The Most Essential Sailing Safety Equipment

Man standing next to another man steering a boat.
Morten Falch Sortland / Getty Images

When thinking about dangerous situations, most boaters imagine storms or conditions from which they cannot escape. Experienced sailors almost always feel safe on the water when they are prepared for threatening conditions with the right gear and knowledge of what to do. This includes the classic skills of seamanship, such as:

  • Heavy weather sailing techniques such as heaving-to
  • Crew-overboard training and equipment
  • Effective navigational skills to prevent groundings, collisions, etc. along with a Chartplotter
  • Safety equipment like fire extinguishers, a first aid kit, a PFD for everyone aboard, etc.

In reality, however, this traditional approach to safety and seamanship does not prevent most sailing fatalities.

The Cause of Sailing Fatalities

It's not the storms or other scary hazards. Most sailing-related fatalities occur to sailors who fall in the water not when engaged in "dangerous" sailing but while anchored, docking, etc. In short, fatalities often occur at times you'd least expect it to happen. Based on Coast Guard statistics, that's lesson #1.

The single most important safety lesson for all sailors is an attitude of preparedness, of knowing that a tiny slip at any moment can result in a sudden emergency. Whenever you are on the water you should be thinking about what could happen. What if someone falls overboard right now in this situation? What if my engine dies right now as I'm entering this narrow channel? Simply thinking, "What if," and acting in ways to prevent or solve the problems, can make most sailors safer than buying specialty safety equipment.

The Essential Safety Equipment

Only two pieces of equipment are essential for preventing most sailing emergencies and fatalities--​but only if you're actually using them before the emergency occurs (remember: when you least expect it):

  • Wear your PFD. A huge number of things can result in a sailor ending up in the water. Remember that many sailors die simply by slipping when climbing a boarding ladder into the boat from a dinghy. About 83% of sailing fatalities result from drowning, and 88% of boaters who drown weren't wearing their PFD. With the new, lightweight inflatable PFDs that you don't even feel you're wearing, there really is no excuse not to use one.
  • Keep a handheld VHF radio on your person. A lot of solo sailors have died (again, usually in calm conditions, and very often in port) because they ended up in the water and were unable to call for help. Except in extremely cold water, a PFD will keep you alive a long time--but you may be able to reach safety by yourself. This applies to groups of people on small sailboats as well. Countless times every year, small boats capsize in a sudden gust or unexpected thunderstorm, plunging sailors into the water too far from shore to reach safety on their own. Smart sailers keep a small submersible VHF radio (preferably a DSC GPS submersible handheld VHF) on their belt. The lucky ones are seen by someone on shore, who calls for help, others sometimes die. If your boat's VHF radio is DSC-capable, connect it to the GPS of your plotter for greater safety in an emergency.

By doing just these two things, along with filing a float plan, sailors greatly decrease their odds of becoming one of the boating fatality statistics every year. Best of all, the gear is relatively inexpensive and, once it becomes a habit to don both, you don't have to think about them for the rest of the day.