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Unsafe in any sea
By Buck Graham
What do you look for when you buy a boat?  What should you look for when you buy a boat?  Sadly, sales of too many new boats are based on the interior finish of the cabin, with the buyer placing his faith in the manufacturer for the technical qualities.  It is the goal of this effort to inform potential buyers so that they may pressure manufacturers for some real progress in marine design.
A skipper of a 50' sailboat falls overboard off Point Conception.  He dies of hypothermia before two able bodied crewmembers can haul him back on board.  Over the last fifteen years while living at the anchorage in Santa Barbara, I lost three neighbors.  They lost their footing when stepping from their dinghies to the main boat, and were not able to climb on board.  Hypothermia claimed them, also.  This was also the fate of Natalie Wood while anchored off Catalina Island.  All because these boats had no way for a person overboard to get back on board.
So when you are shopping for a boat, check it out from the view of a man overboard.  Does it have a platform at the stern, like the newer Catalinas, or like the swim step on power boats?  The next best solution is a permanent swim ladder, accessible from the water.  If it has a latch that can be reached only by someone on deck, take off the latch and throw it away!
Life slings are great if...  you left someone on board to operate it before you fell overboard, and if that someone knows how to operate it.
Will the boat sink?  Even when filled with water?  Sounds like a dumb question, but very few boats have positive flotation.  This is on-the-shelf technology.  It is not protected by patents.  It is simple to build into a boat, and does not increase the price very much.  Some storage space is lost to flotation chambers, but the peace of mind of having a boat that will not sink makes up for it.  Only buyer pressure will force manufacturers into supplying it.
My boat, a MacGregor 26, has positive foam flotation.  That was a main consideration I had when I was shopping for a boat.  If you already own a boat which does not have flotation, one solution is to carry inflatable flotation chambers.  If you can't locate any built for that purpose, you can carry inflatable boats which can be inflated inside the cabin of the boat if it starts taking on water.
My MacGregor also has water ballast, which is smart if you are trying to equip the boat for positive foam flotation.  All metal ballast will require about ten times its volume to float it, if the boat takes on water.  When my MacGregor sinks (awful thought!)...the water ballast becomes weightless, requiring no foam flotation to float it.
Every weekend, around any busy recreational port, Channel 16 will have several May Days from boats taking on water.  Since they do not have the positive foam flotation discussed in the previous paragraphs, these calls have their own special brand of panic.  Usually, the reason why these boats are taking on water is because some through hull fitting has given way.  Again, it seems dumb, to spend 2,000 years developing near-perfect hull materials, only to riddle the hull with through-hull fittings.  They work OK if they are inspected at least once a year.  Most boats are lacking in maintenance, and this does not catch up to the owner until he is off-shore.
My MacGregor has no through-hull fittings below the waterline.  This is the ideal situation, and is easy if all the fittings are drains.  If it is necessary to take in sea water through a fitting, it would be wise to have it come on board by way of a pipe at the stern, which would not sink the boat if it should be hit and broken.
A skipper on a long cruise discovers that his cat-rigged ketch has to have both sails up to stay on a reach.  Even with both sails reefed the boat heels one degree for each knot of wind.  The wind is forty knots for three days.  Miserable.  Conversely, my Venture 22 heeled only five degrees in forty knots, sailing in perfect balance on only a reefed mainsail.  And that same venture sailed 2,000 miles on a lashed tiller by balancing the sails for self-steering.  The boat did not need a wind vane or autopilot, because it balanced.
This will be an open-ended article for my web site, because I will be adding more information to it as time goes by.  If this article is successful, many lives will be saved, and it is hoped that an informed public can pressure manufacturers to advance marine design a tiny step beyond the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.  Let's hope that Congress does not have to become heavily involved, as they have with automotive safety.