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water sense
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water sense

John de Frayssinet (Yachting Life Editor)

You cannot avoid the fact that water is dangerous—except when you flush it or add it to your Scotch. If people can drown while taking a bath, it is hardly surprising that once you set foot on a boat the opportunities to drown yourself are virtually unlimited.


'except when you flush it'

If you happen to own a boat. you are also given an absolutely free hand to drown other people as well. No matter how careful you may be, there is always the out­side chance that some accident may befall you, but the least you can do is to reduce the odds.


'a free hand to drown people'

The sea is basically more dangerous than inland waterways, as weather conditions can become much more extreme much more quickly, and waves are very much larger. However there is a higher degree of silliness on inland or sheltered waterways than there is at sea, and consequently the accident rate between the two tends to even out, It could in fact be argued that those who set out to try to drown themselves prefer to do it within sight of mother earth.

Perhaps your boat is moored in the river or just off a sheltered bit of coastland and it is necessary to row out to it. I am quite convinced that more people ignominiously drown themselves while rowing their 8 foot pram dinghies out to their yachts than on the yachts themselves. Perhaps, under ideal conditions of the swimming bath, you could once just manage a couple of lengths before you started smoking heavily, but falling into cold dirty water with a tide running with all your clothes is really no picnic. Wear a life jacket and ensure that your crew does as well, and always make non-swimmers and children wear buoyancy aids at all times. lf you are seen to be extra careful about wearing life jackets, probably some of the 'big butch yachters' in your club will take the Micky. If you get easily embarrassed—ignore them. At worst, ensure that your dinghy has adequate buoyancy fitted or built In.

The choice of dinghy is also extremely important. In terms of buoyancy, inflatables are obviously good. However, some of the cheaper models have a habit of easily puncturing, and even if compartmented this makes them lopsided.

Inflatables are not always the easiest things to get into or to row. Most of the yacht tender variety do not have a rigid bottom, and getting on board such a vessel is rather like climbing Onto a very large bosom.


'like a very large bosom'

Due to their great buoyancy very little of the tender is actually in the water, which helps to get them easily blown about. Usually the rowlocks and seating position are not ideally placed, so rowing into a strong headwind can be a challenge.

The most common type of dinghy is the pram variety. These are better to row, but unless they are well provided with buoyancy and are not overloaded, they can be extremely dangerous. Probably the ideal yacht dinghy is about 10 feet long, made in glassfibre with built in buoyancy, a sharp end and skeg, or a decent Zodiac with a hard floor which makes rowing much easier. I have encountered some types of plastic dinghy that I would not trust sailing on a lily pond. I nearly drowned myself while trying to row an ABS plastic one, which was too light, with no draft, and was provided with a pair of plastic rowlocks and half length oars. As soon as I tried to row hard enough to beat the wind and tide the rowlocks bent, releasing the useless oars. Personally I would never provide any boat with plastic rowlocks.

While on the subject of rowlocks, make sure that they are fixed to the boat by a lanyard, and that you always carry a spare. Few people. (including myself) have mastered the art of single oar sculling

Finally, never overload your dinghy All too often I see boats loaded with people and gear up to the gunwales with a meniscus as freeboard The first wave over the side can be all that is needed to cause a tragedy.


'a meniscus for a freeboard'

It is important that the people you choose to sail with are capable of coping with emergencies on board If you are the only one who can handle the boat, do not expect your crew to gybe and pick you up if you go overboard Likewise, it is rather pointless relying on a crew who you know is always sick when the going gets rough In short, do not undertake a voyage unless you are quite sure that you and your crew are skilled and fit enough to cope with any foreseeable emergency

Before getting on board, it is a pretty good idea to make sure that you and your crew are adequately dressed for the part If you intend to be away for more than a few hours, make sure that you are all carrying spare clothing and warm sweaters Perhaps you intend to get back for the evening But what happens if you go on the putty? It can be a very cold night indeed stuck out on the Brambles in early April with no sleeping bags or blankets.

Crazy though it may seem, people still go boating with the wrong shoes on. So many times I have seen them making their way on board wearing last years worn out trainers and promptly going base over tip on the first bit of wet deck

Finally, watch the weather. Weather forecasts are easily available and nowadays fairly accurate. Most of our voyages are short ones, and if the met office predicts strong or gale force winds in your area you can bet your sweet bippy they are right.

It is most important that you choose a boat that is capable of weathering the conditions that you are likely to find yourself in. Many boat-builders still persist in using the word ‘offshore’ when they really mean ‘inshore’. I will admit that cars suspended by ping-pong balls have crossed the English Channel, and that it is possible to drive a speedboat to Ostend. However, this sort of thing is only possible in ideal conditions, and we have only heard of the ones that got away with it. I will not even try to begin to classify which type of boat is safe and where. Common sense should tell you that you should take a look around. If your boat is completely different from others in the area, begin to worry!


'begin to worry'

As I have mentioned before, the sea can be very dangerous, and should always be regarded with a great deal of respect. Never set out on a voyage unless you are absolutely fully prepared for it. Ensure that you have adequate charts for the area and that you have studied and understood them completely before starting. Planning a voyage can be a great deal of fun, and very important. Make sure that you do not find yourself sailing near a load of rocks in the middle of the night or that you do not run out of fuel by North Hinder Light. Also allow for the fact that your ETA can be very different than expected and if possible give yourself the chance to park halfway for the night.

Choosing crew to take with you is a very skilful business. It must be remembered that if extreme conditions are met with, it is usually the crew that quits long before the boat. It is not very sensible to choose a crew of dumb blondes with no sailing experience, if you intend to go offshore. The prospect I must admit is quite appealing, but I would prefer to crew with them in harbour

In the club bar you will no doubt hear exciting stories from some of the ‘boys’ of how they navigated their way through a force nine gale Probably they exhibited a high degree of seamanship. What they will not tell you is how they forgot to listen to the forecast before setting out, or that they ‘took a chance' to get back to the office. A good seaman can get himself out of trouble, but the best seaman does not get into trouble in the first place.