In sailing, as in life generally, there are things that are fun to think about, and then there is everything else. The subject of safety most definitely falls under the umbrella of “everything else.” I was ruminating about this while pondering the upcoming windlass installation on my project boat. Now, the words “windlass” and “safety” are seldom mentioned in the same sentence—indeed, I may be a pioneer here—but when you look at the various ways or hurting yourself on a boat, anything that involves machinery is right up there with rope burns and stubbed toes.
I have had a particular respect for anchors, chains and windlasses ever since an episode back in the ‘80s, when I heard about the fellow two boats over who almost garroted himself when the knife hanging from a lanyard around his neck took a turn around the anchor chain as the latter rattled over the bow roller. Had not the helmsman noticed his foredeck man’s flailing limbs and anguished croaks, an unsightly decapitation may well have been the outcome. As it was, he earned a heroic scar with which to amaze the ladies and was rendered mute for a few days with a bruised larynx.
That tale taught me to never use a lanyard that couldn’t be broken easily—leather shoelaces are ideal—and also never to hang anything around my neck—a vivid imagination could easily conjure up more scenarios in which that could lead to disaster. Indeed, a few years ago I read of a British sailor who was checking a leaking stuffing box while the engine was running. His safety tether, which he’d looped over his head to keep it out of the way, somehow was sucked into the spinning propshaft and that, poor soul, was that.
Lest we get too ghoulish here, these incidents are extreme. Statistically, you’re much more likely to come face to face with your maker by falling overboard or being brained by the boom in a crash gybe. And even those scenarios aren’t too likely, as long as you keep your wits about you, and—just as importantly—those around you keep theirs too. A while ago I commented on a fellow sailing writer’s bandaged digits, only to find it was yet another windlass-oriented injury, sustained in an attempt to clear a jammed gypsy while another crew was in charge of the windlass remote. He confused “up” with “down,” panicked, did it again, and you can guess the rest. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, but there’s yet another lesson.
It’s not a good idea to obsess about safety, but it is a very good thing to think about every maneuver on a boat and the various ways in which it might go more-or-less-painfully wrong. I was reminded of that just after I’d sliced a finger open on a barnacle-encrusted mooring pennant, and wondered why I hadn’t been wearing gloves. Sometimes you have to start small.