12 Feb 4 Things That Keep Us Safe When Sailing Offshore
How to Feel Safe When Bluewater Sailing
Safety is paramount when sailing offshore, off the beaten path. We sometimes sail outside of normal cruising routes and shipping lanes. This is sometimes the best pure bluewater sailing experience, but it can also be intimidating or nerve-wracking for some.
I remember the first “big” (to me at the time) offshore sail in my own boat, a 24 footer. When we left sight of the glimmering shore lights to venture into Lake Huron to cross Saginaw Bay at night, it felt like we were jumping off a cliff.
I was an experienced sailor at the time, it was part of a sanctioned race, we had a team of 4 experienced guys plus shore support on call, we had checked all of the required safety gear boxes and more. Even though we were well prepared and sailing less than 300 miles, I still had this feeling of hesitation to overcome deep inside as we ripped across the lake at sixteen knots in the dark under a code-0. We were still on a small boat in big water!
Now, aboard the 46 foot SV Sweet Ruca, I still have those qualms, though they are now felt on much longer passages. You likely also have that same feeling inside as you prepare for your voyages. Here are some of the methods and technology we use aboard to help ease that feeling and stay safe offshore.
#1 Confidence in your boat
Having a well-maintained boat is step number one to feeling good when offshore. It starts with your critical systems at the core and expands outward to more minor things and redundancy.
Insurance companies require detailed surveys before they will cover your boat, or assume your risk. Why would you require any less? Inspect all of your boat’s systems regularly, if you don’t have the knowledge, hire surveyors, riggers, mechanics, composites men/women that do.
There is no shame in outsourcing to experts, but also keep in mind the industry is full of armchair “experts” willing to extract endless sums of money from “rich” yachties. That expert will also not be with you 300 miles offshore when you need to fix a problem. It pays huge dividends in both tranquility and dollars to learn about your boat systems.
Here are some things on the boat we check and inspect regularly:
- Standing rigging for rust, cracks, pins in place, adjustment
- Mast and boom for in column and loose fittings, sheaves, pins
- Sails for stitching, tears, shape, and lifespan
- Hardware from blocks to winches, pins, seizing wire, tape, zip-ties, clean, lube, function, bearings, attachment points
- Running rigging, halyards and sheets for chafe and strength, clutch holding
- Engine, oil, coolant, trans lube, air intake, water intake, fuel filters, loose fittings
- Engine and transmission functioning properly
- Electrical, voltage, connections, loose items, fuses
- Lighting including nav lights and required interior/exterior lights
- Instruments for the proper function of all navigation equipment
- Hull for any damage and growth
- Prop for damage, growth, and function
- Steering system, rudder bearings, quadrants, cables, etc.
- Thru hulls for function and required open/close position
That may sound like a lot, but it is far from a comprehensive safety list. Knowing these things are in working order and will hold up in your planned conditions is key to putting your mind at ease when you leave port.
Confidence in your boat also has to do with its overall build quality, outfitting, and suitability for your journey. Let’s be honest here, almost any boat can make any voyage. People have crossed oceans in bathtubs, rounded Cape Horn on Hobie Cats, and explored the Pacific on bamboo rafts and dugout canoes. People also have bulletproof expedition boats that can survive being rolled over countless times in a hurricane.
The Titanic was also said to be unsinkable, so let’s not have too much confidence. There is also a trend in boat design to cater to dreamers that sit at the dock. The bottom line is many boats these days are up to the task of crossing oceans in most conditions, but considerations should be made in your choices to ensure your safety at sea.
Remember this, in most rescue scenarios the boat outlasts the people and usually continues floating long after the people have been helicoptered away.
#2 Safety Items
The old Boy Scout motto says “Be Prepared.” We do our best to be prepared for anything, but there comes a point when you have to realize that you aren’t sailing an aircraft carrier with a fleet of support and defense ships by your side. There is only so much room and weight available on our little boat, so we prioritize.
We start with the basics for a USGC vessel. USCG Minimum Requirements PDF
Then we add a bit more, picking and choosing from racing safety regulations.
US Sailing has also published a simplified version which is probably the best jumping-off point for those wishing to expand on USCG safety regs.
Though, that is just the tip of the iceberg. From there we start to look at Category 1 racing checklists for safety items. Although this may seem a little overwhelming at first, the Word Sailing or ISAF (International Sailing Federation) safety requirements are an excellent resource. These cover races such as the Vendee Globe and Volvo Ocean Race, hardcore stuff.
This covers most items, however, keep in mind some countries may require other safety items upon inspection. There are also other items specific to your needs or destination that must be considered. For example high latitude sailing or piracy-prone areas. Even though the below links are not specific to our voyage, we do utilize some of the items, techniques, and tactics employed in them on our boat.
Making good decisions is key to safety. To make those decisions, one needs quality information to weigh. We separate the information into two categories:
- Stored Knowledge
- Real-Time Input
Stored knowledge is experience and previously learned information. This gives you the confidence to make better decisions. This knowledge increases every time you go sailing.
Boating experiences – past experiences we have learned from such as sailing schools or racing
Books & Videos – things we have uptook from others documenting their knowledge and experience to pass on
Charts, Logs, Polars, Almanacs – navigation materials to help understand our surroundings and predict how our vessel will react
Real-time input is the information we gather about what is happening around us. Grib files, instrument data, sensory information, etc. This knowledge can be increased by adding more inputs.
AIS – lets us know when large ships and other boats using it are approaching
Radar – Allows us to see squalls, ships and buoys not on AIS, and small boats at night we may not be able to see in the dark
Instruments – Helps us to turn sensory information into usable data points
Grib Files – future predictions of wind, waves, rain, etc. We get these offshore via satellite connections and PredictWind and SailMail
There is a point in which one can have information overload. There is also the need for sleep when sailing doublehanded offshore. This is where automation comes into play to contribute to our safety.
Safety comes down to good decisions. When we are tired and overtasked, we are the worst at decision-making.
Automation is used in two ways. The first is to ease physical workloads and allow for more sleep. Tools such as autopilots, wind vanes, furlers, and electric winches (we don’t have these) help tremendously in these areas.
Automation of physical tasks allows us to stay safe off of the working deck and allows us more time to process data for decision making.
We also automate data processing. This is where our Expedition Sailing Software comes into play. Modern chart plotters and PredictWind are starting to gain routing functionality, which automates the task of understanding the weather and figuring out where to go.
Expedition brings everything together in one place, gribs, instrument data, logs, charts, polars, sail charts, satellite imagery, buoy data, ais, radar, etc. It can then process this information to help you determine an optimal route or even avoid trouble such as heavy winds or underwater obstacles (rocks, reefs, wrecks, land).
Hopefully, we can pass on some knowledge to make sailing more enjoyable for you. We don’t claim the above as perfect information, and we are always learning new things.
The best thing you can do is to be prepared and seek information to expand your understanding of sailing, your boat, and the conditions around you. As your confidence increases, so will your enjoyment of offshore sailing.