness tether out of the way of working halyards and sheets.
On larger boats, there will be room enough around the mast on the cabin top to install stainless-steel braces or "sissy bars." The derogative nickname stems from the bars of the same name found on some, old-style motorcycles. On the cycles, the bars prevent a rider from being seriously injured should the machine tip over in a slide. On deck, the bars will serve a similar function, by offering a crew member a place to brace himself while working at the mast. The sissy bars should be of sturdy stainless steel, through-bolted and backed with aluminum backing plates. The can also serve as places to tie down spare sails, to store spare sail ties and to fasten flag halyards that lead to the spreaders.
While discussing the foredeck and mainmast area, it may be worthwhile to mention deck boxes. Although it may be stretching the point to include boxes in a discussion of safety, proper deck boxes can in fact offer quick and easy storage places for tools and gear that may be needed in a hurry by the person on the foredeck.
It may be useful to picture a sudden need for adjustable wrench and a screwdriver. Imagine the forestay suddenly sagging because the cotter pins in the turnbuckle have failed. The jib must come down, quickly, and should be tied down with the sail ties already in place along the toe rail. Next, the person on the foredeck must tighten and secure the head stay. The job will be accomplished more easily and quickly if the needed tools are at hand. Having to burrow into a locker below and then dash back to the foredeck will delay the repair and could make the repair impossible. A deck box, no matter how large or small, equipped with a few essential tools as well as docking lines, sail ties and winch handles, will make life on the foredeck safer and easier.
For coastal cruising most skippers do not choose to carry heavy weather and storm sails on deck. Yet, those setting off across wide bodies of water in areas in which a gale might be encountered, will want to rig storm sails for ready use. The most common set up on offshore boats is to carry a storm tri-sail to be flown on the mainmast. The tri-sail should have it's own sail track on the mast, running parallel to the mainsail's track or slot. The sail itself can be bagged tightly and stowed on deck at the base of the mast, or can be stowed below. The storm jib or spitfire jib can usually be stowed below. Yet, if bad weather is imminent, the sails should be brought on deck and rigged in place — before they may become necessary — to avoid painstaking foredeck and mast work when the going gets rough. The tri-sail track, and spitfire set up should be in place at all times for those who carry such gear. There is no use carrying emergency sails and running rigging if you are not prepared to use them when the wind and seas kick up.
Moving aft, the side decks leading from the cockpit to the foredeck are the hallways to and from the mast and foredeck. As prescribed in the ORC regulations and as dictated by common sense, the side decks should be fitting with jacklines that run from the cockpit coaming to the bow. It should be possible for a person to clip a harness tether onto the jacklines while still in the cockpit and then move all the way forward and back again without having to unclip to change anchor points.
The standard jackline is a length of 1 by 19 wire — coated with plastic — and swaged at its ends. The ends are then attached to heavy pad eyes that are through-bolted and backed with aluminum plates. One hazard presented by jacklines arises because the round wire, if rigged loosely on deck, can roll underfoot, causing a person to lose his balance. For that reason, some sailors prefer to rig jacklines made of woven webbing of the type used in safety harnesses. The webbing is extremely strong, absorbs strain and lies flat on the deck.
For jacklines to be effective, the crew must be able to attach to the lines before leaving the companionway from below and entering the cockpit, and, then must be able to switch into the deck jacklines before leaving the cockpit for the foredeck. The best arrangements call for either a number of sturdy pad-eyes at the companionway and next to the helmsman's seat, or two jacklines running the length of the cockpit on either side of the cockpit foot well.
While the use of harnesses and jacklines, once the rig has been installed properly, would seem to fall under the umbrella of common sense, it is wise to remember that the crew should use the windward attachments instead of those to leeward. The reason is simply due to gravity. If you fall from the windward side to leeward, the windward attachment may break your fall and will keep you close to the boat should you go over the side. If you are attached to leeward, your fall will occur unbroken and should you fall overboard, you will stream out to the full length of your tether, putting enormous strain on the jacklines, fittings and harness — not to mention yourself.
Hatches on deck are the largest openings into the boat and should be treated with respect and a certain amount of suspicion. Most modern deck hatches are fabricated of extruded aluminum and have Plexiglas or Lexan securely bedded in the openings; most have thick, durable weather seals and positive dogging devices to keep them closed. However, as a matter of course before setting out for any length of time on the water, every hatch should be checked thoroughly and the dogging devices — hand screws or friction levers — made as tight as possible.
