Sailing is both exhilarating and relaxing. It is also a great way to experience nature and to see the world. However, sailing can be a hazardous pastime, and there are numerous ways that a sailing trip can turn sour if a boater is not properly prepared to handle an emergency. With careful planning, preparation, common sense, boating knowledge, and appropriate sail and line handling, you can minimize the risks and maximize your enjoyment of your boating excursion. Check out these tips to stay safe while having fun sailing on the water.

Plan Ahead

Whether you are a beginner or an experienced sailor, careful planning is never a waste of time. So much of safety is in the prevention - doing everything you can to keep an accident from happening in the first place.

Before heading to the water, be sure to:

  • Obtain local charts of the area in which you will be boating. Study them, and plot your course ahead of time.
  • Look up weather and condition forecasts. This will help you decide what days (and even what time of day) will be best for sailing and inform you of what kind of attire and gear you will need to bring along. Check out our list of some of the best boating apps for weather and other boating conditions.
  • Brush up on the “rules of the road,” and familiarize yourself with local boating rules and zones.
  • Create a float plan, which consists of names and contact information for all aboard, the trip itinerary, details about the boat (type, description, registration information), and types of signal and communication equipment onboard — including boat phone, radios, EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and PLBs (Personal Locating Beacons). Leave this detailed information with someone on land.
  • Take advantage of a free vessel safety check through the Coast Guard to put your mind at ease and help ensure safe passage for you and your passengers.
  • Always go with an experienced skipper if you are unsure of your sailing abilities. Captained sailing charters and professional lessons can help you gain the skills you need to sail independently, but do not go on your own until you've worked to acquire these skills.
  • When in doubt, don't go out. Even if you've done extensive preparation and research before your trip if the conditions seem dicey or you are unsure if your abilities will keep you safe, stay onshore. It's always better to reschedule an excursion to avoid an accident or tragedy on the water.

Come Prepared for Safe Sailing 

Coming prepared with adequate knowledge of your craft and the area is just as important as coming with the right provisions and equipment. Before you leave the dock, make certain that you:

  • Arrive stocked with enough food and water for your journey and have extra emergency provisions.
  • If any of your provisions or equipment have expiration dates, be sure that you have checked them (and replaced the items, if necessary), before your departure date.
  • Be certain that you have enough PFDs (personal flotation devices) for everyone that will be sailing with you, that everyone knows how to put one on, and that they all know where they can find one on the sailboat.
  • Make sure that your sailboat has all of its federally required safety equipment, and that it is all functional.
  • Have ways to protect yourself and your passengers from the sun, including plenty of sunscreen and even a few extra hats.
  • Go through a pre-departure checklist in detail. This should include extensive boat and gear checks to make sure everything is up to code and in good working order.

Utilize Common Sense and Boating Know-How

Responsible sailing (and boating in general) has a lot to do with common sense. Taking a moment to assess the situation before your voyage and during your trip could save you and your passengers from irreparable harm or danger. While you are out sailing, remember to:

  • Watch the weather and know the signs of a storm or changing conditions. If you see the sky darken unexpectedly or the wind picks up, play it safe and head back to land.
  • Avoid crowded areas. This may prove difficult in more popular regions and during the busy tourist seasons, but fewer boats mean fewer chances for collisions. Sail away from areas with a high concentration of boaters.
  • Do not consume alcohol or drugs while you are sailing. You have a responsibility to yourself and those around you. Staying completely sober and cognizant is crucial when operating a sailboat.
  • Be sure to get enough sleep before your journey so that you are fresh and alert during your trip.
  • Take care of your physical needs. Remember to keep hydrated and to get protection from the sun.
  • If you are not proficient already, swimming classes will give you important life skills that could greatly increase your chances of survival in the event of an emergency on the water.
  • Do not sail alone. Having company often makes the sail more enjoyable, and it also ensures that you have at least one companion to help address any problems that may arise. Managing an entire sailboat alone is very difficult and can be dangerous in less-than-ideal conditions.
  • Know how to handle your boat. Sailing classes are beneficial to new and seasoned sailors alike. There is always more to learn and improve upon.

Practice Proper Sail and Line Handling 

One of the most unique and beautiful aspects of sailing is that you are working with the elements to maneuver through the water. With the hands-on work that sailing requires, there come additional dangers. If you are new to sailing, it is important to foster respect for the power of your boat, the wind, and other elements. You must learn how to control the boat in a variety of conditions and how to problem solve on the go with the changing elements around you.

If you are a seasoned sailor, it is just as important not to become lackadaisical or to forget your hard-earned skills. While out sailing, it is crucial that you:

  • Always be aware of the moving parts of your boat. This includes big things like spars and booms that may swing when you tack, as well as anything that is not tied or bolted down. A sailboat is a machine in a constant state of motion, and everything on it is constantly moving and shifting. Be watchful, and keep your wits about you.
  • Clean up the deck whenever possible, and stow your sails quickly and safely. Sails that are luffing will affect your progress and your path through the water, so be sure to at least sea-stow them once they are doused. Coil and hang your lines properly to ensure you don't have any snags, knots, loops, etc. Keeping the deck clear will also help you to avoid tripping hazards.
  • Always remember to practice correct line handling. If you have winches or other line-controlling equipment, make certain that they are functional and that you know how to use them. When you are working with lines yourself, always “palm” the line against its rail or the drum of a winch to hold tension when you are readying a line or making it fast. Never wrap the line around your hand or any other part of your body, and never step inside a coil of line or on it. The ropes themselves might not seem dangerous, but remember that they are attached to things that weigh hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
  • If you are on a boat that requires you to climb aloft at anytime, remember to always let someone on deck know when you are going up and when you are coming down. Wear a safety harness at all times, and clip in whenever possible.

Sailing is one of the best ways to enjoy nature, explore, and experience a fun challenge outdoors. Planning and preparation beforehand will help you be a good skipper for yourself and your passengers. Accurate, relevant sailing knowledge, common sense, and correct sail and line handling will help ensure that your adventures are fun-filled and accident-free.

Enjoy your sailing expedition, but remember to do so safely with an abundance of caution — for your sake and the sake of those around you.