The Ultimate Guide to Sailing Safety

The deep ocean blue is calling you, but there’s alarm bells going off in your head.

That’s your natural instinct to say safe when you know that you could be partaking in a potentially unsafe activity.

Movies like to propagate fear with the open waters, but the truth is that apart from a cat-5 or an act of God, sailing is safe.

When you equip yourself with the right information and put in the effort to practice what you’ve learned, you’ll hone your skill set and build up muscle memory, as well as a stellar reaction time.

Even if you haven’t put in the hours yet, the tips and information in this guide will turn you into a hypervigilant sailing saint in no time.

We couldn’t even begin to track the amount of hours we’ve spent out on sea, so take it from those who know best.

Is Sailing Dangerous?

IS Sailing Dangerous

It can be, but then again, so can driving in areas with wild deer.

In eleven years, less than three-hundred fatalities were reported in the United States as a direct result of sailing, yet you’re four times more likely to die by hitting a deer crossing on the road.

You tell us what’s more dangerous.

The main thing that people worry about is getting caught in terrible storms, which is mostly influenced by popular movies and television.

With the meteorology experts and weather detection hardware we now have, you would have to intentionally ride out into the middle of a hurricane to expand your chances of a fatality (and we wrote a guide on surviving hurricanes, too).

So yes, sailing can be as dangerous as just about anything else, which is why this safety guide is so extremely important.

The thing is, you don’t just have a bunch of unintelligible people controlling boats out on the open water.

It’s not like driving where you truly don’t know the skill level of the motorists around you.

If someone is manning a sailboat, there’s a much better chance that they know what they’re doing.

Safest Conditions to Sail In

Stormy Weathers

Before you ever set foot on the boat, you need to know how to identify harmful and dangerous weather.

Your boating skill isn’t going to do you much good if you’re intentionally treading into rough waters when you don’t have to.

The safest conditions to sail in are when there’s not a cloud in sight, and you have nothing but a calm over out in front of you.

However, being safe and being sail-worthy are two different things entirely.

The ideal conditions are those with enough wind to allow you to go full sail with no looking back.

Once you go full sail, you’re letting the wind carry you and take you where you want to go, and the waters will be a touch bit rough, but nothing you can’t handle or couldn’t swim in if you wanted.

Part of what making sailing so different from powerboating is that you’ll be relying on the wind power, which means you need to pay attention to the barometric pressure around you.

It is a good idea to have sufficient paperwork equipment (clipboards, pencils, a safe and dry storage place) so that you can record barometric pressure readings every four hours.

Between barometric pressure and detecting wind speed, you’ll be able to determine how rough the situation will get.

A barometer reading of 30-31 is ideal for sailing in nearly all seasons. If the barometer readings are falling slowly, the weather will worsen slowly.

If it is falling rapidly, horrid weather (potentially a hurricane) is on the horizon.

Use your readings along with simple methods of detecting worsening weather, such as the clouds.

The higher the clouds are in the direction of a pressure drop, the farther away the storm is. The lower the clouds, the closer and more of a threat the weather is.

Lastly, use whatever method possible to detect the wind speed. This can be an electronic reader, or simply using your intuition.

After all, we all know what strong winds feel like. The stronger the winds, the higher the waves rae going to be, and the more perilous the conditions.

Sailing Safety Equipment

Going full speed and enjoying a warm summer day is all well and good, but unless you’re prepared for the worst, you won’t really be able to settle in and relax.

This checklist of the necessary safety equipment that you require on your boat will help you garner that piece of mind.

Fire Extinguishers

Fire Extinguisher on a sailboat

This is required by law, and must have a large enough volume for whatever size vessel you are operating.

It’s never a bad idea to also have an additional smaller one on hand (so long as the primary fire extinguisher meets guidelines), which will be useful if a fire breaks out and another member of the crew is trying to help.

If you purchased the boat as-is and it came with a fire extinguisher on board, it’s important that you immediately purchase a new one, and mark that new one with an expiration date for five years after the purchase date.

Fire extinguishers, on average, can last up to ten years or so, but since it’s difficult to determine when it was manufactured and how long it’s been in the warehouse/on the shelf, err on the side of caution and just mark it for five years.