On boats with large wood hatches or decorous skylights, it is wise to have canvas (or Sunbrella) covers ready to fit over the hatch when bad weather hits. Although a cloth cover, no matter how securely tied over a hatch, will not prevent the whole hatch from being carried away by a malicious wave, it will prevent minor damage and will keep water out of the boat should the wood frame of the hatch become cracked or damaged.
The cockpit on most cruising boats is the place where the crew spends the majority of its time, whether under sail or at anchor. The cockpit must fulfill many functions: it is command central while the boat is sailing; it is the place where most deck gear, sheets, lines and sailing equipment is kept; it serves as a patio for topsides meals and cocktails and, it is the place where most safety and emergency gear is kept. Without doubt, the cockpit requires more organization than any other area of the boat.
One of the most important aspects of keeping those sailing a boat in good working condition and therefore able to operate the boat safely is to make sure that is warm and dry and protected from the elements. Appropriate clothing is the first step. But how the cockpit is rigged with a doghouse or dodger and weather cloths will make a large difference.
A dodger of some sort is a valuable addition to any sailing boat. The dodger should be sturdily built with stainless-steel tubing use in the frame. The frame must be able to withstand the weight of a man falling against it, or the weight of the boom should it fall a short distance. The frame should be securely fastened to the deck and to the sea hood which covers the companionway hatch. Although a frame and fabric dodger conventionally seen on cruising boats will not hold up to the force of a breaking wave on deck, it should be expected to withstand high winds and rain and the normal wear and tear of years of sailing. It is important to have heavy, plastic windows sewn into the side and front of the dodger to provide for visibility forward. And, the fabric selected should be waterproof, have resistance to ultraviolet deterioration and a very low amount of stretch. Sunbrella is often used, but other waterproofed fabrics are also suitable.
Weather cloths that can be tied securely against the lifelines on either side of the cockpit will protect the helmsman and crew from the wind and from spray coming over the side. On a blustery day, it is quite a relief for those in the cockpit to get out of the wind. Moreover, providing a wind and spray break will help those in the cockpit stay warm, thereby inhibiting the possibilities of hypothermia. The weather cloths should be made of sturdy material — Dacron or Sunbrella — and should have reinforced patches under the grommets. The cloths should run from the last stanchion, or the stern pulpit, to the stanchion forward of the cockpit. On most boats, you will have to provide cut outs through which jib sheets may pass. And, if you plan to use the weather cloths often, it is useful to have two or three storage pockets sewn onto the inside of the cloths.
Providing for smooth sail handling with a well thought out cockpit will cut confusion during sailing maneuvers and will help to prevent accidents or mishaps. When organizing sailing gear and lines, make sure that everything has a place and is always kept there. Winch handles should be tucked into holders in the corners of the cockpit and it is best to have one handle for each side of the boat. During a tack, no one should be hunting around for the lone handle which, somehow has gone missing.
Head sail sheets and the main sheet are usually under a lot of strain. Too often the sheets are left to collect in piles in the cockpit, where your feet can become entangled and the sheets themselves can become a braided mess. To clear the decks, a simple and good solution is to provide bags fastened to the inside of the cockpit foot well into which coiled sheets can be tucked out of the way. The main sheet may be too large and too long to package this way, so you want to designate a specific area where the main sheet can be flaked out of the crew's way.
In the past few years, the practice of leading halyards aft from the mainmast to the cockpit has come into favor. Doing so can keep crew safely in the cockpit during sail changes. On boats with roller furling head sails and a roller furling main, there is no longer any reason to leave the cockpit while handling sails.
The drawback to leading everything aft to the cockpit is simply that one person can no longer operate halyards while also dropping head sails or tying in a reef. If a person has to go forward, then a second will have to man the halyards from the cockpit. Also, leading halyards through a series of turning blocks adds friction to the sail hoisting process and may require that you use a larger winch.
These caveats mentioned, it is still a wise move to lead halyards aft. With a little ingenuity and the use of some of the single-line sail handling systems now on the market, sail handling from the cockpit can be both efficient and safe.
The main boom may be the most dangerous piece of gear on the boat. It is a head cracker that can, in a second, fling a person unconscious over the side. To tame the boom, it is wise to use both a preventer guy and a vang. The preventer guy, which on cruising boats can be left rigged at all times, runs from the aft end of the boom through a block or fitting on the foredeck. On a broad reach or a dead run, the boom can be fixed in place by the preventer so a sudden gybe won't send the boom careening across the deck.
