Friday, 10 May 2013

Final Preparations For Sea.


In the same week that we are in the final stages of preparing for the start of the school’s programme, there have been two nationally reported tragedies at sea.   The death of a father and daughter, and life changing injuries to four other members of their family in a powerboat accident in Cornwall was followed by the news of the death of a gold winning Olympic sailor in a high performance multihull yacht preparing for the America’s Cup.  Elsewhere there will have been numerous other accidents and “near misses” at sea.  On the face of it these may have little relevance to the Swan.

The relevance is, I suggest, a stark reminder that no matter how much fun or how professional and prepared you are; there are inherent risks associated with boats.   (But keep it perspective because there are inherent risks associated with life.)  So rather than these tragedies being a reason to stop going to sea they are a reminder of the necessity to prepare and plan for the unexpected and not simply leave things to chance or hoped for good luck.  Failing to prepare is preparing to fail and at sea the stakes are high.  An in vogue saying as I was leaving the Army, coined I believe by the Americans was “hope is not an acceptable action or measure”.

It won’t surprise you to learn that commercial sailing is subject to a regulatory frame work and all vessels and crews required to meet and adhere to a code of practice.  Rather than seeing this as an onerous bureaucratic hurdle, I choose to see it as an articulation of sound seamanship and a navigation aid or check list of good practise.  After all, in all walks of life, we know that common sense is not always common practice.   At times the code might sometimes appear pedantic.  For example we now have a full functioning fire fighting capability (following my bath in paraffin!!) in addition to 4 fire extinguishers, an internal engine room fire fighting system, two pumps and a fire blanket, we needed to purchase two buckets with lanyards to complete compliance.

So how do you prepare for sea and how do you know when you are ready?  It’s potentially quite a deep question.  Complying with the code is a possible answer but not one that sits easily with me.  Equally if you take the view that you can always be better prepared then you might be tempted to say “never” because there is always something else to do.  So there is a judgement to be made.  In this case there is also a timetable to be adhered to, or if it can’t be then there needs to be a very good reason. 

The Italian economist, Pareto was studying wealth distribution when he noticed that 80% of Italy’s wealth came from 20% of the population.  To his surprise the same ratio appeared again in a different studies.  Intrigued he now set out to find other examples, which he did in abundance.  Today The Pareto or 80-20 principle is a well-recognised guide.  Suppose you are going to repaint the door.  You could burn back to the wood, prime, undercoat and apply two top coats.  Let’s call that the 100% job.   Alternatively you could rub down, scrap badly damaged areas, spot prime, spot undercoat and reapply two top coats.  Lets call that the 80% job.  Chances are that you will have an 80% result that only took you 20% of the time it would have take to do the 100% job.  The question is how important to you in absolute and relative terms is it to paint the door?  Now apply the same thought process to getting ready for sea.  Clearly there are some jobs where a 100% solution and nothing less will do, but equally there are some jobs which only merit an 80% solution using 20% of the time and freeing up time to tackle the 100% jobs.  The trick is to identify which is which.  In fact apply it to what is important in your life.

So lets think about preparing for sea. The principle suggests that 20% of the hazards will cause 80% of the injuries, so it makes sense to target those 20% but how do you know which are the 20% to focus on?  Well if you had a system of accident and near miss reporting, that might be a good start point, so why not go to the old cutlery draw and have a look?  So efficient accident reporting informs efficient accident prevention.  A word of caution though, not all accidents have the same consequence.  In fact MOB is very unlikely, but very high impact if it does occur, so don’t just use empirical mathematics, temper it with good old common sense.

Scott and I have been completing work in two other vital areas; bungs and Medical 1st aid.


For non-sailors bungs might need some explanation.   Firstly they are nothing to do with a backhand bribe.   Most vessels will have some through hull fixtures.  For example, our fire pump draws water from the sea through a pipe intake in the hull, so does the engine cooling system.  In fact we have 9 holes through the hull below the water line.  Each of these is fitted with a seacock (which you might think of as being a big tap).  Question: what happens if the seacock fails?  Answer: potential disaster.  However a simple conical soft wood bung banged into the pipe or hole could be a life saver.  (common sense let alone the code of practice require in place measures. )
 So measure the size of hole, get a bung made and tie it in place next to the hole and you will always know where it is and that you have the right size.  Soft wood because it will swell and seal more effectively than anything else. 

When I came aboard I couldn’t find any soft wood bungs let alone any tied in place.  It was on my must do list and last week during routine maintenance of an inlet pipe, the pipe sheered.  Fortunately the sea cock was closed but it doesn’t require much imagination . . .

a bung: that's the wooden conical thing not the porridge
Most of us are used to the idea that we can dial 999 and have a paramedic with us very quickly then medical emergency is not something we regularly plan for or think about.   At times this year Swan will be more than 20 hours from shore.  In fact even if she is only a few hours from harbour then it could still be a long few hours.   Again the regulatory framework requires the carriage of certain medical stores.  These are ordered through a local chemist who is used to supplying boats of all type.  The medicines arrived shortly after I did, unsorted and in a big bag.  Thus far my main interaction with medical matters on board has been to discard out of date medical stores and to note that reorganisation was needed. 
 I need to be able to tell someone to get the burns pack or the minor injuries 1st aid without having to sort through the indigestion tablets and cough medicines. 

So I feel much more comfortable but there is still some work to do an boxing it up.

I want to close with two thoughts.
The first is that the Swan has always complied with her legal responsibilities to carry medical stores.  So too did the majority of our MPs when they claimed their expenses.  We oft heard them say that their claims were within the rules and legal.  Equally we know that what they did was wrong.   Tax loop wholes might be legal but we regale about transgression of a moral responsibility.  So my moral responsibility with the medical stores didn’t end with compliance with the regulations, it extends to being able to do my absolute best for any injured person, whether it’s having tweezers (which aren’t part of the legal requirement) to remove a splinter or ready access to the flamazine which is.   

So compliance is necessary but not sufficient.  I hope that we won’t need the flamazine or the bungs and most people who sail on this boat won’t ever know what it took to get them organised but I will sleep a little easier and know that tomorrow morning when we slip I have done my best to prepare for a medical (and other) emergency and not just fulfil a legal requirement or hope that it will be OK but I also know that the sea and life can never be made completely safe. 



  1. I was sorry to hear about Andrew 'Bart' Simpson's death in a sailing accident and - as you know - I am not a sailor.

    With the accident reporting, I always feel the need to report near misses is underestimated. I've seen a 'safety pyramid' that suggests for every one fatality, there will be 10 serious accidents, 100 minor injuries, 1,000 accidents with no injury and 10,000 near misses. However, very few people report near misses, or even accidents that don't result in an injury, so it ends up virtually impossible to work out how to prevent the one fatality simply because there isn't enough data to do the analysis. I think that's why we end up with all the regulation - it's the easiest way to ensure people have, at the least, made some preparations in case of an accident.

    I do hope the school's programme runs without incident!

  2. Thanks Izzy, it's an interesting statistic. I suspect that most systems could not cope with 10,000 near miss reports and wading through them might not reduce the accident rate but would increase the bureaucracy and number of "safety initiatives". That said and as you will discern, I do believe that near misses need to be acted upon and not simply shrugged off. I also think that an understated enhancement to safety is the "buddy buddy" system with an emphasis on proactively keeping each other safe. Encouraging people to take responsibility for each other and not just themselves is, I believe, more important than any number of safety manuals or briefings.