The Most Essential Sailing Safety Equipment

Lesson 2 from the True Stories of Sailing Fatalities


When they think about dangerous situations, most boaters imagine storms or conditions from which they cannot escape. Experienced sailors almost always feel they are safe on the water when they are prepared for threatening conditions with the right gear and knowledge of what to do. This includes the classic skills of seamanship, such as:

  • Heavy weather sailing techniques such as heaving-to
  • Crew-overboard training and equipment
  • Effective navigational skills to prevent groundings, collisions, etc. along with a chartplotter
  • Safety equipment like fire extinguishers, a first aid kit, a PFD for everyone aboard, etc.

In reality, however, this traditional approach to safety and seamanship does not prevent most sailing fatalities.

Why Most Sailors Die

It's not the storms or other scary hazards. Most sailing-related fatalities occur to sailors who fall in the water not when engaged in "dangerous" sailing but while anchored, docking, etc. - in short, at times you'd least expect death to be lurking nearby. Based on Coast Guard statistics, that's Lesson 1 from the True Stories of Sailing Fatalities.

In other words, a sailor has a much greater risk of dying when sailing along on a nice calm day than when confronting a storm at sea, or when rowing out to the boat in a dinghy than having the boat sink from any possible cause.

The single most important safety lesson for all sailors is an attitude of preparedness, of knowing that a tiny slip at any moment can result in a sudden emergency.

Whenever you are on the water you should be thinking about what could happen. What if someone falls overboard right now in this situation? What if my engine dies right now as I'm entering this narrow channel? Simply thinking about "What if" - and then acting in ways to prevent or solve the problems that might occur - can make most sailors far safer than buying more specialty boat safety equipment.

The Essential Safety Equipment

Only two pieces of equipment are essential for preventing most sailing emergencies and fatalities - but only if you're actually using them before the emergency occurs (remember: when you least expect it):

  • Wear your PFD. A huge number of things can result in a sailor ending up in the water. Remember that many sailors die simply by slipping when climbing a boarding ladder into the boat from a dinghy. About 83% of sailing fatalities result from drowning, and 88% of boaters who drown weren't wearing their PFD. With the new, lightweight inflatable PFDs that you don't even feel you're wearing, there really is no excuse anymore not to use one.
  • Keep a handheld VHF radio on your person. A lot of solo sailors have died (again, usually in calm conditions, and very often in port) simply because they ended up in the water and were unable to call for help. Except in extremely cold water a PFD will keep you alive a long time - but in many cases you won't be able to reach safety by yourself. This applies to groups of people on small sailboats as well. Countless times every year, for example, small boats capsize in a sudden gust or unexpected thunderstorm, plunging sailors into the water too far from shore to reach safety on their own. The smart ones keep a small submersible VHF radio(preferably a DSC GPS submersible handheld VHF) on their belt. The lucky ones are seen by someone on shore, who calls for help. The others sometimes die. And if your boat's VHF radio is DSC-capable, connect it to the GPS of your plotter for greater safety in an emergency.

    By doing just those two things, as well as filing a float plan, sailors greatly decrease their odds for becoming one of the 700 boating fatality statistics every year. And best of all, the gear is inexpensive (compared to lots of boating equipment) and, once it becomes a habit to don both, you don't have to think about them rest of the day. Just get out there and sail!