A vang, which is use primarily to shape the mainsail, will also control the vertical movement of the boom and keep it from jumping unexpectedly. An hydraulic or Quick-vang, which is fixed between the boom and the base of the mast will hold the boom stationary while you reef or drop the sail. Yet, such a vang can not be rigged to leeward to double as preventer. A three-part vang-tackle is a useful addition, for you can use it in a number of ways, including using it as a preventer from the middle of the boom to the leeward rail. Rigged in such a way, the tackle will inhibit flying gybes, while simultaneously flattening the mainsail.
A third option is the use of the Walder Boom-brake. The brake attaches to the center of the boom and permits the boom to move slowly and steadily across the boat during a tack or controlled gybe. However, in a flying gybe, the brake will catch the boom, preventing it from lifting and swinging dangerously across the boat. The Walder Boom brake was made popular in the United states in the mid-l980s, following the first BOC Challenge, single handed around the world race. Philippe Jeantot won the race and use the Walder Boom-brake all the way around the world.
The helmsman's position in the cockpit, most often behind the binnacle and wheel, should be arranged so the helmsman can reach vital gear while still keeping one hand on the wheel. It is customary to keep a knife, a pair of binoculars, and perhaps an small hand bearing compass near the helmsman's seat.
In addition, most modern boats are built with a high-volume manual bilge pump located under or near the helmsman's seat, where it can be operated while the boat is being steered. It is necessary to arrange a place near the pump for the handle, where the helmsman can reach it quickly yet where it also can be stowed out of the way and securely. You don't want to find yourself needing the pump but being unable to use it because the essential handle has disappeared. One simple way to secure the handle near the pump is to sew a small pouch for it with a Velcro closure at the top that can be fastened directly to the sidewall of the foot well.
Safety gear and man-overboard equipment most often will be arranged aft of the helmsman on the stern pulpit or on the stern deck. In a man-overboard emergency, the ability to deploy gear quickly and easily can make the difference between a scare and a disaster.
Standard equipment that should be rigged on the aft pulpit includes:
a throwable horseshoe ring and of life ring, equipped with a danbouy, an automatic strobe and a whistle; a second throwable horseshoe or a Life Sling; and a coiled heaving line. The horseshoe, pole and light should be arranged so all the helmsman has to do is toss the ring into the water and the rest of the gear will follow. The pole, which is usually mounted on the backstay or on a mizzen side stay, should be able to break from its fastenings easily and quickly.
A boat sailing at six knots is moving through the water and away from a man overboard at approximately 10 feet per second. Even a strong swimmer can not be expected to swim very far after falling overboard, particularly if he is fully clothed or was injured in some way during the fall. Therefore, it is essential that the man-overboard pole and horseshoe be set up for deployment in less than five seconds.
The heaving line, which should be at least 50 feet long and have a Turk's Head or some other weight at its end, should be handy to the helmsman. There are several commercial lines available, fitted with a pouch and made from polypropylene line which floats. Although you can make up your own line, the commercial option offers you a useful tool at a low price.
The second horseshoe buoy or a Life Sling should be mounted on the stern rail opposite to the man-overboard rig. At this point, suffice it to say that the horse shoe or Life Sling should be easy to deploy and all on board should know how to use all the gear quickly and easily.
Safety on deck and in the cockpit requires planning and forethought. As you examine your own boat for ways to make the decks safer and the cockpit better organized, run through a wide range of sailing scenarios to make certain that the gear and systems you are adding will enhance safety while improving the working efficiency of the boat.
In recent years, the builders of production boats for coastal and offshore sailing have been forced by consumers and marketing experts to serve two very different masters when laying out and building the interiors of their boats. On the vast majority of new boats seen at the boats shows around the country, the main saloons have been designed to be wide, open spaces that give one the feeling of airiness and opulence below. This interior design trend seeks to attract buyers. However, it does not necessarily serve the sailor's best interests.
If you have ever tried to exist below during a rough patch of sailing aboard a boat with a wide, open saloon, you will know that such a space can be a real hazard. On such a boat with 12 or 13 feet of beam, one fall from the windward side can toss a person into a heap 10 feet or so to leeward.
As on deck, the first and most important pieces of gear below decks are numerous and well positioned hand holds. The handholds should be at waste height — not solely overhead or running beneath the port holes — as should be positioned in such a way that a person can work his way all the way forward and aft while moving from one hand hold to another.
On many modern boats, the saloon table is not designed to support the weight of a lurching body. The fittings for the table should be inspected and strengthened if necessary. If the boat is wide and the danger of flying across it is great, a simple solution is to install a stainless-steel pole from the floor to the deck head. The pole will offer a solid anchor for the crew and can become an additional brace for the saloon table.
