James Jermain's reflection on the hazards of winter sailing

Sailing on into winter

James Jermain is not a fan of woolly vests and boat heaters to extend the sailing season

For years I would delay bringing my boat ashore for the winter or even left in afloat all year in days when I could afford a marina berth. The excuse was that winter sailing could be an uplifting and rewarding experience. Crisp, sunny winter weather, empty moorings, plentiful wildlife and welcoming shoreside hostelries with roaring open fires were the draw. I have long since abandoned this pretence.

I now acknowledge the reality. Short days, cold dank mornings, frequent gales and lots of rain, closed facilities ashore and an overarching sense of abandonment are the true lot of the winter sailor – not to mention the stinging rebuke from Charles Evans for screwing up his mooring maintenance schedule!

As I get older, I become increasingly aware of the dangers of winter sailing. It’s not just the obvious – heart failure due to cold water shock, secondary drowning from salt-water inhalation, death from hypothermia in a matter of minutes, carbon monoxide poisoning… What?

The RYA among other bodies are campaigning for safer open-flame and internal combustion installations – carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is usually caused by inefficient burning of fuel in heaters, water heaters, engines and cookers when there is not enough ventilation. The relatively harmless carbon dioxide (CO2) is replaced with by CO. CO is odourless, colourless and invisible and about the same weight as air. It induces lethargy and confusion, nausea, headaches and shortness of breath quickly followed by brain damage, unconsciousness and death. The physical damage to heart lungs and brain can be irreversible.

Sailing on into winter means greater use of boat heaters and cookers. At the same time, ventillators, windows, ports and companionways are shut reducing the circulation of life-saving air. The only way to stay safe is to keep the interior well aired and service engines and burners regularly. Diesel that burns with black smoke or cooker flames which look unusually orange or red rather than blue, indicate the presence of dangerous amounts of CO. Remember that CO in engine exhausts can easily blow back into the cabin.

So, if you really do want to go winter sailing do please:

• Dress appropriately in warm, waterproof clothing (consider investing in a dry suit).

• Wear lifejackets (buoyancy aids for dinghies and small craft) and harnesses to stay on board.

• Perfect man overboard recovery techniques because speed is of the essence.

• Sail with someone competent to give you support if needed.

• Service, and check regularly, all fuel-burning devices.


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