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Safety First

I left PassageMaker Magazine's superb Trawler Fest in Anacortes feeling guilty.

This feeling, rare for me, came not because I failed to boost our industry's economic base by ordering a new boat-and there were plenty of the best to choose from-but because seminars and demonstrations made me realize how little attention is focused on personal safety afloat, both aboard my 42-foot Grand Banks Europa and most other boats.

Sure, I carry 10 personal flotation devices, but they are stowed under settees and lockers. All are out of sight. As I recall, only three persons have come aboard and asked where I keep PFDs. All were professionals: Capt. John Kessler, an instructor at the Pacific Maritime Institute in Seattle and a licensed officer on ocean-going vessels who was a guest aboard my boat, Quadra, one day in Alaska in 2006, and Sea Sense Capts. Patty Moore and Carol Cuddyer, who have used my boat for instruction at two Trawler Fest events in Anacortes. All three also wanted to know where the fire extinguishers were.

I have a Life Sling rescue device, courtesy of the previous owner. I kept it stowed in a seat locker for many years and didn't unpack it until I watched a Life Sling demonstration at Trawler Fest in May. A lot of good it does hidden beneath lines and canvas rail covers in a locker on the flybridge. It's still there, because I can't figure how to mount it to be readily available yet not be in the way of normal activities. Nor do I know how to hoist a victim aboard.

It's easy to be complacent. In more than 30 years of cruising no one has fallen from any of my boats while under way. Only one person has splashed while at anchor-and that was me when I flubbed the transfer from kayak to swim platform. I was wearing a PFD, however, and I popped up and was back aboard in seconds.

Several Grand Banks owners attended Trawler Fest and then moved on to the annual rendezvous of Puget Sound-area GB owners in Roche Harbor, San Juan Island, the following week. Talk about safety issues continued-and focused on the extreme crisis that will face a cruising couple if and when one goes overboard under way.

"I look at it this way," one veteran cruiser said. "If my wife goes overboard, I'm sure I can get her back aboard. If I go over, there's no chance she could get me out of the water so I'd just float away, waving and saying, 'It's been a good life . . . I love you.' " I believe he may have been serious.

If someone falls over in a moorage or anchorage, rescue should be prompt because the water is calm and helping hands nearby. But think about making a rescue even in moderate seas-15-20 knots of wind and 3-foot waves. If you were left alone aboard, could you turn around, slow down, and come along side with the boat rolling and pitching as it slows and comes to a stop? What are the chances the boat may slam into and injure the person needing rescue? And then how do you lift aboard an adult weighing 200 pounds, particularly when that person may be hypothermic and unable to assist?

I think my GB is as safe as any. From the helm door aft, she has bulwarks and rails that rise 43 inches above the deck. That's above my belt line. Forward of the door the rail is 30 inches high. Side decks are 18 inches wide and offer safe passage. The anchor pulpit is surrounded by a cage of stainless steel rail. There are danger points-the sections of rail that are hinged and open for easy access to the dock and the swim platform. Imagine this: It's dark, the boat is motoring through rolling seas and I need to go on deck. Thrown off balance by a heavy sea, I reach for a handhold on the rail and as I go overboard I realize the hinged section had been left open. Possible? I think so.

The upper deck is enclosed by stainless railings, but I normally need to step over the railing onto the outer deck section while launching and retrieving our tender. I'm surrounded by lines and the power cable for the hoist while working out there in the open. Any chance of tripping and falling in? Sure.

Bruce and Margaret Evertz are boating friends in Anacortes. They are neither complacent nor fatalistic when it comes to cruising safely.

After much thought, they designed and built a rescue system. Bruce mounted a pad eye along the brow of the bridge, above the helm-area door. (A pad eye is a square of stainless steel plate to which is welded the feet of a U-shaped piece of steel rod.) He mounted it with a backing plate, to assure strength, and then hung a snatch block (a type of pulley) from it. The Life Sling line is fed through the block and to the anchor windlass, which has the power to hoist a person aboard.

"I never tried the system by jumping in, but have confidence," Bruce told me. "We tried it once with me hanging in the Life Sling and Margaret was able to lift me using the windlass."

"We tried several other methods like a bundle of pulleys and rope and a come-a-long but they were too awkward and required Margaret to lean out over the rail to hook into a loop in the Life Sling line. With this system she only needs to snap the snatch block into the pad eye and lead the line forward to the windlass, which does all the work."

"She does need to remember to loosen the clutch on the windlass. When we did this a few years ago the Ideal windlass strained quite a bit but was able to lift my weight. Now we have a much more powerful Lewmar H-3 windlass. To have a true fairlead would require some more pulleys and mounts around the foredeck. The line to the drum is at an angle but still works as the line drags across the flybridge. With any luck we'll never need it." (Bruce took the photographs published with this article.)

During Trawler Fest, the Sea Sense captains and Capt. Henry Marx of the Coast Guard Auxiliary demonstrated another method of lifting a victim in a Life Sling. A dinghy was used to turn a circle around the "victim" (a perfectly safe young woman wearing an exposure suit) until the flotation unit came close enough to grab. Peter Whiting, on the upper deck of his Northwest 50, lowered the stainless wire used to hoist a tender aboard and the victim snapped it onto her harness. Peter lifted her slowly until she could be swung onto the aft deck. This worked well because the hoist arm was long enough to swing the victim aft and because the flybridge deck did not extend all the way to the transom.

It might work on Quadra. My hoist arm is not long enough to reach beyond the transom. A clean lift would be impossible; the victim would be dragged across the swim platform and then up the transom, probably suffering injuries if the rescue was in rough water. Because it is mounted on the starboard side, I might be able to make a lift-but then the victim will be dangling from the wire about 3 feet out and would have to be dragged in somehow.

Thanks to work by the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC), some new boats now are being delivered with personal reboarding systems. Usually, they are fitted into a tube that extends under the swim platform, although I have seen at least one in which the tube was molded into the hull. The victim in the water reaches into the tube and pulls out a ladder-type device and climbs aboard. With the device under water and nothing much for desperate hands to grab above water, it will be difficult for a cold overboard victim to find his/her footing and the strength to gain safety, especially in rough water.

So many of these systems and plans demand some cooperation and help from the victim. Yet, in many areas the water is so cold that hypothermia begins within minutes and the victim soon may be incapable of snapping a hoist line onto a PFD harness hoist ring (few in use are so equipped). I crossed the Strait of Georgia on two recent trips with sea temperatures of 50°F or less-one with 8-foot seas and 40-knot winds while aboard an 81-footer and later on my 42 in mild chop. Both times I wondered about surviving after going overboard in cold and surging seas.

I am dedicated to thinking out a retrieval system. But my first and most urgent act will be to make my boat safer, to reduce the chance anyone will go overboard. While I have Coast Guard Auxiliary friends who wear inflatable PFDs all the time they are aboard their boat, I have compromised: Anyone using the tender will wear an inflatable, ditto anyone working on the swim platform or outside the railings on the upper deck. If you weigh anchor on my boat, you'll wear an inflatable just in case you lean far over the rail to dislodge kelp or trash from the chain-and SPLASH! You're in the water.

Lines will be kept off the deck to eliminate tripping. Fenders are hard to store and often are left on the deck. I have little storage space, but as much as possible fenders not in use will be hung from a railing, not parked on deck.

This takes effort. But it may save a life. Do think about it.