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9 Safe Sailing Best Practices

Updated: Jan 8

When the open seas call, you can’t help but listen. But before you step on any type of boat, it’s essential to prioritize safety and understand how to protect yourself and anyone else on the boat. Without practicing proper safety procedures, a fun day of sailing can suddenly become dangerous.

Everything we do at First Reef Sailing is with safety in mind. That’s why we’d like to share the basics of sailing safety. Here are nine tips to help ensure your sailing experience is both safe and fun.

Tip #1: Get the Right Safety Gear for Sailing

Having the right gear may be the most important component of safe sailing. For starters, Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs), also known as life jackets, are a must. A well-fitted life jacket ensures you stay buoyant, and it potentially keeps your head above water if you're incapacitated.

It’s also important to note that if your sailboat is 16 feet or longer, you must have the right types of personal flotation devices (PFDs) aboard. Small boats, like dinghies, must have at least one PFD per person aboard (each with a Coast Guard Approval Number).

Not only should everyone onboard always wear life jackets, you should also keep the following equipment on your sailboat:

  • First aid kit

  • Life raft (for larger vessels)

  • VHF Radio

  • Flares and fire extinguishers

  • Sound signaling devices

  • Flashlights

  • Bailing device

  • Oars or paddles in case the sails malfunction

Tip #2: Avoid Alcohol While Sailing

Did you know that alcohol is one of the biggest known contributing factors in fatal boating accidents? If you’re operating a sailboat, any amount of alcohol puts you, your passengers, and everyone else on the water at risk. Save that drink until you get back on dry land.

Tip #3: Complete a Boating Safety Course

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 74% of deaths happen on boats where the captain hadn’t received boating safety instruction. That’s why we recommend getting familiar with boating laws and best practices, like we do in our ASA certification courses.

Here are some of the safety topics we cover in our beginner ASA 101 and ASA 103 courses:

  • Understanding the basics of sailboat operation

  • Learning critical safety protocols and what to do in an emergency

  • Safety maneuvers like heaving to and crew overboard recoveries

  • Getting familiar with local, national, and international rules and regulations

Whether you’re sailing a keelboat or a catamaran, getting certified makes you a safer, more confident sailor. If you want to learn how to sail, enroll today to get started on your journey.

Tip #4: Eliminate Distractions

Cellphones, tablets, eating, and not focusing on the water can all lead to devastating situations. Distractions aren’t listed as one of the top contributing factors in boating accidents for no reason. Focus is key when sailing.

Tip #5: Adhere to Speed and Navigational Rules

Whether you’re sailing in the Boston Harbor or the Caribbean, there are rules you must follow. Some of the basics include maintaining a safe speed and following the navigational rules of the waters you’re in. In addition to the boating rules issued by the Coast Guard, you’ll also need to adhere to local laws.

Tip #6: Monitor the Weather

Weather conditions can change quickly and getting stuck in a storm can be dangerous. Unfortunately, mother nature has caused many boating injuries, capsizing, and deaths. That said, here are a few tips to help you keep an eye on the weather while sailing:

  • Check the NOAA marine forecast for your area before you depart

  • Keep your eyes on the sky and check for dark clouds forming

  • Pay attention to barometric readings

  • Monitor sudden changes in wind direction or temperature

  • Listen to your VHF radio and tune in to weather channels

If a storm is coming and you can’t avoid it, you should also understand how to safely sail through it. Lastly, if you notice other boaters heading for the shore, it may be an indication that a storm is brewing — take note, and follow their lead.

Tip #7: Register for an MMSI Number and Equip Your Boat with a VHF Radio and DSC

Sailing in coastal or inland waters requires special precautions, like registering for a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. This, coupled with a VHF radio that has Digital Selective Calling (DSC), allows emergency services to quickly locate you via an automatic distress signal, giving them your exact location. Without an MMSI number and DSC-equipped VHF radio, it can be difficult to find you in a timely manner.

Tip #8: Maintain Regular Equipment Checks

Safety equipment that doesn’t work is just as bad as not having any at all. Regularly checking and maintaining your sailboat and equipment can help avert potential disasters. Here are a few routine checks every sailor should consider before every trip:

  • Mechanical and electrical systems

  • Hull and deck structure

  • Sailing gear (ropes, rigging, sails, jibs, wenches, etc.)

  • Safety equipment like PFDs, flares, fire extinguishers, and others

Tip #9: File a Float Plan

A float plan is an essential aspect of sailing, but it’s usually overlooked or forgotten. A float plan is a document (electronic or physical) that provides critical information about your sailboat and crewmembers. You can create your own or use a float plan template created by the US Coast Guard.

It should include information about your route, planned timeline, the safety equipment you have with you, and details about every person onboard. Once completed, leave it with a trusted friend, family member, or your local marina. In addition to leaving your float plan with a friend you can submit it to the US Coast Guard via their USCG mobile app.

If something goes wrong while you’re out sailing, your float plan can help first responders understand where to search.

Sailboat Safety FAQs

How Safe is a Sailboat?

Sailboats are safe if you understand and practice the proper safety procedures. Sailing can be very dangerous if you don’t follow the appropriate safety protocols or learn the right techniques. That’s why we recommend getting certified.

How Many Sailboats Sink a Year?

Approximately 200 recreational vessels sink each year. Here is a look at the number of sinking events reported by the U.S. Coast Guard from 2016-2020:

  • 2016: 202

  • 2017: 213

  • 2018: 231

  • 2019: 156

  • 2020: 211

How Do You Stay Safe On a Sailboat?

Aside from the simple safety practices like wearing sunscreen and a life jacket, safe sailing requires a basic understanding of safety protocols, safety maneuvers, and local regulations. We recommend signing up for our ASA sailing courses to get started.

What are the Potential Hazards of Sailing?

Like many other marine activities, there are potential hazards of sailing, including:

  • Bad weather and storms

  • Running aground

  • Falling overboard

  • Capsizing and sinking

  • Collisions

Here at First Reef Sailing we cover all of these emergencies and how to deal with them in our ASA 103 - Basic Cruising Course!

Take Your Knowledge to the Water

Now that you’re all caught up on the top safety tips for sailing, it’s time to put that knowledge into practice. Find out how First Reef sailing courses can help you go from beginner to certified skipper in no time.

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