Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Regular readers of this blog will know that I love to go sailing alone on my Laser around the local bays. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes things break. Lately I've been asking myself what I should be wearing or carrying with me on my Laser to deal with emergencies that might arise. What do I need to get myself home safely if something bad happens?

I partly addressed this question a couple of years ago with my Top Five Tips On How Not To Die On Your Laser. Perhaps the most important of these were to wear a life jacket (or buoyancy aid), and to wear a wetsuit or drysuit if the water is cold.

One of my top five tips was to sail with a friend. But often I break my own rule. I like the freedom to go sailing on my own without having to persuade a sailing buddy to go with me. I like the freedom to sail for as long as I want to where I want. I just like sailing on my own.

So what extra precautions should I take when going for a long sail in my Laser on the sea on my own?

I thought a good starting point to answer that question would be to use the Vessel Safety Checklist that Bonnie of Frogma wrote about at Introducing the Relatively New (And Entirely Excellent) Paddlecraft-Specific Vessel Safety Check Form! The US Coast Guard have long had a safety checklist to be used for larger vessels, but in conjunction with the American Canoe Association they have recently developed a checklist more appropriate for canoes and kayaks, probably in response to the growing statistical overrepresentation of canoes and kayaks in fatal boating accidents.

Yeah, yeah, a Laser isn't a kayak but I think this list could be a good starting point. Let's see if we can adapt it for a small single-handed dinghy. I'll give my opinions, but please feel free to add stuff in the comments.

1. I take it as given that the boat should be in good working order. No frayed lines. No obviously corroded fittings.

2. And we've already discussed being dressed properly for the conditions, including wearing a PFD.

3. High visibility clothing. Great point. It is hard to see a person in the water if they are wearing dark clothing. So I always remember to wear my bright yellow PFD and an orange hat when sailing alone.

4. VHF radio. Ahah. I think this is the most important thing I need to add. If something breaks and I'm totally unable to sail, and I'm a mile or two offshore, and god forbid maybe in the middle of a shipping channel, I need to be able to call out the emergency services to come and rescue me. I'm thinking also that it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a radio that I can carry on my person, not under a hatch on my boat. My worst case scenario is being separated from the boat and not being able to swim back to it. Not likely I suppose but it's as well to be prepared. There is also the possible scenario that the boat has turtled and I'm injured or too tired to be able to right it. Not much point having a VHF radio inside the hull in that situation.

Any recommendations on a portable, floating, waterproof VHF radio?

5. Cell phone. Something else that I ought to carry with me on the boat. Partly as a backup to the radio, and also for the scenario where I have to go ashore on some beach that may only be two miles away by sea from my launch point, but thanks to the unique geography of Rhode Island, it could be thirty miles away by road. That's when I need to call my wife to come and act as taxi driver. I guess it would help if the cell phone were waterproof? Any recommendations?

6. Compass/ GPS/ Chart. I can see a compass being handy if one of those sea mists sweeps in from Rhode Island Sound and I get totally disoriented to the way home. But do I really need GPS and charts for Laser sailing?

7. Paddle. Could be handy if it's totally impossible to sail home (e.g. broken mast.) I guess I could use one of those "praddles" that Opti sailors use. But how would you mount it or store it on a Laser?

8. Sound signal. Whistle? Horn? I've never believed much in whistles. Don't think you can hear them very far. But an air horn to use in the fog just before being run down by the high speed ferry to Nantucket? Maybe?

9. Navigation lights. Oh geeze, now we are getting serious. I haven't imagined getting into a situation where I was still out after dark, but I guess it could happen. Should I have a flashlight I could shine on my sail so I don't get run down my some massive coal carrier? It reminds me of one of Michael Green's Coarse Sailing stories, but I guess it's a simple precaution.

10. Flares. Now this is getting seriously serious. Do kayakers really carry flares? Should the crazy old geezer sailing alone in a Laser carry flares? In what situation would I conceivably use one?

11. Sun protection. I always lather up with enough SPF+++ to last me all day. Actually a more useful safety measure for me might be to carry a spare hat rather than a spare tube of sunscreen. This old head doesn't have much natural protection on top these days.

12. Food and water. I always carry a drink and an energy bar or two when I go for a long sail. I guess it wouldn't be any more trouble to carry a little more for the eventuality that my departure from civilization might be longer than expected?

