During a recent conversation with retired Coast Guard rescue swimmer Mario Vittone, I asked for his take on safety equipment for sailing offshore, and he responded with an answer I’d never heard before.
“You have to be prepared for where you are going, not for what you’re doing,” Vittone said.
“You’re not going sailing,” he continued. “You’re going out and surrounding yourself on all sides by something that wants to kill you if you get into it. If you’re not geared up for that possibility, then you’re not ready to go.”
A Bit of Background
When you register for an ocean race or bluewater rally, you’re expected to adhere to certain safety standards. It’s a fact of modern organized ocean sailing.
The Caribbean 1500, now in its 25th year, sets the standard for offshore safety equipment in bluewater rallies. Our equipment list is based on the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) special regulations for ocean racing yachts, which were created following major disasters in the 1979 Fastnet Race and the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race. The ISAF rules stipulate everything from lifeline type to the righting moment of the hull and include a list of safety equipment required for most of the world’s classic ocean races.
The World Cruising Club, which now administers the Caribbean 1500, led the way in adapting the ISAF rules into an easier-to-comprehend format that modern ocean cruising sailors can better utilize. Interestingly, the Newport-Bermuda Race committee adopted a similar set of rules in 2014.
“Even with everything else you know about sailing, you still may end up in the water by yourself,” say Vittone, who served in the Navy before joining the Coast Guard and is now a Coast Guard consultant who trains both recreational and commercial crews.
“In the end, you’re still 400 miles offshore,” he stresses. “Plan your ocean crossings for ‘I’m going to be in the water by myself, I need to get someone to me before I get dead.’ The rest of it is your sailing experience, and boat maintenance and drills and all the stuff we do.”
But shouldn’t skippers be responsible for ensuring their boats are equipped to their own standards as they see fit? Why should they be told what to buy?
Vittone has an Easy Answer.
“People listen when I talk,” he says. “I’ve been through all the bad days. I’ve seen what happens when people don’t do the right thing, and it doesn’t work out well for them. People don’t want to see me jumping out of a helicopter to come get them. I see it as an educational problem. What is the point of that long list of expensive gear? The way I see it, it’s common sense, and has nothing to do with simply ‘playing by the rules.’
I’m telling you, when you’re in the water, you’re going to want that gear!” Vittone stresses. “You’re not going to care what it costs.”
Liferafts and MOBs
When a potential Caribbean 1500 participant first makes an inquiry, they’re given a checklist of required safety equipment. Once they register for the rally, they receive a bound handbook that includes the same checklist, with an explanation of the safety gear, why the standards are what they are and what differentiates, say, an ISO-9650 liferaft from a coastal or non-certified offshore raft. In the months leading up to the event the owner and his crew outfit their boat and familiarize themselves with the equipment.
Peter Burch, a longtime 1500 safety inspector, has examined hundreds of boats over the years. “The safety check is all about helping skippers and crews review and finalize their emergency action plans, which they should have been hashing out in the months prior to the rally,” he says. “Perhaps more importantly, it’s about getting a second set of eyes on the boats. Most skippers find the whole inspection process very useful.”
“One more set of eyes never hurts,” agrees Caribbean 1500 veteran Rick Palm, skipper of Altair. Rick and his wife Julie have circumnavigated and have sailed back and forth to the Caribbean over a dozen times, but still gladly submit to the safety check each year. “Last year, after all these years, that inspection really paid off,” he adds, noting that the liferaft aboard Altair, which had been stowed aft in the transom in a hard case, wouldn’t budge when Burch went to pull it out.
Worse yet, when they did finally manage to shimmy it free, the painter wasn’t attached. Apparently Altair’s raft had last been packed away by a boatyard back in Maine—a very reputable one no less—but they’d still forgotten a detail that might have cost Rick and Julie their lives.
The Caribbean 1500 safety checks take place the week before the start, in Portsmouth, Virginia. The inspection team visits each boat and helps crews review what they have been practicing over the previous months. The inspection takes around an hour. It begins on deck, with a look at lifelines and jackstays, guardrails and navigation lights, and as the team goes over the boat they don’t just inspect the emergency steering; they test it.
