A good story should start like Def Leppard’s 1987 album Hysteria, where the first song, “Women,” just drops into blazing chords making you think maybe you missed something. No progression, just round sound. Joe Elliot’s vocals shame today’s auto-tuned crooners.

I ate another Quarter Pounder. We’d bought a bag of them and considered us provisioned. The grease was cold and hard. We were moving a Tartan up to Newport from a Connecticut harbor just commutable to Wall Street. It was February and it’d seemed like fun idea. We were doing a horizon-job on everybody who wasn’t there. The morning came with a bruised sky and big banging spray that had me nearly get us racked up inside Whale Rock outside Narragansett Bay. Cold burgers, cold water and tired eyes aren’t a great recipe for safe sailing. Years later, I’d read William F. Buckley used to like to haul tail out of his winter slip in Stamford, Connecticut and blitz up and down the icy Sound. A better man than I am, Gunga Din!

With winter waters, it’s best you prepare. The place to start is with your insurance policy. I’ve prattled on in the past about piss-poor marine insurers and it’s worth remembering my proselytizing. A marine policy isn’t anything like your auto insurance. If you want to sail in the winter, read your insurance policy and make sure there’s no “lay-up” provision. A “lay-up” provision is one of the little coverage exceptions included gratis in marine insurance policies. This provision usually reads that you’ll lay-up up your vessel during a certain period of time, meaning there’s usually no insurance coverage for being underway if something happens during the time your sailing steed was supposed to be swaddled in bed linens. Sometimes, “lay-up” is defined to mean “decommission” or even “hauled from the water” and other times the language doesn’t have a definition in the policy. Either way, it’s hard to argue your vessel is “laid-up” when you were out with your buddies on the Bay on a forty-degree day in January.

What would worry me about sailing during a “lay-up” period is that if someone got injured or I landed my keel atop a ledge, I might not have any insurance coverage. And remember, in my experience 75% of the benefit of marine insurance (or, for that matter, really any insurance) is the fact that the insurer will pay for an attorney to defend you. So often people analyze insurance issues from the perspective of risk without considering that even the crappiest claim still needs to be defended and that’s where having an attorney appointed and paid for by an insurer is worth many times the premium you paid.

Parts of Maine and northward, and parts way south in places like the Berry Islands, offer what I call “combat sailing.” They’re no harbormasters or towing companies ready to assist. If you run aground, take on water or are dripping that rich-looking arterial blood all over the place, it’s you alone figuring your way out of the situation. These big box boating stores have commercialized sailing into a spiffy spectacle of pressed shorts, gadgets galore and the sense that sailing is as merchandisable as golfing. I’m not so sure, making it wise (like us maritime litigators do in prepping for trial) to consider how you’ll unwind yourself from a bad situation.

It’s a small example, but when I bought my 11-year-old a 13-foot Whaler last year, I also bought a pair of cheap wooden oars. As the Whaler has a bow rail, she and I fastened up some rope eyelets and snaked the oars under the rail. It’ll row pretty decently – not like a racing shell or a dory – but good enough. Okay, you wouldn’t want to row a Whaler by choice, but sitting at the bow you can get a good pull on the oars and move her right along. The oars would get you to a friendly shoreline or away from an ugly one, as the case may be. As a kid I was messing around in boats from the coves of Maine to Bahamian shallows and my khaki-wearing elders didn’t need to stress much that the starkness of those locations meant you’d have better thought about things before you “shoved off.”

It’s that kind of consideration you should practice if you’re dabbling in winter waters. Think ahead and consider how you’d handle this situation or that. Do you have bolt-cutters aboard in case you drop the rig over the side? Most times in my experience the rig will go over clean and then chew up the hull because you can’t get clear of it. How about your engine? Are you motoring out of a harbor you’ve never tried getting back into under sail? Have you practiced dropping an anchor while under sail? You get the idea.

The maritime law’s idea of a vessel being “seaworthy” can embrace a lot of different situations. An incompetent crew, missing equipment, or the bits and pieces that fail because of a lack of preventative maintenance, may render a vessel unseaworthy. If you’re going to venture onto winter waters, give some thought to whether your vessel is “seaworthy.”

And then after all this preaching about preparation, I can’t shake the quote attributed to Mike Tyson about how everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face! Yeah, true enough, but I still say you’re better off with a plan.

Here’s to a 2019 full of cheer, good sailing, and shot or two of luck!

This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon, but feel free to use any of the maritime expressions I’ve shared in this column! Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.

Underway and making way.

John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or john@saltwaterlaw.com, or visit his website at saltwaterlaw.com

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