O is for Overboard

One of the first rules of sailing is to ‘stay on the boat’. There’s a good reason for this. Should one of us fall off while underway at sea our chances of being able to get back on depend on many things, including weather and sea state, and whether it’s daylight, the water temperature, whether the person in the water is conscious or injured…all those things and more come into play. We have a Life Sling on board and sure, we’ll practice with it.  But what are the odds we’d have to use it under the circumstances that we’d be practicing in? Not very good, frankly. When I think of one of us actually falling off the boat, I feel like this:

The best we can do is to mitigate the circumstances under which we could or would fall off the boat. So we have safety equipment, and we have protocols.  Knowing that we’ll be using logical brains to create rules for safety, and that we’ll have the right gear, means that I can sleep at night and not worry too much about this. Isn’t it odd the things our brains choose to be freaked out about? This one doesn’t freak me out much because in spite of the fact that I would be freaked if it DID happen, I don’t think it’s GOING to happen.  So really, when I think about the chances of one of us actually falling overboard in the middle of the ocean, I feel more like this:

Maybe I’m in denial. That’s a good defense mechanism to have when it comes to leaving your home on a daily basis. I mean, if you think too hard about how dangerous a place the world can be, then just getting out of your bed becomes an exersize in throwing caution to the winds. Perhaps I’ve fallen under the spell of denial and it’s keeping me from perseverating on whether either of us would fall overboard.  On the other hand, we do have a few things going for us on this matter.

We have a big, well designed boat. We have high lifelines, which we will not be depending upon to keep us on the boat, but which help. How does having a big boat help? Well there has to be a good deal of wind to get our boat to heel over very far, and she can take bigger waves than our Cal 34 could. When she is heeled over, we stay on the high side if we have to move about the deck. We have high freeboard, which is both a blessing and a curse, so waves have to be pretty big to wash over our deck. Our cockpit is super protected. It would be really hard to fall overboard from our cockpit. And if you did manage it, I guarantee that being overboard would probably not be the only problem you were having.

Furthermore, there are lots of handholds and we are very good about keeping at least one hand on the boat. After all, we learned to sail on a Catalina 27, then graduated to a Cal 34. Both of those boats were much more tender than our 47 foot Galapagos. We developed the habit of holding on tight from the get go and don’t take that for granted. Neither of us is too proud to crawl on hands and knees to get forward if conditions require it. And we have mast pulpits. Actually those sturdy mast pulpits are a very attractive feature of our boat. We also have high bulwarks, which give us something else to brace against when sitting down on the deck.

Our center cockpit is down low in the boat, allowing you to hunker down and be protected.

When we are on a passage, we will have harnesses and jacklines and be attached to the boat in the cockpit. The lines will not be long enough to allow a body to fall overboard. We’ve all seen those videos where people use their harnesses and the lines are actually pretty long and they go overboard and then get dragged under the water. No thanks. I prefer to stay on the boat no matter what, so ours will be too short to allow us to go over. We’re just going to have to make the rule, which we had on Moonrise when doing that overnight passage across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, that when conditions are rough you cannot leave the cockpit without your harness and line on at all times, day or night, when on watch alone or not. And no one leaves the cockpit at night at all without alerting the partner, regardless of whose watch it is.

The most dangerous thing is not being in high wind/waves at sea. Everyone is on high alert then and thinks about things like falling off the boat. The most dangerous thing is complacency. It’s when things seem safe and calm that people let their guards down. This causes behaviors like forgetting to put the PFD on when it’s a calm day, walking forward without paying much attention because the scenery is so nice, and in the case of men, peeing overboard. Ladies, don’t laugh too hard at the  men. Women have been known to fall overboard this way as well, although on our boat this would be a mighty uncomfortable position.  Just use your head and use your head.

A sobering statistic from the US Coastguard tells us how easy it is for people to become complacent, fall overboard, and then drown. This, from their 2014 statistics:

Where cause of death was known, 78% of fatal boating accident victims drowned. Of those drowning victims with reported life jacket usage, 84% were not wearing a life jacket.

The mast pulpit, seen on the right of the photo, is completely sturdy and makes a huge difference to security at the mast. The high bulwarks give us something to brace feet against when sitting on deck and keep things from going overboard.


At the end of the day, these rules are only as good as the people who go by them. We will have to both agree that we will follow them all the time. Not just some of the time, but always. We’ve been discussing this lately and so far, we both agree to all of this. This summer we will be putting attachment points for tethers in the cockpit and deciding how to deploy our jacklines. If you’ve done this on your boat and want to give us your opinion of what would work for ours, please let us know or come by the boat.

