What are the dangers of sailing

You’ve certainly heard of the scary sailing stories. Sunken sailboat, fire, lightning, dismasting during a passage, collision and even worse stories.

What are the real dangers of sailing? If you don’t know much about boats like we did before we decided to sail around the world, you will find the answer in this article.

You’ve been probably told that the sea is too dangerous. Much more than traveling by car or plane. That’s exactly what our families told us when we announced to them our crazy project: to quit everything and to sail around the world. It seemed too risky to them. What experience did they have with sailing? As much as we did: any experience at all.

As our sailing adventure went on, we gained experience and had to handle numerous difficulties at sea. Problems on boats are common and it’s part of the sailing adventure. The danger is everywhere.

Is sailing dangerous?

Yes, sailing at sea involves risks. The danger comes directly from the sea. Around and below the boat is water everywhere. If the weather is stormy, if there is a problem with the boat or with the crew, it is impossible to park your boat as you would do with a car in a parking.

There is no escape when you are on a boat. You have to know how to manage problems and try to return to the coast or wait for help. At any time, during the day or night, in good as in bad weather.

The problems add up on land, on the other hand at sea they multiply. We would even say that a problem can become exponentially dangerous at sea.

For example, if your anchor doesn’t hold well on anchorage or if a mooring buoy breaks overnight, your boat can finish in the rocks in a matter of minutes. At night you can’t see anything, it’s hard to find your way around, you will experience stress and adrenaline. In panic and stress, bad decisions will be taken.

On a boat, you can go from heaven to hell very quickly. But by taking lessons, practicing and not underestimating the sea, you will learn how to better manage risks.

What are the dangers of sailing?

News is most of the time speaking about spectacular and rare accidents like a sunken boat, a boat in the rocks, a dismasted boat, a boat destroyed by lightning.

Since we started our sailing journey, it was in 2014, we realized the common dangers of sailing come from the following sources.

1. The captain

The biggest danger on a boat is the captain himself. What does this mean? A sailboat is a complex floating device. And the captain manages multiple roles to operate this machine and to keep it afloat: pilot, sail trimmer, mechanic, electrician, repairman, meteorologist, nautical chart reader, tailor, painter, carpenter … As the field of knowledge to acquire is very extensive and takes time, the captain will make mistakes because of his ignorance and underestimating the elements. But he will learn from these mistakes.

Boating is not a quiet hobby. The weather can get worse, the wind picks up, equipment failure or breakage can occur, as well as injury to a crew member.

You have to know how to react very quickly on a sailboat in such moments. The captain must take an urgent decision to deal with critical situations. But he remains a human and makes mistakes. Under stress, under the influence of adrenaline, inattention or fatigue, he will not always take the right decision. This also applies to an experienced captain.

2. The weather

The weather is a big enemy of a sailboat, just like any other means of transport. Sea conditions depend directly on weather conditions. As soon as the wind picks up, waves form and can reach several meters. The waves aren’t good neither for the boat nor for its crew, and the risk of accidents and equipment damage increases dramatically.

Wind and gusts can also cause damage to a boat. The larger the surface of the sails, the greater the force exerted on the sails and the whole boat structure. When sailing, you must constantly monitor the strength of the wind and adjust the sails in order not to tear the sails or dismast the boat.

At anchor, you also have to be vigilant. Winds can suddenly pick up and cause the anchor to slip and the boat can end up in another boat, in rocks, stranded on a beach, or drifting out to sea.

A sailor checks the weather before going sailing. The weather forecast is reliable up to 3 days in advance. For a cruise lasting several days or weeks, it is essential to check the weather conditions regularly to adapt the route or to take shelter. Each geographic region has its specific meteorological characteristics which should be researched in advance.

3. Breakdowns and breakage

Breakdowns and breakage on a sailboat are common and are an integral part of the adventure. The equipment deteriorates very quickly despite being built with strong and resistant materials. Wind, salt air, UV rays, vibrations and humidity quickly destroy everything on board.