Falling while moving about the boat can be dangerous. But falling out of a bunk, while resting on sleeping during an off-watch, can be a real nuisance. Every berth that will be used for sleeping while sailing through the night should be equipped with a sturdy lee cloth. A lee cloth, usually sewn of canvas with grommets at the free corners, is fastened to the bunk frame under the cushion. When not in use, it folds away under the cushion. When used, the lee cloth is rigged by tying the corners tightly to pad eyes or hand holds over the berth. The cloth should span the berth from the sleeper's shoulders to well below the hip, but it need not be the full length of the berth. Lastly, the weather cloth should be rigged in such a way that the last tie — at the head — can be made once the crew member is in the berth.
In a rough sea, a sea that has the boat bucking and leaping, it is not uncommon for books to jump off shelves, for locker doors to swing open disgorging their contents onto the floor and for other gear to migrate randomly around the cabin. There may be no greater danger to the crew, in bad weather, than to face heavy objects that have broken loose. The solution is to provide positive latches or deadbolts on any lid, door, drawer or floorboard that could come loose.
The most dangerous objects below are the stove and the batteries. A gimballed stove, weighing 50 or more pounds, can be a lethal flying object if it breaks loose from its gimbals. It is important to check the bolts and the fittings on the stove and oven to make certain that even in a knockdown, with the boat lying for a moment on its beam ends, it will remain securely in place. The batteries, which may be under a berth or below the floorboards, should be fixed in place with positive and sturdy fastenings. The best approach is to bolt retraining braces from the hull over the batteries. With the nuts tightened down, even a rollover won't send the batteries flying.
Floorboards, usually fabricated of marine plywood, can cause serious injuries should they come loose. There are several commercial latches available to secure floorboards in place, although such latches are too seldom used in production boats. Latched in place, the floorboards will remain tightly attached to the floor beams, even in a knockdown. However, if left unlatched, a knockdown or roll over will send the heavy sheets of plywood hurtling across the cabin.
Ice box and freezer compartment lids are another source of possible injury during poor weather. The lids are often heavy, have sharp corners where Formica is joined at the edges and, too often, the lids rely on gravity to keep them in place. In a knockdown or roll over, the lids can and will come loose. The best way to secure ice box lids is to fit them with dead bolts. Yet, the bolts will be a constant nuisance for those working in the galley. Another approach is to fix the lids in place with stainless-steel piano hinges. While a piano hinge is not a positive latch, it will inhibit the lids from unplanned flights across the cabin and can be installed flush with the counter top.
Working in the galley while sailing on the wind can be a devilish problem. As the boats bucks into the wind and heels to gusts, food on the stove, items being prepared on the counter and the cook himself all will be knocked around. The danger of being scalded from a pot of simmering spaghetti sauce is very real. It is important that the stove top be fitted with stainless-steel fiddles or pot holders that can clamp a sauce pan in place.
There is some controversy among sailors about the use of galley belts, which can be hooked across the galley to provide the cook with a seat or, on the opposite tack, a belt to lean against. The belt will hold you in place while you are trying to wrest a meal from the galley. However, once strapped in with the belt, there is no way for the cook to leap out of the way of the dangerous airborne spaghetti sauce.
On a boat that has a securely gimballed stove and the stove top is fitted with fiddles to hold pots in place, the galley belt should be more of a benefit than a danger. However, to ensure that hot soups and sauces stay where they belong, experienced sea cooks make a practice of never filling sauce pans above the halfway mark. Keeping the pot's center of gravity low will greatly increase its tendency to stay on the stove.
Safety equipment below should be positioned where it can be readily available. If you need a fire extinguisher, you will need it in a hurry, so make sure the extinguishers required by law and by common sense are placed within easy reach. If you carry an EPIRB, it should be mounted near the companionway for quick retrieval should you need it. Safety harness, which too often get buried at the bottom of the wet locker, should be stowed near the companionway where they will be ready at hand. If the harnesses are not convenient to the crew, the crew will choose not to wear them.
Setting up your boat for safe sailing will take a lot of thought and preparation. On deck you will have to anticipate how you will handle sails and gear in a wide range of situations. The way you lay out deck gear can make the difference between a boat that is safe to sail and one that is an accident waiting to happen.
Similarly, down below, if the real problems of trying to eat, sleep and navigate while underway have not been thought through thoroughly, a simple overnight sail can turn into a chaotic and unpleasant experience. A cabin that is secure, a galley that is pleasant and safe to work in and bunks that are comfortable and cozy all add up to safe and pleasant sailing.