Get ready for sailing season! Part 1: Safety first

Get ready for sailing season - sailing safety - 12° West

Get ready for sailing season! Part 1: Safety first

Have you been counting down the days until sailing season? Yep, us too. Now that the weather has (finally!) turned for the better here in the northeast, we’re thinking ahead to sunny days on the water. It’s not too soon to start getting your kit together.

To help you get ready, we’ve created a handy checklist of what you’ll need for day sailing or coastal excursions, divided into 3 areas: sailing safety, sailing essentials, and your sailing wardrobe. We’ve included some products we’ve tested and liked, as well as pro tips we’ve learned over the years. First up – sailing safety. Here are our top 5 essentials for safe sailing.

⃞ PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

Hands down, your most important piece of sailing safety equipment is a PFD. For inshore/coastal sailing, we like the lightweight, self-inflatable kind that fits like a vest and only inflates when submerged in water. For dinghy sailing, you’ll need a different type of (non-inflating) buoyancy vest. If you plan on night or offshore sailing, you’ll also need a crotch strap and tether. There are lots of PFD models, but the best PFD for you is the one you’ll actually wear. Physically try on different makers to see what fits and feels best. This is especially important for women, as most PFDs weren’t designed with breasts in mind. And remember that your PFD needs to be cinched snugly to be effective.

We like: Mustang, Spinlock and West Marine all have good options for self-inflatable PFDs. We’ve had many Mustang HIT Inflatable Vests over the years, because the soft material on the back of the collar makes it really comfortable to wear.

Pro tip: Test your PFD before the season starts by inflating it manually (if available, use the oral or handle inflator to preserve your CO2 cartridge). Most manufacturers recommend examining your PFD every few months for leaks or tears, and re-arming the inflator annually. Regularly check the inflation mechanism’s status indicator to ensure the indicator is green. If the indicator is red, the mechanism has been fired or is incorrectly fitted, and immediate action is needed to re-arm the PFD.

⃞ Handheld VHF radio

Even if there’s a radio installed on your boat, you need a backup. A handheld VHF is an essential sailing safety item. If you ever need to call for help, a VHF is your best bet as cell phone coverage can be spotty on the water. Keep your VHF in the cockpit tuned to Channel 16. Your VHF should be waterproof, have automatic weather alerts, and ideally should float (because, things do go overboard). Some newer models have built in GPS and DSC (Digital Selective Calling) which will send a distress call with your coordinates to the Coast Guard when the emergency button is activated. For more info, check out West Marine’s helpful guide: Selecting a Handheld VHF Radio.

We like: Some of the best known names in handheld VHFs are Uniden, ICOM, and Horizon-Standard. West Marine also makes a highly rated and relatively affordable option.

Pro tip: Learn basic VHF etiquette. Few things annoy boaters more than people who don’t use the VHF properly!

⃞ Sailing knife

After you’ve sailed for a while, you understand how quickly a marginal situation can devolve into something more dangerous. If you ever need to quickly cut a line or halyard, a good, sharp sailing knife is essential sailing safety equipment.  You’ll want something that’s serrated, rust-resistant and easy to handle. Nice-to-haves are a shackle key and marlinspike – you’ll be surprised how often you use the marlinspike to break up a balky knot.

We like: Spyderco, Boye and Myerchin make excellent high-quality sailing knives. We’ve had this Myerchin Captain Pro for years and it’s never failed us.

Pro tip: Put your knife on a carabiner and attach it to a belt loop (or the convenient D-ring on our Chesapeake Short or Newport Crop Pant) so it’s handy when you need it. Hopefully you’ll never need it.

⃞ Whistle

Sometimes the simplest tool is the best one for the job. One of the most effective sailing safety tools is the humble whistle. In fact, the Coast Guard requires sailboats of any size to have some kind of sound signal, such as an air horn or whistle. A whistle is cheaper, will last longer, and is easier to keep on your person. Get one that’s pea-less so it won’t ever get jammed or blown out.

We like: Fox 40 Micro Whistle – it’s compact but really, really loud (110 decibels!). It might be the best $7.50 you’ll ever spend on safety equipment.

Pro tip: Wear your whistle on a lanyard or attach it to your PFD. It’s only useful if you can easily reach it when you need it.

⃞ Headlamp

If you’re ever on a boat at night, a headlamp is essential for getting around the boat hands-free. They’re super helpful in the dinghy, too. Once you have one you’ll find that it’s handy for lots of things – we use ours to read in bed!

We like: There are many makers out there, but you can’t go wrong with a Petzl, Black Diamond, or Princeton Tec.

Pro tip: Make sure your headlamp has a red light option to help preserve night vision. Your crew mates will thank you!

Of course there’s lots more gear and equipment out there that can enhance your safety on the water, but this list is a great start for any sailor. Up next in this series: the sailing essentials that we always have in our sail bag. Let’s go sailing!

Note: We receive no compensation for any products included here. Linked products are ones we’ve used and liked; we make no guarantees as to their quality or performance. YMMV.

Check out all the posts in this series:

Get ready for sailing season! Part 2: Sailing bag essentials

Get ready for sailing season! Part 3: What to wear sailing