Cruising sailors wanting to make sure their boat passes muster on the safety front could pick up a few tips from racing yachtsmen, says Rupert Holmes

Safe sailing: practical know-how from the racers

Cruising boats and their crews are occasionally pushed to the limit, but this is usually as a result of an unfortunate sequence of events rather than through choice.

Because of this, it can be difficult to know how to prepare for the most challenging situations.

Racers, on the other hand, deliberately and routinely push their boats to the limit.

This makes them the subject of onerous safety criteria for races of any type, whether an afternoon around the buoys in the Solent or a trans-ocean adventure.

A lifeline lashing on a yacht. Replace is annual for safe sailing

Lifeline lashings These should be no longer than 10cm (4in) and replaced annually.

The World Sailing Offshore Special Regulations have been developed and refined over the years, often from lessons learned the hard way – races in which accidents occurred.

The 1979 Fastnet Race, in which the fleet was blasted by winds of more than 70 knots, is perhaps the best-known example of this, but the World Sailing regulations reflect experiences from around the world.

The racing community therefore has good data about what does and doesn’t work on a boat, and cruising yachtsmen can learn useful lessons from this.

It’s worth looking at what racers carry as safety kit, and modifications that might be done to a boat, so we can judge whether our own ideas of good practice match those developed by the official bodies.

Offshore Categories

Category 0 includes trans-oceanic races, where yachts must be self-sufficient for extended periods of time and capable of withstanding heavy storms and prepared to meet serious emergencies without the expectation of outside assistance.

Category 1 has similar requirements regarding self-sufficiency, although the courses are shorter.

Category 2 races are of extended duration along or not far removed from shorelines, but where a high degree of self-sufficiency is still required. The Fastnet Race fits into this category.

Category 3 races are across open water, most of which is relatively protected or close to shorelines, ie across the English Channel, North Sea and Irish Sea.

Category 4 covers short daytime races close to shore in relatively warm or protected waters. A well-known example is the Round the Island Race.

There are also special regulations for Inshore Racing, and Inshore Dinghy Racing.

Safe sailing: Tie it down

Many of the requirements relate to the fact that most keelboats can sink, that a boat can be knocked down even when close to shore, and that heavy items can move around and damage the vessel or crew.

It’s therefore essential that heavy items, including batteries, gas bottles, ground tackle and tanks, are effectively secured below decks.

Losing washboards overboard in heavy weather could spell disaster, so attaching them to the boat with lanyards makes sense. Yet how many cruising boats do this?

A companionway on a boat

This companionway passes all the key criteria – although the boat has a walk-though transom, the companionway is no lower than the deck. But is the washboard attached with a lanyard? And when secured closed, can the hatch be opened both from deck and from below?

The companionway should also be capable of being secured from above and below deck.

Skin fittings understandably come in for scrutiny.

In addition to hoses being double-clipped to skin fittings, a tapered softwood plug of the correct size should be tied to the fitting.

A skin fitting on a boat

Bilge pump handles should be secured by a lanyard.

Time is crucial in an emergency and if the boat has rolled, an unsecured plug could end up literally anywhere.

Also, if the boat is filling with water, a softwood plug that isn’t tied in place could simply float away.

Similarly, bilge pump handles should be secured by a lanyard.

A gas bottle in a boat. Make sure it is secure for safe sailing

This self-draining gas locker is designed so that gas bottles have very limited scope for movement, but bottles should still be effectively secured.

Race boats on Channel, North Sea or Irish Sea crossings must have at least two bilge pumps, one that can be operated from below and a second that can be operated on deck without having to open a locker.

Knowing where all the safety and emergency kit is stowed is clearly important – so keep a stowage plan in an obvious place.

Man overboard

Prevention is always the best solution to any potential danger.

With this in mind, the lashings that secure lifelines to the pushpit and pulpit should be replaced annually, say the racing regulations.

A life line being measured on a boat

Lifelines: Stanchions should be no more than 2.2m (7ft 3in) apart. Stainless steel lifelines should not be coated or sleeved.

This may seem like overkill, but they certainly don’t last indefinitely, especially in a sunny climate – so it can be a good policy for cruisers too.

World Sailing recommend that stanchions should be no more than 2.2m (7ft 3in) apart, and while older boats that are smaller than 28ft (8.5m) need only have a single lifeline 460mm (1ft 6in) above the deck, others must have two lifelines, with a 61cm (2ft) overall minimum height.

