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What are the principal dangers while sailing offshore? They can be categorized into various groups.
Personal injury or illness of the crew can be direct or can occur via problems with the boat. If you are sailing offshore for a prolonged period you would be well advised to develop a series of routines with the crew of how to handle the most common problems. These include fire, MOB (Man Overboard) collision, sinking and medical emergencies.
We thought about before leaving on our trip where the probable sources of fire could occur on the yacht. These could be a main engine fire or an electrical wiring fire or a gas explosion from the gas locker or a galley fire. For each of these types of fire we decided what equipment was required to put the fire out and what we would do if we could not. We planned escape routes including via the forward hatch in the event that crew were stuck forward of the fire. Not only did we plan we also practiced as though it was a real event. We found that Mireille could not pull herself through the front hatch from the forward berths as the hatch was over six feet from the floor and she lacked the physical arm strength to heave herself though the opening. Better to find out on a dry run in port than during a fire at sea. The issue was resolved by installing two removable suction pad handles on the bulkhead (wall) near the hatch that acted as steps. These double suction pads also served to lift the floorboards very quickly in case of a leak. They also served to provide an attachment point for me while diving under the boat at sea.
We installed powder fire extinguishers throughout the boat and installed a fire blanket on the wall next to the galley stove that only needed to be pulled by straps to deploy it instantly. We cut a hole in the table that houses the main engine to be able to spray the powder onto the motor without removing the table top and risk major burns. We had a floor plan showing the location of all five extinguishers in our Trifon manual. If the fire was uncontrollable then we had the option of jumping into the life-raft which was not stored inside the boat but on a purpose built cradle on the back rail that allowed the raft to be pushed into the water with little effort and did not require lifting the 60 kilogram raft. We had both waterproof VHF radios and an iridium sat phone for the emergency services and a transportable battery powered EPIRB satellite beacon that if switched on would send out an emergency signal via satellite and be transmitted worldwide. The beacon was pre-programmed to tell the authorities which boat was in distress and its geographic location. Some boats carry fixed EPIRB’s but I would rather the EPIRB directs any rescue service to our life-raft than our sunken vessel.
Our MOB procedure was discussed and practiced before we left and was adapted for the downwind sailing that we were likely to encounter during the majority of our trip. One issue with sailing downwind in a 53 foot boat is that is difficult to stop and turn around and the more distance that you put between the boat and the victim the less likely you are to recover the person especially at night or in rough seas. Our method was to hit the MOD button on the cockpit GPS system and shout MOB to wake the sleeping crew whilst maintaining eye contact or pointing to the MOB and throw the life buoy overboard then to release the sheets of the main and fore sail whilst turning back up wind. We have a boom brake that slows the boom and avoids wild swinging of the freed boom. From a stalled position with no power in the sails we then switch the motor on and roll up the genoa or jib, center the main sail and motor sail to the victim. We always had two people on deck for night watches so that if one fell overboard the other could both raise the alarm and start the recovery procedure. The on-deck crew carried waterproof VHF radios in their sailing jackets and could if required guide the yacht to their position if they were conscious. It is very difficult to spot a MOB at night and all life vests were equipped with a strobe light that was water activated, a whistle and a full face spray hood. Our life jackets were automatically and manually inflatable and were always worn at night and sometimes during the day when I judged sea conditions warranted them. At night I allowed nobody on the foredeck without checking with me and being harnessed to the reflective jack lines that ran both sides of the deck.
During bad weather we would attach our harnesses to one of the four strong points in the cockpit. One of the adaptations of the boat that I did before leaving was to run all reefing lines and the main halyard to the cockpit so that the main sail could be reefed without leaving the comparative safety of the cockpit at night. This avoided going to the mast and also allowed one person to reef the main without the assistance of other crew by using the auto pilot. I borrowed a technique used by catamaran sailors to reef the main sail whilst sailing down wind. This consisted of heading up 10-15 degrees to release some pressure from the main sail and progressively dropping 1-2 meters of main halyard and then pulling on the third reef line and repeating this procedure 5 times until the halyard was at the right height to reef the sail. If you try this without pulling in the reef line the main sail will plaster itself against the mast, rigging and crosstrees and refuse to drop. By pulling in the reef lines this pulls the leech (back) of the sail away from the mast and allows the sail to drop. The great advantage of this system is that you do not have to turn into the wind and have the boom swinging across the cockpit or helm directly into the wind while the crew tries to reef the sail. You also avoid the danger of having to turn round in large waves at night and you lose virtually no boat speed or distance during the process. The ease and tranquility of this system often allowed us to carry more sail at night than we would have done if we had had to turn upwind to reef. Our boat has double running backstays, which are lines running from the back of the mast to the deck to give the mast additional support, the running backstays are only used on the windward side of the mast and have to be switched for every tack or gybe otherwise they will stop the main sail from changing sides. We developed, as our voyage progressed, routines to systematically pull the leeward running backstays forward to the mast. We had learnt the hard way that these lines would snag the sail batten ends of the main sail whilst reefing especially at night and the few minutes taken to clear these lines from the lee of sail on each tack were minutes well spent. Pulling the lazy jack lines forward when shaking out a reef also became systematic as the sail batten ends would catch these lines and block the sail. Lazy jack lines are double lines that run either side of the mainsail from the mast in a triangle formation to the boom to allow the main sail to easily drop into the lazy bag which sits on the boom to collect the doused or partially reefed sail.
