FIRE THE EDITOR!
Last month I put it to the readers about editorial responsibility, whether it’s incumbent upon sailing magazine editors (this one in particular) to not publish images that show sailors not wearing PFDs. I know that editors regularly get called out on this by readers. I shared a personal example of when Cruising World editors were called out for publishing a photo of my daughter underway, no PFD in sight. I hinted at my own personal bias on this topic.
We got a lot of mail, nearly all of it impassioned. One reader, clearly aware of my bias wrote, “You should know better and it is shameful that you would use a photo of your daughter in an unsafe situation in this discussion…you are free to be as ignorantly irresponsible and unsafe at sea [as you wish], but it is your boss’s responsibility to fire you. When your boss does that I will renew.”
I received too many responses to get everyone’s voice heard, there’s just not enough space (and I’m going to take up a bunch). But rest assured I read and considered each one carefully and I appreciate everyone who took the time to respond. Some letters were particularly thoughtful.
In summary, 85% of readers made it clear they did not want me to consider images for publication on the basis of whether a sailor is depicted wearing a PFD. 15% of readers made it very clear that change starts with influencers and I should absolutely refrain from publishing any photo that shows a sailor not wearing a PFD.
Reader Marty Chafkin presented a third option. “…We all need to say something when we see something. For far too long, we have let bad things happen to others, because we were afraid to speak up or just didn’t want to be bothered. Hopefully, that day is in the past…I think…editors [need to] say something. If you have a wonderful photo…that is not perfect in every way, then say so, [in] the photo credits…such as, ‘We regret that the person shown is not wearing a PFD. We strongly urge all our readers to wear protective gear when aboard.’ You are the editor. That makes you the responsible party…I’m hoping for a safer world where I don’t have to read about people drowning who might have been saved with only a bit of damage to their pride (or about people being harassed because they lacked the power to defend themselves).”
I appreciate Marty’s thoughts, but if I believe that PFDs are not always necessary, that the time to use them should depend on circumstances and said circumstances can only be evaluated by the captains and parents and individuals who are aboard when the picture is taken, how can I look at a photo on my computer, so far removed from the time and place, and make a judgment that means anything?
Take the photo of my daughter I offered before and am sharing here again. Several readers chastised me for not having her in a PFD. I don’t think the photo alone provides enough information for anyone to make that decision. The boat has been her home for 7 years, from ages 7 to 14. She knows the vessel and how it moves. We were sailing very slowly into a bay of calm, protected waters. The water temperature was 80 degrees. Land was a very short swim away, on both sides of the boat. She’s a strong swimmer. Her butt was behind the 5-inch gunwale and her torso was behind the lower lifeline. (I’ll add that she knows the circumstances in which her folks require her to wear a PFD, and the circumstances that require her to be tethered — and she’ll don one or both any time we say the word.)
If I advocated a world in which PFDs were required to be worn all the time that someone is aboard a boat (which is the stance several readers took), then it would be easy to decide either not to publish photos of non-PFD-wearing sailors or to note in the credits that the sailor was wrong not to have been wearing one. But I don’t advocate mandatory PFD use, not even for infants…
Yes, not even for infants. I know several cruising families with infants aboard, or who’ve raised infants aboard. Are their babies supposed to go to sleep at night with a PFD on? Wear one while getting bathed in the cockpit at anchor? Of course not.
To address the 15% who argued that change begins with influencers, I would just make the same point. I don’t believe PFDs should be worn 100% of the time, so I’m not trying to influence that outcome. And really, it’s not my role to create a world, it’s my job to reflect the world we live in, as accurately as possible.
I don’t want to name the boat or family, but one reader asked me to look up their tragedy before I expressed my opinion here. In short, tied to a marina dock, the family lost their 5-year-old daughter one night after she slipped unnoticed out of the cabin, into the cockpit, and onto the dock before falling in. I didn’t have to look it up because I knew the family. Their heartbreak occurred about a month before I took the picture of my daughter on the rail.
There’s no question PFDs are one essential safety tool in a lot of sailing circumstances (and near-the-water circumstances), but not in all sailing circumstances. (Do they offer any value to a singlehander in the Southern Ocean?)
Boating writer Bill Schanen wrote this in Sailing magazine six years ago: “Fixation on PFDs oversimplifies safe sailing. PFDs are but one small factor in a safety-at-sea equation that includes sailing skills, sound judgment, weather information, and seaworthiness of boats. You can add luck to that list if you want.”
