Why Sailors Die - The Most Important Safety Lesson

Lesson 1 from the True Stories of Sailing Fatalities

Piranka/E+/Getty Images

Everyone knows there is some element of risk in boating, and everyone wants to stay safe. No one thinks it could happen to them. After all, aren't the greatest dangers things like getting caught in a hurricane out at sea? Big winds, big waves, a damaged or leaking boat? The huge majority of sailors never experience those conditions, so what's there to worry about?

Yes, storms do pose risks - and do account for some fatalities every year among sailors and other boaters. These are usually the dramatic stories that make the news and lead to investigations and warnings. And many books have been written about seamanship and techniques to prevent problems in storm conditions.

But storms aren't the cause of most sailing fatalities. Most fatalities actually occur when sailors are not experiencing dangerous conditions of any sort at all.

It's the Calm Times To Prepare For

You are more likely to die in a situation like this:

You are about to go sailing on a beautiful sunny day with light winds. You row your dinghy out to your sailboat on its mooring. As you pull down the sailboat's swim ladder to climb aboard, the wake from a passing boat rocks the dinghy, and your hand slips and you tumble into the water. It is shockingly cold this early in the season, and when your head breaks the surface you're gasping for breath. It takes a few moments for you to get control of your breathing, and then you see that the current has already swept you ten feet away from the dinghy. With a sudden feeling of desperation you try to swim back to it, but your clothing and shoes make it difficult, and the current is stronger than you ever thought. A wave breaks into your mouth as you struggle, starting a coughing fit. You're disoriented and gasping for air, and the cold is already taking its toll. Your head goes under again...

In a situation like that, the sailor likely never had time to think that he should have put on his life jacket even for a simple dinghy ride. Who would have thought something like this could happen? But the statistics and reports of fatalities related to sailing show that stories like these are far more common than deaths in storms or other dramatic situations.

Statistics from the 2010 Coast Guard Reports

  • In 83% of sailor fatalities, the cause of death was drowning.
  • Only 26% of the sailors who died were actually sailing at the time.
  • Of boaters who died by drowning, 88% were not wearing PFDs.

When you put those three statistics together, the situation becomes clear: 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, at times you'd least expect death to be lurking nearby.

It's no surprise, then, that the Coast Guard reports the largest single factor contributing to accidents and fatalities is "operator inattention." In other words, why pay attention to safety issues when you don't think you're in a dangerous situation?

Lesson Number 1

The Coast Guard and other boating safety experts have frequently pointed out that simply wearing a PFD at all times would prevent the huge majority of boating fatalities. While this is supported by the statistics, the greater issue is perhaps attitude: why don't sailors always wear their PFD? Why is it that simply telling boaters over and over to wear their PFDs doesn't work?

The answer is an issue of attitude. An offshore sailor who would never go up on deck without a PFD when the wind is howling in the dark thinks less about safety when he's reached a mooring in a calm harbor and rows his dinghy the short distance to shore for a pleasant dinner, leaving his PFD on the sailboat. That perfectly describes a solo sailor who arrived in the U.S. from Bermuda and was later found in the water not far from his sailboat, having joined the statistics for 2011.

Two things are needed to develop an attitude of safety. First, information: sailors need to know the risk of death is always present, especially when things are calm and you might feel no reason to be fearful (particularly in cold water). Second, you don't need to obsess about dangers, but 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? What if I slip and fall overboard while I'm pulling up the anchor and the boat starts drifting?

This can actually become a fun exercise and a good way to improve your seamanship: to play the "what if" game while sailing or otherwise out on your boat. It's a great way to teach others (a spouse? kids? nonsailing friends?) about boating too. What would you do if I fell overboard right now as we're coming up to the dock? Again, this doesn't have to be scary or obsessive - it's just a good way to start paying attention, to be aware of things, to stay safe.

And playing and talking about "what if" just might also help get you to put on your PFD more often - and therefore greatly reduce your risk of becoming a statistic like some 700 other American boaters every year.

A couple more interesting statistics from the Coast Guard. Of all types of boaters (powerboaters, canoeists, kayakers, fishermen, etc.), sailors more than all others have taken a boating safety course. And of all types of boaters, sailors are among the very least to actually wear their PFDs. Could it be that we who know so much are a bit arrogant in thinking "it won't happen to me"? After all, of all types of boaters, sailors have the highest percentage in the ability to swim. So it looks like we think we'll just swim back to the boat if we fall overboard. But what if...?

Do you know what lesson #2 is from the true stories of sailing fatalities?