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Be careful out there—the sailing safety police are watching

2007 January 17
We were sure he had all the right stuff to be on the cover of our Safety at Sea issue. At the helm on a breezy day on San Francisco Bay, braced at the edge of the cockpit, two gloved hands on the wheel, steely eyes looking forward, the fellow in the December issue's cover photo looked resolute and in control, undaunted by the gray seas around him. For good measure, he was properly decked out for sailing in robust conditions, wearing high-tech foul-weather gear in day-glo chartreuse and an inflatable PFD. He was the picture of competence and confidence.

Imagine our chagrin when we learned he was poseur, a reckless incompetent, a veritable Rodney Dangerfield of the sailing world who was unfit to appear on the cover of a magazine featuring articles about sailing safety. We received this intelligence in a detailed e-mail from a concerned reader. I'm not going to reveal the reader's identity (which could compromise his effectiveness as a whistleblower), but I can tell you that I'm quite sure he is a high-ranking officer in ASSP-the American Sailing Safety Police.

Let me share some of the safety sins this alert reader observed, in his own words: "The skipper foolishly is using the slippery stub of the toerail to keep him balanced. If his foot slips, he will hurt himself in a few spots, including those parts not mentionable, and possibly slide out of the cockpit, against or over/under the lifelines. If that happens, safety gear and clothing could trip/release the lifelines. He might be clipped in. If so, he likely would be overboard ever so slightly and drown attached to his boat. If not clipped in, he's toast. I could go on about being in a bad spot if the sheet or sheet block fails, or speculate whether his foul-weather clothing would aid in his drowning if overboard, filling with water and making the inflatable PFD unsuitable for keeping his head out of the water."

This is legit-I'm not making it up. (OK, I made up the part about ASSP, but that's all.) Heck, at my creative peak I couldn't begin to make up anything this nutty. ASSP might not exist, but the vigilante safety police certainly do, as the foregoing scolding attests.
Sailing magazines get a lot of this. One of the sworn duties of the safety police is to expose and properly chastise publications that portray sailing practices they deem unsafe. This used to be confined to children-run a picture of a kid in dinghy with his PFD's crotch strap not cinched up and you could count on being labeled a menace by bad example to the youth of America. Now, with the numbers of self-proclaimed safety experts apparently growing out of proportion to the rest of the sailing population, everyone is fair game, even old salts like our December cover boy.

I'm not knocking safety. On the contrary, I'm a big fan of it. Personally, I feel really good when I feel safe. But the safety police take their zeal for safe sailing to a new level: Not content to merely practice safe sailing themselves, they crusade with a religious fervor to make others conform to their idea of safety and take delight in exposing sailors who don't as ignorant or reckless. I can only imagine what joy proposals for mandatory PFD laws and licensing of boat operators bring to these folks.
Most of the sailors I know respect the power of the sea but love its beauty and the joy it brings them and regard their boats as beloved objects that deliver that enjoyment. The safety police, on the other hand, are wont to see the sea as a gruesome trap set by nature for the insufficiently prudent and boats as potential maiming and killing machines.

The paranoia this generates is on graphic display in the overweening e-mail quoted above. The reality is that the man in the photo was more likely to be knocked overboard by an albatross that suffered cardiac arrest while soaring over the Galapagos and was carried by the winds aloft to San Francisco Bay and fell from the sky onto our helmsman's head than to become a victim of any of the mishaps presented in our safety maven's nightmare scenario.

Sailing safety has less to do with mysteriously opening lifelines and exploding blocks than it does with developing good judgment and sound sailing skills. That's why our Safety at Sea issue featured an article by contributing editor John Kretschmer on a genuine sailing safety issue-storm survival tactics. The article was about the technique of forereaching-sailing to weather on a broad angle under reduced canvas-explained by a true sailing safety expert, a title John earned by sailing a phenomenal number of ocean miles and dealing with just about any problem you can imagine at sea. I can guarantee you that his idea of sailing safety is not obsessing about whether his foul-weather gear will drown him if he falls overboard.
We leave that sort of worrying to the safety policemen. The one who declared our cover photo a portrayal of a virtual sailor's death trap, by the way, also suggested that the dangers he identified resulted in a "not so happy look on the skipper's face."

Now there's a revealing comment by someone determined to see the worst in any sailing situation. When I look at the photo I see a sailor content in his element, a man who is not worrying about injuring his private parts if his foot slips or being hurt when the sky falls, or an albatross falls, but enjoying the privilege of sailing on his sturdy Swan sloop on a boisterous day at sea.

He's safe enough. He might be a bit safer at home (though there is the earthquake threat to consider), but then he'd have to miss a day of sailing. And who wants to be that safe?