PFDs should be worn whenever they’re deemed appropriate by a captain, parent, or individual. As a reader, I encourage you to pass judgment on any photo we publish. As an editor, I evaluate a lot of criteria, but it’s hard to imagine PFD use being part of my calculus.
Before I share excerpts from select letters, I’ll leave you with a joke shared among cruising families:
“Dad, why do I have to wear a life vest aboard?”
“To keep you safe in case you fall in the water.”
“Can I go swimming?”
“Yeah, take off your life vest first.”
And now a few excerpts from your emails…
I think that it is required that everyone 12 years of age and younger wear a PFD, so yes, it is irresponsible for magazine editors to publish such photos and therefore condone the practice of not wearing one. Drowning is, after all, the number one cause of death from boating accidents.
– Chris Jones
Editor note: Most states have laws requiring children under a certain age to wear a PFD when aboard. Some of those laws include exceptions for children in an enclosed cabin or for when the boat is not underway. For states that do not have any law governing PFD use, the USCG mandates children under 13 wear a PFD on a moving boat.
I don’t need to live in a world of perfectly shaped images. I know how and when to put on a PFD and so do my kids. Publish the usual variety, that’s part of what makes GOB special. It’s not perfect, it’s just Good.
– Will Saunders Jr
Society seems to have focused on the dumbest common denominator and then forced everyone to drop to that level. Figure out what a very unprepared, uneducated person would do, then make up rules to prevent injuries or death should that person do something stupid. I believe there is a place for safety equipment (and I have it all from lifejackets to harnesses to flares to GPS locators) and I have used it all prudently, everywhere from crossing oceans to local day sailing. But life, particularly life on the water, should be fun, not “enjoyed” in a state of constant fear. If the skipper (and it should be the skipper’s final decision) deems that life jackets or similar safety equipment are called for under current conditions, then so be it.
Our granddaughter Natasha learned early on that if she wanted to be on deck or in the cockpit while the boat was underway, a lifejacket was to be worn. She is an excellent swimmer and could swim circles around me. But she realized that it would take time to get back to her if she fell overboard, and that the cold water would sap even her ability to swim. Again, education and common sense. I would rather see photos of sailors in real-life situations, not prepped for a “photo shoot”.
– Bert Vermeer, Sidney, British Columbia
You have a responsibility to encourage safe boating wherever possible, including published photos. I believe it borders on irresponsible to publish a photo of a child on board not wearing a pfd.
Would you publish a photo of a boater at the gas pump with cigarette in hand? Or a spring maintenance article showing a 30-foot sailboat on blocks with only one stand on each side and no chain? I doubt it.
You have earned a significant role in the sailing community that provides a platform to influence sailors. Responsibility comes with that role.
– Rob Hill, Westport, Massachusetts
Wearing of PFDs and the promotion of them are good for boating safety. However, I personally decide when I am going to wear one and I certainly do not think that it is the duty of all people involved in the publication of boating photographs to allow only photographs that include people on boats to be printed when those people are wearing PFDs.
– Jak Doskow
I sail, often solo. I also sail with my 13-year-old son. I choose when I wear my PFD, and when I insist that he wears his. This decision is not influenced by photos in the various publications I read, but by my assessment of the risk. That decision is my job and making that decision (along with when I sail, where I go, and what preparations I make) is part of the allure of sailing. I make decisions and I deal with the outcomes. I appreciate the letter writer’s concern, but we are adults, and Captains.
– Tomas I. Fredricks
I suspect most sailors don’t wear PFDs most of the time, and photos should reflect that reality. Why some people think they have the right to tell the rest of us what we should do on our own boats, or for that matter, in our own lives, escapes me. I have nothing against wearing a PFD if you wish to, just don’t tell me what to do. If conditions dictate, I’ll don my life jacket, but that is my determination. As a former journalist, and a sailor since 1948, I have run up against (and sometimes over) my share of “rules,” but in the end have usually made my own decisions. Keep on making yours.
– Hal Shanafield
In New Hampshire, we say “Live Free or Die.” Some live free and die, but it is the result of a combination of a conscious personal choice and some bad luck.