Liferafts and MOB gear are two of the most confusing and expensive items on the equipment list. Liferafts must meet ISO-9650 Type A, Group 1 specifications, which require a number of features in an ocean-going raft, including adequate ballast pockets, a double-insulated floor, an inflatable boarding ladder, a food and water ration pack and medical kits. The ISO standards also specify float-chamber material. When you closely inspect a variety of liferafts, it’s obvious that they are indeed not created equally. Never forget what your liferaft is ultimately for—spending a day or two (or even three) living in it on the open ocean before help reaches you.
Regarding MOB gear, the old axiom “stay on the boat” still applies, but you must also plan for the worst-case scenario. With this in mind, rally yachts must carry two distinct devices. The first is a “marking” device, a piece of equipment that is not attached to the boat, and is intended to both mark the spot where a person went into the water and provide flotation.
In the old days this was typically an MOB pole with an attached horseshoe buoy, drogue, whistle, light and reflective tape. But while these still work fine, they take up a lot of valuable space and are difficult to deploy in a hurry. Nowadays, the simplest solution is the Danbuoy3, which replicates the above setup, but is entirely inflatable. It’s about the size of a small cockpit cushion and is simply thrown overboard when deployed. Unlike a liferaft, or Switlick’s fixed-mount Man Overboard Modules, they’re user-serviceable and cost under $300.
The second piece of required MOB gear is a retrieval device for getting the person back onboard once they’re found. The Lifesling 2 is by far the most common choice, and is what we recommend. It’s attached to the boat and is inherently buoyant, as opposed to being inflatable. (One of the two MOB devices must be—i.e., you can’t carry two inflatable devices, in case both happen to fail.) Once the MOB reaches the Lifesling, they’re in contact with the boat—just reel them in and get them aboard.
Having to carry two MOB devices may seem redundant and unnecessarily expensive to some skippers, but once the distinction between these items is explained and demonstrated, most people get the picture and happily oblige.
The Nitty Gritty
In addition to checking out big-ticket items like liferafts and MOB gear, the safety inspector also checks the dates on all of a boat’s flares and makes sure that the correct quantity is on board (6 red handheld flares, 4 red rocket flares and 2 orange smoke bombs). He will also ask to see your Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB. All Caribbean 1500 boats must have one, but inspectors often find skippers don’t know how to test them, a task that should be performed at least once a month. Inspectors record each EPIRB’s unique registration number, ensuring it matches what’s on file for each boat. They forward that data on to the Coast Guard, along with sat phone numbers and emergency contact details ashore.
Moving belowdecks, inspectors check that heavy equipment is properly secured so as not to become a dangerous projectile in case of a knockdown. Then they review galley safety—for example, can the fire blanket be easily accessed without reaching over the stove?—and examine the boat’s medical kit.
In the United States, it’s now becoming common to see ISO-rated lifejackets, including those fitted with crotch straps and spray hoods (Spinlock’s Deckvest is the most widely available), which are required features on the inspectors list. One of the major challenges is explaining to crews who’ve sailed under the old regulations why these additions are necessary.
“Just inflate your lifejacket and jump in the pool, you’ll see!” says rally veteran Paul Geppert, of the Tayana 42 Moonshadow. “Without the crotch straps, the thing rides up so high you can’t see. It’s real tiring trying to keep it down, and that’s in the pool!”
Each lifejacket must also be in good condition, must have the boat’s name marked on it, and must have a whistle, a light, reflective tape, crotch straps, a sprayhood and a harness line.
In addition, there must be re-arming kits on board for each type of lifejacket. This involves carrying more than just a spare CO2 canister, something I learned the hard way once on a delivery back from the Bahamas. When one of our lifejackets accidentally inflated when we were washing down the boat during a stopover, I realized the arming device itself also needed to be replaced. This put that lifejacket out of service, as we only had spare canisters onboard. Back home, we bought several spare arming kits, provided by the manufacturer, that include everything you need, right out of the box.
This is by no means a comprehensive list—the Caribbean 1500 safety equipment requirements are quite detailed, but I’ve highlighted the major areas of confusion and concern. That said, aside from out-of-date flares and missing crotch straps on lifejackets, it is rare that we encounter any major problems during the inspections. Most skippers are well prepared long before they arrive in Portsmouth.