13. Personal ID on operator. This is a good one. Always helps to identify the body I suppose. Or at least to be able to call my wife and say they've found me and I might actually recover. Actually I keep thinking I should carry some ID when I'm running too in case I have some medical emergency on the trail. Don't they make wristbands with IDs? I should do this.

14. Float plan with someone on shore. Another good one. I always tell my wife where I'm launching from and what time I expect to return. But I never put it in writing. Should I? And maybe I should be more specific about my expected route. It would help any rescuers to know whether I was 5 miles south or 5 miles north of my start point, I suppose?

15. Contact information fixed to craft. I had not thought of this before, but I guess there is the scenario where the Coast Guard or someone finds an abandoned Laser a couple of miles offshore or washed up on some remote beach and wonders what happened to the skipper. Do they launch a massive search operation or is he tucked up at home in bed already? I should do it.

16. Emergency kit. The paddle-craft checklist suggests first aid kit, knife, repair kit, fire starter... Fire starter? Oh geeze, this is starting to sound like that TV Survivor program. But maybe a first aid kit wouldn't be such a bad idea. At least enough stuff to staunch the bleeding next time I nearly chop off my finger. And what kind of boat repair kit would you need in an emergency on a Laser? All I can think of is a few pieces of spare line and a big roll of duct tape.

OK. What am I missing?

This post was sponsored by who did make a contribution to the Tillerman Laser Sailing 2011 Campaign and Tuesday Night Beer Fund (TLS2011CATNBF). These folk do a nice job of promoting boating safety and, if you are in the USA, you can obtain your boating license from


Antolin said...

wow..many items to think about...I too enjoy the solace that sailing the Laser alone brings. When I go out on my own, I sail all over Hillsborough Bay...always with a pfd on, a leatherman, 1 bottle of water, several lines, only latele a cell phone (albeit) inside the inspection port bag...glow sticks only on thursday night races...a flash light...only on thursday night racing...good topic Timonel!!

Ari said...

First person to post a picture of their fully equipped safe Laser, paddle and all, gets one free day of Laser charter on their next visit to the Laser Training Center in Cabarete. Value $90.00.
This is not a promotion for the Laser Training Center, I wouldn't dare use other people's blog to do that. It is to show our support to the safe-Laser movement that has just began here.
By the way, in a more serious safe Laser mode. We did have a few padded booms, for tall people learning how to jibe.

Tillerman said...

Nice one Ari. I may just have a shot at that!

Of course the kayakers would say we should be wearing helmets, never mind padded booms.

David said...

I don't think I saw a knife in your list. Get one with a proper rope cutting blade and wear it on you.

O Docker said...

After the stuff you've already got, I think a portable VHF would be at the top of my list.

I've had good luck with this one from Worst Marine. It's one of the smallest ones out there. Today, practically all of them are rated as submersible, although I haven't dunked this one, yet.

I think a regular cellphone in a plastic bag is a good idea, too, besides the VHF. A waterproof cellphone would probably be pricey, and if you were wet and needed emergency help ASAP, the VHF would probably be more useful.

They're also making wrist-mounted GPS units now which might be more handy for giving rescue folks an accurate position than anything else.

Be careful out there.

johnz said...

Where's the roll of rigging tape in the pfd? I once cobbled a hiking stick swivel out of lots of rigging tape after wiping out in my Moth ... ignored your rule 1 and hadn't learned to let go quickly. I also keep a few extra pieces of line on the boat and in Sept when daylight is short, pin a personal strobe to my pfd. Sometimes we Mothies have to swim/slog our boats in and it is slooow going.

Sam Chapin said...

If you have to carry all that stuff, why not just stay upwind of home base and then when things break, it will be a lot easier to get back home. If you can't stay up wind, don't forget that if you get the vang unhooked you will be able to close reach home with only about half of the sail pulling. If you can get ashore, you can take the top batten out and roll up a lot of sail on the mast. Don't try to sail around the world on a Laser without the "mommy boat" along.

Baydog said...

Then there's always golf, I suppose.

Put a lifejacket on and go sailing.
If it's iffy, be aware and don't take chances, or just stay home and mow the lawn.

O Docker said...

Lawnmowers are safe in the garage, but that's not what lawnmowers are for.

AdriftatSea said...

The most important thing you're missing though is one of the most basic... an anchor. The anchor is one of the most overlooked pieces of safety gear there is. On bigger boats, like mine, using the anchor when you have a problem can give you the time to solve the problem without having to worry about the problems getting worse. At a minimum, you'd want a small anchor with at least 100' or so of 1/2" nylon and 10-15' of 1/4" chain.

