Chip Ford’s 1974 Catalina 22 Restoration Project
Sail #3282  l  Marblehead, Massachusetts

Personal Safety Aboard

A recent message to the discussion group (which follows) prompted my response below.

“With great sadness I report that we lost a sailor here at Canyon Lake a few days ago. A member of our yacht club, the 68 year Doctor and his wife went out on a very blustery day in their 27 foot S-2. The facts are unclear but it seems they went out about half a mile, decided it was too rough and proceeded to return. The mainsail fouled somehow and he went up on the cabintop to inspect, and I suspect the boat gybed and the boom smacked him overboard. The wife said she threw a life ring or cushion or something but he went down and did not come up. She couldn’t get the engine started, apparently couldn’t sail the boat, but had the presence of mind to get her cell phone and dial 911.

“When the rescue people, county or Corps of Engineers I don’t know, got to the boat, they found her, I hear, huddled on the sole of the cabin. Probably sobbing and hysterical. Can you imagine?

“His body surfaced yesterday and was identified. I did not know the couple.

“Makes me shudder as I never wear a life jacket. Kinda stupid I know as I mostly singlehand. I gotta realign my thinking ...”

I’ve gotten into the habit of almost-always wearing my self-inflating lifevest while sailing alone, absolutely always if I’m moving out of the cockpit and onto the deck.  In fact, before I took off on my second Coast of Maine cruise, I bought a second one, because the velcro on the first kept letting go and became such a nuisance, with the deflated flotation bag and inflation bottle slipping out and needing to be tucked back in constantly, that I hesitated to bother donning it.  I’ve also secured a small strobe light to its shoulder, and tied on a whistle on a lanyard.  Since I mostly singlehand, and do some good distance cruising for our little boats often 4-5 miles offshore, I’ve had to think about the worst.

One late-morning just after I left my mooring, wending my way through all the other moored boats and out the harbor, another boat approached.  I was just putting on my lifevest as it passed alongside and the woman on board shouted over, “Hey Chip Ahoy, good for you!  I’ve been trying to get him to wear a lifevest, but he won’t listen!”  The gentleman at the helm just smiled, shook his head, and waved at me as if to say, “Ah geez, nag, nag, nag.”  I thought to myself, “Hey, I was just ’a good example’!”

If I’m in the cockpit on a reasonably calm day with someone else aboard, just lounging at the tiller, I may not have it on, but it’s across from me within reach:  it comes out of its aft-starboard locker at my mooring right before I hook-up the tiller-pilot above the locker hatch and stays out until I’m back on the mooring or tied to a dock and remove the tiller-pilot.  If I move forward for any reason while underway, it goes on.  During my singlehanded cruises, it’s always on.

Both vests have built-in safety harnesses and D-rings.  I built an attachable tether modeled after the one on my old stand-alone safety harness that I had a sailmaker custom-make for me thirty years ago for my first boat, “Even Song,” the 48’ ketch we almost all died on.  At one point on that fateful day, the only thing that kept me from being swept overboard by a 20’ wave over the bow (where I happened to be dousing the jib) was that safety-harness.  I made my new tether an extra foot longer on each end than the old one: one of the shortcomings, I always felt, of the one I’d had made.  But you don't want it longer than you can reach, in the event that you have to quickly release yourself in an emergency (like the boat going down), and for that reason too you want the snap-clips to be easily unsnapped.  If conditions get a bit rough, I hook it to the lifevest by its carabineer and to the boat.  It’s stored in the same locker as the vests (and air-horn, dock lines, other PFDs), within easy reach of the tiller.

I've since added a SAR lifevest for really rough situations.  All the other safety/rescue gear attaches to it with velcro and lanyards.

Before my first Coast of Maine cruise (2004), on Dick King’s advice I added the folding swim ladder to the transom.  It’s held up with a bungie cord that can be released from the water.  Since then, at least I have a way to get back aboard, should I ever find myself in the water and alone out there.  Before I left, I got 35’ of 1/2” line and tied knots every two feet in its last 30’, a loop at its trailing end.  If conditions warrant, I tie it off to the boat (to the mast before I had a stern pulpit, and still use a cleat) and toss it overboard behind the boat.  Then, I’ve got something to grab for if I unexpectedly hit the water, can even clip the safety harness to the loop.  I haven’t deployed this often, but it’s there if conditions warrant.

