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2010-04-25

Best practices for worst cases



-->Photos: Guy Perrin.
Where we live on Lake Ontario, what inclement weather that exists in the six-moth saling season is typically brief, although it can be as intense, particularly during summer squalls, as all but the most brutal offshore weather. This can come as a surprise to saltwater sailors, but I think it’s generally acknowledged as true that sailing a well-found vessel on the Great Lakes in the heavy airs of spring or fall, or in the 50- to 60-knot storm fronts that can fall onto the Lakes like meteorological sledgehammers is good practice for oceanic passage making.

Having now spent time in salt and fresh squalls, I can see this point, even if I need ski goggles. Exercising safety tactics in bad weather is an easy one, but given that one can sink in a calm sea, preparedness should always be on the yachtie’s mind…that and a really good rum drink recipe.
By way of cultivating the sailorly version of what the police, rescue and military folk call “situational awareness”, I and about 300 other attendees spent a crisp Saturday recently in an auditorium near to Royal Canadian Yacht Club’s shore-side clubhouse.
RCYC was sponsoring a full-day “Safety at Sea” seminar in conjunction with US Sailing. Attending it would provide a Safety Certificate necessary to enter selected offshore races, and certainly wouldn’t hurt for the Lake Ontario 300 and other long Great Lakes races, but for myself and others, it would consolidate and fill in the gaps in gradually acquired sailing safety knowledge. Eventually, my goal is to take the RYA Yachtmaster Offshore (http://www.rya.org.uk/coursestraining/exams/Pages/Yachtmasteroffshore.aspx) certification course in the UK, and I'm about three-quarters of the way in terms of "sea miles crewed" for that. This one-day seminar is like crib notes for the more demanding RYA qualification.

A show of hands testified that the crowd was about 50/50 racers and cruisers, and although the presentations were probably more oriented to large race crews, the knowledge of gear, techniques, equipment and “best practices” was very applicable to single-handers and cruising couples alike. The co-hosts and keynote speakers were John Rousmaniere, famous for his books on seamanship and on the lessons of the deadly 1979 Fastnet race, and Capt. John Bonds, an avuncular and retired U.S Navy skipper with an engaging style, and a seemingly endless well of illustrative anecdotes to support his deep knowledge of safety skills.
While Rousmaniere and Bonds did the majority of the presenting, attendees also heard from speakers such as Herb Hilgenberg (who was of great help to S/V Ainia when I was crewing on her during a delivery last November, as told below) on weather patterns for the Great Lakes sailor, a speaker from the Canadian Coast Guard on the organization of search and rescue facilities and operations, a shipping company executive on why it’s not a great idea to “buzz” lake freighters, and Toronto surgeon and J-Boat racer Michael Chapman outlined the best ways to render first aid at sea. Certainly Chapman’s fairly graphic slides impressed the audience that it’s better to clip on than to injure oneself at sea. It was also made clear that there are real limits to the medical aid one can give aboard a small sailboat, and that evacuation may be necessary (if even possible), so the “how to bring aboard a harness from a helicopter” video came in handy, too.
Both Bonds and Rousmaniere were practised and humorous you wouldn’t mind having in a lift raft, if it came to that, but the emphasis was definitely on avoiding things coming to that. Speaking of lift rafts, one model was inflated on stage, and the various attributes were pointed out. This was the first time I had seen this, and it was much louder than the diagram, and made a deeper impression.
Another deep impression was made by the comparison of USCG-approved flares, PFDs and signalling gear (which more or less applies for Canadian safety gear) versus SOLAS-grade equipment. No, it’s not cheap and yes, I am convinced it’s the way to go when going offshore. Given the utility of the EPIRB and GMDSS systems, I find it bordering on foolhardy that sailors make passages without them. No matter what gear one chooses to carry aboard, the seas (even little Lake Ontario) are still very large, and the boats (even the newest one at our docks) are still very small: it makes sense to make use of every advantage one can to attract help should things go badly out there.
Did I learn a lot of new things? Not as much as direct experience has taught me, no, but attending a pretty comprehensive and multi-pronged seminar such as this was did consolidate a lot of safety knowledge I'd picked up in a fairly haphazard fashion, and it certainly reinforced a few opinions (like the worth of SOLAS-approved gear, the essential nature of EPIRBs, PLBs and similar devices at sea, and the need to take a higher grade of first aid course) I already had. Mostly, though, it helped to better sort my mental sock-drawer, so to speak, of partial and random safety factoids into a better and, I hope, never tested base of knowledge. Forehanded, as the seminar speakers might say, is forearmed.

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