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Sailing is a combination of joys and sorrows: for both aspects there is plenty of choice!

We all have plenty of pictures piled in a drawer or stored in our computer as mementos of some magic sailing moments, but, certainly the same cannot be said for less pleasant situations we all have experienced and and yet they are there for everyone and will always be there.

Sailing, indeed, gives unforgettable emotions however, due to carelessness or negligence, it can suddenly become very dangerous. Hands up those of us who have never come back to port with a plaster or a bandage, a swollen big toe or a beaten rib.

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Countless are the situations where a careless sailor can yell of pain, that an entire book could be filled! Of course the sailboat cannot be blamed for that: it is the way she is, full of steel or aluminium parts where your toes or elbows can get injured, overflowing with halyards, sheets and ropes to stumble over.

Enough slippery here and there to make you fall in a companionway or hurt your back on a winch. And what about the boom that has the bad habit of moving frantically just when the unlucky sailor forgets to lower his head thus receiving a blow in his forehead, on in his nape depending if he is looking one way or the other, surely the wrong way.

Yes, on a sailboat you can get hurt in thousand different ways. Yet she, the boat, is innocent. She is not trying to trick us, it’s us that don’t pay attention at her and her equipment. Winches have been in the same place for years, maybe decades. Halyards and sheets are harmless and don’t mean to betray anybody, if properly coiled and stowed. The ladder to go below deck is comfortable and anti-slip, if you step down correctly. Otherwise, your face may badly hit the sink or even worse.

As for the boom, how can we blame it for many terrible blows (some, unfortunately, with severe consequences), if it moves only due to the wind and/or waves and, above all, it is always at the same height? And the tiller, complete with autopilot sheet support, has it been installed just last night? Maybe without our knowledge? Not at all, it has always been there but our hands lost the grip at the wrong moment and due to the fall we broke a couple of ribs. And the gangboards? They move, have to, and if you don’t secure them firmly, the risk of falling in water all of a sudden, or even worse, is extremely high.

In short, on a sailboat, wherever you turn, there is always something that could hurt you. However most of the accidents – both trivial and serious – could be prevented with a little attention and small precautions. I say that, as I have quite a good knowledge of the issue as well as much experience (not) to boast of. One day, after going to and fro from the dock to the moored boat at least twenty times, on the twenty-first time I suddenly bumped into the boom and literally crashed my head.

Well, the boom hadn’t moved of course. It was exactly where I had secured it i.e. at the centre of the boat. It was me who, lost in my thoughts, had forgotten to lower my head. As a result I crashed into the boom end and the very pointy reefing lines, an ambulance was called and I had five stiches.  

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Another time, one night in January, I, due to an excess of laziness, started to load the baggage on board without having fastened the gangboard properly, as, I thought “there is no wave”. Then a small boat came by on the wrong moment, i.e. when I was on the gangboard, and the slight motion was more than enough to make me lose the balance and fall straight into the port icy water.

So, first of all: be careful. Then, keep in mind some basic tips. If you don’t want, sooner or later, to injure your toes on a winch, a rail or a sheave, always wear shoes when manoeuvring on the deck. Shoes with anti-slip soles of course, to prevent falls due to slips or trips.

The old rule “one hand for yourself and one for the boat” is still relevant. You must be very careful when walking on board as it can be very dangerous. When the sea is rough, and maybe you feel seasick, it may be risky to go below deck: hold the handrail with both hands not to fall off the ladder and get injured.

The worst accidents happen in the cockpit area, where, in case of heeling, the utmost attention shall be paid. Holding firmly to life lines with your feet steady on the deck can help to avoid incurring in ruinous falls. Special attention shall be devoted to the boom as it is, no doubt, the most dangerous device on board. Any sudden and violent movement could be fatal in case of big boats. Therefore anybody is required to always stay below its range of action. Its position during navigation must not be taken for granted as it may “turn” due to wind or waves and cause severe harm to people.

The same precaution shall be taken when, during calm weather conditions, someone decides to reach the bow: always keep your head low, always pay attention also to the mainsail sheet block (it can be as harmful as the boom) and never never pass over the boom downwind, as in case of accidental gybe, the blow will be very violent.

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During mast manoeuvring in rough sea, safety harnesses are necessary. The ideal is to set up lifelines along the bow-stern axis. Or, it can be useful to get tied to the mast or to some eyebolts in the centre of the boat, of course, and not by the washboard, where you may seriously risk falling overboard. Also dropping anchor in a roadstead is not without risks: the person who operates the winch shall not be barefoot and shall avoid – as far as possible – to touch the chain when in motion. If no winch is available, always stop the chain descent with the sole of your shoes.

Wharfage mooring requires the same caution: use heavy-duty gloves to grab the ropes attached to mooring posts, as particularly sharp barnacles and different kinds of shells may hide in submerged parts and parts covered with seaweeds. Never harden a mooring rope just with the strength of your arms but stress your legs in order to avoid to throw out your back, as has happened to many sailors.

Finally: gangboards. They can be very dangerous if not secured properly or used without paying the utmost care. It’s better to spend some extra time on fastening it and use it only when it has been correctly and safely installed.

Last but not least, remember that one thing is a lack of attention of an aware sailor, and another is an act of foolishness. There are people who get to the dock with the 220V power cord, plug it to the charging column and walk the gangboard back with the other cable end in their hands. So, they walk near the water with a powered cable: can you only imagine the risks involved?

Be cautious everybody!

Stefano Sergi