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Is sailing risky? Not if you believe the data over the actuaries

2024 July 1

If you consider the rising costs and barriers to insuring a sailboat, you might think the actuaries see dangers that we sailors can’t see. 

But is there any reason to be concerned? One state’s annual report sheds some light on the subject.

In 2023, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reported more than 1.2 million registered craft including ATVs, snowmobiles, and, of course, boats. Boats represent nearly half of all the registered craft and Wisconsinites own more boats per capita than any state other than Minnesota or South Carolina. The state is fortunate to have freshwater oceans both north and east, smaller lakes and accessible shorelines everywhere that draw large populations, so it represents a significant sample of national trends in on-the-water recreation.

Last year in Wisconsin there were 28 fatal boating accidents. In all but one boating fatality, a life jacket was not present. 

But it is notable that the words “sail,” “sailing” or “sailboat” don’t appear anywhere in the 29-page report, except in the definitions section. 

This is not a mistake. In 109 investigated boating incidents in 2023 in Wisconsin, none happened aboard a sailboat. There were no sailing-related fatalities nor injuries worthy of investigation. The data are consistent over the years: the absence of information about sailing accidents isn’t anomalous or a reporting error. Instead, sailing is and has been so safe relative to other types of recreation that it doesn’t show up in data and hasn’t, for decades. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to be hurt driving to the marina in your car or walking down the dock than while you’re sailing.

This is not to say that sailing is risk-free. Many of us have stories of concussions or lost digits and a few unfortunate sailors have been lost in well-publicized and studied incidents around the country. It is better to say that sailors manage risk well most of the time. When something goes wrong or is about to go wrong, sailors generally know how to keep the situation from getting out of control. One of sailing’s benefits is that most of it happens slowly enough to let a team think through its next move. Another benefit is that the daily experiences—the problems needing solutions during every outing—sum up to become a kind of safety wisdom; the foresight to plan and take preventive action and, in those habits, to create an onboard safety culture. 

Many sailors routinely rehearse their safety skills including crew-overboard recovery, how to use horns, whistles, harnesses, radios, flares, GPS, DCS and AIS, and re-boarding equipment. Sailors also generally care for their safety equipment; making sure that it is dependable and operable. Knives are sharp and easy to open. Flashlights have fresh batteries. The VHF antenna is connected. “Radio check on channel 9.”

As sailors gain experience, they learn to value self-care; building balance, stamina, composure, staying warm, dry and hydrated, and they spread that care to crewmates. On our family boat, the newbie’s first assignment is to “stay on the boat.”  We say this as we hand them a life jacket and help them fit it. Then we chat about fingers and winches and heads and booms and what to hold onto, and promise that if a person goes overboard we will return and get them. Then, we repeat, “But stay on the boat.”

Indeed, the sailing community has cemented safety into sailing from the grassroots for decades. Most learn-to-sail courses begin with life jacket use and other essential safety habits. Capsize recovery is the first subject in most schools for kids. Clubs and schools offer frequent safety training, including seminars and workshops to build risk management and emergency response capacity into every team. Couples planning to cruise can learn unassisted rescue techniques. Racers planning to go offshore can study and build skills in survival, triage and treatments. First-time boat buyers will often replace lifelines first. Every sailor’s phone has a good weather app. In sailing’s safety culture, unsafe is unnecessarily stressful and safe sailing makes way for lifelong fun.

All of this underpins the Wisconsin DNR’s data.

So why then are insurance rates for sailors climbing precipitously and why is insurance harder to get? That, I’m afraid, is a very real risk to sailing.