It is a simple enough question, and every sailor has either asked or heard it in conversation. And it invariably comes up as one expands his or her experience sailing. And that is not surprising.

In the context of the question, it seems natural for anyone asking it to want to load the dice in their favor. All things considered, a new sailor, building on the basics, would want to go down whatever path is safest to help them in spite of their mistakes or misjudgments.

But what does “safe” even mean when comparing sailboat designs, styles, or models? A standard definition defines “safe” as being protected from danger and not exposed to risk that could cause harm. To be safe is to minimize (or eliminate) any significant risk of serious harm or damage to oneself and sailboat. It is as simple as that.

Or is it?

John A. Shedd was an American author who lived in the early 20th Century. In 1928, he wrote a collection of sayings and quotes that included the timeless classic that remains every bit as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

As true as that may be, it is not much help to someone looking to go out on the water to travel under a full spread of sail, for an afternoon…or a lifetime. A sailboat may be cozy and content alongside a pier, but that is not its reason to exist. A sailboat needs to be able to venture out and go as far and as long as its skipper chooses, despite what may come. And that explains the adventure of sailing for many people. It is an adventure where one relies on the balance of skill, experience, and boat design against all odds.

tartan sailboat safely cruising

Ask any group of sailors what they consider as the safest sailboat and they will unanimously stare at you, as they fully expect you to complete the question. Okay, what size boat? Is it a daysailer? A racing sailboat? A boat to go offshore or on extended cruises? There are so many different kinds of boats, so many designs, and specific roles in the sailing world. How can one ask such a basic question without being more definitive as to its role on the playing field?

Unfortunately, too many people rely on what they read online for simple answers to what are not simple questions. And what is remarkably consistent in the maelstrom of social media searches are the sophomoric responses that only add to the lack of clarity.

The popular answer offered by these online resources is that, of course, a catamaran is the safest sailboat. Why would you even think anything more about it? A catamaran has no heavy keel to pull the boat under the water. A holed cat, while it may sit low in the water, is still a safe and stable platform for survival, until someone can come rescue the crew.

Think about that for a minute. With its bridgedeck awash, the cat becomes a submerged square raft, unable to do much beyond drift. Please come save me. Does that fit your definition of “safe?”

A catamaran is a remarkable sailing vessel, with many positive attributes that make it a popular choice today. And yes, it does not have a heavy keel for stability. However, when the winds build to overpower the main and headsails, the crew must have their wits about them to shorten sail before it becomes a problem. The cat does not heel over to indicate when there is too much sail up. One must rely on wind instruments to know when to reef (although with experience a cat sailor will sense when the boat is overpowered).

Another benefit of some modern multihulls is their ability to outrun a nasty weather system. Inshore or coastal sailing does not represent a problem for those on a catamaran. Simply boogie into shore and the nearest anchorage or marina.

sailing catamaran getting to shore 

Positive floatation makes most of today’s daysailers quite safe in much the same way as the catamaran, although many of these daysailers can be bailed if swamped, and them sailed back to safety. If the hull is breached, even a swamped daysailer is going to be within relative ease of shoreside assistance if the crew cannot self-rescue.

And what about the dozens of other scenarios that create situations that test the “safety” of a sailboat?

One can make a very strong argument that the safest sailboat is one that has been made safe and can remain so despite whatever comes its way. And this is not necessarily a specific design or type of sailboat, but rather the materials and construction methods used during production.

What about severe groundings, navigation errors, collisions, electrical failures that lead to fire, engine and equipment fires, loss of rig, catastrophic gear failure, in addition to flooding? If we’re going to list them all, what about icebergs, orca attacking rudders, submerged containers, storms, piracy, mutiny, rogue waves, running out of water…or cookies? Seriously, there are all kinds of situations that make for an unsafe situation, not just having water in the boat.

A strong case can be made that staying safe may be more about attitude than any other factor or design element. Choosing a boat hull that is constructed to modern classification will result in a nearly bulletproof hull that is very unlikely to be compromised. Having a boat with a superbly designed hull shape and constructed to the strictest building practices will do more to make the boat safe than most anything else. But it does not stop there.

Outfitting the boat with safety in mind is a critical mindset. Locating the least number of thruhulls in the most accessible and strategic places is high on the list, something most builders do not care about. But the experienced sailor will make that a high priority, and not bury these important valves under lockers filled with lines and gear.

Intentionally keeping weight out of both ends of a monohull is very important in rough weather and makes a difference in boat speed and motion.

Look at the common causes of electrical fires on sailboats, and one can find areas of concern to ensure these situations don’t develop. Seawater that can drain onto running alternators comes to mind, as are electronics and electrical devices not well protected.

A sound and strong rig is vital, of course, and one must decide between technology and traditional, simple sail handling systems. Keeping it simple made all the difference in keeping 80-year-old Jeanne Socrates safe aboard her Najad 380 during her circumnavigation. As an added bonus, she routinely arrived in the next port without a list of needed repairs. Her gear was strong and simple and just worked. She arrived ready to shove off again once she restocked the Marmite and refilled the water tanks. Hers is a model mindset for safe offshore sailing.

jeanne socrates sailboat

One can argue that a steel hull is best and safest, while others may vote for aluminum or fiberglass as the material of choice. All are valid, although a steel sailboat is not likely to be capable of the 200-mile days that many find so desirable when it comes to avoiding bad weather.

Staying safe close to shore is a separate concern. Serious anchoring ground tackle is way more important than most any other criteria of hull shape or design. And a well-designed propulsion system, likely a reliable diesel engine that has outstanding access to it and its fuel system, will be critical. This is true whether it is a traditional drive setup or the latest saildrive.

An experienced sailor with a keen interest in having the safest sailboat will often follow the simpler route in all things related to the boat and how to operate it safely. Keeping it simple becomes a mantra for sailing. (The crew on a sailboat with complicated comfort systems may rush into port to get things fixed when these systems fail. And sometimes take unnecessary risks.)

It bears repeating. The safest sailboat is one that has been made safe and is able to remain so despite whatever comes its way. Acclaimed naval architect Ed Monk once said the smallest sailboat that he calculated would survive an encounter with a rogue wave at sea would be 83 feet long. That is a bit longer than most have the budget for but is yet another valid consideration of the safety question.

But size is never the only factor. Did you know that the hurricane heralded as the “The Perfect Storm” involved a tiny Westsail 28 named Satori? The small, sturdily built double ender was abandoned when the Coast Guard rescued the crew against the skipper’s wishes. The three people recovered onshore from their ordeal off the Carolinas. But the Westsail continued to bob happily like a cork without crew, likely rolled several times by what must have been horrific waves. She was found days later, drifting comfortably, ready to continue her journey down to the Caribbean.

(Below: A screenshot of the actual Coast Guard video showing the rescue of the Satori crew.)

satori sailboat from perfect storm

A 10-year-old budding sailor will stay safe while pushing to find her limitations on a small, unsinkable Optimist sailing dinghy. With over 150,000 sailing around the world, its design with flotation bags makes it an ideal sailboat to hone sailing skills in the protected waters where most fleets operate. Many sailors have fond memories of their time in an Opti.

Safety involves choices, proper mindset, and selecting a sailboat that can be made safe. So, the answer to the question of “what is the safest sailboat?” becomes a very worthy pursuit for anyone who can see beyond the attractive exterior of a sailboat sitting at the dock. And can imagine how they might deal with the things that might threaten its safety.

Every sailboat would benefit from such an analysis.


Enjoy these other sailboat related articles: