Is sailing safe? It is one of the questions I hear a lot. To be honest, when I get asked if sailing is safe, I always give a very generic, “Sure, no more risky than driving a car.” But is that really true? Is sailing really safe? Or is that just something I tell myself and others to avoid the truth?
To discover the answer to this I decided to break the question of whether or not sailing is safe into some basic issues. As always, I will give you both what I learned and my personal opinion, but ultimately the answer to the question “is sailing safe?” is completely up to you.
What is safe?
The first, and really most important, thing you have to consider when deciding whether or not sailing is safe is to define, what does safe mean to you? Honestly the idea of what is safe and what is not is so subjective, deciding if sailing is safe can really be completely based on your idea of safe.
Some people consider skydiving a safe sport. If you are one of those, sailing is probably safe to you as well. On the other hand, if you think it is risky to go to the store at night, sailing is likely going to be extremely risky in your perspective.
According to the US Coast Guard accident statistics, the fatality rate in 2017 was 5.5 deaths per 100,000 registered recreational vessels. When you look at the National Safety Council’s statistics, they show that in 2017, the fatality rate for motor vehicles was 1.47 per 10,000 vehicles. Now I’m not a math expert, but that would be 14.7 deaths per 100,000 vehicles as compared to 5.5 deaths per 100,000 registered vessels. That would make boating in general less than half as hazardous as driving.
Safety Hazards Of Sailing
Now that we have determined that sailing is much safer than driving down the road, what are the hazards of sailing? As you will see, there are some additional dangers out there when you start considering a round the world trip. The statistics of boating fatalities is based on recreational boating, you also have to take into account that there are additional factors to consider once you venture over the horizon.
This is obviously the greatest risk factor when it comes to sailing. According to the Coast Guard statistics, drowning is responsible for about two thirds of all boating related deaths. Regardless what the initial cause of an incident is, the likelihood is it will end in the water. When looking at the stats, there is a way of mitigating this risk, and a simple one at that. Wear a life jacket. Yes, it is that simple. In almost 85% of drowning deaths a life jacket was not worn. That makes you a heck of a lot more likely to survive any boating accident by just wearing a life vest.
Trauma was the number two reason for fatalities on the water. Despite being the number two reason for fatalities, it only accounts for about one fourth as many deaths as drowning. This was surprising considering that collisions account for about 60% of incidents on the water. I will be honest, I wouldn’t find this odd at all if it was just sailboats, we travel at a relatively slow speed, but this includes all those boats you see going mach 10 across the water. I suspect that as most boats are open cockpits, it is likely that in a collision you are generally ejected into the water. Once there, the primary risk becomes drowning, especially if you are unconscious and without a life vest. Though I have to eat my words a little, I will say my initial strategy I talked about in my blog post Do I Need Sailing Lessons? makes a lot of sense. Don’t hit other boats.
If you looked at the Coast Guard report, I am actually more likely to die of a heart attack then from falling overboard. However, I am also taking into account the off shore aspect of sailing that isn’t completely reflected in this report. Let’s face it; if you fall off a boat in a lake on a warm summer day, you are probably going to survive. If you fall overboard while sailing offshore in Alaska on a stormy day, you will be lucky to survive. The hazards of falling overboard are excessively higher in the middle of the ocean then they would be on some inland lake. The fact that, at the time of this writing, I will be a solo sailor, means falling overboard equates to certain death.
When I talk about piracy, I am not just including the modern day pirates that we read about boarding ships and taking hostages. I am also including any thief that would climb aboard your vessel at night to steal what is in your cockpit or cut away and steal your dingy. Any thief can become dangerous if he is interrupted while he is in the process of committing his crime. Additionally, once aboard he may change his mind about what he is after.
I include these because realistically you are more likely to be boarded by this type of pirate then be chased down and kidnapped. Does this happen, yes, but there are also ways to lessen the chances this happens to you. The biggest is route planning and being aware of where the chances are higher. As far as that goes, I have already been developing plans to deal with piracy, some of which I will share in a later post, and others that will remain top secret for security purposes.
