A sober appraisal of the dangers of early season sailing

This is not my story. It was sent in by the highly experienced yachtsman Jerry Freeman and highlights a rarely discussed danger of early season sailing. Hypothermia can be a killer. But cold water shock can be deadlier – and quicker.

“If one of your crew falls overboard this weekend he may be dead within five minutes of hitting the cold water. Your well planned and frequently rehearsed man over board drill (joke) may have him along side your boat in ten or fifteen minutes but getting him back over the side without further injury is an exercise that you certainly have never practiced. He may be dead before the lifeboat is launched but at least they can recover the corpse for you.

“Cold Shock is the killer in water below 15 degrees Celsius; Bramble Bank is reporting a sea temperature of 9 degrees today! (March 25th). Thousands of keen sailors will be afloat this weekend blissfully unaware of the risks they are taking in the coldest sea water of the year, some will have sea survival certificates stuffed in their knickers as good luck charms, cycling proficiency certificates would be as much use. The biggest selling sea survival manual in the UK devotes just 47 words to cold shock whereas drinking warm turtle blood before it congeals and catching a fish in your sock warrants 70 words!

“Cold Shock is about gasping, panic, hyperventilation, inhaling seawater, heart attack, stroke and rapid drowning. This is not Hypothermia, the favourite topic of sea survival instructors and scout leaders since Noah shivered in the Arc, hypothermia kills over a time scale of hours, cold shock kills in the first few minutes of immersion. A fit young crewman wearing a lifejacket may survive the sudden immersion but an 85-kilo sub-prime athlete in his fifties with an undiagnosed dickey ticker probably will not survive, and when did you last have an ECG?

“Race committees fly the flag Y to require the wearing of lifejackets when the wind exceeds force 5, it would make more sense to hoist flag Y when the sea temperature is below 15 degrees and in many places that would be to end of May. The best reference for survival in cold water is the Essentials of Sea Survival by Prof. Mike Tipton of Portsmouth University, but much of his wisdom has yet to become common knowledge and cold-water hazards are not a hot topic of conversation in the post-race animated bar chat.

“Skippers can set an example by wearing their own lifejackets from dock out to dock back, and by ensuring that the newest and hence poorest equipped crew members are properly briefed, clothed and wearing lifejackets all the time.
A quick survey in any marina when the fleet returns from even a very short race reveals dozens of seriously chilled crewmen who have endured a couple of hours on the weather rail while the better equipped and more experienced after-guard skulk in the relative shelter of the cockpit. Should any of this pre-chilled rail ballast, chosen for its gravitas, fall over the side the prospects are pretty grim. There is little hope of reform for our more experienced and black suited heroes, their macho image would not allow for the wearing of a lifejacket in the Hamble or even the Atlantic!

“Yotties going afloat in Spring sailing conditions would be wise to dress in the best of modern sailing kit, three layers is standard, no one wears denim jeans under their oilies these days do they? But the top layer should be an ‘over the head’ smock top with neck seal and wrist seals, this will reduce the rate of inflow of cold seawater around the torso and may mitigate the severe pain of cold shock. Crowned with a fleece beanie hat that provides some insulation when wet and there may be half a chance of surviving the immediate immersion. An auto-inflating lifejacket with integral harness and spray hood is essential, not the separate spray hood worn in the dainty pack on the belt. And by the way it is impossible to blow a whistle when gasping let alone inflate an oral lifejacket.

“The lifejacket debate is currently at the same stage as was car seat belt discussion in the ’80’s, freedom of choice being the main argument, but once the decision has been made to wear one it feels strangely uncomfortable to be without it, who would drive now without a seat belt, Machismo or moron? Motor cyclists in the1960’s protested about crash helmets, Sikhs requested dispensation while 16 year olds could ride a road bike at 100mph on tarmac in a flat cap but had to wear a crash helmet for Moto-Cross on grass! Trust the legislators to get it right,’ 8 shrink-wrapped lifejackets ready for inspection Sir, still in date – tick’. This is not a plea for legislation but for information and a step change in the attitude of early season sailors in their understanding of the hazards they unwittingly face.

“The man overboard situation is vitally urgent and requires a MAYDAY call immediately by anyone who witnesses the event, it is not the sole responsibility of the boat involved. Two handed racing faces an even bigger challenge as the boat involved is suddenly single handed and may have spinnaker handling issues to overcome before a classic rescue is attempted, with extreme the panic if close family are in the water, without a life jacket of course. Obviously the pursuing fleet is best placed to recover the casualty, but is this understood by the skippers or will they race on by like rubber-neckers on the M25, in ignorance of their maritime obligations?

The author learnt to sail in the Dark Ages, has twice crossed the Atlantic solo in the Ostar and sailed with charter guests to Iceland and Greenland.