Arwen's meanderings

Hi everyone and welcome to my dinghy cruising blog about my John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. Built over three years, Arwen was launched in August 2007. She is a standing lug yawl 14' 6" in length. This blog records our dinghy cruising voyages together around the coastal waters of SW England.
Arwen has an associated YouTube channel so visit to find our most recent cruises and click subscribe.
On this blog you will find posts about dinghy cruising locations, accounts of our voyages, maintenance tips and 'How to's' ranging from rigging standing lug sails and building galley boxes to using 'anchor buddies' and creating 'pilotage notes'. I hope you find something that inspires you to get out on the water in your boat. Drop us a comment and happy sailing.
Steve and Arwen

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Dinghy cruising and personal safety equipment to carry on your person

What safety equipment should solo dinghy cruisers carry on their person when sailing?

Recently ran into an old canoeing buddy from a very long time ago and we had a quick chat about the new PFD he had just bought. Apparently, the foam within his old one had lost some of its buoyancy each year – go figure! As he readied his new one, we chatted about the personal safety equipment he carried in it and why it was there and he briefly showed me a couple of articles on the web that had influenced his thinking about what equipment Sea Kayakers and small boat owners should carry on their person.   Just wish I could remember which ones he showed me but anyway back in the car on the way home, our conversation set me thinking – always a dangerous situation given my propensity to over think and complicate the simple!
  •        Has my PFD lost buoyancy so that it will no longer support my ample weight in the water?
  •       Do I carry so much personal safety equipment in the pockets of my PFD that I’d sink more in a MOB emergency? (had one or two comic nightmares about that scenario)
  •       Given the sailing I do, do I actually need to carry that gear at all?
  •       Carrying so much safety equipment in the pockets, have I made the PFD too bulky and a liability in event of a capsize? Will it make climbing back into Arwen difficult or snag on something during a capsize?

Let’s set some brief context.

My PFD is a ‘Palm Kaikoura Expedition’ which I have now had for around 6 years or so. It has, fortunately, rarely been in the water and only tested with me inside it once! The PFD can be can be seen in most of my YouTube videos.  Hard wearing, a snug comfortable fit, easily adjusted with plenty of pockets for bits and pieces and tough zips, it has an anti-ride waist belt and I’ve attached a crotch strap as an additional safety feature. Fleece lined hand warmer pockets (luxury indeed), strong D ring clips for attaching various items, lots of tapes for clip on attachments and plenty of reflective patches all round. It comes highly recommended by a number of sea kayakers' and river canoeists I know. I love mine and my only gripe is the smaller zips keep salting up from spray and then bind. One has finally broken and at some stage I need to take it out and replace it.

My other PFD was a thoughtful Christmas present this year – one new Crewsaver comfy fit life jacket, auto inflate, with safety harness D ring attachment loops. Her indoors says that whilst I am very well insured and she stands to gain a large sum of money in the event of my demise, I am for the moment, worth keeping around and therefore an auto-inflate life jacket is a good investment. Knowing I’m absent minded and clumsy, she worries that Arwen’s boom might hit me on the head during an accidental gybe or I drop the top yard uncontrollably, whilst sailing the coast and I go overboard unconscious. She dreams – sorry thinks – of everything – bless her!

Most of my sailing is around Plymouth Sound, along the inshore coast between Dartmouth and Falmouth and up the tidal rivers in-between and I tend to solo sail with no other boats in attendance, up to three miles or so offshore.  On most trips to Salcombe or Fowey (about 23 miles or so in length) I normally see a boat or two along most parts of my passage.  Along this coast there are lifeboat stations – Salcombe, Plymouth, Looe and Fowey and whilst I passage plan to never get into trouble so I have to call them out, I guess in a worst-case scenario, when I do, they are about 20 – 30 minutes away from that first call to coastguard. Worst case scenario, in my mind, for me, is to go overboard and become separated from Arwen or to be unable to right her after a capsize.  
On calm-ish days when winds are below 10 knots, I wear the PFD. Within the Sound and up tidal rivers, I always wear the PFD. Sailing an extended inshore coastal passage to Salcombe or Fowey for example, I wear the PFD in light winds but 10 knots + or if there are any potential large gusts, then the life jacket. Random thinking, I know, but those tend to be the habits I have developed. More often than not, I clip myself onto a harness attached to jack lines when doing an extended coastal passage, irrespective of weather conditions. And yes, I know, there is huge debate about whether I should or not – pros and con’s abound on the use or otherwise of harnesses when dinghy cruising.

So now with suitable context set, back to the questions:

Has my PFD lost buoyancy?  Only one way to find out and that is to pop down to a local marina and test it.   

Do I carry so much personal safety equipment in the pockets of my PFD that I’d sink in a MOB emergency? (had one or two comic nightmares about that scenario)
Given the sailing I do, do I actually need to carry that gear at all?  

From a few years ago - since then I carry different stuff and it is arranged as outlined below

Listed below, the equipment I normally carry routinely in my PFD -
·        Floating waterproof ICOM handheld VHF – either clipped to one of the tether straps on PFD front or in RHS large pocket with aerial poking out between double zip – either way attached with security lanyard as well. (Note - not the one shown in the picture above which now resides in a grab bag). 
·        Mobile phone in water proof pouch which tucks down inside the front of the PFD when worn – another lanyard attaches it to shoulder strap.
·        SPOT PLB Messenger – clipped and lanyard to front of jacket tether strap – left hand side
·        Laser signal strobe light attached to left hand shoulder strap
·        In LHS large pocket
o   folding safety knife on one metre long lanyard tied onto internal pocket D ring
o   Plastic whistle on bungee lanyard
o   Waterproof plastic pouch containing money credit card, emergency contact numbers and driver’s licence and car key – tied to other D ring
·        In RHS pocket, apart from VHF
o   Signal mirror and spare whistle
·        Small front RHS pocket - small 30mg sunblock and lip salve stick, foil wrapped energy bar
·        Small front LHS pocket - waterproof handheld GPS unit
·        Attached to right hand shoulder strap, a locking carabineer so I can clip in the grab bag (my grab bag should float free of Arwen in a capsize if I didn’t have time to grab it when going overboard – contents of grab bag are outlined at end of this blog post).