Let’s be honest, the chances that some sort of equipment failure will happen during a round the world trip, is 100%. The reality is you’re not going to make it all the way around the world without having something or another breaking. The question isn’t will it happen, it is when will it happen and how bad will it will be. The only way to combat this is to keep your boat maintained. No matter how much you maintain, you can’t prevent all failure, or control the when, you can only mitigate the how bad. Sadly the control of how bad is only minimal; sometimes it better to be lucky than good.
Causes Of Boating Accidents
When it comes to all the majority of deaths on the water, they can be prevented. With a few precautionary steps, common sense, and a little safety equipment, sailing becomes even safer. So, how do you be safer? Well, first we need to look at why so many accidents happen.
Operator Inattention/Improper Lookout
The number one contributing factor to accidents on the water; operator inattention. I know paying attention seems like common sense, but I have not only seen said lack of attention, but have done it as well. When you think about how easy it is to get distracted driving a car, it makes sense how easy you can get distracted on a boat.
If you have never been on a boat, try setting the cruise control in your car to 7 mph on a wide open country road and travel for several hours. I promise you will get bored quickly. Traveling that slowly in the wide open of the water body you are in makes it easy to get involved in a conversation, mesmerized by the beauty around you, or even just dancing on deck to a good song. The problem is you forget to keep an eye on the 360 degrees of horizon around you.
I included improper lookout in here as well. The operator of a vessel is the first line lookout as well. If the person assigned the helm isn’t paying attention, there is no lookout. Even if autopilot is engaged, there should be someone assigned to the helm. Additionally, everyone on deck should also be assigned as a lookout. I have never had too many eyes on deck.
I solve this in my safety brief. As part of my regular safety brief, whoever is on the helm is responsible for being the primary lookout and not being distracted. Even if autopilot is going, they are still responsible for standing watch, this is made clear again when taking the helm. Also everyone is advised that they are secondary lookouts anytime they are on deck. If you see something, let the helm know. Unless they pointed it out, assume they didn’t see it. I once missed a boat that came out from behind a rock and was behind the sail until someone on deck pointed it out. Safety first; even before ego.
Yes, the number three contributor to boating accidents is operator inexperience. My sister-in-law just said, “told you so”, I heard it from here. There’s nothing surprising in the idea if you don’t have experience, you won’t be as good at what you are doing as when you gain that experience. This is also a factor to consider when assigning any job on a boat. If someone doesn’t know which side is port and which is starboard, they probably shouldn’t be on the helm. If they have never been on a boat, running the sails isn’t the job for them. So, get training and go get the experience to be safe. Check out my blog post Do I Need Sailing Lessons? for more on this.
Alcohol use is number five on the list of contributing factors to boating accidents, but it has the highest number of deaths associated with it. Let me say that again in another way, more people die from alcohol related incidents than any other factor!
I have an easy solution; my boat is a dry boat until the boat is secure at anchor or dock. There is no drinking underway, for anyone. I don’t know if I will relax this to allow for a glass of wine with dinner during a 3 week sail between islands, but at this moment, I just don’t allow it.
There are many other factors, including machinery/equipment failure, weather, rules of the road violations, and hazardous waters. In my opinion, the rules of road violations are related to inexperience and inattention. It is the responsibility of every vessel on the water to have a watch and avoid all other vessels, even if you have the right of way. Additionally, the machinery/equipment failure results in numerous incidents, but very few deaths. Not that is isn’t important, but this was covered above.
The weather and hazardous waters can really be grouped. Generally these two go hand in hand. Foul weather equals fouls seas. Every sailor will find bad weather now and again, but with modern technology and proper route planning, evasive action can be taken to avoid the majority of these issues.
Is sailing safe? In my opinion, I think the numbers show it is. As with any thing you do, you have to use some common sense, not take stupid risks, and use the safety equipment that will help protect you. If you choose not to follow those guidelines, it is likely no sport, hobby, or task is safe for you.
I know this sounds harsh, but the reality is sailing, just like the vast majority of other things we do, is safe. That isn’t saying there aren’t risks involved, there is. But, considering statistically speaking I have a one in six chance of dying from heart disease, the odds of surviving a sailing trip, even around the world, seem relatively safe. Moreover, when you look at the growing statistic chances of dying prematurely of health issues, why not sail. It’s safer than driving, and you get to see far more of the world.