written by Capt. Betsy
These columns were originally written for and published on a website
called "LifeJacketStore.com," which sadly has since gone out of business. The
columns deal with various aspects of safety on the water, with stories and examples taken
from our 25 years of building, living and travelling on rafts.
This is the Son of Town Hall, a sailing raft built almost entirely of scrap,
recycled materials- junk, if you like. It looks like it couldnt go anywhere, yet in
the summer of 1998, it made a historic crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean, from
Newfoundland to Ireland, in 60 days. Were these people totally nuts, incredibly lucky, or
My husband, Poppa Neutrino, and I, Capt. Betsy, who together designed, built and sailed
the Son of Town Hall, hear these kinds of comments all the time. We have been
building rafts for over 20 years. At first we built rafts that were strictly for river and
inland travel, but at a certain point we began to explore the idea of taking a raft around
We spent years designing the Son of Town Hall, thinking of every possible problem
it could encounter at sea, and figuring ways to solve those problems. We used a basic
triad of three elements for designing a vessel which would be safe at sea, yet could be
built with little or no money, using scrap and salvaged materials.
The safety triad we used was:
- It had to be unsinkable and built strong enough not to break up
- It had to stay aligned with the wind and waves in heavy weather, in order
not to broach and roll over.
- It had to be self-righting, just in case it did get flipped or rolled
Beyond these three elements, of course, there were many considerations for personal
safety, basic safety equipment, and so on. We carried on board safety equipment in excess
of what was required by both the US and Canadian Coast Guards. But before we ever
attempted to go to sea, we had to attack and solve the problems of making the raft itself
safe and seaworthy.
Making the raft unsinkable was the easiest part - a raft by definition is unsinkable,
floating because of the very nature of the materials with which it is built; unlike a
boat, which depends upon water-tight integrity in order to float. We had developed the
raft concept over the years, using all kinds of wood and floatable products such as
plastic bottles, chunks of Styrofoam, etc.
salvaged from the beaches. We also used poured polyurethane foam, which added additional
flotation, and also"glued" together all the floating chunks into one solid mass.
All this flotation was incorporated into a framing of 2x6's and skinned over with plywood.
For strength, we incorporated into the hull of this raft long, heavy logs, acting as an
internal keel, stiffening the lengthwise structure of the hull. All the construction was
heavily reinforced for strength, and each piece of the plywood in the cabin and hull was
sewn into the frames with 3/8 inch polypropylene line, borrowing from ancient traditions
in which construction was done by lashing and sewing, giving flexibility and strength.
To make the raft self-righting, we designed and built it so that the bottom contains
almost all of the weight, and the top part is very light. The combined effect of the
weight and flotation in the bottom is such that whenever the raft begins to heel over at
all, the weight works to push the side of the hull that is up, back into the water, and
the flotation being pushed under on the opposite side, acts to push that side back up - a
double fulcrum for self-righting. During the testing and redesigning phase,
we sustained a double 90 degree knockdown in 10 foot breaking surf, and the raft came back
up instantly, proving the effectiveness of this design feature.
Our biggest problem was getting the raft to steer downwind. With a flat bottom, and
drawing only 20 inches, there simply was no resistance underwater. Every time the wind
went over 15 knots, the raft would turn sideways. This obviously would not be safe at sea,
and our many attempts to solve this problem nearly drove us to despair. After literally
years of testing and redesigning, we finally solved it by installing a huge retractable
daggerboard at the stern, just ahead of the rudder. This,
together with a very small storm square sail hoisted at the bow, effectively turned the
raft downwind under all circumstances.
During the crossing we endured gale strength winds on 3 occasions, with waves up to 20',
sometimes coming from several angles, as they had been generated by different weather
systems. The raft steered itself perfectly through all of these, and gave all of us on
board a deepening sense of confidence and security. Our years of mental efforts and
insistence on solving each element ahead of time had paid off, and we succeeded in making
the North Atlantic crossing, a first ever by a raft built from scrap.
In our modern, so-called first-world society, we enjoy so many conveniences that we
have come to take for granted, from hot and cold running water and central heating and air
conditioning, to phones that we carry in our pockets, and live satellite pictures from
around the world in nearly every room of our houses or apartments. We depend upon a huge
network of inter-connected machines, and even take it personally when there is a breakdown
and temporary disruption of service.
This attitude extends into nearly every aspect of our lives; the way we drive, for
example, assuming that the brakes will always work, the transmission will never fail.
