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Nonskid goes a long way, especially if it’s in the right places

2011 March 25

It was a sunny day with a light breeze, but even now, just thinking about it sends a faint chill of terror dancing along my spine. It wasn't an offshore voyage, it wasn't a major ocean race, it wasn't even one-designs around the buoys. It was a simple boat test.
We headed out early in the morning, hoisted the main in the harbor, then started to break out the roller-furling headsail. And that's where the problem started.

It wasn't a big deal, really. Whoever had last furled the jib had left slack in the furling line to the drum that rolls up the sail and, of course, it had gotten a kink as the jib unrolled, stopping the whole process. No biggie, that happens occasionally. 

So I strolled forward to yank out the kink and continue our sail. We were only slightly heeled under the main and so I went from the cabintop past the mast onto the forward-sloping section of the cabin. And it was all over.

In my line of work, I consider boating shoes to be the equivalent of work boots for construction workers: you've got to have good ones. So I spend the extra bucks to get the best that West Marine or Sperry or Sebago offer, and that gives me confidence in my footing. 
This, of course, has nothing to do with what She Who Must Be Obeyed says my shoes look like. While the uppers may be ratty and paint-stained, the soles always have plenty of tread for traction.

And so it was that I found myself skating on a slightly dewy foredeck like Apolo Ohno going for the Olympic finish line. I was literally zooming along, past the forward hatch and heading toward the rail at a great rate. You've probably already guessed where I was headed, and where I'm going with this column.

There was no nonslip surface on the front of the cabin!

None. Zip. Nada.

I did that weird circular arm movement that skaters who are about to fall down always do, with their arms extended like they're trying to fly. And it worked about as well for me as it usually does for them. 

The crash was not pretty. I managed to grab a jib sheet as I sped past, which spun me toward the anchor winch, which I deftly smacked with my hip to scuff off some speed, and that turned me so I could knee-plant a big cleat to stop my progress. 

Sonovabeach did I hurt! The good news was that I hadn't done a forward somersault over the lifelines into the water, but trust me on this: I was one hurting puppy. 

Fifty years ago, Monk Farnham, the out-spoken editor of Boating Magazine, took aim at the boating industry for allowing boats to have what he called "The Shiny Deck Hazard." His take on it was that the builders of boats with these slippery decks must either not know anything about boating or, if they were boaters, they only go out on calm days.

So here we are in 2011, bogged down with warning labels on everything and regulations to protect us from ourselves.  We wear helmets to go bicycling, we have childproof containers that are also adult-proof as well, we spend millions to investigate Happy Meals toys, and yet we still build boats with slippery decks!

I'm glad that Monk Farnham, who led Boating during its heyday, isn't here to see that nothing has changed. 

But wait, you say ... my boat is clearly labeled that it meets the standards of the American Boat & Yacht Council, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and all Coast Guard regulations. 

So did the one on which I did my man-on-banana-peel imitation in a faint dew on a nice day. Because I choose not to pony up a few hundred bucks for the ABYC regulations, I don't know precisely what they require for nonslip surfaces. But I have it on reliable authority that they mandate nonskid surfaces on exterior walkways, shower areas, weather decks, swim platforms and ladder steps. 

So how did the 45-footer that I was test sailing not have any nonskid on the gentle slope of the cabin? Obviously because the manufacturer didn't feel it necessary and because, in their infinite wisdom, all the acronyms I listed above also didn't think anyone would set foot in such an obvious place. 

To paraphrase Monk Farnham, I have to think that the all-powerful acronyms must either not know anything about boating or, if they are boaters, they only go out on calm days.

Nursing my wounds in the cockpit, I started looking around this yacht, which is designed for offshore adventures in all conditions. And here's what I noticed. The wide coaming, which provides a comfy backrest for the cockpit and a base for the winches, is shined to a high gloss. It's also the first place anyone leaving the cockpit is likely to step. The first few feet of cabinhouse, with a tidy row of line stoppers, also gleams invitingly. It's unconscionable.

I understand that nonskid surfaces don't look pretty when the boat is sitting in a marina or, more important, at a boat show. Shiny sells, and that's why builders leave the cabin sides polished, even knowing that you and I are going to step there when heeled far over. Put the lee rail down, and you'd be amazed at the number of surfaces that become potential skating rinks. 

Is there a solution? Well, it would be nice if ABYC and NMMA would step up to the plate with the same protective fervor that is used to protect kids from getting skinned knees. But they are just commercial entities that make money from selling their rules and their supposed inspections. There's no money in really protecting us.

No, the unfortunate answer is that you're going to wind up buying some adhesive nonskid strips for your slick decks. Because if you don't, you could wind up like me: winning the Olympic gold medal for skating.