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Cruising Tips: How Not to Fall Overboard

Stay safe

Staying safe on board involves a combination of common sense and good equipment

Contrary to popular belief, the risk of falling overboard is not at its greatest when you are battling high seas and ferocious winds. That’s when you’re keyed up, clipped in, acutely aware of the dangers and prepared for the worst. I have seen two people fall overboard from sailboats and gone over the side myself once. In all three cases, the weather was mild, the sea state was calm, and the sailors involved weren’t doing anything risky. They just had their guards down.

One was walking along the cabintop when the boat lurched to a wave. He grabbed a dangling reef pennant, the sun-perished line snapped, and over the side he went. Another was leaning over the side pulling a dinghy up when the top lifeline gave way; he somersaulted right into the dinghy, didn’t even get wet. As for me, I was bent over threading a new lifeline through a stanchion and lost my balance when a wake rocked the boat. Splash. Good thing I was on a mooring.

That’s how easy it is. I bet countless other sailors have similar stories. The lesson is a simple one: your baseline defense against falling overboard is situational awareness. However, that is just one part of the equation; there are many other ways to minimize the chances of you or one of your crew taking a potentially fatal trip overboard, and it’s wise to be aware of them. 

Deck and cockpit design

The typical sailboat is designed and equipped for pleasurable sailing, and on-deck safety takes a back seat to comfort and styling. Beyond raising booms well over head height and moving mainsheets from the cockpit onto the cabintop, boatbuilders, in general, have paid little attention to the thorny issue of crew safety. In fact, the never-ending quest for sleeker and more attractive styling, along with fatter stern sections and wide-open cockpits, has had some retrograde effects in this area.

Most modern cruising boats now have all lines led aft to the cockpit and helm. When sails can be set, dropped and reefed without the need to leave the cockpit, there is little cause to go forward in the normal course of events. One growing trend is to conceal working lines in under-deck galleries, at the same time downsizing grabrails or even sinking them into the cabintop to heighten the impression of an unbroken expanse of teak or fiberglass. This is all very well until the boat is heeled over 15 or 20 degrees and someone on the high side loses their balance. With no lines to grab onto and grabrails concealed too, there’s nothing to arrest their progress as they slide down toward the cold ocean to leeward. In fact, given a wet deck, they’ll probably accelerate. With a bit of luck, they’ll be saved by the lifelines. They should be clipped on, you may say, but who is during a daysail?

A raised bulwark or high toerail has long been considered essential for crew safety, but these are both becoming rare. One way designers and builders mitigate the towering freeboard on many of today’s bigger boats is to do away with these safety features. I’ve seen more than a few modern cruising boats aboard which the toerail has been reduced to a molded, smooth platform maybe an inch high.

One positive aspect of modern deck design is that the increasingly common large-main-small-jib sailplan allows sheet tracks to be placed well inboard or on the cabintop itself; if the boat has a self-tacking jib, the tracks can be done away with altogether. Uncluttered side decks are much safer to navigate at night or in heavy weather.

What about lifelines? Unfortunately, you can just as easily go over, under or between them as be saved by them. I, for one, have an almost irrational distrust of lifelines, probably because I’ve seen so many poorly maintained examples. Imagine a 200lb person falling into your lifelines from 10ft away: would your stanchions and lifelines take such an impact? Better to not take the chance. Some boats, like the Moody 45DS and 54DS, have full-length stainless steel railings instead of wire-and-stanchion-setups; the Xquisite X5 catamaran is also engirdled by stainless railings. Yes, they add weight, but they also provide peace of mind. The Catalina 425 has its sternrail extended to just forward of the cockpit—this is an excellent idea and one more builders should emulate.

