Harmonicas on PDFs and other odd tales

August 2008

By Dodge Morgan

The world of “Safety at Sea” has matured to become a little old lady. Clearly, going back 30 or more years ago, there would not be a boat that would pass today’s safety muster, even when not considering the electronic crap we now tend to believe is required – such as GPS, sailing instrumentation, communication gear, microwave oven and stereo sound system. Boating has joined the litigation-laced culture that has produced such warnings as, “Do not place hands or feet in blade area” on snow blowers.

To qualify for entering a sailing race, a vessel must meet an excruciatingly long list of requirements. I do not have such a list, nor want one, but gather it must include flares, EPIRB, lifelines, personal harnesses, PFDs, radios, man-overboard gear, life raft with survival kit, multiple bilge pumps, wood thru-hull plugs and a manual of medical procedures sophisticated enough to perform an emergency bypass operation.

I can’t get my mind and attitude out of the ’60s, when I sailed the 32-year-old, wooden, gaff-headed schooner Coaster, from Maine to the Bahamas, West Indies, Central America, Hawaii, Society Islands and Alaska. She had no life raft or lifelines or radio that worked or sailing instruments or powered bilge pump. I had no personal life harness. She had a lead line and a 12-foot boathook for sounding, an out-of-date paper chart, pencil, dividers, plotter, patent log, and sextant for navigating.

The great French solo sailor Alain Colas was asked why he refused to wear a personal harness, and he answered that he found them physically and emotionally uncomfortable. He also said that if he goes over the side – which he did – he will use his final time to celebrate all the harness free miles he has enjoyed.

I am no Alain Colas. Although not religious about wearing a personal harness, one did save my life when I went overboard from American Promise in the Indian Ocean.

I once listened to a skipper describe his actions in a storm on a 65-foot yawl off Hatteras. He said that just prior to the passage he had watched a video of life-raft deployment, so that action became the obvious one when the boat began taking on water in very heavy weather. The vessel was later found floating high. His life raft blew upside-down when inflated, but the crew was miraculously saved by a USGS rescue. The fellow forgot the mandate to never step down into a life raft, always step up into one. My grandfather refused to learn how to swim to reinforce his mantra that staying with the boat is the last resort.

I participated in several Safety at Sea Seminars some time back. My subject was heavy-weather sailing. These seminars just cover safety issues, rescue procedures, helicopter liftoffs, ship pick-ups, life-raft deployment, seasickness treatment, heaving-to procedures, flare use, man-overboard actions and mayday processes. It is like leading a discussion about love with an explanation of condom use. These are important matters to understand surely but hardly reflect the essence of sailing.

My presentation was not that enthusiastically received by the sailing establishment because I refused to define a standard storm-coping procedure – you know, the reef, run, drogue, hove-to sequence. I led with the advice: “You make very close friends with your boat and heavy weather will be more a joy than a threat.” Every boat asks its own heavy-weather treatment, and every sailor develops his own coping system. Consider that Captain Voss sailed the world safely in a 38-foot dugout canoe, while solo racer Isabel Autissier twice turned turtle and lost 60-foot racing machines in the Southern Ocean.

At the close of these seminars, the presenters often stand together and invite questions from the audience. On one occasion, an attendee directed the question to me, “Why are whistles attached to life preservers?”

“Because a whistle makes more noise than a vocal cord,” I ventured quite logically, adding, “But if you are sailing solo, you would replace the whistle with a harmonica.”

Dodge Morgan lives on Snow Island, Maine. He singlehanded American Promise around the world without stopping in 1986.