Life Jackets

Life Jacket on a sailor sailing a sailboat

PFDs of any sort are good, but life jackets are a requirement.

You can have additional PFDs if you wish; there’s no penalty for being extra prepared.

These life jackets need to be certified by the Coast Guard (most branded life jackets will automatically undergo testing prior to selling their life jackets).

You want to look for different buoyancy ratings, which will determine if the life jacket is deemed usable by a child, teenager, or adult. In rare instances, you may need more than a 22 lb maximum buoyancy rating (usually the highest that there is) if members or your party are overweight or obese.

These life jackets may have to be specially ordered.


Classic sail bells

You need some sort of way to tell other boats and maritime life that you’re approaching, or signal for danger if another boat is set to collide with you, and their captain is unaware.

This is a rarity out at sea, and has a higher chance of happening within the first mile from the shore out to sea.

You can either have a loud bell that is operated from the cabin, or a loud whistle. Ideally, it would be loud enough to alert everyone on your boat, the other boat, and be audible over any motor sounds.

Day and Night Distress Signals

Using flares in distress

Usually in the form of flares, these day and night signals are designed to tell overhead planes and aircrafts, as well as other boats and port authorities (if they are within range) that you are in trouble and need immediate assistance.

Depending on the size of your boat, you will need a higher quantity of flares.

It is advised to have half-a-dozen day flares and half-a-dozen night flares, though the minimum requirements set by the Coast Guard are usually three.

If you end up using them, then you have backups just so you don’t have to order them and wait to go out on your boat again.

Throwable Flotation Device

boats and flotation devices

Similar to PFDs, these are usually life preserver rings that you can toss into the water to someone who has fallen overboard, or experienced an issue while swimming near the boat.

These are fastened to the boat in some way, giving a much more structured way for the overboard person to get back to the boat.

These usually have high buoyancy ratings, which can help if they’re being pulled against the current.

Sufficient Lumen Lights

Light on a boat

From your searchlight to your red/green/white lights for nighttime sailing, they all need to be bright enough to cut through light layers of fog, and alert others within a two-hundred foot radius to your location and status.

Each light shows a different section of your boat, which lets other boaters and passers-by know how to adjust themselves or move in accordance with how you are moving.

You can buy inexpensive (and frankly horrible) lights that barely make it over the minimum standards set by the US Coast Guard, but for safety purposes, get bright lights that can be seen through foggy conditions.

Emergency Raft

Life Raft for sailboats

In the unlikely event that the ship starts to go down and you can’t stop it, you can’t exactly swim for six miles back to shore, especially if it’s nighttime and the waters are frigid.

An emergency raft can not only provide a means to get out of harm’s way, but also offer peace of mind while you’re sailing with friends and family.

A quality raft can run you about $600.00 or more. You want to go with something that is rapidly self-inflating to take the pressure off of you in an emergency.

When the alarm bells are whistling, time is of the essence, and you need to utilize every second to ensure safety for your entire party.

Backup Battery

battery backup for sailboats

 Batteries fail from time to time, and if you sail regularly, your battery could have some wear and tear on it that’s not visible from the surface.

These control those lights we talked about early, it can control your searchlight, and it’s important to have this fully charged before you leave port.

If it goes out on you or there’s an issue, a backup battery is an absolute must.

Weather Forecast System

Weather Trackers

As you get further out to sea, the only thing that you’re going to hear on weather reports or your smartphone is inland-occuring storms or massive hurricanes that are coming in off the coast.

You’re not going to hear about a small storm with 40 MPH winds that will never make landfall, but that could still mess up your sail and provide unstable conditions for you.

Having your own weather forecasting system is important.

Maintaining your safety equipment is something that people don’t talk about often enough. If you know, “I have safety equipment on my boat, I’ve had it forever,” that’s not necessarily a good thing.

If you stockpiled it all at once, good on you for getting safety equipment in the first place, but you should understand that it’s not just going to stay perfectly preserved while waiting to be used.

Every six months, you should perform basic cleaning of your safety equipment, and check its functionality.

