New Year's resolution for 2013: Improving safety onboard

I am not too keen on making New Year's resolutions. But I guess that the decision, that I made already last autumn, to 'name' safety onboard as the main theme of the season 2013, could be labelled as one.

One could say that improving safety should be the goal for every season  constant improvement should be built-in to ones routines. However, I think that even experienced (and I do not consider myself as one) sailors will always find something that can be improved and therefore, I believe, that paying some extra attention to safety issues this year will do no harm. Thus, I encourage You to do the same!

Safety is not an ON/OFF-situation. It is based on a chain of actions, and it is the weakest link which determines your safety level. What we will do is to start by critically examining our skills, processes and equipment in trying to locate the weak links in the chain.

In 2011, before casting-off for a long summer cruise, a lot of new safety gear was bought for Dolphin Dance. These included for example a liferaft, a rescue sling, a handheld VHF, a grab bag, an extra fire extinguisher and some extra distress flares and rockets. However, the last weeks before the journey were extremely busy, so there was not enough time to go through every new item with a sufficient care and attention. It may give a false sense of security, if you have all this gear onboard, but they are stored somewhere in the back of the locker. Everyone onboard should know their location and be able to use the most important items by heart!

In the spring we will go through every safety item that we have and at the same time, we will check their condition/expediency dates and re-think their placement. Also it is very important for everyone (including guests) onboard to know how to use the safety equipment and know where everything is located.

Let's take the liferaft as an example. Does everyone onboard know how to launch the liferaft? Secondly, should the liferaft be mounted on the deck or on the locker? Reaching the liferaft from its deck mount is often pretty straight-forward, but there have been many cases where liferafts have been ripped from their deck mountings in a storm. So in this sense, storing the liferaft in a cockpit locker would be a safer solution. However, lockers of cruising boats are often filled with all kinds of stuff, so one needs to consider if the liferaft can be easily reached and found in case of an emergency when the boat is on a roller coaster ride? That includes a situation when the skipper is incapacitated.

Rehearsal is a vital part of improving and maintaining safety onboard. Local boating clubs and SAR-associations often arrange education and possibility to practice emergency situations in a controlled environment. For example the Finnish SAR-association arranges distress flare and rocket testing days this spring.

Naturally, safety onboard is not only about the equipment, but about the general seamanship and experience of the skipper and the crew. Much has already been written about the seamanship by many experienced sailors. What we are planning to do is to critically examine our procedures. I think that in terms of safety, there would be much to learn from the airline industry. The limitations of human cognitive capabilities are there well recognized and therefore basically all the procedures are based on various checklists. Especially in an abnormal situation, one tends to become too occupied with the problem in hand, which may lead to more serious situation, than the problem was initially.

One thing that I would like to improve particularly is an overall preparation. And I do not just mean preparing for a longer crossing or for a coming rough weather. But merely trying to make thorough preparation an every day routine. For example, this grounding could have been avoided and this situation would have been handled better with a good preparation. Last summer, I heard a good advice from a fellow sailor in Hölick:
"One should always prepare for the storm."
I think that it is a good advice which we try to keep in mind in the future.

It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how to improve every day safety onboard?


  1. An excellent post! Hav lots to say as we both work in the airline industry. But stupid stupid iPad won.t let be proofread correct errors and typos which is extremely frustrating so I have to get back to this later. Expect a mile long comment... :D

  2. Antti - I agree with your comments.

    It all boils down to management of risks. A good skipper is like a good chess player; all the time he is thinking three, four steps ahead.

    A synonym for 'safety' is 'seamanship'!


    1. Rich, thanks for the comment! I think that you sum up very well what safety is about!

  3. Okay, here I am with the laptop, this time... :D

    For us, it all starts with safety. We actually have standard operating procedures for normal situations, such as landfall, for instance. These SOP's include briefing, call outs and crosschecking. First we plan and whilst planning we take into consideration the wind, other boats, possible errors and we make a plan B in case plan A fails. During landfall we have call outs, such as "poiju kiinni", "kaksi metriä", "menen laiturille", "koira vedessä", "paara kiinni" etc. We also crosscheck each other "saako irroittaa - saa irroittaa - irroitan", "paara kiinni - paara kiinni", "purjevene purjeilla tulossa oikealta - oikea" and so on.

