My 2 Cents on Harbor 20 Safety at Sea

Roxanne Chan’s harrowing story about the sinking of her Harbor 20 made me stop and wonder:  Could this happen to me?  Unfortunately, I had to admit the answer was “absolutely yes.”  So I started to poke around and learn how much I didn’t know about Harbor 20 safety, and here’s what I found…

Before you go sailing, here are some important things to check:

Have a life jacket handy for each person on your boat, and everyone knows where the jackets are.  As Roxanne pointed out, a whistle or EPIRB attached to the jacket could be a lifesaver.  (I also found that State law requires your boat to have a throwable float, ring or cushion handy, and requires that kids wear their life jackets.  Check out

Make sure your boat floats.  As Roxanne said, it’ll sink like a rock without flotation.  I found one way to add flotation at

Along with Roxanne’s recommendation to have a paddle, flares and bailer on board, I’d add a long towline.

Roxanne suggested having Coast Guard, Harbor Patrol, Seatow and Vessel Assist phone numbers handy.  Here are some of the numbers in case you want to add them to your cell phone:

  • Coast Guard (310-833-1600)
  • Harbor Dept. (949-723-1000)
  • Vessel Assist (949-278-3207)

Here are some ways to check the weather, as Roxanne recommended:

  • Google “newport beach marine weather” to see if you’ll have high waves or wind.
  • See if the Harbor Dept. is flying red pennants that indicate a high wind warning.
  • If the weather forecast is “windy below passes and canyons” or the wind is coming from the land, watch out for a Santa Ana wind that can blow hard and drive you away from the shore.

Roxanne’s story mentioned seamanship skills.   Here are some ideas for controlling your boat in high winds and waves:

  • Slow the boat by trailing lines astern, such as the tail of your mainsheet or docklines tied to cleats.
  • Steer your boat diagonally to waves so it doesn’t roll or nosedive into a wave.

If you haven’t done person overboard drills, as Roxanne suggested, at least practice stopping your boat quickly, which helps you rescue someone who’s fallen overboard.

Here’s what I found on what to do if you get in trouble on the ocean:

First, stay with the boat (but make sure you can get free of it in case it sinks).

As Roxanne said, get your life jackets on.

Get help:

  • Signal other boats nearby:
    • Wave your arms.
    • If you have a whistle or horn, sound it repeatedly.
    • If you’re in danger and have a VHF radio, use channel 16 and say “Mayday” at least 3 times, identifying your boat and position.  (See Roxanne’s story for details.)
    • If you’re in danger and have a flare, light it.
  • If you’re in danger, call 911, Harbor Dept. or Coast Guard.  (See numbers above.)

Get to safety:

  • Head to the nearest shelter you can reach by steering diagonally to the waves.  (In high wind and waves, don’t sail directly downwind or sideways to the waves.)

Here are things I’ve been told about getting a tow:

  • Tie the towline to the base of your mast with a bowline knot.
  • Get a phone number for someone on the tow boat.
  • If the towboat is going too fast, call and ask them to slow down.
  • If the towline goes slack, steer slightly to one side to take up most of the slack.

Finally, check out these sites:

BYC Guide to Cruising in Newport Harbor

Calif. Dept. of Boating and Waterways:  ABCs of California Boating

OCC Sailing Class:  Harbor 20

Safe Boating Courses


  • Ned Nielsen

    We have added manual bilge pumps to fleet 3 boats in Hilton Head. These should be standard on all H20’s. The rule electric pumps can’t keep up plus the screens on the pumps need to be cleaned monthly. The corrugated plumbing on the electric bilge pump restricts the water flow. Needs to be straight hose. The pumps need to be wired direct to the battery because during big seas the boats ship water and the electrical panel gets wet and shorts out and the pump will not run. My two cents from experience.

  • Emile Pilafiis

    Thank you for sharing such important and practical information.

  • Gary Thorne

    Thanks, Ned and Emile.

    FYI to all, you can view Roxanne’s story “The story of the sinking of Old Glory #21” by clicking “News” at the top of this screen, then “Fleet 1.”

  • Ted Quinn #272

    Amen on manual bilge – we have both and have used both. I’ve used TowBoat US and had a good experience but you might double check the ‘unlimited’ coverage area (fresh vs. salt). I sail in the Chesapeake Bay and needed the unlimited salt water option (more $) in the Potomac River. Ask them for their coverage chart. Their app worked great for contact & location information.

    Other upgrades & safety ideas I’ve done: AGM batteries, Battery gauge / status monitor, Streamlight Fire Vulcan (amazing), GPS, depth finder, upgrade fuse panel, lighter socket for Davis Mega Light, reflective tape on mast head. A strong anchor tied to the mast and foredeck cleat kept me safely broadside to big rollers during a storm, I might have taken big water over the bow if that’s where the anchor was tied. A rubber strap hooked on the back stay adjuster kept my rudder in place.

    Easier to sail in big wind under jib alone than reefed main alone. MUCH EASIER to handle with new laminate jib – consider it if you don’t have class rules to worry about. Hit 9.2 knots Sunday surfing waves in the Potomac!

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