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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

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Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Safety First: Sailing Away with All Your Fingers

Hope she's wearing her hard-hat!
From The Wizard of OZ

Safety first!

Believe it! Boat building, like sailing, is often a peaceful and placid endeavor. But in both cases, we're exposed to forces which can wake us rudely from our reveries. Very rudely, indeed!

Anything that cuts wood will walk through flesh, my friends. Handtools do it a little slower, but not by much. We're working under big, heavy things. Moving around an obstacle course. Playing with fire.

It’s tempting to assume that guy who’s missing a couple of fingers is a dumb-ass. That may be, but absent fingers don’t prove it. All it takes is a moment of distraction, a reflexive motion, a stumble; in short, the very stuff of life.

What can ease us through this Vale of Risk are education, fail-safes  and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures).

SOPs are works-in-progress. Accumulate them, and refine through a debriefing process. What went well? What didn’t? Can the relevant SOPs be improved? Has someone else worked out a better one? Review and follow the relevant SOP each and every time! We may count instances of  just this once with the fingers of our hands.

Educate yourself about your tools, materials and procedures. 

Books, magazines, videos, the Internet, friends and professionals are all resources. Use them. Learn  First Aid and have a better-than-Band-Aid kit on hand, where handy and visible. If you need it, you’ll really need it.

Here’re a few Rules-of-Thumb to get started:
  •  Keep the workspace obstacle free – Pick up, smooth ground tarps, re-lead power cords... anything so you reduce your chance of tripping. This is on-going, and easy to let slide. Work at it.
  • Respect cutting edges – Teeth bite. Knife edges cut. It’s what they do best. Keep your fingers clear of the business ends of tools. Don't ever use your body as a clamp or work surface when using edge tools.
  • Respect power– Electricity, like fire, can be a great ally and a formidable enemy. Keep it away from water. Disconnect before adjusting a power tool (same goes for pneumatic). Secure your material (clamps). If you’re not ready to cut, keep your finger off the trigger. Make sure you know that the area is clear before you pull it. Keep a two-hand grip on tools until they come to full stop.
  • Respect gravity – Falling from even a small boat can cause severe injury. Free your hands and use hand-grips. Make sure ladders and steps are secure and move carefully. Pass stuff, or pull it up in a bucket, rather than carry it on or off the boat (Carrying a chisel while climbing is like running with scissors).
  • Respect mass – Don’t get under un-blocked masses (like, the boat?). Lift carefully, following correct procedure (yes, there is such a thing... look it up!). Plan big, scary operations (e.g., turning a hull) with utmost care.
  • Respect chemistry – Many of the substances used in boatbuilding (even sawdusts) are toxic. Wear all appropriate safety gear. Many are combustible. Make sure fire extinguishers are handy and charged. Do your homework and learn about the hazards involved. Avoid spontaneous combustion situations... piles of sawdust or oily rags (don’t ever leave them folded or crumpled; dispose of immediately in a water-filled, metal container or by controlled burn).
  • Communicate – Make sure everyone in the area knows what’s happening and understands your team’s safety SOPs. If it needs saying more than once, be patient and persistent. This goes for general safety and teamwork. Watch your co-workers' backs, and point out safety problems. No place for ego.
  • Rehearse Difficult Operations – If you’ve not done it before, work up to it. Use scrap, at first, in good lighting and sure footing. Make it easy on yourself so that you’re only having to learn one skill at a time.

Did I scare you? Good.  It helps to cultivate the right amount of paranoia... not so much we're paralyzed... not so little we're reckless. It’s when we find ourselves feeling like Joe or Jill Carpenter that blood, bruises and worse can follow.

Safety is a mindset, an assembly of habits and skills. They can be mastered, like anything else. The trick is believing that they're important.

Believe that safety is important, practice safety, and you’ll do fine.

PS. I've made a little light, in this post.  But we've been around long enough to lose friends to accidents which basic good habits would have prevented. Friends injured. Dreams destroyed or changed beyond recognition.

Here's one of the less grim stories... at least it has a happy ending:

We've always been attracted to Wharram catamarans, and a friend was building a beauty. Carved, twin dragons adorned the bow, lording over a hull rough and ready. Not a yacht, but a vessel to take her crew to the far ends of the Earth. 

Her owner/builder was a burly, biker kind of a guy. Probably not going to sail so far; just get away from all the BS ashore. Also not the kind of sissy-boy to don a pair of gloves when working with epoxy. T-shirt and the thick hair of his arm was enough for him!

Comes a day, we hear that he's in the hospital, via the emergency room. I'll spare the details, but it was a gruesome, full body fulmination of symptoms; when he started having trouble breathing, he called 911. Confused doctors suspected a viral outbreak, and held him in quarantine till symptoms subsided.

Once released, he stayed on in the city with a friend, and worked to pay off the hospital debt. 

So about two months later, he returned to his Wharram, and opened the door to his cabin. Out wafted the familiar smells of home... laced with the molecular cousins of all the epoxy he'd absorbed through his skin over the course of the project. WHAM. Back to the ER, all symptoms abloom.

The happy ending is that he sold his boat to an unsensitized couple who sailed off the the far ends of the Earth. He used the money to buy an island in the Mississippi Delta, we hear, which I suspect was pretty much what he'd wanted from his boat, anyway.

But I'm just sayin'.


  1. I suspect a massive epoxy exposure caused the start of a bout with cancer for me: eventually going to stage 4B hodgkins. Normal treatments would not work and I signed up for a drug companys experimental regimen in which i was fried like a catfish in hot grease by drugs I still can't pronounce. Survived the big burn but watch epoxy!! One night my crew and I painted a commercial boats galley floors with epoxy paint and no real ventilation. Dumgasses unsupervised. Shortly thereafter I went downhill and eventually got diagnosed. From there any epoxy use, for me, involves maximum gloves and top of the line respirators. Better strategy though: build with steel!!!

  2. I am so sorry to hear that. And apologize for my flip attitude toward my biker friend's tough stand. Not a laughing matter. I always like to say, 'Ignorance is curable; stupidity is terminal.' Remains to be seen which category I fall under.

    On the job exposures can be some of the worst... lots of pressure to perform, often without training, safety equipment or environmental protections. The attitude is often, 'Buck up and shut up!'... and there's always someone waiting for the job.

    In Port Townsend, a number of friends were working on the EVIVA, at that time the largest fiberglass vessel ever built. Working conditions were abysmal... when they opened the doors, every now and then, OUR work site, some hundred yards distant, was saturated with a miasma of polyester resin vapors to the point we'd vacate. Workers, opening the doors from INSIDE the building, wore no respirators!

    It's one of the advantages of DIY, I suppose... we're at liberty to elevate and enforce our own standards.

  3. Amen to that, brother. Not to sound too cliche proletariat but big factory boatbuilding can be pretty heartless.... and small, backyard boatbuilding is all about heart and idealism. One vision of hell I recall is the female mold for a 200 foot fiberglass yacht destined for some rogue of industry and about 50 mexicans in white suits and PAPER masks crawling all over it like toxin laden ants.... americans wouldn't touch that work. The whole giant building reeked of resin and dust was everywhere. So antithetical (and warm fuzzy!!)to visit friends who are building their own boat. Oh well....