Safety at Sea

The concept of safety at sea is a complex one. I don’t really have any experience with seagoing safety as I’ve never been off the Great Lakes. I have no experience especially when compared with others who both live on board and have sailed away. Nevertheless, I would like to add my 2 cents worth. I read a about a great concept ….

John Vigor’s Invisible Black Box.

This is taken from John’s book called The Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat – A Guide to Essential Features, Gear, and Handling. I have written this out word for word because I think the idea is so important. However, if John or anyone associated with his book reads this and feels that it is a violation of some copyright law, please contact me and I will rewrite it or remove it.

“Vigor’s Black Box Theory states that there is an invisible Black Box aboard every boat. Whenever you take the trouble to consult the chart, inspect the diesel filters, go forward on a cold and rainy night to check the running lights, or take any other seamanlike precaution, you earn a point that goes into the Black Box.

When things start to go wrong in bad weather, when you get to the stage where you can accomplish nothing more through your own skill and physical effort, the points are cashed in as protection. You don’t have any control over their withdrawal: They withdraw themselves, as appropriate.

If you have no points in the Black Box, you will suffer the fate the sea decides. You may be one of those later described as unlucky.

If you have sufficient points to spend, you’ll survive the storm – but you’ll have to begin replenishing your savings immediately because the sea offers no credit.

Your initial deposit in the Black Box is the result of thinking about safety before you ever go to sea. More points come when you actually acquire some safety equipment, and even more when you learn how to operate it under emergency conditions. After that, it’s a question of listening to your conscience telling you to get on with those necessary little acts of seamanship, and continually topping up your balance.

Your Black Box is probably the most valuable safety aid you can own. If you’ve only just discovered you’ve got one, don’t hesitate. Start filling it with points straight away.”

Safety at sea is about preparation. The more you prepare for any and all eventualities that might occur, the better you will be able to weather and withstand them.

In some future post, I will break down some of the things that I have done or plan to do to fill my Black Box.


  • C. Alexander Leigh

    While I have not heard the black-box analogy before, the idea that systemic failure is the accumulation of small risks to a critical point rather than the result of a single large factor is common in human factors and survival.

    What the black-box theory glosses over is the distinction between objective and subjective risks; it understands that both type of risk count against you, but these risks come from different places and are mitigated in different ways. Parties confusing the two have caused plenty of disaster over the years.

    It’s always better to successfully mitigate every risk ahead of time and not get into trouble; but I am totally unqualified to tell you how to do that on a sailboat (my experience is in the back-country and in engineering and business).

    I will suggest another facet, though. When you do cash out of that black-box and something does go wrong, another (and the most important) factor comes into direct play: you. What you do and how you do it in the face of a volatile situation is key to your survival, and those who look to you as a leader. As an introduction into these concepts, I recommend “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales.

  • Strathy

    Thanks for the comment. Working on the ‘you’ would certainly add credits to your black box. For instance taking a first aid course. Not only would it give you knowledge on how to deal with a specific emergency but it would hopefully present you with emergency scenarios which will help prepare you mentally for when an actual emergency arises. I suppose we can never know how we will react when we find ourselves in a real emergency situation, but hopefully the training (mental and physical) will take over.

    Thanks for the recommendation to “Deep Survival”. I will read it.

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