Could we stop in time, if something unexpected happened ahead of us and we step on the
brakes to no avail? And in spite of numerous studies showing that the use of seat belts
saves lives, many people still do not use them, as if accidents happen only to somebody
else. This same attitude of assuming that all will work according to specifications and
the unknown or unexpected will not infringe, is present on the water. Too many
recreational boaters simply take their vessel and its equipment and their safe passage on
the water for granted, and do not give enough thought and preparation to what could go
Every vessel has its own individual and unique safety hazards, and it is up to the owner
and operator to determine what these are and how to safeguard against them as much as
possible. For example, there may be an open stern, where a person could easily slide off
should they fall on a slippery deck. On some fishing vessels, there may be lines or nets
feeding out, which, if you were to become caught in them, could pull you right over, and
most likely, under. On many sailboats, there is a danger of being hit on the head by a
boom as it passes from one side to the other. Tania Aebi, the youngest woman to
circumnavigate solo under sail, tells a story in her book, Maiden Voyage, about a friend
who was killed leaving harbor by a blow to the head from the boom of his mainsail as it
passed across the cockpit in an accidental jibe.
All of these hazards, and many more, can be thought out and foreseen, and through
adaptations of equipment or design, and training in safe operational procedures, many of
them can be avoided.
Having built seven rafts, all from recycled scrap, and raised 5 children while living and
travelling the rivers, bays, and canals of the US, we have spent countless hours
mind-sweating the dangers of each new situation, and putting into place effective
safeguards. For example, one of our rafts had big paddlewheels on the sides, creating a
serious danger of falling in front of the turning wheel, which would, if it hit a person,
almost certainly kill him or her. For this reason, no one was permitted forward of the
position of the wheels, once the vessel was underway. When the children were small, we
created a completely enclosed deck space on each raft, where they were free to play
without the danger of falling overboard.
On the Son of Town Hall, once we had handled the basic safety features of the vessel
through design and redesign, we spent time thinking what our biggest dangers would be
during the crossing itself. We determined that our biggest hazards were being run down by
a ship, fire, and falling overboard. The fire hazard was particularly dangerous because of
the presence of the foam in the hull, which gives off toxic fumes if it catches fire. We
put into place a system of safeguards, which included double shut off valves for the
propane stove, extra fire extinguishers and fire buckets; also a checking procedure which
required that at least two crew be aware of any fire that was lit, and take responsibility
to see that it was safely put out. Candles and lanterns were replaced by battery-operated
lights, and no stove or heater was ever left unattended while lit.
We had a 24-hour watch for approaching ships. Because the vessel was self-steering under
sail, the watch keeper often did not have to sit at the helm, but was required to make a
check in all directions every 15 minutes for signs of ships. This check was made from the
safety of a large, central section of the raft, which was enclosed by shoulder-high
fencing, and open to the sky. We had on board a radar detector, which was turned on
whenever visibility was lowered by fog or precipitation, and was an enormous aid in
spotting vessels, often before they were visible to the eye. Whenever a vessel was
detected, we contacted their bridge via VHF radio, to check that they were aware of our
position and track. In almost every instance, the ships had already spotted us on their
radar and were planning evasive maneuvers if necessary. This was less true on the Grand
Banks, where almost constant fog conditions and frequent close encounters with fishing
vessels, often dragging gear, kept us on high alert, looking and listening.
Our third major danger was that of falling overboard. With only four people on board, we
stood individual watches, which meant that a person was often alone at the helm,
especially at night. We wore our lifejackets and safety harnesses at all times when on
deck or at the helm. We had double clips on our harnesses, so that we never had to unclip
in order to shift from one attachment to another, leaving ourselves momentarily vulnerable
to a sudden lurch or wave. Whether day or night, the person being relieved of watch duty
was responsible to be sure the next person was clipped in at the helm. The person on watch
never left the clipped in position to do any other maneuver without first calling a second
person out to spot them.
Some of these policies may seem excessive, even unnecessary. We have endured ridicule and
criticism from other sailors and fishermen for our extreme safety consciousness. But we
believe that anything that you are not prepared for will eventually happen, and so we take
the point of view of exhaustively mind-sweating every possibility ahead of time. We wonder
how many boating accidents every season could be avoided if everyone spent a little extra
time before venturing out onto the water, thinking and picturing the various dangers they
might encounter, and preparing for them in advance.