What are the rules and equipment you have on your boat that help you stay on board? Got a confortable offshore PFD that you don’t mind wearing all the time? Let us know what you have. They are on our to-buy list for this year.

Just joined us for the A to Z Challenge? Want to read from the beginning?


20 thoughts on “O is for Overboard

  1. I’ve seen the MOB video you mentioned and have a real problem with it. The tether that’s attached to the dummy’s harness doesn’t go over the lifeline; it goes under it. Depending on how well the stanchions are attached to the boat, I would expect them to hold the weight of one person before collapsing which would take 4 to 6 feet out of the length of the tether and keep the MOB’s head out of the water. So, absolutely, we attach ourselves to jacklines whenever we have to leave the cockpit in offshore conditions.

    • Yes, exactly. I agree with your opinion about that video. Our jacklines on Moonrise were very straight forward in that, as a sloop aft cockpit, one line easily led fore and aft. On Galapagos it’s going to be more of a challenge to find a good run for the lines.

  2. I am (much to the intense surprise of most people who learn of our cruising plans (a complete non-swimmer. Not that I haven’t tried to learn, believe me. But it hasn’t caught on yet.
    Partly that’s a result of not yet working with a swim instructor who believes me when I say “I SINK”. Too many still believe that everyone can float, but it just ain’t true. (Well ok, I’ll float eventually – after I’ve been drowned for a few days!)

    So for me, a comfortable PFD is simply part of the uniform, and if we’re underway in ANY way (in the dinghy, or motoring to the fuel dock 100 yards from the mooring, even!) I’ll have it on. Mine is an inflatable, USCG approved type-2 performance in a type-5, auto-inflation, with harness, and we’ve just purchased the same for Nicki, who’s a strong swimmer but she’ll need it for passages anyway.

    Otherwise, rules very similar to what you describe: Nobody goes forward unless the off-watch is informed, jacklines rigged for night or passages, hard points in the cockpit (not yet installed but coming soon), and tethers short enough to keep us aboard – period. Wish we had mast stanchions, but Sionna isn’t roomy enough.

    Great post on a big subject!

    • I had to laugh when I read your comment about your swim instructors. I was one for 10 years but I never met anyone who actually couldn’t float if given the proper instruction. Mostly for those who have little fat on the body and dense muscle mass, it’s a matter of position and inflating the lungs as completely as possible, and then holding your breath. Not comfortable for long periods of time, but it can be done. Try teaching that to a 5 year old. So much fun! Still, knowing how to swim isn’t going to necessarily save your life in an overboard situation, especially in cold water or if you are unconscious. A good PFD is the only way to go. And staying on the boat.

      • Wow Keith – I didn’t realize you were a non-swimmer. I learn new and interesting facts about you each day 🙂

        We have Spinlock PFDs. They’re okay in terms of comfortableness and I bet there would be something just as good and more comfortable out there, but given what we paid for them, we’re going to stick with our Spinlocks.

        I like having a center cockpit on our boat. I feel safer in it and less like I’ll fall out. I don’t know that I’m really safer, but it feels that way.

  3. Another great post, Melissa.

    I’m afraid haven’t condensed all of our thinking into one of our ‘Stuff we have and use’ [and do…] pages yet.

    However, I can offer a couple of blog posts with lots of info, our PFD selections, electronic alert device choices, links to lots of other qualified resources, and ties back to forum discussions on these topics:

    Staying Onboard: http://svdenalirosenc43.blogspot.com/2016/04/staying-onboard.html

    Emergency Alert Devices: http://svdenalirosenc43.blogspot.com/2015/10/emergency-notification-devices.html

    And as I mention in the above posts, if you aren’t already a member of Attainable Adventure Cruising: morganscloud.com I can highly recommend joining. It is the best US$1.66/month we ever spent…



    • We haven’t fallen, either, and to be truthful we don’t always wear them, although Mike is better about it than i am and frequently reminds me to put mine on. I’m good about wearing it most of the time. Guess I need to be better about putting it on the minute I come up from below.

  4. I will start out by saying, I don’t really swim either. I have taken lessons numerous times, and it is still pretty much a “no go”. I can however, float, tread water, and sort-of do a dog-paddle, side stroke sort of thingey. Not really what I would call rescue maneuvers. You could put this on the Fear o Meter/Traumatic Experience Barometer on high. Think falling off a dock at 2 yrs old, and having my first memories be of seeing the underwater pilings of the dock, and having my 4 and 6 yr old brothers pull me out by the neck of my T-shirt. ie, see parents freak-out when they found out what happened! (I know, more than you wanted to know, TMI.) My family are “airplane” people, not “water” people, and then I met Bill, the sailor guy, (Fate intervenes), and good for me, he is actually, in my words, “The King of Just-in-Case”.

