Thursday, December 11, 2014

Death at Sea

A friend has announced his intention to do significant single-crewed sailing on his 40' sailboat. So I spent a few hours reviewing some of the statistics, lore and equipment of this activity and here is my report.

Risk is culturally determined. People in Los Angeles and this country accept a horrific slaughter on the highways that would not be permitted for one second if they happened in the air or by train. The second thing to realize is that there is risk everywhere. People fall over dead from heart attacks and brain aneurisms, or traffic accidents, or of lung or heart disease after 40 years of smoking cigarettes.

Risk analysis is the art and science of assessing what the probability of a disaster happening and what are the 'costs' should it happen. The problem with this kind of analysis is that the probable cost is very subjective when it is the life of someone you care about.


So what kind of risks do we have with sailing in the ocean in a small boat?

Being swept overboard by a wave, falling overboard while managing the boat in weather, falling overboard for any other reason, storms, lightning, running aground, being struck by another ship, striking another floating object such as a lost cargo container, being shipwrecked and in a lifeboat but without appropriate location equipment, drowning at any time including at anchor or docked. Any kind of a medical emergency that incapacitates you such that you can not call for help, or manage the boat.  Failing to wear a PFD (personal floatation device) for any reason at any time. Failing to be hooked into a lifeline / harness system. Failure to have “appropriate” safety equipment on board, failure to deploy such equipment when necessary, failure of the equipment to work when needed due to poor maintenance or any other reason.  Failure to plan around the weather, or to plan a trip based on the time of year.  Failure to take correct actions when sailing through a storm or other challenging sea condition.

Most of these can be mitigated by having the right (expensive) equipment, training, practice, and using good sense. But ultimately if you are on a single-crewed ship you are not going to be able to be a lookout 24 hours a day which technically is what is required by loosely alluded to regulations governing being at sea.  Even freighters and cargo monstrosities that cruise the ocean with lookouts and major radar do not see these little sailboats and famously run all over them.

If you are on a single-crewed ship you are not going to be able to recover easily from a problem that might be difficult to recover from even if you had more crew, such as man overboard. Even if you wear a PFD and are hooked into a lifeline, if you hit your head and become unconscious when falling overboard, there will be no one there to get you back on board.

The risks are not dissimilar to that of hiking alone through a wilderness area. People do this all the time, and people get lost and die all the time due to freak accidents and stupid mistakes.

The point is not that people should not do these things and take these chances, the point is that people should be realistic about what the risks are, and not be in denial that there is risk.

The US Coast Guard has a set of statistics about accidents during “recreational boating”. Although not exactly the statistics we are looking for, they still may be of interest.

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