When you’re headed offshore, safety is the top priority. Things can go wrong in a flash, and having the right gear on hand can literally be the difference between life and death. Whether you’re equipping your own boat or planning to crew on someone else’s, there are just some things you don’t want to head offshore without.
As a skipper, you have a responsibility to provide adequate safety gear for your crew. But as a guest crew, you have no guarantee that you think is adequate matches what the skipper provides, or that what is provided will be comfortable or fit properly. So you may want your own core kit of personalized gear.
While our list isn’t comprehensive – there are books written on this subject – we’ve got a few good tips on where to start with some key gear.
Tethers and Jacklines
Keeping your crew on the boat is the first rule of offshore safety. Everyone needs their own personal tether. You can’t be fumbling around in the dark looking for your gear if you need to get above quickly.
If you crew on a lot of boats, a quality two-legged tether is a good thing to own, so you know your gear is solid. While a single tether will hold you to the boat, the double legs allow more safety and freedom of movement because you can stay clipped to the boat while you move the other leg. Look for tethers that stay closed, but are easy to open with one hand without looking at them, like the Kong ISAF Compliant double tether. Inspect it regularly, most have threads woven in that break when a tether is shock-loaded and no longer safe.
Nothing is better to clip your tether to than properly installed jacklines. When you’re moving around the deck, you’ll be tempted to be clip to whatever is in reach, but a suitable set of jacklines lets you move from bow to stern without unclipping, and will keep you on board if you fall.
Avoid using ropes or round jacklines as they can roll under your feet and slip you up. Flat mesh webbing is best since it won’t roll, and reflective tape like on the Wichard L’yfe Safe Jackline makes the jacklines easy to spot when working at night. They should be installed tightly, as inboard as possible, to give the best chance to keep crew from going overboard.
Signaling and Crew Overboard Aids
If crew goes overboard, you want every tool you can to find them. Especially at night. Spotting a tiny head in big seas is difficult, even in good conditions.
Every PFD should have reflective tape and a whistle to meet minimum SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) requirements, but a few other pieces of equipment increase your odds of finding your crew and recovering them safely.
An automatic strobe light in every PFD increases visibility, and can even help in daytime. These activate when they hit the water and last hours, and are compact enough to pack in inflatable PFDs.
Personal AIS beacons are another great tool to help find a lost crew. Most deploy from inside an inflatable lifejacket when it triggers and include a strobe. These beacons send an AIS signal which triggers alarms on your ship’s radio and pinpoint the beacon’s position on any chartplotters with AIS capability.
If you frequently crew for others on many boats, purchase your own beacon to install permanently. They are expensive, but there’s no guarantee a vessel you crew on will have one for you.
Sailing offshore, everyone needs their own dedicated Personal Flotation Device. For comfort, the best option for most is an inflatable PFD with an integral harness. The hydrostatic releases on newer models are superior to older styles with dissolving tablet trigger. The older jackets are prone to accidental activation in wet offshore conditions.
A PFD should have a crotch strap to keep the wearer from slipping out, and should be comfortable and fit well. People who sail on multiple boats should own their own PFD and fit it out with strobes or AIS beacons permanently. When shopping for a PFD, make sure you try it on over a sailing jacket, and move around to see how it rides.
Consider a spray hood with your PFD. In windy conditions with big waves, spray can get forced into your longs and airways. This can drown you, even if your head is above water. A good spray hood will prevent this. Most attach in a pouch to the harness rather than inside the cover.
EPIRBs and PLBs
The ship’s EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) signals a satellite that activates an emergency response from rescue coordinators. It works globally, sends an accurate GPS position, and is the quickest way to alert the authorities that your ship is in distress. Immersion may automatically activate them in water, or the may need require manual activation. A Personal Locator Beacon is like an EPIRB, but it is smaller and easier to carry and can not automatically deploy.
All offshore vessels should have an EPIRB. Even if you’re sailing out past the range of land-based rescue (about 200 miles), rescue coordinators can divert merchant ships to help a search and recovery effort far from shore.
While PLBs are similar in size AIS beacons and many can be packed into a life jacket, if you’re picking only one for your life jacket, a PLB may not be the best option. First, it’s not automatic, so if you are incapacitated when you go overboard, it won’t deploy. While it alerts search and rescue resources on land, it does nothing to help your crew find you again. The boat you fell off of is always your first, best chance for rescue.
Foul Weather Gear
Foul weather fittings is an even more personal than a PFD. Serious offshore sailors should get their own gear. Though it’s expensive up front, if you have to live in it for days you won’t regret something comfortable that fits your body shape.
You can get foulies for all types of sailing, but for offshore passages you want more serious gear, so avoid lightweight “coastal” gear unless it’s complementing offshore foulies. It should be breathable and waterproof, with a high-visibility hood and bright colors.
When you shop for foul weather gear, do your best to try it on in the store. Do some deep knee bends, toe touches, windmills, or other exercises to make sure you have a full range of motion.
Women take note – foul weather gear manufacturers have finally started making gear cut and sized for women. While this is important for upper body comfort, you’ll also found different solutions zipping and closing pants that make more sense for your needs. Foulies are generally sold as separates, so mix and match sizes and even brands to get the perfect fit.
Brightly colored bags water-resistant bags with reflective tape and added flotation let you organize rescue gear into a quick-grab package so you’re not hunting around for it in an emergency. While you don’t need an official “ditch bag” product, most of the bags on the market have features like labeled pockets to organize gear and keep it accessible.
Pack the bag before you set off, testing every piece of equipment before you pack it. A few things to consider for a ditch bag include:
- Handheld VHF Radio, with an AA/AAA battery option if possible.
- Handheld GPS
- Satellite phone
- Extra flares
- Extra rations
- Extra water
- A hand pumped water maker
- Spare batteries for all handheld electronics
- Small solar charger for the satellite phone and other devices, including rechargeable batteries
This list isn’t exhaustive, and you’ll have to check what’s in your life raft to ensure you’ve picked complementary gear without too much duplication. But have a bag ready, just in case, and keep it where you can grab it on the way to the deck to abandon ship.
A life raft is the most expensive and finicky piece of offshore safety gear you can buy. But if the boat sinks, it is your only shelter. They come in several types of rafts with different options for packing, from valise styles you store below to canisters or drums lashed to the deck with automatic hydrostatic releases. You can also rent life rafts for single use trips.
Sizing a life raft is important – you need a spot for everyone on board. But don’t get one bigger than you need. It’s not just the cost, the weight of the people improves stability. Three people in a four or six person raft will be much safer and more stable that in an eight or twelve person raft, even if they are squeezed together.
Most life rafts require annual inspections, though some newer models may have a longer service schedule. When picking your raft, you’ll find a lot of options for enhanced stability, durability, and equipment. Your life raft needs to be stable, rugged, and give protection from the elements, including the sun. It should also have a complement of flares, rations, water, and other safety gear to hold you even if you can’t get to the ditch bag before you abandon ship.
Life rafts are for sinking. The adage that you should always step UP into a life raft is true. They can save your life, but you’re still better off in a bigger boat even if it’s damaged, so long as it’s floating.