Further reflections on the risks of sailing an open boat

September 9th

Yesterday’s little adventure was, as Marcia said, all well because it ended well.   But it has gotten me worked up. 

In calm water, with the big flotation tanks it has, Grey Fox floats plenty high, is reasonably stable and stays upright even full of water and with sails still up, and it’s not that hard to bail it out.  If “help” hadn’t come along, I think I would have had it completely bailed out in about 10 minutes.  No problem.  

And as long as I was tending the mainsheet, we never had a moment when it felt like we would have a problem.  Our swamping was due only to my stupidity in tying down the sheet. I couldn’t let off the sails fast enough, and the boat didn’t have enough steerage way for me to just head it up into the wind. If I’m actively working the mainsail and the tiller I can respond, as I did with no real anxious moments while we were out in the big waves. The risk of the boat going over when properly sailed is low.

Sure, but…

What matters is not just the level of risk, but the consequences of a screw-up.

WHAT IF we had swamped out in the big waves in the Sound?  I don’t think we could have bailed the boat out.   The boat may have been very unstable in those waves, and with limited freeboard the waves would probably just come over the gunwale faster than we could bail.

WHAT IF the water had been 58 degrees instead of 75?  It’s often that cold in Maine in the summer.  10 minutes in 58-degree water could definitely be hypothermia-inducing.  I could have been literally bailing for my life. 

Food for thought.   In water where your chance of summoning timely help is slim, you shouldn’t be out in this type of boat in rough conditions.  Better to stay ashore and wait for better weather. Go get a lobster roll. 

In water where the time to rescue yourself is short due to water temperature, you should be suited up in a wetsuit or a drysuit.  I go kayaking in the middle of winter in a drysuit and if I go into the 35-degree water, it’s manageable.  I can get back in the kayak in a minute or two, and then empty my kayak of what little water it takes on in a couple more minutes.  The drysuit probably buys me 5-10 minutes of remaining functional in that water temp, although my hands would become useless a lot faster.    

15 minutes sitting only half-submerged in 58-degree water to bail out Grey Fox would be no problem in a wetsuit, and once bailed out I would still be warm enough to sail the boat to some (hopefully) nearby shore. 

I think I’ll pack wetsuits for next summer’s trip to Maine just for the day where conditions are a bit dicey. Of course, like life jackets and bike helmets, they only work if you put them on in advance of your accident…

Author: Larchmont Jim

A 50-something investment banker from Larchmont, New York (about 15 miles from midtown Manhattan). Amateur small boat sailer, boatbuilder, kayaker, musician. I grew up spending summers sailing the New England coast on my grandfather’s beautiful 47’ 1952 Sparkman & Stevens wooden yawl. I’ve lived in Larchmont, a major and historic sailing center on Long Island Sound, for 25 years, but career and family obligations kept me off the water for all of my 30s and 40s, and only about 7 years ago did I get back on the water, first in sea kayaks, and then in small boats.

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