    I love my Spinlock PFD, it is the most comfortable one I tried on. It certainly helps Amy to calm down, because it’s equipped with lots of gizmos that will let EVERYONE in the vicinity know to come get me, and where I am at.

    We have enjoyed meeting in person at a “Higher Latitude Sailing” seminar, the authors of the Attainable Adventure Cruising website. They are very experienced, and know their stuff. If you haven’t already subscribed to them, I would encourage you to do so. There is a small fee, but I feel the information I have learned is well worth it. They have a whole section on MOB, and did the practical experiments to back it up.

    (I apologize if Bill has posted the same thing, it’s always fun (?), to compare notes after the fact.)

    I enjoy your posts, you are a learned sailor, and also saying out loud some of the “stuff” that goes on in my head.

    Donna / svdenalirosenc43.blogspot.com

    • I’m familiar with the Morgan’s Cloud website and have subscribed in the past. I will check out that link. It sounds like with your traumatic experience at a young age, fear gets in the way of your learning to swim. Putting your face in the water is one of the hardest things to teach about swimming when it comes to people who are afraid, and to teaching young children as well. It’s really counter intuitive to do that, isn’t it? I’m very glad the posts are helping you understand that the stuff that goes on in our heads makes us part of a crowd!

  5. This is a subject that sends my fear-o-meter off the scale, and I fully embrace denial as my principal means of coping. We have all the standard equipment, wear our PDFs religiously, clip in at night or in heavy weather, have practiced man-overboard routines (although it’s been awhile) and I guess enough experience now to know that the likelihood of one of us going over is slim. And besides, my fear keeps me hyper-vigilant (drives everyone else batty, but that’s their problem). One trick we learned if you have to work up forward on a pitching deck: use the spinnaker halyard to clip onto your harness and leave just enough slack to work. A little extra security makes things much less stressful.

  6. This was a comment sent personally to me from the former owner of Galapagos (ex. Walhachin). He has been a great resource on the boat and continues to sail vicariously through our blog. Thanks Derek for your advice and help through out the years.

    Hi Guys
    Just read your last blog re overboard. One thing some people do is have their safety line set up in such a way that they have only one attachment point. Then they have to unhook it from the boat to move it to the next point. It may only take seconds but still it is a opportunity to have an unexpected roll or wave knock you off balance. We always had it set up with two attachment points so that we could always have at least one point attached to the boat. It was a nuisance at times but we felt safer.
    I almost went overboard once during a sloppy night watch. Reached outside the cockpit on a relatively calm night to adjust the loose headsail sheet and a sudden roll made it tighten up flipping me almost through between the upper and lower life lines…. That required a change of underwear!!! All those hand holds and high stanchions were part of my renovation of the boat when I bought her. The old ones were much lower. Again as I mentioned in an earlier ramble having an overturned dinghy on the fore deck gives you a good support in rough weather.
    The cockpit deck used to have teak slats which gave good foothold in on your ear sailing conditions and I still have a teak triangle shaped thingie that gave us a angled footrest running fore and aft amidships on the cockpit deck…. If you want it its yours.
    Not to spook you but once running up to the northern Cook Islands from Bora Bora in 40 knot for several days we did have a wave come up over the stern and soaked us. Otherwise that cockpit is wonderful. Often beating into heavy seas we would have the windward cockpit side curtain in place to filter the odd sheet of water sneaking on board.
    Going forward when beating we usually went up the leeward deck as that way we were leaning into the boat rather than leaning outward or leaning down in a head first position towards the centre of the boat. We never really sailed with the lee rail under water so the trip Forward was usually dryer than the windward side.

  7. I’m really enjoying these, and wish they had appeared before we took off (July,2014.) You are already better prepared than I was, as you seem to have done lots of sailing in recent years, which is the best preparation. I didn’t do nearly enough, and took off with a pretty entrenched wind phobia that is only now going away. Still, all the other worries, like falling off, whales, hemorrhaging our savings, being too old to work again (not retired either, quite yet.) have really lessened. Someone wise taught me to number my fear level, from one to ten, rather than speak in words like “I’m scared to death!” I’m sure a therapist such as yourself would understand why. So, we now ask each other our number when things get hairy. My base level is unfortunately about 1.5 to 2 all the time, so I can never actually claim my number is zero, but I can aspire to it.

    • Wow, I think you must be very brave to have gone sailing with a wind phobia! That’s a tough one to deal with on a boat. Yes, the numbering system is very much like my Fearometer. 1-10 is a great way to do it, like they rate pain in medical situations. If your baseline is 1.5 -2, then maybe one of the posts to follow will give you some ideas on getting it down further. Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m glad you are enjoying the series.

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