    We also have active plans for different kinds of emergencies. This is especially important as in an emergency a human can usually act somewhat rationally if the procedure has been planned and rehearsed. If the emergency comes as a complete surprise, it is more likely that the person facing the emergency will panic and/or freeze. These emergencies are for instance MOB, fire, first aid and so on. We both go through similar training for work once a year and try to reflect these skills for the boat environment which is actually quite similar to an aircraft (help can be hours away, small surroundings, rapid actions and decision making needed...). Everyone onboars has to know where certain things are (extinguishers, first aid gear, VHF) and everyone needs to know what to do if someone for instance falls into the water. I always brief our guests and also make sure that the briefing has been understood.

    As we are human and humans make errors, crosschecking is vital. It should not be considered as impolite or questioning the skippers skills but as a part of safe operation. A good skipper takes into consideration the points and knowledge his crew has to offer. It does not affect his authority. All crew also understand that it is important to bring up all safety related information.

    In the airline industry there is a term called CRM (Crew Resource Management) which you might find interesting and useful. One of the pioneers in CRM training is Gunnar Fahlgren (, his books are an excellent read on the subject.

    About the liferaft: Have you been to Meriturva's training? This is something I would love to do. I have had liferaft training (and have also been a safety and emergency trainer myself) for work and I discovered how HARD it is to get on a liferaft from water. So, if possible, liferaft should always be boarded "with dry feet". One thing which Meriturva has and my employer doesn't, is the helicopter training. At Meriturva, apparently they can simulate the helicopter picking people from the liferaft. Now that would be interesting! we also plan to do an actual, real MOB-training this year. As there is usually only two of us, until now we have just thrown a fender overboard and picked it up. But we just thought about either of us jumping into the water and the other one taking care of contolling the boat and trying to rescue the other at the same time. Yikes but this is how it actually would be in an authentic situation. So we'll see which one of us will jump. Probably me first...

    So, as I said, a mile long comment and there would be so much more to say, still so let's keep this conversation flowing. :)

    1. Norppa, thanks for very interesting points you made!

      I have once, many years ago, applied for airline pilot training. I read some literature on the subject then and did also some simulator training. Thus, I am very interested in your field indeed. I also think that you guys have a huge advantage due to the fact that you share the same working culture.

      Before teaming up with Minna, I have sailed quite many years mostly singlehandedly. I think that those years have been very good learning experience, because when alone on the boat, one has to plan all the maneuvers well ahead. There is simply less room for errors. Sailing with a partner has made many things a lot easier. However, what makes it more challenging is the communication. Well, one doesn't have that problem when sailing alone... ;) Sailing is team work and that is one of the pleasures of this hobby. But it takes time to learn the ways to communicate and work together.

      I think that it is very important, that everybody onboard shares the same language. It is not always easy with all the odd sailing terminology. The call outs which you use seem very reasonable and we will definitely adopt some of those. One problem in the boat is that call outs are not always heard through the wind etc. So the visual signs and crosschecking, as you mentioned, are useful.

      I have not participated in Meriturva's training, but definitely would like to do that. MOB-training is also a good idea! Everyone onboard should be comfortable in maneuvering the boat, lowering the sails, using the engine etc. However, often the books or for example Vene-magazines article (4/2011), which are describing MOB-procedures seem to presume, that there are number of people in the boat. However, the story is quite different when sailing as a couple. In this case the MOB-rescue might be close to impossible at sea, when conditions are such, where falling overboard is likely to happen. The case is often pretty much the same, as the singlehanded sailor is facing, and falling overboard simply is not an option! Clipping always to a jackline, when going on the deck at sea, is something that I got accustomed to do in my solo-sailor years, and I still maintain that routine when it is windy or when sailing at night or offshore.

      Thanks also for the link on the CRM-training. It is very interesting, and I really got to take a closer look of his books.

    2. Hello Norppa and greetings from England!

      I have done probably well over a hundred of MoB drills in a professional capacity and I hope that you will not mind if I make a small comment about 'live' MoB excercises? I have of course no idea about the size of sailing vessel you will use, or the skill level of the crew, or the weather conditions when you try this excercise but please may I advise that you think very carefully before you try this 'for real'? Apart from the obvious kit like an inflated lifejacket, the MoB is advised to wear a hard hat or safety hat, like cyclists, or as found on large building sites! If things go a bit wrong, the consequences of hitting someone on the head at 3kts with a boat weighing a few tons are best avoided.

      What you could do is start with a fender tied to a bucket and take it in turns (you and your partner) to practice bringing the boat to a total stop alongside the fender/bucket and lift it back on board. Once you can both do that under sail and under power in winds up to, say 25 knots, you will be as prepared as you can be. Pulling an unconscious person from the water is close to impossible by the one remaining crew on the boat. This is of course a 'Mayday' situation and the best you can do is try to keep his/her head above the water while waiting for help to arrive. There was a fairly comprehensive report in one of the English yachting magazines a couple of years ago where they actually tried your suggestion (a real MoB) and it makes interesting reading. I will try to find it for you.

