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Top Tips for Offshore Sailing Safety

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The numbers are sobering. Some 86% of fatal boating accident victims who drown are not wearing a life jacket, and 77% percent of deaths happen on boats where operators have no boating safety instruction. Operator inattention, operator inexperience, improper lookout, excessive speed and machinery failure rank as the top five contributing factors in boating accidents, according to the 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics by the U.S. Coast Guard. While many accidents happen close to shore and on small recreational craft or powerboats, sailing offshore such as cruising to the Caribbean from the U.S. East Coast or Europe has its risks and demands keen attention to safety. There are several boating safety programs. Plus, over the past three-plus decades the organizations that host sailing rallies to the Caribbean have made safety a priority by incorporating this training into pre-departure materials and briefings. 

ALL AT SEA asked Hank Schmitt of the North American Rally to the Caribbean (NARC), Hank George of the Salty Dawg Sailing Association’s (SDSA) Caribbean Rally, and Jeremy Wyatt of the World Cruising Club (WCC), which hosts the ARC, ARC+ and Caribbean 1500, to share their collective top safety tips for offshore passage making.

Credit World Cruising Club - James Mitchell
Credit World Cruising Club – James Mitchell

Sailing Experience.

To develop offshore sailing capabilities, says the SDSA’s George, “we recommend a series of ASA (American Sailing Association) fundamentals, coastal and offshore courses, recognizing these are both classroom/online study work as well as considerable hands-on experience. I am not a huge fan of only doing online coursework. Hands-on in front of a qualified instructor is invaluable. Then work in plenty of long day, overnight, and then multiple day and overnight passages.”

A minimum of a 250 nautical mile non-stop offshore passage is required as a qualifying cruise undertaken in the 12 months preceding the rally to participate in the WCC’s Caribbean 1500 Rally, whose route is from Solomons, MD, USA to the British Virgin Islands. “We look to ensure skippers have organized crews for an offshore voyage, including night watches. For U.S.-based boats this is usually a coastal sail, but as it is in the open Atlantic, conditions are the same as for the passage south. In fact, they can be more challenging as there is more shipping traffic than is found offshore,” says Wyatt.

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Vessel Choice.

The NARC doesn’t have a size limit. However, “we haven’t had more than a handful of boats under 42-foot participate in the past few years,” says Schmitt.

“I advise anyone bluewater cruising to aim for ‘as much boat length as they can afford’,” says the WCC’s Wyatt. “But I suggest 40-foot should be the starting point. Below this, especially on older designs, there is often less interior volume for people, equipment, fuel, food and water and the paraphernalia of cruising life. For catamarans, shorter hull lengths tend to be much more uncomfortable offshore due to wave lengths, so with cats longer is definitely better. Aim for 45-foot or more for a comfortable offshore boat.”

An excellent resource when evaluating different types and makes of boats is the EU standard on boat classification, recommends the SDSA’s George. “Category A (Ocean), B (Offshore), C (Inshore) and D (Sheltered Coastal). Builders must certify to the standards in one of these categories. I’d recommend Category A or B for offshore passage-making.”

Credit World Cruising Club - James Mitchell
Credit World Cruising Club – James Mitchell

Top Safety Equipment.

There are many things needed for safe passage-making. If he had to name a top three, the NARC’s Schmitt says, “First, go with a smaller headsail on your roller fuller. In the fall you do not need a 155% or a 135% jib. A high clewed offshore strong sail that you can still furl some and trim to a good shape is all you need. Second, a bulletproof autopilot. Third, a good siphon hose and system to empty jugs into your fuel tanks without getting water in the tanks or having the crew fall overboard while struggling to fill tanks. The new fuel tanks with ‘safety’ non-spill tanks are unsafe due to the time it takes to keep them upside down while refueling offshore.”

The WCC’s Wyatt also recommends a suitable offshore standard life raft (look for ISO9650-1 certification), a 406MHz EPIRB (distress beacon), lifejackets (worn, not left in a locker!) and crew-overboard and fire-fighting equipment.

The WCC lists safety equipment recommended on its website: www.worldcruising.com/Carib1500/safety-usa.aspx. Similarly, the SDSA has a library of webinars and articles on safety, including a comprehensive checklist: https://www.saltydawgsailing.org/education

Before Departure Safety Checks.

“I always encourage sailors to start with a comprehensive checklist months before the passage. Some things can take time to fix or have a long lead-time.

The last month before departing: get a professional rigging inspection, including aloft, and a sail inspection. Things we find get missed in last-minute preps are: securing the anchor, cycling thru-hulls, changing the raw water impeller and engine v-belts, looking over all running rigging including reefing lines for chafe, setting jack lines before leaving the dock, removing power to the windlass, assuring all bilge pumps will pump water, and making sure crew are set on all safety and emergency procedures,” says the SDSA’s George.”

Each skipper is required to give a full safety brief to the entire crew, and to conduct a crew-overboard drill when participating in WCC rallies, says Wyatt. “The safety brief should include the procedure for abandoning ship (who does what!) and operation of the boat’s communications equipment. A vital point to note for anyone using an Iridium Go is that these devices are paired to a smartphone or tablet to provide voice calls. You should assure that the PIN or access code is shared or recorded if the skipper (or owner of the smartphone) is incapacitated.”

Credit World Cruising Club - James Mitchell
Credit World Cruising Club – James Mitchell

The Weather Window.

A good sailing friend says the only weather you can control is the weather you leave in, says the SDSA’s George. “Leave in decent weather with the wind abeam or aft of abeam and have high confidence of favorable weather for the first two or three days. Don’t get beat up at the start, expecting things to get better. Once you have plenty of sea-room, sail at comfortable angles. Don’t feel tied to the rhumb line, keep the crew comfortable. Falling off 10 degrees or more can make all the difference in stopping the pounding and slamming. You’ll have less breakage and a more enjoyable passage.”

Safety Underway.

Keep everything simple and everyone focused on what their job is while on watch, recommends the NARC’s Schmitt. “If something seems amiss or you hear something banging or moving about, investigate if you can safely do so. Do a once-daily walkabout if conditions allow to see if everything is in place.”

Most important is to assure everyone gets plenty of rest, says the SDSA’s George. “We like the three-hour watch cycle through the night and a more flexible watch during the day. Getting enough rest means you maintain your sharpness and sound decision-making abilities.”

Credit World Cruising Club - James Mitchell
Credit World Cruising Club – James Mitchell

Dealing with Emergencies on Passage.

Be prepared with the proper equipment, a good medical kit and knowing how to use it, and a good tool kit and spares with the knowledge of how to use them, recommends the NARC’s Schmitt.

Similarly, before going offshore, practice for an emergency, adds the SDSA’s George. “Talk through how an emergency would be managed and write down guides or reference material (where safety gear is located, thru-hull locations, bilge pump controls and procedures, emergency phone numbers and radio frequencies, tool and spares locations, etc.). Then, before the passage make assignments: communications officer (radio, sat phone, etc.), medical officer, chief mechanic, etc. And, when an emergency occurs, the captain is in charge. The crew should be prepared to follow directions, seek input, and share ideas, but follow the captain’s direction when a decision is made. In an emergency condition, slow the boat, and reduce sail. If you are taking on water, close thru-hulls, start pumps and get everyone’s help to find the source of the water. Time is critical. Once water gets deep it is almost impossible to find the source. And be sure the communications officer has alerted authorities like the Coast Guard.”

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Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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