The Right Equipment for the New Regulations

Here's what you need to sail fast and keep you and your crew alive. "Safety Gear" from our June 2008 issue

July 8, 2008

skandia safety gear 368

Rolex/ Daniel Forster

Most of us operate under the theory that bad things just aren’t going to happen. We ignore statistics, buy lottery tickets, and drive without our seatbelts buckled. Statistically, we’re all wrong. Bad things do happen. That’s why those overseeing the sport implement the Offshore Special Regulations, and why organizers of coastal and offshore races pay such close attention and include most, if not all, of ISAF’s recommendations in their respective sailing instructions.

This year, ISAF announced changes in the OSR, most gear related, and considering the number of offshore races scheduled to go off this year, perspective entrants and participants should be aware of the changes, especially considering that the various inspectors for entrants in these races won’t allow you to cross their starting lines until you’re safety-equipment legit. As we bring you up to speed on the new regulations we will also highlight a few of our favorite pieces of safety gear that have been required for some time, but you may not be aware of.

Lifejackets­: OSR 5.01.2
For all offshore race categories down to and including Category 4, inflatable lifejackets are now required to have a compressed gas inflation system. Crotch straps (or thigh straps), and a lifejacket light, which until now have been strongly recommended, are now mandatory. As anyone who’s ever tested or had to use an inflatable will tell you, thigh or crotch straps are an important part of the overall system, as they prevent the lifejacket from riding up your body. The reason for the white light requirement is obvious: you can be found at night. Note that a strobe is not recommended, as it’s tough for rescuers and helicopter pilots to establish distance to the victim with strobe lights. It is also strongly recommended that each lifejacket be equipped with a splashguard/spray hood and a 406 MHz personal locater beacon.


For a PFD/harness combination we especially like Spinlock’s Deckware Harness/PFD, and although it isn’t approved by the United States Coast Guard as a PFD, it satisfies the OSR, especially if you use the included crotch/thigh straps. Universal straps that fit Mustang PFDs are available, if that’s what you already own, but there are other features on Deckware PFDs, such as the integrated Aquaspec AQ98 light, which is the smallest SOLAS-approved lifejacket light, and is activated automatically upon contact with water. We also like its spray hood, a clear plastic hood with breathing holes that will help keep you protected from breaking waves and spray. The Deckware vest is also easy to get on and off-instead of struggling to pull it over your head, as with some inflatables, you simply don it as you would a fleece vest. Spinlock developed its Deckvest with harness maker Petzl a few years ago, and has refined the PFD since. In its second iteration, it is a state-of-the-art piece of safety gear.

Tethers are an integral part of staying on board, and there are more than a few different types available. Opinions about them vary, but we like the dual-tether idea, which allows you to move around the boat without unclipping. We also like the idea of the cow hitch for the user’s end of the tether, a simple loop that, if need be, can be cut. Many tethers come with a quick-release shackle on the user’s end with the idea being that you’ll be able to give it a yank and release yourself. However, unless there’s very little strain on the shackle, yanking it open has proven extremely difficult. Spinlock is looking at small J-hook knives that will attach to its harness should you ever need to cut yourself loose, but as we’ve preached for years, any sailor who doesn’t carry an easy-to-access knife when they go sailing is a fool.

VHF Radios: OSR 3.29.1(e)
The requirement for carrying a hand-held VHF radio is extended to include all categories down to and including Category 4. Again, this is an obvious requirement. How else will you be able to communicate with rescuers once you’re in the raft or in the water? The radio must be watertight, or in a watertight cover or container. The ditch bag is a good place for at least one handheld VHF, although a second one in the cockpit isn’t a bad idea either.


Waterproof handheld VHF radios are readily available from numerous manufacturers in a wide range of prices. We suggest you look at handheld VHFs that have the ability to use both rechargeable and disposable batteries, and that have a long battery life. If a handheld VHF radio is being used, it will likely be in an emergency situation, such as bobbing around in a life raft. Therefore, simplicity of operation is key. We have two recommendations from two of the top manufacturers. Icom’s IC M34 ($279) is a robust, easy to use VHF, with 5 watts of transmission power, and does something that definitely will come in handy in an emergency situation; it floats. The M34 can use alkaline batteries if an optional battery tray is purchased, but a warning: some types of alkaline batteries are heavier than others, and may turn the M34 from a floater to a sinker. Standard Horizon has three models of floating radios, with the most basic being the HX750S ($150), which can transmit at an impressive 6 watts, and uses a Li-Ion battery with an 11-hour life. The HX750S floats face up and, when it hits the water, a strobe light mounted on its face starts blinking SOS. Once recovered, the 750S even tells you the water temperature.