After adding the stern pulpit, I added a life-ring and bracket on it before my second Maine cruise, but of course that only works if I’m aboard and someone else falls overboard.  I solved the problem of it falling off its bracket (saw that about to happen once) with a sail-tie bungie.  A couple wraps around the life-ring/mount and it’s secured; a flip of the T-fastener through its loop and the “spring-loaded” bungie pops free, the life-ring ready to toss.

Initially I didn't subscribe to having a line attached to the life-ring -- feeling that the boat would drag a poorly tossed life-ring away from a MOB.  I had my mind changed after discussing it with others, so added 60 feet of polypropylene floatable line to it, clipped on by a carabineer for quick release. It can be cleated after throwing, or just left behind if necessary The line is dual-purpose:  It will double as a desperation grab-line dragged behind the boat in rough weather while singlehanding.  It has replaced the 35’ of 1/2” line I had initially used.

The best solution, I believe, is to have the life-ring attached by a line to a buoy and pick-up pole with a flag on top, which all goes overboard when you toss the life-ring, and makes sighting and recovery easier.  Skip Meisch has this setup on “Slow Flight.”

My greatest concern while sailing singlehanded with the tiller-pilot engaged, as it usually is:  If I go overboard, the boat’s going to keep going right on course!  At least that grab line (and usually the dinghy towed 20 feet behind) is there to attempt grabbing as a desperate last resort, keeping me with the boat anyway until I can hopefully get myself back aboard.  The one thing you can’t do anything about, sailing up here off the New England coast, is the water temperature.  No matter how well you plan, if you don’t get out of the water within half an hour or so, hypothermia will win in the end as you gradually lose strength and consciousness.  That’s why commercial fishing boats up here are all equipped with survival suits.  (I’m not there yet!)

I usually always sail with at least the lower cribboard in place. I hold it in place with a bungie cord so it can't float out when I need it there the most -- if the cockpit fills with ocean. All this just in case the boat gets knocked down. It's only happened to me once, almost a second time, but I've never forgotten the experiences. If it's not there, it's too late when you need it, if you ever do -- just hope it's there if you do.

After hearing reports of a Catalina 22 going down fast when a cockpit hatch opened in an unexpected knockdown, I added carabineers to the lazarette seat covers to keep them secured as well. When I come aboard and remove the locks, the quick-release carabineers are ready to snap on.

I’ve always got my handheld VHF clipped to my belt:  even 5 watts broadcasting from absolute sea level is better than nothing, especially if a rescue boat or aircraft is in sight.

I also always keep a sharp serrated folding knife, on a lanyard attached to my belt, in my pocket.  I’ve done this ever since an old salt whose boat I planned to crew aboard down to the Bahamas many years ago insisted that all crew aboard his boat carry a sheathed knife.  He’d lost a previous boat in a sinking that almost took one of his crew when that crewmember got tangled in some of the lines as the boat went down.  The crewmember didn’t carry a knife; Fred barely managed to reach him, cut the line, and save him from a sure drowning.

On my second Maine Cruise, I rented an EPIRB from the BoatUS Foundation for three weeks ($50/week).  I never needed it, but it was worth having along for the peace of mind.  That comfort was so appreciated that I bought my own personal locator beacon (PLB) and keep it handy if not attached to me.

I also check in by cell phone with Barbara a couple times daily as roughly prearranged times when I’m on an extended cruise, and file an easily-accessible USCG “float plan” for my major cruises (2004 / 2005 / 2006 / 2008 ) both with Barbara and on this website (and inform others that it’s available here), just in case all else fails and the worst occurs: I’ve disappeared and somebody’s out there trying their damndest to find me.  (The U.S. Coast Guard doesn’t want you to file it with them, just have it prepared and available.)

For more details and photos of the latest safety equipment aboard

 ”The life you save may be your own!”