A worn seal that brings in water, seams that unstitch, an electrical connection that oxidizes, an engine that no longer works, an autopilot that stops working, a steering wheel that jams, a sail furler that jams… Anything can break on a boat.

On a sailboat, it’s like a domino game. A failure often leads to other problems. One goes from heaven to hell very quickly. A sailor must have spare parts on board, know how to repair his equipment and be prepared to deal with emergencies. Overall, he must constantly maintain the equipment.

4. Accidents

“Domestic” accidents aboard a sailboat are much more common than you might think. A boat floats on water and the sea is constantly moving because of the waves, the current, the swell, the tides.

You lose your balance very easily. The movements are unexpected and violent. You can bump, hurt yourself, you can fall, get thrown, you can slip, burn yourself, cut yourself, fall into the water. It can range from a simple domestic accident to a serious or fatal accident.

Reaching the coast by sailboat and getting help can take several hours or even days in case of longer passages.

Is ocean sailing more dangerous than coastal sailing?

Coastal sailing involves more risks than ocean sailing. Even if people often think the opposite. Coastal sailing extends up to 2 nautical miles from the coast (3.7 km). The coasts are riddled with dangers: rocks, shoals, fishermen’s buoys, signalization buoys, other boats, wrecks, ports, gusty areas …

Coastal sailing requires constant attention from the sailor. The reaction time to avoid danger or in case of a breakdown is reduced. Sailors are also less vigilant relying on help in case of problems. We also had the worst misadventures near the coast.

Ocean (bluewater) sailing involves another type of risk because one sails beyond 60 nautical miles from the coast (111 km). This corresponds to at least half a day of sailing away from the coast but often means passages of several days or even weeks on the open ocean. Bluewater sailing also implies sailing at night.

The boat on the high seas is far from everything, far from help. If something goes wrong, the captain and the crew must be able to fend for themselves without relying on help. However, in case of ocean sailing, the captain prepares his passage in advance. He inspects the boat, checks the weather forecast, buys enough food and water, checks the equipment. He also takes fewer risks, is more attentive and has an emergency transmitter (EPIRB) and / or a satellite phone with him.

Is crossing the Atlantic dangerous?

The main danger of sailing across the Atlantic is that you will be on the open ocean for two or three weeks. In the middle of the ocean, there is no rescue, no ship chandler, no mechanic, no supermarket.

You are alone in the middle of nowhere, with nothing on the horizon and time flies very slowly. The boat sails non-stop, day and night, 24 hours a day, for 2 to 3 weeks. That represents 330 to 500 hours of continuous sailing.

On the one hand, the equipment is under constant strain and undergoes significant wear. A crossing of the Atlantic is equivalent to at least 3 years of navigation by a regular sailor. Vibration, friction, stress on equipment can cause equipment breakage and failure. The captain must be able to repair them on the way.

On the other hand, power consumption is increasing. The navigation instruments, the VHF (radio), the AIS, the autopilot, the fridge, the navigation lights, possibly the radar, the freezer, all of this must be constantly powered. The energy sources (solar panels etc.) must therefore be sufficient as well as the battery park. It is also important to remember that any electrical equipment can fail.

Another danger of a long crossing concerns the crew. A crew member can get hurt or get sick, develop an infection. It is, therefore, necessary to be able to provide first aid and have a pharmacy aboard. Having on a transatlantic crossing a crew you don’t know well can also be a source of problems. Because a sailboat is a very small space and living in a confined space for a long time can cause conflicts and disagreements.

Conclusion

Sailing involves risks and dangers. Being at sea complicates things enormously because it is not possible to get off the boat to take shelter. Any failure can end in disaster as well as the captain’s inattention.

To reduce these risks, the best way to start is to take sailing lessons or possibly get a sailing license. Having some strong basics is a good start. The best way to improve them is to practice them after.

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