Pyrotechnics: OSR 4.23
The requirement to carry white hand-held flares was deleted and replaced by requirements for a watertight high-powered spotlight/searchlight with spare batteries and bulb (OSR 4.07.1). Flares are great for attracting attention, but not so great for locating victims or attracting attention, long-term.

The requirement for each boat to carry a spotlight/searchlight is a great chance to take advantage of the latest in flashlight/spotlight technology, LED bulbs. Using less power while providing more lumens is a good thing, as is the greater range. The drawback is pricing, with top-quality LED lights running upwards of $200. Keep in mind that the OSR requirement includes spare batteries and bulb for the light, which precludes the use of plug-in lights commonly found aboard some boats. Our high-end pick is AELight’s W30 LED Backup Dive Light ($265), which outputs at 300 lumens and uses three AA batteries, which provide power for three to five hours at full power. A less expensive alternative is Pelican’s 2010N Nemo ($45), which will run for 30 hours on three C batteries.


There’s been some debate about strobes versus other types of signaling lights, with rescuers (especially airborne resources) reporting that strobes can mess with depth perception. They’re very bright, and can be seen from a great distance, but we’re leaning toward lights that are steady rather than flashing. Another option is Greatland Laser’s Rescue Laser Flares (from $99.95). These small, penlight-type devices transmit a focused beam in the form of a line and are easily aimed by victims toward rescue assets. Their range, reported as great as 20 to 30 miles at night, and 1 to 5 miles in daylight, is phenomenal. We’ve been carrying one since they were introduced and take great comfort in the fact that the AA batteries power the unit for 72 hours and the laser diode is good for 10,000 hours. They’re also safer than flares and other pyrotechnics, and easier to travel with.

406 MHz EPIRB: OSR 4.19.1
Satellite processing of 121.5 MHz EPIRBs is being phased out, so 406 EPIRBs, which are more accurate, especially when coupled with a GPS receiver, are now required. In fact, EPIRBs with internal GPS receivers are recommended by the OSR. For monohulls and multihulls sailing Category 0 races, two EPIRBs are required.

Personal EPIRBs, or PLBs, have gotten small enough to carry comfortably attached to your harness. We’ve chosen ACR’s ResQFix ($649), the smallest (1.4″ x 5.85″ x 2.21″), lightest (10 ounces), GPS-equipped PLB on the market. It’s easy to use; you simply flip the antenna up, press the single button, and the ResQFix gets its position from the GPS constellation and starts transmitting your position and identity on 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz for up to 40 hours.


The 406 works with the COSPAS/SARSAT system that has worldwide coverage, and 121.5 is a soon to be phased out frequency that will still work with some homing systems. The only drawback with the ResQFix is that it doesn’t float, but an optional neoprene float jacket corrects that issue. Another good PLB is the McMurdo-Pains Wessex Fastfind Plus ($700), another 406 PLB EPIRB with internal GPS, but it’s considerably larger (3″ x 6″ x 2.1″, 11 ounces) and has only a 24-hour transmitting life.

Grab Bag Recommended Contents: OSR 4.21.3(w), (x)
For monohulls and multihulls sailing Category 0 races, the OSR requires six red SOLAS-compliant parachute flares, three white parachute flares, two orange SOLAS-compliant red flares, cyalume-type light sticks, a watertight, and a high-powered torch (flashlight), with spare batteries and bulbs.

Choosing a knife is important, and you should consider several facts. First: do you take good care of your knife? Do you rinse it regularly with fresh water, keep it lubed, and sharpen it regularly? If not, don’t buy just any old knife. Consider one of Spyderco’s Salt Water Series knives (from $91.95), or, if you’re willing to spend a few extra dollars, consider a Boye Cobalt knife, one of the finest series of knives we’ve ever come across.
Whether you buy one of Boye’s folding knives ($129), or the Basic 3 ($360), you’re getting a highly saltwater-resistant tool with a blade that stays sharp, and more importantly, doesn’t dull easily even when cutting today’s high-tech rope, which is notoriously tough on blade sharpness. Call it overkill, but when I’m racing to Bermuda this year, I’ll be carrying a Boye Basic 3 permanently attached to my Spinlock Deckware PFD, and a Boye folder in the pocket of my foul weather gear.


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