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Safety Gear for Coastal Cruising

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For all the supposed terrors of sailing off soundings, any veteran sailor will tell you it’s just as easy to get in big trouble close to shore. The simple fact of being afloat puts you and your crew in a potentially lethal situation, whether you’re in 10ft of water or above the Puerto Rico Trench. And never forget that while outside help may be closer at hand inshore, there’s also a lot more stuff to run into than when land is below the horizon. Here are some tips, techniques and equipment all coastal sailors should keep in mind.

Staying on Board

Is the forecast calling for high winds and rough seas? Are you contemplating any overnight passages or sailing shorthanded? Then harnesses, tethers and jacklines—or at least a number of readily available hard points—should be considered almost mandatory.

When rigging jacklines, make sure they are plenty tight, so that they don’t sag to the point where they allow you to dangle over the side. Webbing is superior to rope because it lays flat and won’t roll if you step on it, providing yet another way to lose your footing. Tethers are typically 6ft long. Double tethers that allow you to remain securely hooked on while switching from one hard point to another are safest. But a single tether is more than adequate for coastal sailing.

Make sure your lifelines are sound. There are few things that can send a sailor hurtling overboard faster than a failed lifeline fitting. That said, the lifeline nettings favored by many liveaboards with children may be a bit much. Children aboard should wear a lifejacket at all times, especially when venturing out of the cockpit. For those with especially rambunctious young sailors aboard, netting around just the cockpit can make a nice compromise.


The key here is comfort. Howevever, unless you are truly a delicate flower, why not go ahead and use an inflatable lifejacket with an integral harness in case you ever need one? They’re not that much bulkier, nor are they dramatically more expensive.

Be aware of the differences between the various Coast Guard categories. Type I offshore lifejackets provide at least 22lb of buoyancy, compared to 15.5lb in a near-shore Type II vest or type III “flotation aid,” which are designed for use in relatively calm water or where rescues are sure to happen quickly. Type V refers to an inflatable lifejacket. This number will typically be paired with another Coast Guard number indicating performance: for example, “Type V with Type II performance.”

Children should always wear a standard flotation jacket, both because they’re reliable and kids can jump in the water without the vest exploding in their little faces. Infants and very small children need lifejackets that float them in an upright position.

Even when sailing coastal you should consider either buying a lifejacket with crotch straps or adding straps to your existing lifejacket.
Although these make a jacket far less convenient to wear, by keeping the lifejacket from riding up around your face and restricting your arm movement, they increase your mobility and orient you better to the water’s surface.

Finally, don’t forget about your pet. Even if your dog (or cat) is a great swimmer, wrestling a scared, squirming animal back aboard a boat in a seaway can be incredibly difficult. All pet lifejackets include a large handle on the back for a reason. And hey, why should the people on board be the only ones who get to look silly?

Medical kits

Any decent medical kit aboard a coastal cruiser should contain ointments, salves or pads for treating burns. Remember, besides the boom, the most dangerous pieces of equipment aboard any boat are the cooker and grill.

Other common injuries aboard sailboats are cuts and sprains, so be sure you have closure strips and bandages to treat a major laceration and/or the necessary materials to create a decent split. You also need a means of washing dirt and debris out of a wound. Of course, if any of your crew requires special medication, you need a supply of that aboard as well.

VHF Radio

VHF radios have become ever more powerful with the advent of digital selective calling, or DSC, which sends out a pulsed SOS that includes everything from your boat’s identity and exact location to the nature of the emergency. Unfortunately, many sailors never get around to fully enabling the DSC function on their fixed-mount or handheld radios—in essence rendering this powerful technology useless. Granted, it can be tricky pairing up the VHF and GPS on some older units. However, with the latest-generation DSC-enabled VHF radios, there’s no excuse. And don’t forget that a handheld VHF is a valauable backup.


Sailors have long debated when it’s necessary to carry an Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon, or EPIRB. Although marvels of technology, they are also bulky, expensive and somewhat redundant for coastal sailing where other vessels are within VHF range. Personal Locator Beacons, or PLBs, which also signal for help via satellite uplinks and a 406 MHz radio beacon, are a viable option for coastal sailors. Althought technically not a substitute for an EPIRB (EPIRBs are registered to a specific boat; a PLB is registered to an individual) they are nonetheless an effective way of summoning help and transmitting your position in a distress situation.

