There are some dangers. But the wind and the waves are not the greatest dangers at sea. There are ways to keep a boat properly balanced, with the appropriate amount of sail to maintain safe control of the boat. With proper planning, you are unlikely to sail into the “Perfect Storm” or any hurricane. Even sailors with thousands of miles of experience rarely run into survival conditions. Then there are ways to slow down or stop, go below, and wait for it to pass. While I can’t list everything that could happen, in my opinion the following dangers far out weigh the sea state.
Lack of experience or poor Judgement
Take the time to develop your sailing skills. You may be eager to dive in and get going, but don’t do it. Learn how your boat handles on all points of sail, under different conditions. Experiment with different sail combinations and trim to see how each affects the boat.
Stay ashore during small craft warnings until you are ready. When the wind increases and the seas start to grow, you may become nervous. That’s not uncommon. As you gain experience, you will have more confidence and be at ease in heavier and heavier conditions. The worst thing that can happen is to damage the boat, be injured, or cause an injury to others because you didn’t know what to do or were unwilling to leave the cockpit to do it. Have a Plan B and know how you will handle equipment, instrument, or engine failure. Before long, you will become comfortable and you will also be able to instill confidence in your abilities in others.
Sun or Cold Weather
Sailing on a blue sky day is terrific, but be mindful of sun exposure. On the water you will be exposed to direct sunlight as well as reflected light off of the water and the sails. Wear high SPF sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat. That’s why so many sailors wear those wide brim, floppy hats. A dodger or cockpit awning will offer refuge from the sun. Going below and only coming up to scan the horizon periodically may also be necessary. Remember that it doesn’t have to be very sunny and hot to be exposed to UV light.
Stay hydrated. Fresh water will be limited. There won’t be any long hot showers, but don’t forget to drink enough.
Conversely, be prepared for cold and wet weather. If you are cold and wet, you will be miserable and it will sap your strength. In some conditions, you could develop hypothermia. Waterproof jacket, slacks, and boots (foul weather gear) with layers of dry clothing beneath will keep you comfortable.
If you fall off the boat, you’re dead! It’s that simple. Don’t be fooled that man overboard drills will allow you to recover everyone in every sea conditions. Plus, who will save you if you fall overboard? There are safety harnesses and tethers to keep you attached to a strong point or safety (Jack) lines. Most people don’t wear them in light winds, but everyone should have one available. Some captains insist that everyone wear them on deck.
There is also a danger of serious injury from falling on the boat or below decks. There is an old adage that goes, “One hand for yourself and one for the ship.” I relearned that lesson the hard way recently below decks. I was making coffee and we were sailing in moderate winds and seas. When we were hit by a wave from the side, I was thrown across the cabin and my back slammed into the bulkhead. I had a serious bruise and was in a lot of pain for several days. It could have been much worse. I was still able to function, but every move was a painful reminder to pay attention and stay well anchored to my position.
Dangers on Deck
Beside the obvious danger of falling, there are a few things to be aware of on deck. There will be long lines (possibly several) lead to the cockpit. It is important to keep each of these organized so that they will not be under foot, wrap around your leg, or get entangled in anything. These lines will usually be long enough to reach into the water behind the boat. They could get wrapped around the prop when the engine is running.
The boom can be very dangerous when running downwind. The sail will be eased out to its maximum and a sudden wind shift or change in course could lead to an accidental jibe. The boom may sweep violently from one side of the boat to the other. A direct blow to the head is potentially fatal and the risk of being swept overboard is possible. Sailors rig a line aptly named a “preventer” to reduce the risk. The danger exists before it is rigged and after it is released.
Maintaining a proper watch and knowing where you are is the best defense against collision. The two greatest risks of collision are colliding with another vessel or bottom of the ocean (a reef, beach etc.).
Periodically scan the horizon for 360 degrees. Learn how to spot potential problems in vessel crossing situations. There are simple rules of the road that define which vessel has the right of way in any crossing situations. They are simple to learn, but I recommend that “Don’t let anything hit you.” be the guiding principal.
I was criticized by another sailor once for saying this. Here is my reasoning. The rules of the road were developed when a number of gentlemen sat down to discuss and resolve the issue. They are very practical and based upon which vessel has the most flexibility to alter course. When both vessels are sailing, right of way is determined by wind direction and point of sail.
Here is the problem. Not all vessels are under control of a gentleman. I am not using this term to cast dispersion on women. Many are more experienced sailors than me. They are also capable of sailing in a gentlemanly way. Some captains are not gentlemen, not keeping a proper watch, not sober, or not at the helm. There is nothing wrong with yielding your right of way. The rules of the road are most often used in sailboat racing to gain an edge over others and they will assert their rights over others.
At sea, the vast majority of vessels are under control of an autopilot. It is just too much work to steer the boat 24 hours a day. Shouting “Starboard!” at an autopilot will have no effect. And don’t expect the Island Princess or a container ship to yield to you.
Today’s electronics make it so much easier to know where you are. Even without radar, you can know your position in fog or other reduced visibility situations. These can be displayed on an electronic chart. It wasn’t always that way, You used to have to keep track of an assumed position based upon your course and speed from the last known position. This was tracked on a paper chart.
There is also a system called AIS (Automatic Identification System). This is a signal that is transmitted by commercial vessels over 300 tons and all commercial passenger vessels. These signals can be interfaced into the navigation system to display the vessels around you. Even without the display, many modern VHF radios are AIS capable. I was on a sailboat with a broken radar, but an AIS capable radio as we approached the Panama canal. The radio listed all of the vessels within the distance we selected by name, course, speed, closest approach distance to us, and when that distance would happen.
These are great aids to navigation, but remember that everything will fail someday. They probably won’t fail at the dock, so have at least one level of backup. You may want to have one or two key paper charts, just in case.
Seasickness and Fatigue
Some people are more susceptible to seasickness than others. I know experienced sailors who suffer from it to one degree or another. It has nothing to do with being macho. Some just are mildly uncomfortable and it takes a while “to get their sea legs.” They probably won’t vomit, but will be off their chow for a day or two. Those who have worse cases take medications or wear the slow release patches. Severe seasickness is totally debilitating. You will be unable to do anything and will be miserable. If you fit into this category, the ocean is not for you and you will happily avoid it.
Fatigue will sap your strength and impair your judgement. How well can you sleep underway? Keeping watch schedules will mess with your normal sleep patterns. You may have to cram yourself into a tight spot and sleep while the boat is crashing through waves.
So Is It Dangerous?
Well, you need to understand the dangers, have a boat suited for off shore, and have the proper equipment and skills. These skills are not beyond the abilities of any healthy person. You don’t have to be an athlete or be extremely strong. Just don’t push yourself too hard, too soon. Take the time to develop and enjoy your sailing abilities.