If you lose the mast, tear the sails or the wind dies--deploying an anchor can prevent you from drifting out to sea or going aground in dangerous waters.

A PLB would be an excellent addition to your safety gear... since it is registered to the person and not the boat and doesn't trigger automatically if it gets immersed.

Sony Ericsson and several other companies now make "rugged" cell phones that can withstand immersion.

However, a VHF, like the SH 850s, is a much better idea, since it has a single-button DSC rescue feature and VHF is a one-to-many broadcast technology where cellphones are point-to-point. Also, cell-phones are dependent on being within range of a cell tower, and most cell towers are positioned to provide terrestrial, not marine, coverage.

Standard Horizon and Icom both make excellent portable VHF handhelds that float. Standard Horizon makes a couple models that have integrated VHF and have limited DSC capabilities-which is a good thing in an emergency.

A rigging knife, like a Boye's Cobalt Carbide folder, and a multi-tool, like the Leatherman Surge, are both very useful. They both have blades that can be opened with a single hand.

Your PFD should have retro-reflective tape on it as well as a strobe. This makes you a lot more visible in low-light conditions.

A signalling mirror, a long-duration glow stick, rigging knife, and whistle should also be attached to the PFD, so that you can signal help as necessary.

Charts, hand-bearing compass and GPS are all good things to have aboard.

As for horns, the EcoHorn is a pretty great device. It charges via a bicycle pump and is quite loud.

Carrying some high-density food and water is always a good idea. PowerBars are an excellent choice, and last a fairly long time.

Navigation lights aren't necessary or required on a small boat like a Laser. A powerful flashlight, preferably an LED one, is a great idea though, since shining it on the sails will make you very noticeable at night, and all that is required by the COLREGS IIRC.

Carol Anne said...

While a cell phone is not as good a communication device as a VHF radio, I do love my Samsung Convoy, which I got exactly one year ago today. It's billed as water-, dust-, and shock-resistant and supposedly built to military specifications. At $100, it's more expensive than a basic phone, but it has stood up to being dropped, drenched, and sandblasted many times.

Tim said...

This may have been covered in one of the linked items, and if it has I'm sorry for repeating it.

Tell someone where you will be going, or what area you will be sailing in, and what time you are expecting to be back.

On the theme of sailing upwind first - go up tide first (assuming of course that you wont be gone so long that the tide changes direction whilst you are away!).

So you could add tide tables to your list, or a least some trip planning, before you go.

A lot of the items mentioned in the list really depend on how long and how far you are going, as well as the nature of the area you will be sailing - do we assume this type of trip is only conducted on the sea? (note: see planning)

Tillerman said...

Thanks for all the suggestions, friends, especially the advice on suitable VHF radios and cell phones.

George A said...

Item 13: Cyclists wear a thing called a "Road ID":

Alternatively, Tillerwoman could knit you a sweater with a design unique to the "Tillerman" clan, like the Irish fishermen wear--that way the sweater could be used as an identifier, providing your bloated carcass eventually washed ashore of course. An added benefit is if the wool had enough mutton fat worked into the yarn you could probably skip the wet suit, the SPF and maybe even bug spray.

Tillerman said...

LOL George. Actually, many many years ago my wife did knit me an Aran sweater with one of those unique designs. It would have been quite fashionable for Laser sailing back in the days when people wore woolly sweaters to double as weight jackets when wet.

Are you sure mutton fat would keep the bugs off?

George A said...

Come to think of it, once the fat turns rancid it'll probably draw flies; that never seemed to be considered a disadvantage to sailors back in the Viking period. But no matter, you're a cunning sort who will probably be able to spin this small bit of adversity into a tip for a training manual which you could flog here to dinghy sailors hoping to "sniff" out the secrets which separate the sharp end of the fleet from the mid-pack. So, there it is then: in one stroke I've provided you with not only a useful safety tip for your solo outings but also the key to "monetizing" your blog spot.

bonnie said...

To borrow the famous movie line:

you're gonna need a bigger boat!

I think people have mostly covered everything I use and then some.

I'm seriously curious, though - where do you put all this stuff on a Laser?

My kayak has a dayhatch, a small compartment right behind the cockpit, which is the perfect place to stow all the stuff. It's a sealed-off section of maybe 1 1/2 or 2 feet of the hull with it's own hatch, so you can open it in the worst conditions without compromising positive buoyancy - and then of course you can fit a tent, a sleeping bag, changes of clothes and water and food for several days in the bow and stern compartments if you wanted to. Who doesn't like camping?

