Rhumb Lines October 2018 Issue

Do You Have a Safety Checklist?

In 1935, a Boeing bomber carrying five of the Army’s top aviators, crashed in a crucial demonstration flight on the runway in Dayton, Ohio. This was a highly experienced crew who’d logged dozens of hours of flight time on the plane. What went wrong? A simple human error. The cockpit crew had neglected to put the elevators in the take-off position.

It was this event that led to the more thorough pre-flight checklist that makes flying so safe today.

sailing checklists are important

The widely publicized death of Jon Santarelli, an experienced racing sailor who went overboard during this year’s Chicago Mackinac Race should serve as a wake up call to everyone in the sport of sailing. We need a checklist. But more importantly, we need to follow it.

True, part of our current problem is gear-related. Much of today’s safety equipment is introduced without sufficient testing or research, and voluntary recalls are common.

But the bigger problem is psychological. Many sailors don’t believe they can take fatal falls. The idea of falling doesn’t inspire the same level as fear as it does for a climber. A misstep seems unlikely and survivable. We can swim. Someone can turn the boat around and pick us up.

A disturbing pattern has been widely documented in aviation, military, medicine—and many other professions in which lives are on the line. Contrary to accepted wisdom, experienced professionals are just as likely as a well-trained novice, often more so, to make a potentially fatal error.

This isn’t just a matter of old salts becoming complacent. Sailing is far behind other risky activities, such as climbing, in preparing participants.

While we’ve tested and retested man overboard tactics, research into the regular routines proven to keep sailors on board is sparse.

Like airplane pilots and surgical teams, climbers have a checklist they go through before each climb. Safety procedures, including spoken checks—“On belay!” and “Belay on!” — are embedded in the activity.

Sailing takes a different approach. In nearly every organized offshore event the focus is primarily on equipment inventory. It is left up to the captain to establish their own emergency procedures and training regimen.

In fact, the idea of “rules” for cruising sailing causes some sailors to bristle. We are, it seems, independent-minded to a fault.

In this issue, a report by technical editor Drew Frye suggests a curriculum for offshore sailors including basic checks. It’s a simple idea we hope will catch on. If you have a checklist that you use before going on watch or leaving the dock, we’d like to share it. Send it to practicalsailor@belvoir.com.

Comments (10)

I notice the responses are mere rhetoric about safety failures. Believing the article's author is looking for ideas on what should be on a checklist and/or samples of a checklist, I will be glad to share what I include as I prepare my own safety checklist for leaving and entering a harbor, a dock or mooring field.

Posted by: Marlene | October 24, 2018 8:24 PM    Report this comment

" The cockpit crew had neglected to put the elevators in the take-off position."

For Garry,
If I am remembering this correctly, they forgot to remove the external locks that keep the elevators from flopping around when the plane is not in use. That is why air crews routinely exercise all controls through a full range of motion before take-off. The cause was poorly described here by PS.

Posted by: hwpratt | October 21, 2018 11:31 AM    Report this comment

Checklists are excellent as long as they are done every time. It's easy to get complacent. I saw this often when I taught seamanship classes aboard sail and power boats. After a few days aboard, the students could just about check off the boat in their heads.

I would watch and sure enough, you would see someone open a sail locker, look inside and say "Yep, spare anchor rode is there!" Sure enough it was there, but it was no more ready to run than flying to the moon. Coiled and tied up, anchor rode does no good in an emergency. Get it ready, or don't check it off! So, effective check lists are more than just visual, they need to also be physical.

Surveyors report time and again that seacock handles, frozen in place, are one of the biggest flaws they observe. Why? No one physically checks it. "Yep, it's there!", does not cut it. Exercise the handle. Does it shut off and open with ease? Okay, now it's checked off. Sticking to a check list requires a lot of self-discipline. But, I figure it's one of the best ways to keep those hidden "domino-effect monsters" at bay.

Posted by: Lakota44 | October 15, 2018 12:17 PM    Report this comment

addendum to Hubris above:minimizing slack in the tether is key to minimizing shock loads and personal injury.

Posted by: hubris | October 14, 2018 4:58 PM    Report this comment

" The cockpit crew had neglected to put the elevators in the take-off position." Perhaps the author has never flown a plane, but pulling back on the wheel/stick to take off by lifting the elevator/s on the empanage, the back end of the plane, is NOT on anyone's take off check list. Setting the flaps into take off position is, of course on that list. But flaps are a horizontal control surface on the main wing, not on the empanage, or the "tail". Sorry, but I do not think that both the left and right seat on that Boeing "forgot" to pull back to lift the nose and fly the plane.

Posted by: Garry | October 14, 2018 12:18 PM    Report this comment

Always good to be reminded about checking for safety. We do become complacent after spending a lot of time on the water. We have made several helpful checklists but have caught ourselves not using them. Obviously, at the top of the list is MOB prevention and use of appropriate PFDs. Right behind are checking the weather, checking/testing all equipment, first aid supplies/skills, abandon ship procedures, use of communications and emergency signaling devices, float plans, navigation skills, understanding rules of the road, anchoring, and assessing limitations of captain and crew. There are many good checklists and float plan outlines available on the internet and library.

Posted by: vulcan213 | October 14, 2018 11:58 AM    Report this comment

As retired Air Force I am very accustomed to the use of checklists; that is, one written down when specific sequential procedures are required. (On a memorable first sail with a civilian pilot guest, he noted the need for a sailing checklist. When initiating my wife into sailing she had the same thoughts and actually wrote items down to produce one...but she never did. I don't disagree) I do have a written checklist for my annual winterization procedures but none for normal sailing. However, I do have a mental check after getting underway and not unexpectedly come up with one or two items that should have been done before departing, usually minor. The comparison with an aircrew checklist fails to recognize the environmental differences between aviation and recreational boating and to a larger degree the layered overshadowing authority of aviation that demands and expects it...none exists for the recreational boater. The aircrew is seat-belted in and a specially designed checklist device is within eyes reach for each and every expected action and major emergency while there isn't even a manufacturer that sells such a device made for recreational boating.

~ ~ _/) ~ ~ MJH

Posted by: MJH | October 14, 2018 11:57 AM    Report this comment

as an old climber and new sailer I've been surprised at how uninvolved the sailing community is in it's knowledge and application of safety practices.Discussion is good and to add my own 2bits: a big deal with tethers is length. If you are drawn up tight, as is feasible, to your anchor pt.or jack line there will be little shock load to you or the system if you are thrown free and you probably won't go overboard-hence the adjustable tethers available from various climbing sources for big walls,ice or via feratas

Posted by: hubris | October 14, 2018 11:55 AM    Report this comment

Totally useless!! A lot of verbiage to say that people become complacent and that having a list to follow, as do pilots and climbers, is useful. How about providing one or more sample lists? The link in the article ends up going to "Rethinking MOB Prevention". Lots of good information there, but it is one directed and definitely NOT an overall safety checklist for the boat.

Posted by: PJ | October 14, 2018 11:25 AM    Report this comment

Being a pilot I have checklists for everything. Maintenance, offshore prep, etc. I thought I would check on your report by Drew Frye but you are required to be a subscriber to read it. It appears you only hope this idea catches on for paying customers....

Posted by: Joseph | October 14, 2018 9:49 AM    Report this comment

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