If you’re preparing for a long voyage, this should be done immediately before you set off, or at least within three days prior to departure.

Is Sailing in the Ocean Dangerous?

Ocean Sailing can be dangerous

It’s more dangerous than sailing close to shore for certain.

If you were within the limits of national waters, the Coast Guard is within frequency range to hear you and come to your aid in the event of a fire or grave illness.

Out in the middle of the ocean, there is no immediate medical aid, nothing close by, and that comes with a certain sense of uneasiness.

You’re far from the Coast Guard, but being too far out to sea also comes with difficulties when it comes to radio frequency and range.

The farther you are from shore, the less likely it is that your radio signal is going to reach anyone in the event of an accident or freak storm.

This is where a satellite phone would come in handy, but even those have their limitations.

Weather forecasting is another danger that you have to face.

If you’re having difficulty getting radio signals, then you’re going to have intermittent interruptions in other receiving messages, such as forecasts.

Back on the mainland, they’re not reporting mid-ocean storms that will not affect them.

They’re reporting about hurricanes and tsunamis, things that cause catastrophic inland disaster.

Problem is, that leaves you vulnerable to whatever is brewing at sea that they’re not reporting. Weather prediction equipment can come in handy here.

What You Can do to be Prepared for Emergencies at Sea

First thing’s first: have all of your safety equipment at-the-ready.

This is the one area of your safety that you can’t falter on.

Apart from that, the best thing you can do is learn first-aid. You can find a color-coded index book that delivers intricate methods to treat mostly anything at sea.

If you’re going to spend a while out there, this is good to bring along for your crew to brush up on as well, in case the emergency revolves around you.

You should also find a method of self-defense that is fully acceptable according to the United States Coast Guard, and meets the legal limits for anywhere that you plan on visiting.

While you’re not likely to run into trouble out on the ocean, it’s always good to come prepared. Worst-case scenario, you have an extra tool on deck.

6 Sailing Dangers

There’s always an associated risk with anything you do, and sailing does have the potential to be dangerous if you are unskilled or unwilling to listen to protocol.

These are some of the most prominent dangers that could affect your safety.

1. Falling Overboard

Falling overboards

This may sound pretty basic, with a simple answer like, “Just be careful.”

You’re not in full control when you’re out on the water.

Yeah, you’re controlling your boat and you have the sailing know-how to steer, trim the sails and maneuver through the rough seas, but you aren’t 110% focused all the time. You simply can’t be.

The danger of falling overboard doesn’t attempt to prey on your inabilities, just that a wave could come along and rock the boat when you’re walking on deck.

It’s important to have a good amount of tactile grip strips in multiple areas on deck to prevent this from happening.

Falling overboard presses the concern that the person in the water could get hit by the keel, hull, or rudder/motor if they get sucked into the rear vortex.

2. Heat Stroke

Your body has a self-regulating system for your internal temperature, but it’s not foolproof.

Long hours spent out on the ocean with the reflection of the sun bouncing off the water is recipe for heat stroke.

If you’ve never experienced it before, it feels like you’re in a drunken stupor or you’re massively fatigued and can’t fully wake up, coupled with sweating.

Your body begins to slow down your heartbeat as a failsafe to avoid extreme heat frying your brain, and the only remedy is rest in a cool place.

Sunscreen, shade, and monitoring your temperature are all ways to avoid heat stroke.

3. Capsizing

capsizing boat

Capsizing is when your boat turns over entirely and the stem is facing skyward.

This only happens in extreme conditions such as high winds or hurricanes, though it is important not to rule out the possibility that this could happen.

Your boat has a keel along the bottom, a daggerboard that’s designed to right you when winds rock the sides of the boat, but it can only counterbalance so much.

4. Piracy

This isn’t a scare tactic, it’s just to tell you about the possibilities of piracy attacks.

In 2015 alone, there were over three-hundred piracy attacks, which is down nearly 250% from 2010.

The good news is that there are maybe a handful of these incidents in the United States each year.

Most issues arise in East Africa, West Africa, and Southeast Asia. All it means is that you need to vigilant of other vessels around you, especially if you’re sailing internationally.