MOB retrieval gear & Tracking devices

Despite the many different MOB products currently on the market, the tried-and-true Lifesling is more than adequate to the needs of a typical coastal cruiser.

Simply having one is not enough: you also need to know how to use it, and that means practice. Second, if you find in the course of your practice sessions that a Lifesling is inadequate to your needs—say a member of your crew is a bit hefty and your muscles are not up to hauling them aboard—then you will need something more.

The question of tracking devices is a bit like that of EPIRBs. If you typically sail in strong weather in your coastal wanderings—especially shorthanded or at night—it makes sense to have your crew wear PLBs and/or an AIS-based personal homing beacon like the ACR’s AISLink or the SafeLink R10 from Kannad. Otherwise, a conventional crew-overboard pole or an inflatable pylon and flotation aid, like those manufactured by Plastimo or SOS Marine, will be adequate.

The one “tracking device” that every crewmember on board should wear at all times after dark is a personal strobe. Go over the side without a light and you instantly disappear into the inky blackness. Have a light on and your chances of survival increase exponentially.


This is another area in which the final decision depends on a particular skipper’s sailing style and comfort zone. Ideally, one member of the crew should be keeping watch at all times while underway anyway, making an Automatic Identification System (AIS) redundant. But if you are in the habit of transiting fog-shrouded waters (using today’s increasingly affordable and user-friendly radar) that also happen to have a lot of commercial traffic, then by all means have a system installed.

Flares/Distress signals

Even in an era of such digital miracles as DSC, EPIRBs and cell phones, pyrotechnic flares are still a great way to summon help in a hurry. As with harnesses and tethers, a particular boat’s signaling inventory should reflect the kind of sailing the crew plans on doing. The Coast Guard minimum for any vessel over 16ft is three day-use and three night-use signals, or three day/night combination pyrotechnic devices, manufactured within the past 42 months. Imagine, though, that you’re disabled in rough weather and poor visibility and there’s a boat barely visible on the horizon, getting smaller every second. Does that sound like enough signals to you? No one ever complained about having too many flares in an emergency situation.


Although some of the items on this list are optional for coastal cruisers, a spotlight is most definitely not. Nor is at least one powerful flashlight. As much as sailors try to avoid getting caught underway or adrift at night, it still happens: think dragging an anchor at 0300 or spending a little too much time ashore and having to wend your way through a busy anchorage in the dark in a dinghy. Then of course there’s the challenge of spotting a crew overboardafter the sun goes down. In all these situations, not being able to see what you’re doing can turn a benign situation into a dangerous one in the blink of an unseeing eye.

Other stuff

Float Plan. It’s a little thing, but before setting out let someone know where you’re going and when you plan to get there. If no one knows you’re out sailing, no one is going to miss you if you get in trouble.

Anchors and Rode. Do you have a spare anchor and rode? If not, make sure you acquire one before you set off. It’s essential to have a backup.

Binoculars. It’s not only tough seeing things at night. Marginal conditions can also be a challenge when, say, trying to pick out a channel in a new harbor or figuring out what exactly that trawler on the horizon is up to.

Small Stuff. How many times have you ended up making a repair with a bit of scrap—say an old piece of wood or a bit of string? While a cruising boat should be tidy and well organized, it need not be pristine. A box of bits and pieces—fasteners, wire, hose clamps, and so on—might enable you to cobble together a spare tiller some day. Hoarders rejoice!

Tool Kit & Spare Engine Parts. If something breaks and you can’t fix or jury-rig it, your boat by definition is less safe. Now, imagine that broken bit of gear just happens to be your engine and you’re desperately trying to keep off a lee shore. Having spares like fuel filters and impellers onboard is key.

Knife. It should go without saying that a sharp knife is a must-have aboard any boat for things like cutting away lines under load or dealing with fouled propellers. On many boats, though, they aren’t aboard or are stored where they aren’t readily at hand in an emergency.

Bilge Pumps. Make sure your bilge pumps are in good working order and that your bilges are free of debris so your pumps won’t get clogged when you need them most. Be aware though that it’s a rare recreational bilge pump that can stay ahead of a really bad leak or failed through-hull. Make sure you have at least one bucket on board to help out your pump!

Through-hulls. The water wants to get inside your boat just as badly while you’re at anchor as it does in, say, the Gulf Stream. Know where your through-hulls are, and ensure you can both get to them quickly and have the necessary plugs or bung ready at hand in case of an emergency. The speed with which water can pour in through even a small hole is truly terrifying.



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