Sep 10, 2012, 10:08 AM
Post #21 of 27
LIFEJACKET DEPENDENCY SYNDROME by Skip Novak
Re: [The Publisher] Sailing - Personal Floatation Devices
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Let’s thank Bill Shanen for sticking his neck out on the lifejacket debate. Not often you will get a magazine editor taking such a stand, with risk to his readership numbers, – but wait, he’s not sticking his neck out at all, just talking common sense.
Without paraphrasing his article, bike helmet examples included (the same analogy I always use when I launch into this debate), I’ll make this discussion anecdotal.
I am a living example of one who seldom wore or wears a PFD, even in what can be construed by some people as extreme conditions. Sure, growing up in Belmont Harbor in Chicago we (our gang of friends called the Harbor Rats) wore lifejackets in the dinghy program, but once the bell rang and school was out, that was it. The rest of the day (and into the night), weekends and all through the summer holidays the need for lifejackets never came up and we did some pretty radical maneuvers in our dad’s dinghies, yachts and the club’s crash boats – even risking ourselves without knowing it, saving other peoples boats that were trying to sink themselves or that broke loose on moorings.
This unconscious lack of thought for one’s own safety continued right through my ocean-racing career. Going around the world, we wore harnesses, but it had to be pretty rough to put one on. ‘PFD’s, at least those you could wear and still move around at all, i.e. the inflatable type, hadn’t been invented. I now put on a PFD when I feel vulnerable, but never as a ‘rule’ when afloat, and when I do it’s more about the harness and tether than the flotation device. ‘Stick with the boat’ is the golden rule.
On the other hand, when I am in charge of a crew going offshore, there does come a time when the order is ‘lifejackets and harnesses on,’ or when I see that someone is not very steady in the first place, or he/she is revealed as a non swimmer, for sure the skipper must have the prerogative to make that decision on someone’s behalf.
I’m sure some viewer’s eyes were raised if they saw our BBC film in 2008 ‘The Top Dogs, where Sir Robin Knox-Johnston took John Simpson, senior foreign correspondent from the BBC and Sir Ranulf Fiennes (Britain’s greatest living polar explorer) around Cape Horn on my Pelagic, part of a three part series taking people out of their comfort zone. In the film there was Robin and I in 40 knots and big seas with no jackets or tethers. We sure had John and Ran wired up, as they were non- sailors. But Robin and I never felt the need, and we never discussed it.
Of course when Eric Tabarly was washed overboard and lost in the Irish Sea some years ago, I’m sure he thought the same . . . . of course anything can and does happen. It might happen to me. I am prepared to take this risk.
Last spring I was on the Hamble River in the UK, crabbing with my two kids on the public jetty. It was a calm sunny spring day, and all things that floated were out in force. An idyllic scene – except for one detail that immediately caught my eye, something I had never noticed after having lived on the river for 20 years, albeit not since year 2000. Everyone was wearing a lifejacket. An old boy, obviously no stranger to the river, rowed his pram up alongside the jetty. He had a lifejacket on. I couldn’t help asking him if it was now law that everyone had to wear a PFD on any sort of watercraft. He looked at me sadly, a bit embarrassed, and said, “No, not yet, but that’s the way things have gone . . .” Brain washing in effect.
I might sound arrogant (no surprise to anyone who knows my ways) about all of this, certainly to someone who has lost a loved one or friend in a drowning incident, where a PFD might have saved him or her. It is , however, easy to use a few tragic examples to promote these safety arguments, but surely the statistics do not support the need. Tell me if I am wrong (when compared to say the need for seatbelts and the risk of accidents on the road).
I take my kids sailing on my Laser. They steer and do the main sheet in light airs – no PFD’s are needed. When it blows I take over, they provide some ballast and for sure I have them wear PFD’s. But I am continually searching for ways to get them on the water (kayaks, dinghies, anything that floats) without PFD’s not only for the sense of freedom and self reliance, but also to avoid what I call ‘life jacket dependency.’ It is a tragedy to sometimes overhear, “Hey kid, want to go for a ride?” Kid’s answer, “I can’t, not without a lifejacket . . . . “
The reason sailing is so compelling as a sport and a life skill is because the variation of events can be enormous, even on a single day out, never mind a long offshore passage. The success of the venture is the ability to continually make judgment calls. Rules and cook book methods are great background material, but they will never replace raw feel and intuition which only comes from experience of course. Granted, you have to pass A to get to B. May I make the bold statement that overuse of PFD’s actually promotes a sense of fear of the water, and lead to what can be a false sense of security, in effect creating a mental block to achieve the B.
Due to electronic navigation methods,, which were inevitable, we have already lost various ‘seat of the pants’ skills, and many fundamental techniques – call it the art of sailing. Ditto with the ultra efficient and all pervasive means of communications (cell and sat phones now de rigueur) we have also lost in part a sense of freedom and certainly a large share of privacy in ‘going to sea.’ This is the unstoppable march of technological evolution, but we need not go down this route being forced to wear PFD’s at times when they are not warranted. To legislate or not the obligatory use of PFD’s and other safety devices is a judgment call, and it is a biggey.