Why Boat Yard Safety is so Important

April 6th, 2024 by team

by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor)

It’s that time of year again, when everyone in the temperate zones is scrambling to get their boats in the water. By April, the most hard core folks are already out there boating in their foulies, but for the rest of us aiming for Memorial Day, it’s commissioning season. And with commissioning season comes boat yard accident season.

Boat yards can be dangerous places, and working on boats on the hard gives you a lot of accident opportunities. From minor things like scrapes and bruises to major incidents like falls from ladders, who can honestly say they’ve escaped every commissioning system without a cut, scrape, or bruise?

So let’s take a moment to talk about the risks, and a few simple steps you can make to make sure you AND the boat make it into the water on time.

Fear of Heights

A boat out of the water, even a small power boat on a trailer, is usually high enough to cause an injury if you fall off it. So it’s always a good idea to be mindful and move slowly.

Getting on and off

This is the riskiest area for many people. It’s where you have awkward motions, like putting legs over lifelines or scrambling over the railing. It’s not like climbing on the boat in the water, where you’re stepping across or slightly up – the boat is set up ergonomically for that. You maybe be climbing up on a trailer then climbing over the transom or something quite unnatural compared to how you board regularly.

It’s a good practice to have a set way to get on the boat, with secure steps or a ladder. And you can add a few loops of line for handholds if they aren’t convenient. Door placement in shrinkwrap covers is key, so make sure the door opens some place clear and easy to climb into.

Ladder Safety

A sailboat with a seven-foot draft and four feet of freeboard can lead you to a drop of 12-15 feet if you fall. You’ll need a ladder with enough reach to get you on board, and you need to secure it so it stays put once you’re up there. Backing over cap rail or side onto a ladder you can’t see makes for easy accidents.

A few quick tips:

  • Make sure your ladder is tall enough. It should stick a few feet past the deck, so you can hold on to it, tie it off, and climb high enough to make the step off easily.
  • Once you’ve gone up the ladder the first time, tie it off to a stanchion or other fixed point on the boat so it doesn’t slip. It’s an embarrassing nuisance if it falls and you’re stuck on the boat, but it’s a hazard if it falls when you’re on it!
  • See “proper footwear.” Sturdy shoes are safer.
  • Check the angle of the ladder, it should be about 75°. Too steep is unstable, too shallow can stress the ladder and lower its load capacity. The bottom should be about one foot out for every four feet you’re going up.
  • Plant the feet on solid, level ground. This can be tricky in yards with gravel or broken up surfaces. There should be no rocking or motion, and the ladder should stand straight up and down.

Shocking Issues

Recommissioning almost always requires power tools. If cordless tools don’t meet your needs, you’ll have to get power from somewhere in the yard. And that can be tricky if plugs aren’t close to your work area.

  • If you’re running a set of extension cords across the yard, make sure they’re large enough gauge. Avoid running high power devices through multiple small end-to-end cords. The longer the cord, the more resistance. Small diameter cords may overheat if you draw too much power through too many of them plugged together, and if power in your yard isn’t convenient, a really long high gauge extension cord may be an excellent investment.
  • There’s a lot of water use in yards, so watch for puddles and spray zones when you plug in and route your cords. You don’t want to plug two cords together, then drop the joint in a puddle.
  • Don’t make your power cords a tripping hazard for others.
  • Check your equipment for wear, abrasion, and damage before you plug things together.
  • If you’re plugging your boat into shore power, don’t forget she’s not in the water. You want nothing to come on that shouldn’t, so switch everything off before you plug in and only turn on what you need.

Proper Footwear

There are many tripping opportunities in a yard, and loads of sharp things to step on or kick. Couple that with all the puddles from spray and work and ladders, you’ve got a recipe for accidents. But nobody wants big, chonky steel-toed work boots clomping all over the deck or the teak-and-holly sole down below.

You should have sturdy, water-repellent shoes for working under the boat and walking through the yard. Bring a pair of light deck shoes or sneakers with a good non-marking tread for working on board. Carry them to the boat and leave them on deck. You can change at the top of the ladder. Not only is this safer, but it will keep you from picking up crud on your light shoes and tracking it all over the boat.

Situational Unawareness

Moving cars and trucks, travel lifts, and other yard equipment are all hazards you have to watch for. But you’ve also got a lot of overhanging bits from boats – like rudders and propellers – that will give you a nasty bump in the head if they’re just out of your line of sight. And boat stands and chains? Ouch, they’re easier to bark a shin or other body part on than you think.

Most of the moving yard equipment has warning beeps to let you know they’re coming. But if you’re walking around with music playing in your headset, you may not hear it. So play all the music you want working under, around, and in your boat. But hit pause when you walk to the yard store or the head so you don’t get blindsided.

And don’t walk through the yard with your eyes on your phone!

Have a Glance at the MSDS

An MSDS is a “Materials Safety Data Sheet,” which contains information on all the potential safety and health hazards of that can or bottle you’re about to open. OSHA requires all the nasty chemicals you use on your boat come with an MSDS, and it’s not a bad idea to know just what you’re getting into.

Like the mumbled, high-speed disclosures at the end of pharmaceutical ads on TV, there’s a lot of scary sounding information. And not all of it will happen to you if you abuse the product once. MSDS information primarily targets professionals who use the stuff regularly at work. But it’s not a bad idea to know if you shouldn’t get something on your skin or in your eyes, what the basic treatments are if you drip some somewhere you shouldn’t, and if it’s a risk to catch on fire or explode.

It’s just never a bad idea to know exactly what you’re working with, because some familiar everyday products may have risks you never knew about.

Finally, wear your darned PPE!

Most protective gear is, for the lack of a better word, miserable. The Tyvek oompa-loompa suits get hot and bind, and they rip easily. Positive pressure face masks and filters are unpleasant, and gloves make you fumble fingered and clumsy. It’s very tempting to just do the job and figure you can wash up later, or you just won’t breathe it in.

But remember that MSDS? Getting a boat ready for the water usually uses a lot of nasty compounds, and you don’t want many of them on your skin, or in your eyes, lungs or anywhere else.

The worst areas are bottom paint jobs, but many solvents and other liquids can have pretty harsh fumes and need lots of ventilation and a filter. Even if what you’re dealing with isn’t all that hazardous, it’s often messy. And protective gear not only keeps you safe, it can make getting yourself cleaned up easier.

Let’s Be Careful Out There

Though it was a lot of work, I always enjoy boat commissioning season. Because that means that the sailing season is coming. And no one wants to start the sailing and boating season in a cast or a sling. So take care, watch out for your yard neighbors, and go get that boat looking pretty for the season.

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