Cockpit design has in many ways changed for the better over the years, but that extra user-friendliness at anchor means you must be more aware when underway. Wide-open spaces combined with a lack of handholds spell danger. Boats are beamier these days, and because on any modern boat of more than 32ft or so there is no way you can brace your feet against the opposite seat, a permanently affixed cockpit table has become an essential bracing point. The helmsman is in an especially precarious position when the boat is well heeled, with a long way to fall to leeward. In another blow to cockpit security, cockpit coamings, usually reassuringly high on older boats, tend to suffer on modern boats because of the demands of the stylists.

1. The pushpit rails on this Catalina 425 extend to the front of the cockpit. 2. Antiskid tape on hatches and other slippery surfaces can keep you on board. 3. This Dyneema jackline is sheathed in webbing and attached to a sturdy padeye. Note the useful toerail. 4. It is rare these days to see grabrails forward of the mast, but they make a lot of sense

1. The pushpit rails on this Catalina 425 extend to the front of the cockpit. 2. Antiskid tape on hatches and other slippery surfaces can keep you on board. 3. This Dyneema jackline is sheathed in webbing and attached to a sturdy padeye. Note the useful toerail. 4. It is rare these days to see grabrails forward of the mast, but they make a lot of sense

Making your boat safer

There are various ways to improve on-deck safety on your boat, many of them low-cost and easily accomplished. Start by looking for trip and slip hazards. Any kind of clutter on the decks is a liability. There’s not much you can do about genoa sheets and tracks, except to make sure to keep lines under some tension so they don’t form loops or snarls. If your whisker pole is kept on deck, consider stanchion mounts. On some boats the genoa’s furling line is led across the foredeck, a dumb move if ever I saw one. Racks of jerrycans lashed to lifelines, leaving just a few inches of deck to maneuver along, do nothing for onboard safety.

It’s easy to step on a slippery deck hatch at night or in the heat of a sail change, so apply some clear antiskid tape to any that may be underfoot. The same goes for parts of the smooth cabintop sides that may be stepped on when the boat is heeled. The tops of cockpit coamings are another danger area that could benefit from an application of antiskid tape or paint—note where your feet and hands naturally fall as you walk around your boat at various points of heel.

Molded antiskid is good on some boats but useless on others, and if you’re forever having trouble keeping your footing on a wet (or dry) deck, consider an aftermarket deck paint like those from Pettit, Interlux or Kiwigrip, or a proprietary stick-on covering like Treadmaster. Wear grippy shoes. Plenty of so-called “deck” shoes have little grip on a dry deck, let alone a wet one. Don’t allow spray-on sunscreen aboard your boat—as much of it inevitably ends up on cockpit seats as on the person.

If you have a dodger, it’s a good idea to add handrails to its sides, since there is typically little to hang on to at the point where you climb out of the cockpit to go forward. Most boats today also have grabrails that stop well short of the mast; depending on the boat’s vintage and construction, it may be possible to add more. Older, poorly maintained teak grabrails cannot be trusted to take the weight of a grown person, so replacing them with sturdier stainless steel is a good move.

On the foredeck, think about lacing high-strength Dyneema cord or netting between the toerail and the top lifeline. As well as helping to keep headsails on board, this could prevent some unlucky soul from slipping through the gaps. The heavily trafficked area around the anchor locker and windlass is another excellent place to add some Treadmaster or grippy deck paint.

Multihull foredecks are usually wonderfully safe places, but even here you need to be careful since trampoline lashings can deteriorate and break without warning.

Recessed grabrails and concealed running rigging leave little to hold onto (left). Rigging jacklines as close as possible to the centerline makes more sense than running them along the side decks

Recessed grabrails and concealed running rigging leave little to hold onto (left). Rigging jacklines as close as possible to the centerline makes more sense than running them along the side decks

Beyond that, coated wire lifelines are accidents waiting to happen—the only question is when they will fail, not if. If they last 10 years you’re lucky. Once the plastic starts to crack and lets in moisture, corrosion will set in. I’ve had a rusty lifeline come away in my hand with essentially no tension on it. Replacing lifelines is an easy DIY project and not expensive to have done professionally.