Evolution of an Inspection System
In the early days, Caribbean 1500 rally founder Steve Black used to look the boats over himself. He also created a checklist that skippers could use to inspect each other’s boats. Eventually, though, Capt. Hal Sutphen realized that in addition to the Safety at Sea training before each rally, the event also needed a more formalized inspection system. It’s been that way ever since.
The best inspections are those conducted aboard boats owned by first-time rally participants, who arrive two weeks ahead of the rally start. We make sure all necessary safety systems have been properly installed, and are tested and ready to go, so that only provisioning, crew orientations and participation in the seminars remain on their agenda before setting out. Another fun group are veteran rally participants. Most enjoy having the second pair of eyes looking things over again and we both come away with new ideas.
The toughest inspection I ever saw took place aboard a boat that had been purchased out of charter and had gear aboard that had not been serviced or maintained in years. The owner also said he did not need a raft because the boat was a catamaran and with its two hulls, was unsinkable. Of course, when I asked what the plan was if the boat was on fire, he began to see the point. In the end, he got everything on board that he needed and had a successful first rally. I lost track of him after he went on to the Pacific.
Although owners will occasionally push back on our suggestions, most of the time it is because they haven’t thought through the practical use of the equipment they have on board. After all, how often do we actually put it to use? Add to that the need for additional equipment they may not have and some feel it is just more stuff taking up needed space and expense.
When we get the opportunity to demonstrate and provide background for the rally’s requirements, people are receptive. We’ve learned as inspectors the value of a second pair of eyes and to never assume. I can’t tell you how many times owners have said their rig was just replaced or upgraded, only to inspect the clevis and cotter pins and find things missing or pins not bent back, and so on.—Peter Burch, Head Safety Inspector
Chuck Burns, skipper of Topaz, a custom wooden cutter he designed himself, found himself without crew only a few days prior to the Caribbean 1500 start in Portsmouth in 2013. At the last minute, he got in touch with Austin Moon, a 20-something kid from Texas. Sailing on Topaz was to be Austin’s second big offshore passage, and he was excited at the opportunity. Rounding out the crew was Percy Lidback, who switched boats at the last minute.
Three days out from Portsmouth, during some of the heaviest weather of the passage, Topaz, the smallest yacht in the fleet, took a wave at a weird angle. Percy was jolted onto the cockpit seat and dislocated his shoulder. It was late at night, long past dark.
Austin contacted Rally Control and calmly explained what had happened. He was given the number for the Coast Guard, which patched him through to a doctor ashore. On the doctor’s advice, the crew immobilized the injury and took Percy off the watch rotation. They also gave Percy some Advil to ease the pain, and Chuck decided to head for Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas, the closest port where they could get Percy to a doctor.
Over the next few days, Rally Control remained in regular contact with both Topaz and the Coast Guard. Percy was fine, though uncomfortable, and it appeared he had not suffered any long-term nerve or blood vessel damage, thanks to the simple diagnostic tests Austin had performed with the doctor’s advice.
By Friday night, three days after the initial injury, Topaz was outside Man-O-War channel in the Abacos. Their engine had conked out, so Austin and Chuck had double-handed the boat all the way there under sail alone. By then the Coast Guard had passed along its information to Bahamas Air and Sea Rescue (BASRA), who were in contact with Topaz when the boat arrived (again, at night). They arranged to tow Topaz through the reef and had Percy off the boat and into a hospital where he was treated immediately and recovered fully.
“Diverting to the Bahamas was the right thing to do,” Chuck says. “I have nothing but praise for the Caribbean 1500 staff, the USCG, the Bahamian CG, the Bahamian Immigration and Customs who all worked together to expedite our entry into the Bahamas and get medical help for Percy...I also have much appreciation for Austin, who took up the slack and worked hard aboard Topaz to help get us to safety.”
Topaz’s experience is a great reminder of the value of being prepared for any and all contingencies on an ocean passage. They handled the entire situation calmly and professionally. Austin, on his second passage, certainly gained a wealth of experience. After realizing the situation wasn’t dire, I think he actually enjoyed the challenge.