After being at sea for over 2 months, moving, on average, at a pace slower than I could
walk, I found the experience of riding at high speeds in a car close to terrifying. I was
also appalled to discover a fact I had failed to notice before - that many of my friends
did not even wear seat belts. Despite the fact that more people are killed on the US
highways each year than the number of Americans killed in our entire time of involvement
in the Vietnam conflict, few people consider that when they get behind the wheel or into
the passenger seat of a car, they are probably doing the most dangerous thing they will do
in the entire span of their lifetime.
The whole seat belt issue has its obvious parallel on the water in the issue of PFD use.
In port after port that we have visited in our raft travels over the years, we have
observed that few fishermen and even fewer recreational boaters, especially adults, wear
PFD's. As with seat belt use, government has stepped in, legislating safety for us: nearly
every state has laws requiring the wearing of PFD's ( and seat belts) by children - the
age limit varies.
One thing is certain: to use a PFD or not to use one is a decision that too many people
are making without rational and logical consideration, driven by some unknown, unconscious
force, and this can lead to unnecessary tragedy.
Consider the case of the shellfish warden on Martha's Vineyard, who fell overboard from
his small boat in October of 1999, and disappeared within minutes below the surface of the
water, within sight of a passing jogger, who quickly summoned help and set in motion a
huge search and rescue operation. Despite all efforts, the body was not recovered for
days. One cannot help but wonder, if he had been wearing a PFD to hold him above water and
provide some amount of protection against hypothermia, would he have lasted long enough
for help to reach him?
We on the rafts have frequently been teased or ridiculed for what others consider
excessive or paranoid behavior in our use of PFD's, safety harnesses, and other safety
rules we have instituted. Our rules about the use of PFD's, which varied according to
individual situations, took into account the conditions of weather (rough or calm; warm or
cold), presence or absence of current, and swimming ability (adults and children alike had
to demonstrate ability). On the high seas we used PFD's and safety harnesses whenever we
were on deck, no matter what the weather. The thought of the possibility of a tragic loss
of one of our crew, where there was no help available other that ourselves, was sobering
enough to humble even the most arrogant among us.
We are not totally alone in our approach. The Coast Guard requires their crews to wear
PFD's whenever they are underway. Offshore racing organizations generally have far
stricter safety equipment requirements than those of the governments of their
participants, and certainly more than the average casual sailor makes use of.
I was discussing this whole conundrum with a young friend the other day, and she admitted
that she is not in the habit of wearing a seat belt. But she wouldn't even think of not
wearing a PFD, she said. Bringing up an example from her own experience of an accident in
which a seat belt could possibly have been a detriment, she went on to say that she had
never heard of nor could she imagine a situation in which a PFD could be anything but an
I of course can see how in certain situations, especially on fishing or other work boats,
where gear and maneuverability can be a problem, a bulky PFD could be an impediment, even
a danger. But now that inflatable PFD's have been designed and tested to the point where
several models are Coast Guard approved, this should no longer be a deterrent to PFD use.
So what is at the bottom of this resistance to doing what would seem only rational and in
the interests of self-preservation? To think about what dangers confront us and to
safeguard ourselves against them seems only sensible, yet to many it would seem that such
behavior would signify weakness. Is it our unconscious connection to the Vikings and other
brave (some said fool-hardy) individuals who set out into the unknown with little or no
safety measures available to them? Do we feel that if we take advantage of those safety
devices we now have, that we are less brave, or less manly?
It is almost as if we are unwilling to believe in our own mortality. I can remember when
travelling in Mexico, I would see truck drivers climb into the driver's seat, cross
themselves, and then take off full speed, passing on blind curves and hills, totally
disregarding every thought of "defensive driving;" and shark fishermen leaving
harbor and heading offshore in their small open boats with just a single outboard motor,
no PFD's of any kind, no oars or sails for backup. These are extremes of fatalism we
Americans perhaps can look at and think, I would certainly never be so foolish. But aren't
the seat belt and PFD issues really just a lesser degree of the same type of
I would like to hear readers' opinions and comments on this issue;
however, we are finding that the majority of what is being put on our forms is ads and links to
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We will include all legitimate comments on the site.
Thanks for your input.