      Antti - you are right; the best thing is not to fall off in the first place. One little tip: jacklines usually run along the sidedecks, but if your tether is of standard length, you can be in the water and still attached to the boat. This happened in the English Channel last year (at night in 30kts of wind) and the experienced racing crew took half an hour to get him back on board, by which time it was too late. The answer is to use a short tether (half a metre) or run the jackstay near the centreline of the boat - attached to the mast maybe. Also there are some harnesses/tethers that have two strops, one short and the other normal.


    3. Rich, that is a valuable point! If I understood you correctly, the MoB procedure can basically be divided into two stages. The first one consists of locating and keeping the MoB in sight, throwing the horseshoe buoy/lifesling, maneuvering the boat close enough, and if needed, calling an outside assistance via VHF or mobile phone. The first stage can be practiced and simulated safely even in stronger winds with the fender/bucket method, you mentioned. I guess that the biggest challenge in case of shorthanded crew, is related to handling the boat and keeping the MoB in sight at the same time.

      The MoB pick-up is of course the second stage. The greatest challenge in the recovery is posed by the weather conditions. And the problem is, that it may not be safe to practice the MoB in those 'realistic' conditions, as you mentioned.

      About the jacklines, I guess that getting them far enough from the water is a common problem especially in a small and narrow boat. Therefore, I try to always clip to a windward jackline, or to the opposite jackline, where I am working. But it would be interesting to hear your opinion, how to improve the positioning of our jacklines? You can see the positioning for example from these photos:

    4. Yes, that's right Antti; two stages to the MoB recovery. The first is easy to practice, the second (recovering the person) is not. With just two crew, one in the water, I would immediately crash-tack as I mentioned to your dad (below) to stop the boat.

      Of course there is a big difference with someone going over the side in a Force 7 or a Force 2, or in the middle of the night or on a hot summer's day. If it's a bit breezy, and certainly at night, hit the 'Distress' button on the VHF immediately.

      With just two crew, the only way to get a conscious non-hypothermic person back on board is up the stern ladder, unless you can use a halyard or (for example) a block-and-tackle rigged to the boom to attach to their harness/ lifejacket, if they are wearing one. For a bit of fun, try climbing up the side of the boat when you are anchored, or even up the anchor chain itself. It is incredibly difficult! For this reason, as you know, always deploy the boarding ladder before jumping in for a swim...

      If the boat is rolling around in some waves, even getting someone up the boarding ladder can be quite dangerous, because of the fear of batting them on the head with the back of the boat.

      I've had a look at your pictures and the jacklines are where I would put them. Good thinking to use the windward line, but better still is to have one of those strops with a long and short tether. Being attached to the boat by a tether only half a metre is a pain, but better than going o.b. By the way, in the incident I mentioned (above) with the MoB in the English Channel, the chap was attached to the windward jackline, but his strop was 1.8 metres long and he was working on the foredeck. I have found the MAIB report which is well worth reading:
      It was also summer of 2011, not last year, and the recovery only took 16 minutes (not half an hour as I said). Sorry about those errors.

      I don't know if those two-length tethers/strops are available in Finland? If not and you would like a couple, I can buy them in England and send them to you if you can't do an Internet purchase to ship to Finland.

      Probably it is clear by now (sorry!) that in my personal opinion, someone falling overboard is the most dangerous situation a skipper will ever face, and for the record, I would never practice a 'live' MoB excercise unless under controlled conditions; it is too dangerous. The most common emergency on a boat, by far, is an electrical fire; would you set fire to something to practice a 'live' excercise?

      I have never had to deal with a 'real' MoB situation, fortunately, but I have had someone jump o.b. 'for fun' on a hot summer's day, force 3 and sailing at 2-3 knots. She said it was the most frightening thing she has ever experienced on a boat. Interesting.

      One final thing (zzzzz!) don't get too hung up about all this stuff; MoBs are extremely rare. Some time ago I looked at some statistics and in England, more people drowned in their cars than in a boating accident.

      Enjoy the sailing!


  4. Hello all,
    I am very happy to follow your discussion on safety issues. Having joined Antti many times on his sailing trips I have often thought that my attendance onboard may even deteriorate the safety level. For instance in case of MoB I really don´t have sufficient skills to ´bringing the boat under sail to a total stop alongside to someone in the sea in 25 knots of wind´. So an amateur onboard may create a false feeling of safety and decrease surveillance and preparation. Sitting safe ashore and following worried the weather forecasts when the young couple is at sea it is good to know that the safety issues have been taken into account.