Similarly, the dangers of a swinging boom are not to be underestimated—not only can a boom knock you overboard, it can kill you on the spot. It’s always wise to rig a preventer when sailing deep angles downwind and to sheet in quickly to tame the boom if you’ve come up into the wind to drop the mainsail. Admonish your crew to never stand on sailcloth or hatches when dealing with sails.

Speaking of which, one way to stay safe is to avoid going forward while at sea in the first place. Leading all halyards aft and setting up a single- or two-line reefing system so you can shorten sail without going to the mast will get you a long way toward this goal; though if you think you’ll never have to go forward at sea, you are deluding yourself. The resulting extra tangle of lines in the cockpit doesn’t exactly promote safety either.

Mini-jacklines for the crew in the cockpit are a good idea (left). The high toerail is a thing of the past on most modern boats

Mini-jacklines for the crew in the cockpit are a good idea (left). The high toerail is a thing of the past on most modern boats

Tethers and jacklines

Of course, if you’re attached to your boat, you can’t fall overboard—can you? Of course you can! But at least you’ll be attached to the boat, and your shipmates will have a fair chance of getting you out of the briny alive. The subjects of tether lengths and jackline location have been much discussed over the last few years, ever since a widely publicized incident in which a British sailor died after he slipped off his foredeck wearing a tether long enough to let him drown before he could be recovered. ISO and ISAF regulations state that tethers must be 2m (6ft 6in) or less long. I think even 6ft is too long; combined with the usual sidedeck jackline, such a tether would do nothing to keep you on board, which is the whole point of man overboard prevention.

The latest thinking is to wear a dual-length tether with one leg half the length of the standard 6ft item, and to run jacklines not along the side decks, but closer to the centerline of the boat, over the running rigging. The combination of a short tether and inboard jacklines makes much more sense than the alternative. When you’re working at the mast or on the foredeck, you could clip the short tether to a strong point, and/or double up the long one as a backup. Safety experts advise against attaching yourself to the mast or shrouds because you’d be in trouble should the mast go over the side, but such a scenario is unlikely; you’re more likely to be struck by lightning.

Strong points must be just that—strong. I’m a big fan of folding padeyes, but do make sure they are up to the job—buy a reputable make such as Wichard, not some cheapies off the internet. I am installing folding padeyes on our new project boat at the risk points—helm, mast and foredeck. If you were really thinking things through, you might also attach static tethers at those points so you could just clip them onto your harness when you arrive.

World Sailing’s Offshore Racing (OSR) regulations specify that jacklines and tethers must have a breaking strain of 4,500lb. Jacklines can be made from strong Dacron webbing, stainless steel wire or 1/4in (no smaller) Dyneema. There is a school of thought that holds there must be some stretch in jacklines to absorb the otherwise jolting impact of a body falling from a distance. However, another school of thought recommends they be well tensioned, with just a few inches of deflection in the middle, and that’s the way I set up mine. Dacron webbing is inherently stretchy in any case, which is why it is often better used to encase stainless wire or Dyneema line to stop the latter from rolling underfoot.

Another approach to jacklines is to rig them at shoulder level above the deck, fastened midway at the cap shrouds. This has the considerable advantage of providing a vertical component to keep you on board.

Whatever your jackline setup, you must be able to clip onto it before leaving the cockpit. Each jackline should run almost the length of the boat and be as close to the centerline as practicable. Terminate each jackline about 6ft from the transom so there is no chance of being dragged through the water astern.

One hand for the ship…

Regardless of the amount of gear on your boat, your prime safety asset sits on your shoulders. Nothing beats common sense. If you go forward, think out your moves in advance, especially in rough weather or after dark. Tell newbie sailors how to move safely—keep your center of gravity low and inboard, don’t walk on the leeward deck, use one hand for yourself, one for the ship, don’t be embarrassed to go forward on your hands and knees if it’s kicking up, and never let your guard down.


Annapolis Performance Sailing


Landfall Navigation


West Marine


July 2017





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