5. Pulling a Muscle

It’s a valid potential threat.

You’re doing a lot with your arms and upper back, and your personal physical strength is a major factor in how well you’ll be able to sail.

If you’re ten miles out to sea on a solo, one-night sailing trip, it’s not good if you pull out a shoulder muscle.

You should have the assistance of your V2 motor to help you out, but it’s not the same as actually sailing.

6. Fatigue

Fatigue when sailing

This one is a direct result of your activity on the boat.

If you’re going on a three-day sailing trip and you don’t have a first mate with you, that means you’re on night watch, you’re managing everything, and you have no time to relax properly.

Fatigue doesn’t just have to be a lack of sleep, but a lack of rest, mental or emotional fatigue, which all affect your judgment and decision-making process.

Fatigue is a sailing danger because you can leave port with nothing but vigor and vinegar, but the sea does eventually put a drain on you, especially if it’s just you out there.

The Best Things You Can do to Minimize Sailing Risks

Your skill will be the most important asset available to you during any sailing voyage.

If you are rightfully confident in your abilities to respond to high-pressure situations in a calm manner, then you are in good standing to assist your party and manage your boat in most situations.

The most important aspects of a knowledgeable and competent captain are:


Confidence is the opposite of an ego, because true confidence means you are self-reliant and aware enough to understand your own capabilities, and recognize those tasks or activities that you are incapable of or do not excel at.

Having confidence comes from experience and a full comprehensive, fundamental understanding of the task at hand or the issue you’re facing, and knowing a reasonable way to get out of it.

If the ship is taking on water and the captain is panicking, then the rest of the passengers are panicking, and it’s spelling a bad time.

Your confidence is what defines your abilities and competence at sea.

A confident captain will approach situations with various solutions, even if means delegating a specific task to a crew member that you know to be capable.

Reaction Time

Reaction Time for sailors

Emergency situations are going to happen.

They happen in everyday life, and when you spend enough time out at sea, you’re going to encounter them in the open water.

Your reaction time to dire or life-threatening problems is a direct influence on the outcome, defining the state that you are in when the problem blows over, versus the state that you could have been in had you not reacted properly.

Risk Assessment

If you’re about to head into a storm, risk assessment is a massive aspect of your likelihood that you’re going to get out on top.

This is something that you might learn during sailing lessons or online schooling, because the risks out at sea are very real and potentially dangerous.

Risk assessment is largely dependent upon your fundamental understanding of how your boat responds in the water, knowing its weight, assessing the danger of what you’re heading into, and quickly deducing a probability of a successful or safe outcome.

This plays into confidence, and not letting you ego run the show.

Physical Strength

People don’t like to hear this one, but your physical strength is a big part of your ability as a captain.

Can you trim the sails in strong winds? Are you able to pull in life preservers when someone falls overboard, and do it quickly without harming them further?

It’s relevant, and directly affects your confidence, risk assessment, and capabilities.

If you struggle with every task during an emergency because you are not physically strong enough to perform the necessary task in a timely manner, you’re minimizing the chance of a successful outcome.

Swimming Prowess

swimming sailing boat

This is on the bottom of the list, because it has to do with safety and survival more than it does with actual boating.

If a member of your party is in trouble, or you have to travel underneath the boat to analyze a problem with the keel or the rudder, your swimming capabilities are going to be tested, particularly if you’re doing this because high winds and stormy waters are on the horizon.

If you’re lacking in any of these areas, it’s recommended that you take a sailing course or an in-class sailing lesson.

You’ll gain confidence and risk assessment capabilities from being out on the boat, but if it’s difficult to get out there as often as you would like, having some online course material is a great way to stay up-to-date on boating knowledge, and increase your confidence in your abilities.

At the End of the Day

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

There’s always going to be that one naysayer who doesn’t keep to a strict safety checklist, but the fact of the matter is, sailing isn’t much more dangerous than things you already do in your daily life, provided you have the proper training and safety equipment.

You’ll be the one everyone turns to in a rough patch, and you’ll have stockpiled the confidence and equipment to handle anything that comes your way.

The Ultimate Guide to Sailing Safety
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