Safety has been a theme in seafaring to varying degrees throughout the centuries. The traditional definition of good seamanship is “a safe and timely arrival.”
Of course, since the creation of OSHA and the safety convention created when the Titanic sank, safety is more regulated than those early years. A hundred years ago, sailors could go aloft without harnesses or safety lines—the thought may have been that if you’re stupid enough to let go of your grip, natural selection would take its course.
Now everything is regulated. When beginning work for Western Towboat last summer, I sat through ten to 12 hours of training videos and documents: OSHA videos about safety in the workplace, videos about barges, videos about cargo and videos about line handling.
Your average recreational boater never deals with forces that put him in grave danger—and if he does, he’s usually too green to notice. But mariners on vessels large and small handle equipment and cargo that is waiting for an opportunity to dismember and maim, and sometimes kill.
When a ship puts lines out to the dock or to a tugboat, it isn’t your Hinckley’s little half-inch silk rope. It’s an enormous nylon or Dacron (plastic-based) rope two or three inches in diameter, and when it stretches it shrinks to half that.
Recall again what I said once about the force of current on a ship: just 1 knot of current creates many tons of force. Wind creates even more force than current. Imagine a 16,000-ton ship—about the size of a U.S. destroyer—pulling against a nylon dock line. If the line broke, or “parted” as we say, the tension would be released with enough force to throw your family car in the air. The sound would be a deafening bang, and the line would fly back on itself.
Now, if a car were thrown at you and you didn’t move, it would obviously crush you. A two-inch nylon line won’t do that. It will simply keep going through you if it hits you. So the emphasis for deck crew handling lines is to stay out of the “bight,” which is any place of danger if the line parted. It requires constant risk assessment, and any deckhand or mate walking around near lines must always look around to be sure nothing is going to decapitate him.
The danger is just as great when physically handling the lines.
Not only is the snap-back from “parting” a danger, but sudden tightening or pinching is hazardous, too. If a line is tied to two points, but it’s lying slack on the deck, someone might carelessly stand near it.
When it suddenly comes under tension, it could grab the poor sailor by the ankles and flip him mercilessly upside-down on the steel deck. If a line handler is putting a line around a deck fitting to tie it off, he or she must keep hands and fingers on the outside of the bight.
With 16,000 tons of force pulling the other way, all the calcium in the world isn’t going to save your bones.
It sounds frightening enough that some might regard seafaring as a ludicrous profession. After all, the job requires people to get close to the lines and deliberately place more tension on them.
You have to trust the mate in charge, too, because unlike your 30-foot boat, you can’t see the whole picture. If the mate tells you to hold the line, or to let it out, or to haul in, you must do it.
It’s a job with risks, but if you keep your wits about you, you shouldn’t get in trouble. The dangers of seafaring are to be respected, but not feared. After all, the heights might be dangerous, but nobody’s stupid enough to let go—right?
Benjamin Stevens of Islesford is a student at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.