A lifeline on a boat needed for safe boating

Double lifelines need to be at least 61cm (24in) high, although older boats of less than 28ft (8.5m) need only a single lifeline at a height of 46cm (18in).

Lifelines may be made of stranded stainless steel wire or single-braided Dyneema rope.

If stainless steel is used this must not be sleeved with plastic unless it can be regularly removed to inspect the wire’s condition – the lifelines of many cruising boats would not pass inspection without the plastic sleeving being removed.

Heavy weather and storm sails

Whether cruising or racing, it’s important that your storm sails are adequate to allow you to make upwind in strong and gale force winds if necessary.

This means carrying a heavy-weather jib.

Categories 3 and 4 demand either deep reefs for the mainsail (enough to reduce the luff length by at least 40%), or a storm trysail.

A boat sailing in bad weather

All boats should carry a heavy weather jib and be able to significantly reduce their mainsail area. A storm jib and trysail is the belt and braces solution. Credit: David Harding

Categories 0, 1 and 2 take this further by requiring a dedicated storm jib with an area not greater than 5% of the height of the foretriangle squared and a luff no longer than 65% of the foretriangle height.

They also require a storm trysail sheeted independently of the boom, with area not greater than 17.5% of the mainsail luff length multiplied by the foot length – good counsel if you plan to cross oceans in your cruiser.

Boats that race with a roller furling headsail still need to carry the heavy weather jib and storm jib – a well-reefed genoa is not considered to be a substitute for a sail that will set to perfection in challenging conditions.


It’s easy for cruising sailors to overlook service intervals for lifejackets, especially on a boat that’s used infrequently.

Few lifejackets come fitted with lights and sprayhoods, and it’s only relatively recently that they have routinely been fitted with crotch or thigh straps.

A lifejacket deployed in a pool

Lifejackets should have crotch straps, a whistle, marine- grade reflective tape – plus a light and sprayhood for offshore use.

As a minimum, each lifejacket should be fitted with marine-grade retroreflective tape, equipped with a whistle and clearly marked with the yacht’s and/or wearer’s name.

The following are also mandatory for offshore events:

  • A lifejacket light
  • At least 150N of buoyancy
  • A crotch strap or thigh straps
  • A splashguard/sprayhood (complying with ISO 12402-8)
  • If inflatable, a compressed gas inflation system.

Lifejackets must be serviced each year, including an inflation test, and the gas cylinders and auto-inflation actuators need to be replaced before their expiry dates or if showing any signs of degradation or damage.

The security of gas bottles should be checked throughout the season: if these become partially unscrewed, the jacket will not inflate.

Safety harnesses and tethers come under scrutiny for races of Category 0-3: harnesses are only permitted if they have been manufactured after 2000, and those made after this date must have a coloured flag embedded in the stitching that will indicate whether it has been overloaded.

A jackstay clipped on to the side of a boat to help safe sailing

Jackstays: These should be fitted to both side decks, shackled to through-bolted deck plates or another suitable strong point.

All the crew should have either a tether less than 1m long, including the length of the hooks, or an intermediate self-closing hook on a 2m tether.

A safety harness is not designed to tow a person in the water, and World Sailing considers that the ‘diligent use of a properly adjusted safety harness is regarded as by far the most effective way of preventing man overboard incidents.’

In the event of someone getting lost over the side, a danbuoy with a flag and a 15-25m heaving line needs to be stowed such that it can be easily deployed.

The ‘throwing sock’ type of heaving line can be easily thrown with accuracy over a relatively long distance.

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In addition, a GPS with a man-overboard function will help a boat return to the point at which the person was lost.

At night, finding a man overboard is an even greater challenge: lifebuoy lights are notoriously unreliable.

The Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) recommends a waterproof torch that will float with a beam pointing upwards – this can often be seen from a reasonable distance and is a sensible and cheap idea for cruisers too.

For boats in Categories 1-4, it is also strongly recommended that PLBs (personal locator beacons) are fitted to lifejackets.

This is mandatory for Category 0, where boats must also carry direction- finding equipment to enable them to locate a PLB.

An AIS personal crew overboard beacon is mandatory for each crew member in Categories 0-2.

Communications and distress alerting

This is one area in which cruising yachts are often better equipped than the racing regs require.

