Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Prickling at PFDs
By Michael

The contentious photo.
"In spite of all the efforts of the Power Squadrons, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, state and local boating safety courses, etc., sailors seem to be oblivious to the risks of children (and adults) not wearing life jackets. In ‘Sailing into Paradise’ (Feb. 2016), there is a large picture of a child hanging over the side of a boat underway in a position to slip under the lifelines and go overboard….Is there a chance [Cruising World] editors could exert at least a little influence to encourage those submitting…articles to show people behaving responsibly?"

That is an excerpt of a letter to the editor of Cruising World, published in the April 2016 issue. The child “hanging over the side of a boat underway in a position to slip under the lifelines and go overboard” is my daughter.

My first reaction is to assure the letter writer that I’m on their side, that I agree how important it is to ensure the safety of kids around water and to set a good example.

But I’m not on the letter writer’s side. I’m not even sympathetic to their sentiment.

On what basis can the letter writer assert that this photo is evidence that, “sailors seem to be oblivious to the risks of children (and adults) not wearing life jackets?” I’ve met a lot of sailors—sailor parents in particular—and they’ve never seemed to me to be a bunch oblivious to the risks of children not wearing life jackets. But nor have I met any sailors who think those risks are fixed and omnipresent. Risks rise and fall with changes in conditions. Far from being oblivious to risk, we sailing parents are constantly gauging risk as conditions around us change. When we decide the risk of not wearing a life jacket is too high, we put one on and request our kids put theirs on.

Cruising World published the full-page photo of my daughter on the rail because it’s an awesome photo, capturing a happy moment of our life under sail. The letter writer can allege that we are not “behaving responsibly” and that is fine. The letter writer may have asked their daughter to don a vest in the same circumstances; that’s the letter writer’s prerogative. But I would ask the letter writer to direct his objection to me. I’d be happy to explain our rationale, in this particular instance, for not requesting Eleanor wear a vest. But to ask the Cruising World editors to engineer photo submissions so that the magazine might present a world in which all kids are in vests at all appropriate times…times deemed appropriate by whom?...accomplishes what?

We take the safety of our kids (and ourselves) very seriously. We are hyper-aware of the danger posed by a man-overboard scenario. We sometimes sail in rough conditions on the open ocean in pitch darkness where we know that the likelihood of recovering any member of our family crew who goes overboard, is close to zero. We are aware of the danger inherent even in returning to the boat by dinghy when the tidal flow is strong, when it’s dark, when it’s rough, when the water is very cold. We address the risks that are a part of our cruising lives with an arsenal of tools and strategies, life vests being only one.

Situations are complex, people are complex. Do I wear a seatbelt while driving and make sure my kids are buckled up too? Yep. But might I have last year let my kid sit on my lap, unbelted, so she could steer while we drove down an empty dirt desert road in Mexico at 15 mph? Yep. And allowing her to do that was probably just as responsible as allowing the same girl to sit on that rail that day without a life vest. How responsible? You’re welcome to decide that for yourself. But please let us not advocate a world where broad-brush edicts and assertions take the place of judgment and personal responsibility.



  1. Michael,

    As an almost universal rule I don't comment on Internet posts, but feel compelled here. Great post and thoughts. Well said.

    -Just another dad out here evaluating risks and making informed judgement calls on sailboats, cars and everything else. You know, life. (Dan)

  2. Michael,

    this comment is just yet another excess of today's overprotecting society, worst seen in the USA. People don't assess risks any more, they demand full protection against anything all the time. And woe to someone daring to expose themselves - or even worse their children - to risk.

    How many children died last year by drowning on beautiful sailing days like on this image? And how many of those were wearing PFD? And how does that risk compare to be struck fatally by lightning? I tried to find out, but it seems, either nobody knows or nobody publishes data.

    In related studies concerning the risk of injury while skiing, there's no significant change of injuries between 2002 and 2014 for skiers. Those dates are relevant, because 2002 only people judging it necessary wore helmets (16%) and 2014, after heavy marketing campaigns for helmets, 89% of the skiers used them. One would guess this additional safety would be have effect on the numbers. Nope. Mostly stable, in some countries (like Norway) a little more, in some a little less, in some unchanged. And the provable reduced risk to the head was often overcompensated with more recklessness.

    Similar studies exist for the effect of mandatory bicycle-helmets in Europe and in Australia.

    Applied to PFD, always wearing one whenever closer than a mile to any body of water won't be much safer than just wearing them when the conditions demand it. But that spoils the fun of the total-safety-busybodies and would force people to assess risk reasonably instead.

  3. I don't usually post comments, either, but I have to agree with both of the previous posters. It seems like the internet has given judgmental people an open field. It probably stops a lot of people who have something of value to say from saying what they think publicly. That makes what you are doing with your blog of even more value. Some of us can't do what you're doing, but see it's value in producing more knowledgeable, experienced, and responsible adults. "Total-safety-busybodies" remove both our freedom and our responsibility for ourselves.

  4. Dear Michael,
    I saw your delightful picture AND read that same letter in Cruising World, and at the time just rolled my eyes, thinking "another I know better than you even though I wasn't there and know nothing of the actual circumstances surrounding the photo..."
    But it turns out there's more! When you have good internet, Google "Dunning-Kruger Effect" Great reading, but in short, it says that those with the least knowledge and experience in a given realm are always the most vocal and inflexible in their opinions about that realm. In place of knowledge and judgment, they demand rigid rules and codes.
    It's unfortunate, but it's human, and the internet has made it SO easy to be the self-appointed policeman of ignorance.
    You're doing great, Dad!

  5. I read this post while watching you and your lovely family motor past us down the Vavau harbour. I then watch numerous heavily overloaded local Tongan village boats chug past, lucky to have 20cm of freeboard and not a life jacket or auxiliary in sight. Very rarely do they reportedly run into trouble on their trips back home to the outer islands. There needs to be a sensible middle ground and some allowance given for swimming competency - which your girls definitely have!

  6. Hey Mate - I think that Sionna said it great. What would that letter writer possibly know about risk management as you and Windy live it?

  7. Awwww, I agree w/ the letter submitter. JK. I miss you. just catching up w/ the blog. Lots going on. I will send email soon. Love the HB

  8. "But please let us not advocate a world where broad-brush edicts and assertions take the place of judgment and personal responsibility."

    Too late for that, I'm afraid. And worse, there's no way to reverse the trend.

  9. I recall this image from your blog and have read the letter to the editor. I was a member of the Power and Sail squadron for a few years and truly enjoyed most of my time. Their efforts energies expended to support informed and safer boating are admirable. That said, I felt obliged to leave the organization as I grew tired of the consistent diatribes I would hear about how "unsafe" other peoples actions were and how those involved obviously new nothing about what they were doing.

    I appreciate and applaud your articulation of how we must properly, and honestly asses risks and make decision accordingly but not go so far as to be governed by an overabundance of caution or fear of the potential unknowns.

    In the end, no matter what else takes place, life happens, and we have to be prepared to experience it and protect ourselves as we see fit.


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