You’ve been sailing for years and planning this next trip for months. You’ve created the perfect sail plan, stocked the galley, the weather is shaping up perfectly and the boat has been checked and rechecked. She’s ready. You’re ready. You cast off the lines – outbound for wherever – confident that you have thought of everything. But here’s the thing:  I’m almost certain that you haven’t. It’s not your fault. If you are a sailor and you’re reading this it means you have always made it back just fine before, so your personal sailing experience is (at least mostly) about success. My sailing experience, however, has been about one failure after another and I’m telling you, you’re missing something.

As a helicopter rescue swimmer for the U.S. Coast Guard, it was my job to fly out with my crew and bring sailors home after the plan fell apart. For most of my adult life, I hated sailboats because I was only on them when they were sinking, upside down, or on fire. Sometimes there was even screaming. Seeing almost every possible combination of circumstances that turns trips into tragedies made me an expert on “things gone wrong,” and taught me that with rare exception two things are true almost anytime someone grabs the radio and says “Mayday:”

  1. The captain was certain that he was ready when they left (otherwise you don’t leave) and
  2. The primary point of failure (again, with rare exception) was a mistake made by the captain before leaving the dock.

There is a disconnect between what you may have learned about offshore safety and survival and what actually happens when those skills are needed. From courses taught by my friends at the Coast Guard Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadrons to the hallowed halls of the U.S. Coast Guard’s own schoolhouses, most safety and survival training leaves out some of the best advice.

Here are just some things I know that never get said – anywhere:

  • The most effective signaling device to get the attention of a search helicopter is not U.S.C.G.-approved.
  • The instructions stuck on the outside of your life raft can be a recipe for failure.
  • A daytime smoke flare is a great nighttime signaling device – often better than a flare designed for use at night.
  • Staying with a perfectly watertight and seaworthy vessel can get you killed (and your Fastnet argument is invalid).
  • The boarding ladder on your life raft is not designed to help you get aboard your life raft.
  • There is a data field on EPIRB registrations that is a tremendous help to rescuers, but never gets filled out.
  • You haven’t spent enough money on your life jacket and even if you have, you probably set it up wrong. (Hint: if you haven’t modified your U.S.C.G.-approved gear – it may be useless.  Hint 2: U.S.C.G. Rescue Swimmers always modify their life jackets and signaling devices once received from the manufacturer.)

There is more – a lot more – so I wrote a course to cover all those things I learned that haven’t made it into the standard curriculums yet. Basic Offshore Safety and Survival (BOSS) for Cruisers is twelve hours over two days that covers the differences between the standard safety and survival information we all know, and the realities of the rescues that happen every day. Thanks to the hospitality of Chris Wallace and her husband Jeff Carson, (this course is coming to Seattle and Bellingham in August. I’d love to see you there.

For more information on BOSS for Cruisers and to register for the class, please visit www.besafeoffshore.com.

You might just find out you’ve been missing something all these years.

PS: Bring your life jacket; I’ll help you set it up right.

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