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Potential Problems that could Arise While at Sea

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What are the potential problems that could arise while at sea to endanger your ship and its crew?The list is pretty big. Ingress of water is the most obvious; on board fire, rig and engine failure, crew overboard, lack of proper clothing for tropical and high latitude weather, medical emergency, collision and/or grounding.

If your boat is taking on water it may be a through-hull fitting, perhaps, and most likely, the stuffing box or gland where the prop shaft exits the hull.

It may be that the keel bolts are compromised, especially if grounding has recently occurred. All should be inspected regularly and the prop shaft pulled every two years to be examined for corrosion. 

Mandatory safety items for boats 40ft (12.1m) and above.  Be prepared for potential problems that could arise while at sea
Mandatory safety items for boats 40ft (12.1m) and above

Fire prevention is important.

There are many explosive elements on a cruising yacht; cooking gas, dinghy gas, kerosene, sulphuric acid in (rare nowadays) wet cell batteries and various paints, oils and cleaning materials. Propane gas is heavier than air and will sink to the bottom of the locker where a mandatory drain hole should exist. This gas must not be allowed to descend into the cabin and bilge. Natural gas, not common on boats, is lighter than air. Dinghy gas and other flammable liquids must be tightly sealed and stored in a deck locker. Spontaneous combustion can happen if oily rags are stored on board – always throw them away. Make sure you have the number and type of required extinguishers in place and within reach. 

Sails and rigging must be inspected annually.

A bosun’s chair is essential for inspecting masthead problems. Most insurance companies require a rigging inspection by a qualified marine surveyor who will look for hairline cracks in swage fittings, rigging wire, turnbuckles and chain plates. Sails can be inspected by pinching the cloth together in a usually exposed place and trying to tear it. Stitching must be inspected for integrity. Keep sails covered when not in use; it’s the sun’s UV rays that destroy synthetic fabric. Have stick-on sail tape for emergency use and needles, a palm and twine for sail repairs. 

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A deployed sea anchor. This is just one of a number of different designs available
A deployed sea anchor. This is just one of a number of different designs available. Photo: Ed Dunens/Wikipedia

Engine failure may not be catastrophic if you know how to sail and have patience in light air.

Be aware that there are four things that will stop your engine: fuel system failure, overheating, air intake filter blockage and a fouled propeller. In your spares locker have spare oil and fuel filters, spare air filter, engine fluids, impeller, belts, electrical wire of various gauge and length, hose clamps and hoses … Remember, if your engine fails so does your battery charging ability. If you have room, a small portable generator can be a life saver. I used to carry a complete spare alternator and starter motor/solenoid on my boat Starry Night. Bilge pumps and float switches are useful spares too and don’t forget bulbs for all the various lights. In fact, the more you cruise the more spares you will deem it necessary to carry. Steering systems can fail, so crews must know how to find and fit the emergency tiller. Throttle cables and transmission cables can break and these should be maintained regularly and changed every five years. I know from bitter experience what happens when a transmission cable on a large catamaran snaps when maneuvering in tight quarters. It ain’t pretty.

A major concern when offshore is to keep everyone on board, especially in rough weather.

A good PFD with harness and tether is important and an unobstructed jackline running from cockpit to bow. Everyone on deck at night should be equipped with a strobe light and, if budget allows, a small portable waterproof VHF, both firmly attached to the harness. Some may say that the VHF is superfluous to needs but if/when you need it, you really need it!    

Black ball and cone
Black ball and cone

In an emergency, communication is essential.

Short wave radios and VHF radios are both used extensively, but now satellite radio is a useful addition. Either installed or portable, a satellite radio keeps you connected to shore all the times. There are weather and routing experts who can give you advice and you can call business contacts or family at any time. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are essential and are used to alert search and rescue services in the event of a critical emergency. It does this by transmitting a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency via satellite and earth stations to the nearest rescue co-ordination center. There is an AIS device that each crew can wear as a MOB locator, and personal locator beacons (mini EPIRBs) are now available and can be carried in a pocket or attached to your lifejacket. Don’t forget daytime and night time flares as well as parachute flares. A compressed air horn is also essential.

A MOB grab bag should be carefully stocked to keep the crew alive in the event of an abandon ship in the life raft.

Some sailors may decry the use of a life raft but if you slam into a submerged object like a deadhead or container and start sinking hundreds of miles off shore, you’ll be glad you prepared one. Make sure all the crew know how to deploy it. The grab bag should contain signaling gear and flares, high protein foods, drinking water, a solar still, a small battery-operated VHF, an EPIRB, as discussed earlier, a boat knife, fishing gear, flashlights and numerous other items. Just think of what you couldn’t do without for two weeks and take it from there.

A good medical kit should contain a plentiful supply of antibiotics as well as antihistamine and allergy creams, lotions for burns and treatment for deep cuts like suturing gear for stitching. There are specialized kits available for offshore sailors. Add in the extras yourself.

Onboard warning plaque there to remind you, pollute and you face a hefty fine
Onboard warning plaque there to remind you, pollute and you face a hefty fine

In extreme heavy weather, 50kts plus, a sea anchor can be a life saver.

The USCG recommends the small parachutes or drogues rigged in series and deployed off the stern. There is endless debate on the best sea anchors and methods of heaving to. Make sure to practice with this gear before departure with keen awareness of possible chafing. 

Safety at sea is essential for the enjoyment of the wonderful life of cruising the oceans of the world. For some sailors the long passages may appear too daunting or time consuming to undertake. Well, don’t despair; there are yacht delivery crews that will transport your boat to your desired cruising ground. There are specially designed yacht transport ships too. Sometimes yacht owners and friends might wish to crew with a professional captain in charge. This may or may not work depending on their knowledge, experience and fitness, and the consent of the captain.

This writer undertakes two yacht deliveries a year on an Island Packet 48 from Annapolis to the Caribbean. The owner and friends are aboard as crew and after some 12 trips we are a good working team. Main meals are pre-cooked and frozen and pre-checks are done prior to departure. The trip to Abaco routinely takes five days and many sailors in the marina are flabbergasted at our speed – it’s about 800 miles. “Yes, she’s a good boat, a damned good boat,” reports the owner. “And we only turned on the engine once.” What he failed to mention is that we turned it on at departure and didn’t shut it down until we were tied up in the marina!

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Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.

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