The "ID on the operator" was a new idea for me! I always have ID in my boat, plus contact info on a sticker, but when they mentioned that at the cold-water workshop where I got inspected, my reaction was "Oh, right, of course, why didn't I ever think of that?"

Flares - yes, I carry flares. Orion Skyblazers, nice little portable ones (picture on this post). They come in 3-packs. I would get another kind if I was going offshore or into a less-populated area, this type is actually notorious for at least one flare of any given 3-pack being a dud. The way I always imagine using them is in conjunction with my VHF, if something happened where I found myself stuck somewhere - I'd call for help, and when I knew somebody was in the area and looking for me, then I'd give the flares a try to help them pinpoint me.

I actually saw that method used very succesfully one Fourth of July in the Norwalk Islands - probably a flare gun since it was a motorboat but same idea. TQ & I were camping on Shea Island when someone in a neighboring campsite had a heart attack. They called for help on the VHF and then once the flashing blue light came into view, up went the flare and the launch was able to go straight to them instead of having to muck around figuring out where their campsite was. The person survived.

I would really, really, really love to set up a flare test day with the CG Auxiliary at the neighboring yacht club. I have so many expired flares at home, and it bugs the heck out me that the personal pyrotechnics are the ONE piece of safety gear that I've never actually been able to try out under controlled circumstances!

bonnie said...

ps - my crazy friend Marcus (the one who circumnavigates small countries for fun) got into Laser sailing for a little while.

Ended up not being his thing, but for the brief period he was doing it, he was doing it as intensely as he kayaks - and yes, he would wear his surf helmet when he went out alone on windy days!

Tillerman said...

It's certainly an issue where to store all this stuff.

You can put inspection hatches (usually 5" diameter I think) in the deck of a Laser. This gives you access to the whole of the inside of the hull which is not compartmented like the section bonnie describes on her kayak. So just tossing stuff in there is not advisable. Chances are you would never see it or be able to reach it again.

Usually laser sailors put a small bag inside the hatch (with a rigid opening that sits in the hatch opening.) So then you can put small things in the bag... a cellphone, some spare line, a couple of powerbars, a spraytop etc.

But space in the bag is definitely limited. I'm not sure where I would keep that liferaft that a couple of my Facebook friends suggested!

laser158689 said...

Heartily agree on the ROAD ID. Where it whenever you sail paddle swim ride run row skydive bungee jump free-climb basejump etc etc etc.

Baydog said...

Okay. The lawn is done. All good suggestions admittedly, although a few not so practical for Laser sailing.

bonnie said...

ps - re gps/charts/compass - I agree about the compass being the one thing of the three that you should always have on you (although it wasn't a pass-fail item, just recommended). GPS was nice but highly optional. The charts, the examiners were more interested in just hearing that you had charts as reference material - I think most of us small-boaters get to the point where we've pretty much memorized the chart of our usual area; I very seldom carry a chart of Jamaica Bay but even if the fog rolled in too fast for me to get a bearing, as long as I had the compass, I would know how to get home.

Tillerman said...

Exactly bonnie. I don't really need a chart to know where I am or which way is home in the areas where I usually sail. Although occasionally I look at a chart after sailing and think, "Uh oh! I didn't know there was a rock there."

Ross said...

I carry a Rescue Laser Light from Greatland Laser in addition to pyrotechnic flares and a strobe. It is very small and will let me signal for several hours.

unmgfeu said...

Carol Anne probably pointed out an affordable water proof cell phone. In Europe it's sold as Samsung B2100 and is supposed to withstand submersion for a limited time.

The alternative would be water proof case or a pocket if you want to carry it on you all the time. I have spray top with a pocket that actually stays dry when I go for a swim (even though the damn thing itself floods because the wrist seals don't hold up very well), one by a certain british Laser master sold under the brand name R******. I have trusted my old non-water proof cell to it.

However how you would produce a cell from that pocket and make a call while floating in the water while wearing a pfd, possibly with waves breaking over your head, and keeping the cell dry I don't know.

Lifetime Boater said...

Wow! Awesome blog post, and some amazing comments! I agree with David, though. You really out to include a small knife for cutting rope.

Other than that, the only thing I think left off was just your old-fashioned life vest/jacket (whichever term you prefer). :)

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