    Pertti (Antti´s father)

    1. Hello Pertti! I am sure that with you onboard, the situation is safer. Maybe the excercise we mention is a little challenging at the moment (it is not a difficult skill to learn) but if the Skipper goes o.b. the one great thing you can do is call for help on the VHF. If DD has one of the newer GMDSS radios then one push on the Big Red Button will send an automatic Mayday, with GPS co-ordinates. However even before you do that, crash-tack the boat. This will put her into a hove-to position and the MoB is going to be not far away. If I am not making sense to you (very possible), Antti can explain, or I can give a more detailed explanation.

      On a more general MoB issue, one of the biggest problems is to choose which method to use! Ten different instructors will have ten different opinions. Listen to all of them, pick the ones that make sense and try them out using the fender-and-bucket system. You will arrive at a system that works for you on your boat. Then practice, practice, practice so that the excercise becomes as easy and natural as tacking. (Remember also that the MoB might not be from your boat; you might have to go to the aid of someone else.)

      Best wishes, Richard.

  5. Hi everyone and wow, such an amazing conversation! Special thanks to Rich for the amount of useful comments! We will absolutely take these into consideration when preparing for a MOB drill.

    We have a 24 foot sailboat and 99% of the time we have a crew of two. As Antti mentioned, most of the preplanned drills assume that there are more people onboard. This is why want to do some training - we need to have a working plan. As our background is in aviation, we always prepare for the worst case scenario. Of course one has to pick a proper time, place and wind for such a drill and lots of preparation has to happen first. The hard hat is an extremely good idea. Thank you! I really appreciate the points you made.

    The jackline point is also good (though we refer to lifelines but I assume we are talking about the same thing) and something to think about. We use them from time to time when we find it necessary due to weather conditions.

    Our next safety related action is me teaching my husband a little bit more first aid. My own skills are fairly good and his will be refreshed. One thing I would suggest to everyone is to practice extinguishing a fire. A fire onboard is always very serious and needs rapid but well planned actions. An this I can say from experience and years of training - the first time is always a bit scary, so you might want to do it for a few times to get some routine.

    In CRM one of the focal points is communication, this can not be stressed enough. Information needs to be accurate, especially when describing an emergency and of course in everyday life as well. This is why standard call outs are so great - there's no room for ambiguous interpretations.

    But again, let's keep this going!

    1. Hello again Norppa - I said that I would try to find that magazine article for you ... well, I'm still looking (sorry) but in the meantime, this video clip might be worth watching:
      See also my comments (above) to the other posts.

      Best wishes!


      BTW - (just so that we know what we are talking about) - the English word 'lifeline' (in this context) refers to the "fence" around the boat. The jackline (sometimes 'jackstay') is the fixed line, usually of webbing, that normally runs along each sidedeck, to which one attaches one's personal 'strop' or tether. As you can see from my comments above, it is the length of this personal strop that is critical to crew safety.

    2. Norppa - sorry for the delay, but I have now found that article I promised to find for you. It is in the July 2012 edition of Yachting Monthly, page 12. It is worth reading. If you can't find it, I can send a copy by email.
      Best wishes,

    3. Rich, many thanks for your effort! I would also be interested in the article, but unfortunately, our local library does not subscribe YM and I only started my subscription in the autumn. Thus, I would also be interested to get a copy of the article :)

      Btw. I am not sure if Norppa is still following this thread. If not, I can forward the copy of the article to her.


  6. Yes, the terms lifeline and jackline are very confusing, because in Finnish, the jackline is called "elämänlanka", which is basically a direct translation from the word "lifeline". It took me a long time to familiarize these terms.

    Rich, thanks for the links you sent - very useful information! And also thanks for the offer. I checked that the tether, you mentioned, is available in online stores. So we can order those online, if we can't find it in a local store.

    Norppa, about the use of tethers - it is good to make sure, that there are strong points also in the cockpit, where the tether can be attached. In my previous Avance, I used the U-bolt, where the mainsheet is attached in the cockpit. But it doesn't work well, if more than one people should be attached to it. Thus, in DD, we have added two additional pad eyes near the cockpit floor.

    Another issue is the horseshoe buoy/rescue sling. In the YM's video they test range of safety products. We exchanged the old and crappy horseshoe buoy, which came with the boat, to a rescue sling two years ago. I consider the sling better than the traditional horseshoe buoy, because it can be used also as a lifting device. This is a good video about how it works:


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It would be very great to hear your opinion or comments. Thank you in advance for commenting! -Antti & Minna