Date: Sat, 01 Apr 2000
i was out at goat rock beach here in northern california, being trained to be a seal watch
volunteer. on our way out to the watch site our group encountered a lifeguard, and
requested that he give us a short description of the dangers of this beach (reputed to be
the most deadly of our extended area, having had over 103 drownings). i bring this up to
point out that this obviously experienced and quite masculine guardian of lives, brought
out his recently purchased PFD and swore to us all that he wouldn't consider going in to
save someone without having it on. if lifeguards are catching on - shouldn't the rest of
Date: Thu, 04 May 2000
It's simple: no one has designed a really comfortable and attractive PFD yet. They all
either feel like you're wearing a deflated
innertube or look like you just walked off a UFO. Float coats aren't too bad, but are
unsuitable when the temps hit 95 and up (like on the East Coast in July). The new auto
inflatables aren't bad, but they are expensive and not really well suited for recreational
boating, where part of the fun is being able to jump in the water spontaneously. (I've
spent more time in the
water fully clothed than with a bathing suit on.)
In spite of their problems, I do wear a PFD anytime I feel insecure: at night, in bad
weather, etc. But the PFD manufacturers need to work on designing really comfortable
equipment that doesn't look too dorky. When they do, I'll buy it -- and wear it.
Just my .02 worth.
Date: Saturday, December 30, 2000
To wear or not to wear a PFD/seatbelt is a matter that should be left strictly up to a
given individual. It is certainly not something that should be decided by government.
However, should a person choose not to use safety equipment, there should be no crying
when they bite it. If a person not wearing safety equipment puts others at risk, they
should definately use whatever is available. Children should be forced to wear safety gear
until they are old enough to make an educated decision. As in many other things in life,
when anyone makes a decision they must be prepared to suffer the full consequences without
whinning. I admire your adventures, and wish you fair winds.
Date: Sunday, January 14, 2001
Sunday, January 14, 2001 Hello to the Floating Neutrinos. I read the great entertaining
article by Chris Mapp in the Dolphin Talk News about your overnight docking stay in Port
O'Connor, TX. I congratulate you on your incredible achievements of building and sailing
entirely scrap raft vessels that are seaworthy safe. I commend you for your
obsessive-compulsive safety precautions. I and many others definitely agree that everyone
should wear a PFD lifejacket on a boat and everyone should wear a seat belt in a motor
vehicle. Years of research statistics, seeing or hearing about friends and people lost in
accidents, and just plain common sense support these facts. Unfortunately, many of us are
just too lazy or too hardheaded to do the right thing. Accidents can happen to anyone and
usually at the most unexpected time; therefore, routine wearing of a PFD when on the water
and a seat belt when on the road will increase your chance of survival. I wish many more
years of good luck and safe sailing to the crew of the Vilma B. and to all the boaters and
the sailors of the bay and the sea. Sean K. O'Sullivan, MD (Radiologist in Victoria, TX
and frequent fisherman of Port O'Connor, TX)
- Monday, July 15, 2002
"It had to be unsinkable and built strong enough not to break up "
Unsinkable? Have you heard of the Titanic?
- Saturday, December 14, 2002
Good Luck Captain..!! I admire your sense of adventure !! M.De Cuba
- Tuesday, July 15, 2003
i always wear a PFD...one of those inflatable CO2 fanny pack types. if i hit my head on
the way to the water, i'll be in trouble as it's a manual release model. but for me it's a
good compromise as the regular PFD's are a pain. since i am almost always sailing
singlehanded, i not always sure why i'm wearing a PFD as i'm cooked either way if i go
overboard while the selfsteering is engaged....i guess it'd give me a few extra hours of
quiet reflection :). (oh, yes, and my puppy always wears her PFD, too.) much peace. v. joe
- Monday, August 18, 2003
Safety habits, like most learned rote activities, are most effective when they become
unconcious actions. My experience with sailing, flying and climbing has taught me that one
does well to adopt certain habits if staying alive is a priority. On a blue water cruise,
clipping in and donning PFDs are simply good habits. There are certainly occassions when I
have not put on a PFD, or behaved in other unsafe ways. I am not always rational about
safety: sometimes looking danger in the eye is simply too appealing. But adopting good
habits has kept me alive far longer than otherwise. As for your rules on your vessel.
Every captain for whom I have crewed has had a certain set of rules, always focused on the
safety of the vessel and the crew. There are vessels I have refused to crew aboard because
the captain was clearly unsafe. I think your approach makes good sense for blue water
- Thursday, September 30, 2004
The problem with most life vests is that they are designed for emergency use. They are designed to keep you afloat and breathing even if unconscious. Thus they are bulky and uncomfortable.