Does all this fit onto the new life jacket?  Of course not. The moment it inflates – this lot would impede the bladder and I’d sink! After some experimentation, I have found a way of clipping the radio to the waist belt out of the way of the inflated bladder and likewise with the PLB. The rest of the items I put into a specifically designed life jacket waist belt accessories bag – who knew such a thing existed – and it sits around the back of the waist belt out of the way of the inflation bladders. I have tried it and it I can sit comfortably with it just located under my armpit area.

Which now brings me back to the sixty-four billion-dollar questions. Am I carrying too much? Do I need to carry any of this at all?  I genuinely have no idea and I guess it’s down to personal choice and what makes you feel safe. Hand held VHF radio effectiveness is limited by height and so I’d likely have a range of 2 miles tops when in the water – so I’d be reliant on other boats being in the vicinity.  Mobile phone coverage might be better if I’m not under steep cliffs – 18 miles perhaps even if in the water. The PLB will work wherever I am – it has an emergency flip up button. Of course, I have to be conscious to work all three of these things! Signal mirror for daylight; strobe light for failing light or night time rescue. GPS for mayday message location details to coastguard – if of course I hadn’t lost my reading glasses during the MOB or capsize. Suns screen and lip salve – well I could just keep those in a ditty bag but they don’t way much or take up huge space and its just convenient having them in a pocket.  Cash and keys obvious really – if Arwen is lost and I am rescued – I need to retrieve the car etc.

      Carrying so much safety equipment in the pockets, have I made the PFD too bulky and a liability in event of a capsize? Will it make climbing back into Arwen difficult? Will it snag on something during a capsize?  

      Not sure. Some YouTube viewers have commented on the bulkiness of the PFD. I have righting lines and re-entry loops attached to Arwen along with a transom footstep. Whilst swimming last year in the PFD I found re-boarding Arwen at anchor fairly easy. But and it is a big but, the PFD was practically empty, the conditions calm and Arwen still and unmoving.  Could things get snagged? When I think of this factor  I am reminded of poor Emily Gardner, who at 14 yrs old, tragically drowned because she got her poorly fitted PFD caught on a cleat of a powerboat during a capsize.  I wear my PFD snug fit – tensioning straps, waist belt and anti-ride up belt all correctly tightened. Potential snag areas are the radio and the strobe light if I wear them on the shoulder straps or PFD front panels. Possibly the crotch strap as well. These could hook up on a cleat I guess but in truth I  just don’t know in reality.
So, there we have it. I know that some boaters who I have met out on the water or at the ramp or pontoon have commented on my PFD. The Plymouth lifeboat crew in the main seemed OK with what I carried and how it was arranged when I bumped into them one day the year before last at a launch site. They thought I and Arwen were well equipped and wished me a good day’s sailing and were off.  Others have commented the PFD is too bulky for them and they prefer slim fitting ones – fair enough.  A few joked about my increased sinking potential.

At the end of the day I guess it is down to personal choice and whatever floats your boat. If you have any thoughts on the matter, as always, let me know in the comment box below. Informed discussion and observations welcomed, I love learning new things and hearing the wisdom of sailors. Take care now and enjoy your trips out on the water.  

Foot notes:
I have a grab bag on board Arwen -  yellow, waterproof roll down with shoulder strap. Arwen’s name and an emergency contact number in waterproof ink on the front. It resides on the front thwart top, just under the foredeck, held by bungee over the top of it. It is easy to pull free. In the event of a capsize where I can’t right the boat God forbid, I can pull it free.  What’s in it?
·         - Orange bivvy bag and space blanket
·         - Spare VHF, handheld GPS unit and batteries for both
·         - Bottles of water and emergency high energy snack bars
·         - Lip salve and sun cream
·         - Spray hood, spare sunglasses, whistle
·         - Torch and spare batteries
·         - Orange floating smoke can
·         - Sealed fire-starting kit (I have no idea why – but if washed into some inaccessible cove that has         driftwood, I can start a fire!)
·         - Small first aid kit for cuts


Adamsboatworks said...

Hello Steve, I have watched your blog now for a couple of years on and off and like it VERY MUCH!! Especially seeing the country and seaside of me mum's home land. She was born in London and came to USA after wwll, met my future dad and then ....well you can guess the rest. Anyway I too am starting a Navigator here in Panama City Florida so checking on on your blog and videos has become more regular.

Sorry for the extended intro/hello, now for the real reason, try searching duckworks magazine site for interviews or articles by John welsford. He has written on this subject of being tethered into your boat and also some about gear to carry with you.

I have also seen a video on youtube referencing those inflatable life vests. They show the vest inflating as the crewman hits the water (when they inflate) and ballooning up all about the head and face area so large that the crewman had no ability to do anything but float and wait til rescue. In the mean time the boat, Arwen in your case, just drifted away as he was unable to get after it, right it or reboard it.

Seems to me that prudent situational and weather awareness and a good deal of caution could prevent or at least forewarn of an impending situation where they might be needed.

Just my 2p, anxiously watching you and Arwen's adventures.


steve said...

It is an interesting discussion isnt it. That is my fear with the inflatable type - hence when wearing it I tend to tether myself in. But you are right - however, the vest can be deflated with a little lid top on the breathing in inflation tube - but vital time would be lost.