Lighten Up on Safety

Gear Requirements

April 17, 2002

Whitbread racers began chopping toothbrush handles off a decade ago to keep an ounce of weight out of the boat. All racers should consider emulating this level of focus on weight when it comes to the safety equipment mandated by ORC and US Sailing.

For boats in the 30-foot range participating in a Category 4 near-shore race, the rules specify nearly 50 pieces of safety gear–even more items are added for the four categories of races farther offshore. The Notice of Race typically specifies the safety equipment standards but as in the case of the Sailing World NOOD regattas, many race organizers point to one-design class requirements for equipment. None of these rules may override state or federal safety equipment mandates.

While few would argue the necessity of each individual piece of gear, the complete pile of equipment presents a growing challenge to racer’s budgets and the boat’s stowage capabilities. The greatest hurdle, however, is the reduction in boat performance caused by the extra windage and weight.


Some items, such as the 10 SOLAS flares required for a Category 4 race, simply can not be trimmed. The weight of their container should be considered, however.

Another group of weight hogs is open to some interpretation. Racers are already familiar with ways to trim the mandatory anchor by using an aluminum hook. And while ORC lists a watertight flashlight, they don’t specify size. Since batteries are heavy, this is important to the weight conscious.

From bucket to heaving line, many bits and pieces fall into this category. Six ounces shaved from each of 50 different items adds up to a saving of nearly 20 pounds.

  • Buy a paperback first aid manual instead of hardbound

  • Reduce the size of scissors and tweezers in the first aid kit

  • Plastic, mouth-operated foghorns weigh mere ounces

  • A tiny hand-bearing compass can serve as the non-electric spare

  • Foil radar reflectors save great weight aloft

  • A deep reef in the main eliminates carrying a trysail


A small number of items present a larger opportunity to save weight and they should receive the greatest scrutiny.

  • Tools. Extra hammers, a gigantic rig cutter, broken spare parts and stray bits often seem to accumulate here without trying. Don’t scrimp, but eliminate all the clutter that gets tossed in. Consider a multipurpose screwdriver instead of a set of four.

  • Charts. The rules specify a set of non-electronic charts, a light list and plotting tools be on board. For most Category 4 races, one well-chosen paper chart should suffice while all the rest may be left ashore. Aluminum dividers can replace the big, decorative brass pair and a 5″ square plastic protractor substitutes for 18″ parallel rules at half the weight.

  • Category 4 ORC races allow either USCG Type III PFDs or comparable inflatables–both are lighter than the Type I lifejackets needed on offshore races. Multiply the weight savings times six crew.

It should never be a skipper’s goal to skirt the life-saving intentions of the rules by having inferior or dubious safety gear–after all, the ORC and US Sailing recommendations represent many years of experience in dealing with sailing emergencies. An inventive mind attuned to saving weight, however, can often shed needless pounds and gain precious seconds on the racecourse. So go ahead–lighten up.

_Tom Wood has studied and written about sailboat gear for nearly 30 years, and is currently part of a team building a resource center for better boating at _


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