– Hank Riehl, Hampstead, New Hampshire
PFDs save lives. Responsible editors want us to enjoy sailing and stay alive. A policy depicting all sailors in PFDs does not tell us we “have to” wear the things. It only sets a good example (akin to not displaying a sailor underway with a beer in hand). There are times when a PFD seems silly and completely unnecessary. But those times vary with each person, each set of skills, each longevity of sailing experience, age, physical condition, etc. The skipper has the final responsibility for all on the boat. Let him/her decide, not a magazine editor unaware of the specific circumstances. But let the editor encourage safe practices by example and by articles.
– Geoff Kloster
I think it would be a minor step as a publication to avoid publishing photographs of minors not wearing PDFs on vessels that are underway.
– Tom Irwin, North Saanich, British Columbia
Please, continue to bestow upon us the unvarnished truth that many folks continue to have plenty of safe and active fun while boating, both with and without a PFD. Surely, each person can make their own choices without regard to what’s PC?
– John Sims
Everyone should be wearing a PFD until tied up at the dock. Movies show people wearing seat belts and magazines should be showing people wearing PFDs.
– Stan McCall
Somewhere along the line, the concept of freedom and not having to follow some of “the rules” became equated with the luxury of being aboard. The PFD enforcers (of which I was one some years back) seem to believe that if all pictures show children aboard wearing PFDs, then their parents will conclude that is the rule. Hard to argue against it. And looking at the picture you chose to make your point about not wearing a PFD, if your daughter had been wearing one, for me it wouldn’t have dimmed the luxurious aura of enjoying that freedom while still following “the rules.”
– Greg Proteau
As for sanitizing photos for publication, I personally think it defeats the purpose of the exercise. The journalist should present things as they are, not as some people believe they should be in a perfect world. What people? Whose perfect world? If we’re charging the writer or publisher with that responsibility, where does it end? Should everyone be wearing a hat and sun screen? Should we only show boats that are in perfect condition? A magazine’s mandate is to record what’s happening, not manipulate what’s happening.
– Don Davies
The whole safety culture is annoying to me and the implicit assumption that we need safety experts directing every little bit of our lives. Just leave us alone to make our own risk/benefit decisions.
– George Ojdrovich
We live in a time when many people seem to value safety and security over all other considerations, particularly individual choice. There is no argument that PFDs save lives and that they cannot perform this function when left in a locker. To suggest that an experienced sailor on his own boat in waters and conditions familiar to him must wear a PFD, and that [a magazine editor who chooses to publish an image of a sailor not wearing a PFD] is somehow culpable in promulgating irresponsible choices is, in my opinion, the height of self-righteous nautical priggishness.
Sailors are, perhaps more than any other group, individualists who make their own decisions. They maintain their own boats, they study the weather, and they sail where and when they choose. They know the gravity of their choices and accept responsibility for their actions. I’d sure like it to be kept that way.
– Rob Avery
PFD use is a personal choice! You, as a publisher/editor, should not be obligated to censor submitted pictures/articles that show folks exercising their choice/judgement to not wear a PFD at that given time. Let’s not take away another one of our freedoms, good or bad.
– Cecil Marmont, Pace, Florida
I fell off the boat while furling the main when a line broke (with the autopilot set and engine running, of course). My PFD inflated and no doubt saved my life. However, it was my choice to wear the PFD and I believe everyone has the right to make that decision. I don’t believe anyone should dictate the choice nor “demand” that every picture [that includes a person on a boat must depict PFD use]. Put me down for not wanting to see PFD’s in every picture.
– Rich Sutorius
I use an inflating life jacket when offshore or in heavy weather. But when out for a gentle daysail I don’t bother. Magazine editors should have the same freedom to choose.
– Steve Stoehr, GOS, T30 Bird of Passage
Not wearing a PFD at times onboard a boat isn’t automatically a dangerous act. Every instance of a person on the deck of a sailboat is different. I don’t want a sailing editor to join this debate through photo selection. Just take the shot!
– Tom Young
Magazines should (and do) depict representative images of the subjects they cover. Based on my own experience, maybe 25% of the boaters I encounter regularly wear their PFD while they are out. Sometimes I wear mine, most of the time I don’t. Depends on the weather. Should 100% of the images in magazines show people in PFDs? That would only make readers like me question what agenda the magazine has and the validity of their viewpoint.
– Don Lincoln, 1993 Catalina 36, Nancy Lynn