An approach to safety

Getting on the water safely takes a systematic approach

Safety systems will necessarily have functional, concise documents – the chances are if you don’t write it down it won’t happen, but success equally depends on people, their attitudes and behaviours – and the safety culture you establish.

A safety system is likely to have the following elements.

Structure and risk management

  • Scope and responsibilities are defined
  • Hazards and risks are assessed
  • Controls and procedures are detailed

Culture and promotion

  • Competent people are given responsibility and authority

  • People know what to do and how to do it

  • People accept the risk and choose to take part


  • The right equipment is used properly
  • Proactive and reactive learning takes place and changes are identified as a result
A graphic showing safety management systems built on principles of safe, fun and open delivery of activity with a continual process of structure and risk management, culture and promotion and assurance. Systems will be a mixture of attitudes and behaviours, and concise documents. As a result scope and responsibilities are defined, hazards and risks assessed, controls and procedures detailed, competent people given responsibility and authority, people know what to do and how to do it, they choose to get involved, the right equipment is used properly and learning leads to change and improvement...

RYA resources

The RYA Safety boat course, the Safety Boat Handbook (G16) and accompanying resources outline a range of knowledge, competencies and techniques for ensuring people are safe and the towing and recovery of different types of craft. The content is relevant, fit for purpose and applicable to the craft commonly used by disabled people across the Sailability programme. It is regularly reviewed in light of learning from experience and a range of incidents. It is important the techniques and skills are practiced in context – with the boats frequently in use during Sailability activity.

Procedures, preparation and regular checks

It is important to have procedures in place for a variety of situations and have people who know the procedures, have tested them and are ready for action. We never set out thinking things will go wrong but experience shows they can, and although rate there can be serious consequences. Understanding cause and effect is important in assessing risk, but often in the most serious incidents it is not one factor but a number of factors that contribute often in unexpected ways. Plan for the worst and test the procedures you put in place. 

The preparation of boats and equipment is key to being able to apply the right techniques and procedures. Preparation should include (but is not limited to) the identification and regular checking of:

  1. Towing points and towing lines (on sailing and safety boats),
  2. Recovery / righting lines,
  3. Any device(s) for securing lifting keels and ballasted centreboards,
  4. Bungs,
  5. Knives for cutting through ropes and rigging,
  6. Pumps, bailers and buckets to remove large amounts of water
  7. Equipment and techniques to get people out of the water (and out of boats once back on pontoon) who may not be in a position to help themselves.

An essential equipment checklist should be in place for all vessels in use, and is a valuable tool to ensure preparation and regular checks take place. Recognised Training Centres have checklists for vessels they must comply with:

Those involved in decisions to go afloat or not and in providing safety cover should have a good knowledge of the vessels being sailed, their characteristics and limits, how they are rigged, and how they can be easily de-powered. The weight carrying capacity of the craft should be considered.


Good communication is at the heart of making good decisions and managing activities smoothly. It ensures:

  • Information is shared with those who need to know,
  • Activity on the land and on the water is co-ordinated,
  • The right people do the right things in an emergency,
  • Sailors are reassured, listened to and made to feel safe and welcome.

Reporting incidents and near misses

We learn the most as a community. Most of the time that comes about by celebrating our successes; from sharing the procedures we put in place, the assessments and judgements we make and collating learning from the testing and drills we carry out. Sometimes we get to learn from near misses and sadly but thankfully rarely we learn from those times when things do go wrong.

Sharing of information is the invaluable for imparting knowledge, influencing behaviour and controlling risk. Reporting incidents and near misses is a vital component. Being open and honest about what happens when things go wrong, helps us all to improve the culture of safety and good practice.

The RYA has detailed a number of triggers for reporting and recording accidents and incidents and there is an online form to use to make reporting straight forward.

The RYA has detailed a number of triggers for reporting and recording accidents, along with an online form to make reporting straightforward. 

People of all ages go sailing - find out more about making safety decisions that consider the person, the situation and the staff / volunteers involved.

Next: people
A systematic approach to safety

An overview of the key elements of safety systems


Providers of activity have a clear duty of care to keep those involved in the activity safe. People of all ages, with a wide range of impairments go sailing. It is important to consider the person, the situation and the staff / volunteers involved before making safety decisions.

Personal flotation

It is important to get the choice of personal flotation device right each time a person goes afloat, particularly for people who may not be able to actively participate in their own self-righting if they were to end up in the water.

Strapping and harnesses

Strapping and other equipment are used for several reasons including to maintain posture and improve control of sails and steering. Straps and harnesses can be used by a person day to day (for example, in a wheelchair) or as a specific part of sailing equipment.

Self righting boats

Self-righting means different things for different vessels. Experience shows self-righting boats can and do get ‘knocked down’ or capsize, increasing the risk of inversion and entrapment. There are known examples where through a variety of factors they have subsequently inverted, including with the keel or weighted centre board retracted.

Adaptations to boats

Any modifications that deviate from the original design specification may alter the stability characteristics of that vessel and access to the full range of controls (steering and sails).

Recovering boats

When towing vessels participants usually remain in the boat. The seating arrangements in some vessels used for disabled people, and participants’ own limited mobility, may make it harder for the crew to stay out of the way of a tow rope, particularly if multiple vessels are being towed

Recovering people

Explore equipment like slings or wet nets, the importance for having a plan for individuals who may not be able to fully help themselves and the role really good communication plays

Seating and posture

Seating and posture are important for both personal safety and the ability to take an active part in sailing.