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the safety dance

I sail, I wear a PFD and a tether at night, why should I take a course?

To save lives, including your own. For some races, it’s required for all or part of the crew to get this certification. But the value of the course is so much greater.

This weekend I went to a Safety at Sea course put together by Ashley Perrin who many here know from her adventures off shore and in Antarctica. Ashley brought in Paul Cunningham, an ISAF approved instructor from England to teach the course, which was hosted at the San Francisco Yacht Club.

Have you ever tried to get into a life raft from the water before? Have you ever tried to cut rigging? Do you know how to service / check your own PFD or other safety equipment? Do you have any idea how incapacitated you will be when your PFD inflates? I’m smiling in this photobut that thing is big and strangulating. I had to learn how to partially deflate it so I could move my head around.

The premise of the course is to comply with Appendix G of the US Sailing Edition for the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations. The US Sailing and ISAF methods of teaching the course are slightly different, but the ultimate goal of either course is for the student to walk away knowing the answers to the majority of the above questions.

I spoke at length with Chuck Hawley, chair of US Sailing Safety at Sea this week, who gave me some of the history of the Safety at Sea courses, which have been around in the US since 1980. Initially the US Sailing Safety at Sea class was a course that attracted cruisers and racers alike, but as it took hold, it became a requirement for a percentage of the competitors in Cat 1 races and later added lead to the pencil by requiring skippers and race captains to be certified in order to go to sea in those races.

In about 2000, ISAF followed suit with a proscription of 14 topics to go Cat 1 racing. All of this said, the courses that evolved from these exercises are as different as they are the same. The US Sailing Course is one day course using a moderator and ten speakers who cover their areas of expertise in depth, with an optional second day of hands on (practical) training. The ISAF course is a smaller individually taught two day course with guest speakers and practicals interspersed throughout the weekend.

There is some debate in the forums about which course is better. Chuck Hawley feels a moderated course is helpful in taking the knowledge the experts bring and making it coherent to the class, Ashley feels the intimate course setting interspersed with speakers and practicals keeps the student engaged and learning. No matter the course method, the goal is for the student to gain an understanding of current best safety practices following Appendix G and a handle on what they don’t know, like in depth understanding of areas like First Aid, Meteorology, or VHF Communication, to name a few.

The course I took was a hybrid of the above, with one instructor, videos, expert guest speakers, and practical sessions. The participants included racers and cruisers in age from mid 20s to late 60s. My conclusion after taking this course and speaking at length with Chuck, was whichever course you take or are required to take, is be sure to do the practical parts.

I don’t want to go into a long syllabus review, but here’s our hands on work, in brief:

Flares: We fired SOLAS (safety of live at sea) flares and US approved flares. We learned how to set off parachute flares and hand held flares. They are hot and bright and each one is different. What I learned: Understand how each one in your kit works, and replace expired flares. Assume at least one in your kit will be a dud. Get SOLAS flares – they are significantly brighter.

Cutting away rigging: We brought the knives we sail with to test them on tether webbing and rigging. What we learned: A lot of our knives don’t work. Be sure you have one that does and that you can open with one hand. Look into a ceramic knife as, interestingly, it cuts a lot of things quite easily and doesn’t rust or need to be sharpened. Saws can get rusty, so can bolt cutters. Know your equipment and how you may need to use it and if it will work.

Putting out fires: The Tiburon fire department came and set a fire in a large pan for us. We used fire extinguishers to put it out. What I learned: Guess what – know how to use your equipment, and make sure it’s not expired. It’s pretty easy and kind of fun to use an extinguisher in that situation, but the thought of putting out a fire on your own boat may make it harder to remember how to use one. Fire blankets are pretty handy too.

PFDs: There are loads of different kinds of PFDs. Find the one that works best for the type of sailing you are doing. If you are offshore, note that a lot of life jackets we use in -shore won’t help you that much, if at all, off shore. Learn the difference between hydrostatic and canister auto inflation. Ashley recommends Spinlock vests and a lot of the off shore types in our group already had them. Take care of your PFD the same way you do your foulies. Learn how to check for corrosion, whether you want your vest set on manual or auto inflate and seriously consider thigh straps. A lot of this is individual, but there are compliance rules when going off shore.

Getting into a life raft: Let’s hope you never have to do it. But the exercise of getting from the water with a huge pillow of air around your neck and into a life raft is un-nerving. Doing it in cold water, even more challenging. The adage step up into a life raft makes a lot of sense, especially if you can actually step into it without meeting the water. Again, I hope you never have to do it.

A friend of mine raced from Miami to Nassau with only a harness and tether on at night. Another friend of mine drowned this year because he didn’t have on a proper PFD. I’ve been a MOB with crew who didn’t know how to pick me up out of the water. Many of us have read the panel results from the Aegean and Low Speed Chase tragedies and just last week we watched another unfold in front of our eyes in the wake of hurricane Sandy. Whether you are an active racer, race committee, or a cruiser, this course, with the hands on work, will have value.   – Paige Brooks