However, there is another type of PFD that is designed for mobility. It is a compromise, if you are unconscious or immobalized it will not save you. But it is designed for active people such as water skiers. I have always worn one while kyaking and find it to be quite comfortable. It also looks fairly nice, no harsh orange. I even wear it like a jacket while beach hiking. It is vented such that it is not too hot for summer wear.
I have really enjoyed poking around your site! And reading your adventures, Very Inspiring! I have often thought to build a raft but was never sure how to approach it. Perhaps now I shall.
In a large anchorage between islands, not far from a large Florida metropolis, a 3 year
old girl is rowing about among the anchored boats, alone, and without a PFD. She does not
know how to swim.
Along the quay in a Mediterranean port, where the many sailboats are moored end-on to
the sea wall, two small children, about 4 and 6 years old, without PFD's, are jumping back
and forth from a boat to the shore. There is not an adult in sight, although voices can be
heard from below decks.
In another part of the same harbor, a large group of children aged 6-10, all wearing
PFD's, sit in individual small sailing dinghys, being towed in a long train from shore out
to their practice area by their instructors, who are in a little outboard runabout. One
counselor steers the boat while another is monitoring the children behind, and correcting
their behavior under tow.
A toddler, wearing a PFD, runs and crawls freely about the deck of a sailing vessel
underway, under the watchful eye of her father, while her mother handles the helm. The
lifelines have been netted to the deck, providing a safe space for the child to explore
without danger of falling overboard.
These various scenes illustrate the enormous range of ways in which we handle children
around the water. I have known couples with young children who own large, beautiful
sailboats, capable of world cruising, and consider travelling onboard as one of their
deepest desires, yet do not venture out because their children are small. At the same
time, I've also known whole families, including babies and teenagers, who live and travel
on the water full time. Those who do it successfully have managed to think through and
safeguard against the possible dangers, and certainly it can be done.
What is to be gained, for parents and children alike, is enormous - fresh air, physical
movement, the open spaces of the seas and waterways, away from the confinements of city
life in particular. There are big psychological gains for children from learning how to
take part in various aspects of running a boat, as their age and abilities dictate,
building competency and self esteem. Boating, sailing, and cruising are activities that
the whole family can enjoy together and be involved with actively, making a successful
joint effort to accomplish a real adventure. It is in this kind of shared experience that
children learn the most about our life values and beliefs.
The French, with their numerous sailing schools for children, seem almost as though
they have a national goal that all children know how to sail a boat before they grow up.
Not a bad idea, actually, when you consider the benefits for the child. Even if they never
sail again, the experience itself has put into them the ability to discern and analyze a
diverse and constantly changing group of elements, and respond in motion so as to achieve
We raised 5 kids, a good deal of the time living and travelling on rafts. Swimming
lessons from the earliest age were the general rule. This was harder in a northern climate
than in the south, where we were in the water every day. PFD's were worn at all times when
outside of the cabin area, whether underway or at anchor, until each child had
demonstrated sufficient swimming ability to jump in over their head, come up, tread water
for several minutes, then swim the length of the boat twice, before taking hold of any
support. Even then, if the weather or water temperature were cold, if it was rough out, or
if we were in a river or tidal current, not only the children but all adults on board wore
PFD'S on deck and in the dinghy. Even if an adult could handle a spill into the water,
would they be able to save a child as well, without a PFD? Probably not. Our basic motto
was, if it can happen, eventually it probably will, so be prepared at all times.
When we had toddlers on board, we built a netted play area on deck in which the netting
was higher than their standing height, and they could not climb up it. Even so, one person
kept an eye on them at all times. As they got older, there was the buddy system, as well
as special rules onboard and at docks, e.g. no running, notify an adult of your location
(going on deck,etc.), etc.
All became competent crew members, gaining new responsibilities as their abilities
grew, and learning -by -doing through the solving of innumerable practical problems, small
and large. Although none of our children are with us on the rafts at the present time
(having grown up and launched their own life ventures), they each have a deep sense of
their ability to meet life challenges head on and find creative ways to reach their goals.
Our present plan of building an orphanage raft for street children from third world
countries has as part of its foundation our family's experiences of life together living
and travelling and learning on the water, building and growing together day to day. We
know first hand the incomparable capacity for healing, learning and growing which exists
on the water.