One interesting point, however, is that in the eyes of the regulations, carrying an EPIRB doesn’t negate the need to carry flares – four red hand flares and two buoyant orange smokes are required.

The guiding principle of the race rules is that voice communication should be possible wherever the vessel is operating, and this makes sense for cruisers too.

A flare bucket on a boat

Flares: At least four red hand flares and two buoyant orange smokes are required. It goes without saying that they must be in date.

Inshore, a VHF is adequate, while further offshore the modern solution is satellite communication.

Category 0 boats also have to carry two 406MHz EPIRBs (water and manually activated), while Categories 1 and 2 need a single unit.

These should include an internal GPS and a 121.5MHz transmitter for local homing.

They should all be registered with the appropriate authority, tested according to the manufacturer’s instructions when first fitted, and at least once a year afterwards.

Emergency steering

Beyond checking that the emergency tiller of a wheel-steered boat can be fitted easily, this is something that many owners of cruisers are guilty of neglecting.

Racing regulations require all vessels to carry an emergency tiller, unless it’s a tiller-steered boat normally steered by an ‘unbreakable metal tiller’.

Total rudder loss is also something that must be prepared for: ‘…crews must be aware of alternative methods of steering the yacht in any sea condition in the event of rudder loss.

At least one method must have been proven to work on board the yacht. An inspector may require that this method be demonstrated.’

Ground tackle

This is another area in which most cruisers are likely to be better off than their racing counterparts.

There’s no escaping the fact that decent ground tackle is heavy – and weight is something racers avoid at all costs.

But there are times when racers need to anchor – for instance, if the wind falls away to a calm and there’s a foul tide.

In this situation, an offshore race boat may end up anchoring in 50m or more, relying on adding scope to the rode by using spinnaker sheets and any other lines that come to hand.

Think safe

Do these safety requirements make boats safer, and are they strictly necessary?

My personal view is that safety is more of an attitude of mind than a tick list, but the process of equipping a boat to a standard is educational in itself, and I certainly find myself being ultra-cautious if cruising on a boat that is deficient in any respect.

Comparing what we think are acceptable norms with what is regarded as best practice in a related discipline can be a valuable exercise, even if we decide some of the requirements are not relevant or unnecessarily onerous.

Going through the boat’s safety and emergency equipment at least once a year is another good exercise – and ensures that vital equipment is inspected, serviced and replaced at appropriate intervals.

The areas covered in this article on safe sailing are not exhaustive. Find out more on the World Sailing website at


A stable boat is essential, whether cruising or racing.

For modern boats, RCD categories are a useful guideline for cruisers. To obtain an RCD rating, boat designers and manufacturers have to calculate the stability (or GZ) curve for a boat, so don’t be afraid to ask them for it.

The angle of vanishing stability (AVS) tells you how far your boat can heel before it inverts.

This should be significantly more than 90° – the bigger the better.

 A boat heeled over

Stability is essential for safe sailing, and racers often sail much closer to the limits than cruisers, as demonstrated by the crew of this J/24. Choose your boat wisely, for the kind of sailing you expect to do. Credit: David Harding

This is where the traditional design of a narrow hull and deep keel wins over the more modern wide hulls – although very stiff to 90° owing to its form stability, a wide boat is also more stable when inverted so it tends to have a lower AVS.

Older boats can be harder to assess as stability numbers are hard to come by, but a good hard look with a tutored eye can tell you a lot.

The RYA ‘Stability and Buoyancy’ book is a good place to start, and can be a great help when looking around for a new boat.

The knockdowns incurred during the 1979 Fastnet Race highlighted the importance of good ultimate stability to prevent a boat remaining inverted for more than a few moments.

As a consequence, stability screening is an important part of the regulations and can be difficult for smaller vessels to satisfy.

Larger yachts are allowed a lower angle of vanishing stability as they are less likely to invert, simply because more energy is required to capsize them.

Note that World Sailing stability requirements for racing boats are considerably more onerous than those for the RCD.

Want a second opinion?

The RNLI’s free Advice Onboard service (previously called SEA Check) is good for a second opinion of your boat’s readiness and safety, whatever type of sailing you enjoy.

The charity’s volunteer sea safety officers talk through all aspects of safety on board sailors’ own boats and are happy to go over any concerns you may have.

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