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The No. 1 boating injury
By Tom Zavelson, M.D.

A friend of mine now plays a six-string guitar with nine fingers, and he’s not as good in math as he used to be.

Having just finished breakfast on their 45-foot chartered sailboat anchored at Cane Garden Bay in the British Virgin Islands, Tony, his wife and two children began to weigh anchor and sail to Virgin Gorda. Once they cleared the anchorage, they set the sails and began to experience the beautiful surroundings. Tony told his wife that he was going aft to lengthen the painter that was holding the dinghy just off the stern. Having let out enough line, he proceeded to wrap it around only one horn of the cleat.

As he prepared to cleat it down, a wave lifted the dinghy resulting in a sudden tightening of the line. Tony's finger was unfortunately caught between the line and the cleat.  As the rope snapped, off flew one-half of his index finger. Fellow sailors quickly responded to their VHF call for help, the finger was found and a pressure wrap quickly applied, followed by ice and elevation. A local surgeon on the island of Tortola was able to deliver emergency medical care.

Fingers are often in harm's way especially on board. Hawse pipes and cleats are common danger zones for boaters. Photo No. 1 is NOT the recommended way to cleat a line; this can easily lead to a similar injury. As in photos numbers 2,3 and 4, the line needs to be wrapped around both horns a full 360 degrees, then crossed around a horn and cleated to the opposite side. 

A second way for this type of injury to occur is the following scenario: The painter is cleated to a deck cleat or through a hawse pipe with a built-on cleat. Prior to weighing the anchor, the painter is shortened by bringing it over the deck rail and securing it to another cleat or to the inside horns of the hawse pipe. Once underway, and the tension is already on the line, one attempts to release the secondary tie. If the dinghy lunges, one can easily trap a finger or hand between the line and the cleat.

If one needs all ten fingers to do math problems, or play a better guitar than Tony, be cognizant of potential situations leading to finger and/or hand injuries. In the months to come, I will discuss some other danger zones that often lead to trauma of the fingers, hands and toes.

DON’T DO IT THIS WAY, with fingers between a line and a hard place.



Wrap it once, then go diagonally across the cleat...


Go under, then diagonally across the cleat in the other direction, but instead of creating a “figure eight,” twist the line so the part in this man’s right hand is going under the diagonal...


Pull it tight, and you’ve made fast. In sailor lingo, “to make fast” means to cleat a line.

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