A yacht will sink for a variety of reasons including a hole in the hull, collision with another vessel, a submerged container, a reef or even a large sea mammal or being rolled and swamped. Holes in the hull come in various forms. A normal yacht has several holes in the hull for the water inlets and outlets for the heads, sinks, motor cooling system and exhaust pipe. There is also a large hole where the drive shaft exits the boat and this hole is even larger on boats with sail drive motors. Failure of any of the through hull fittings, tubes or valves associated with these hull exits can be catastrophic and lead to sinking of the yacht.
We have a plan on-board of all through-hulls and a correctly sized bung is taped to each of the hoses next to the valve so that it can be used instantly a fitting fails. We also have double jubilee clips on all hoses with the first one tightly screwed and the second loosely screwed so that when the first one fails then you can easily screw up the second. If they were both fully tightened then both could fail simultaneously. All members of the crew were fully briefed as to the location of all through hulls and were shown how to use the shut-off valves associated with each exit. Our yacht has fewer holes in its hull than most modern cruisers as it has a sea chest which is large aluminum box that has one inlet and four outlets to distribute seawater to the two heads, the galley sink and the stuffing box cooling system and thus saves three additional holes in the hull. We have plastic through hull fittings and valves to avoid any electrolysis issues due to the aluminum hull. The stuffing box is the tubular joint that the drive shaft of the motor passes through to exit the hull. The drive shaft turns whilst the stuffing box joint is stationery and attached to the hull. In order to produce a waterproof seal a flax-like fiber is wrapped around the drive shaft and as it wears through age and friction it can be compressed by screwing a large nut on the stuffing box to re-establish a good seal. If your stuffing box drips a lot while the motor is running and one drip per second is too much then you need to tighten the packing nut to reduce the dripping to around a drip every 10-20 seconds. Do not over-tighten this seal as the packing compound will heat up and age prematurely. We tested every day to check that the drive shaft was not warm and that the seal was not dripping excessively. We have easy access to the stuffing box due to the central location of our motor under the main cabin table. Before leaving on our trip our local boatyard fabricated a Teflon tube that added additional support and rigidity to our stuffing box. They also located a small crack in the weld of the external strut supporting the drive shaft under the hull which was a grim reminder to check everything before heading offshore. You would be well advised to understand the adjustments required and take with you in your spares kit additional packing compound/ flax as you may have difficulty in foreign ports to purchase it. There are firms making modern packing compounds out of braided hydrophobic fibers that have a good reputation. I believe the original packing compound on old yachts was made out of greased wool. Another area that we looked at carefully was the swan necks of the pipes coming from the through hulls as these loops in the supply tubes need to be higher than the sea water level in all cases. The critical ones tend to be for the heads exit pipe which can back fill and flood the boat when it is healed at 30 degrees. We have shut off valves on all of our tubing and they were systematically kept closed on-passage and only opened when a member of the crew needed the water supply. One should not neglect above water hull fittings which are usually the engine exhaust and the bilge pump exits. While crossing the Atlantic we had a leak for 10 days of around 400-500 liters per day that we could not locate. Every day we had to pump the boat and remove all objects cabin by cabin to try and locate the leak. This work was carried out inside the boat 1900 miles from land in waves ranging from 2 to 8 meters and was exhausting both physically and morally on the crew. We even stripped all the teak cladding off the swim deck while being swept around deck by boarding waves. We did however realize on the second day that the leak was not getting worse and that if we kept pumping we could keep ahead of the leak. The leak was located when we arrived in the Caribbean as coming from the vent on the swim deck gas locker. The vent had been drilled too low and every wave pushed water into the hull space below the swim deck and with each roll of the boat emptied into the bilges below the aft cabins. The additional weight of the shipped water and our cruising gear, food and drinking water made the yacht sit lower in the water and exacerbated the problem. What saved the boat were not electric bilge pumps but a mobile whale gusher 120 liter per minute double diaphragm manual pump with two 5 meter tubes (38mm) for intake and exit. The second diaphragm is a safety feature in case one of the diaphragms is blocked by debris. In a heavily rolling yacht with a flattish hull water does not stay in the center of the bilges and washes from side to side with each wave making it easier to pump on one side of the boat rather than the center. I had screwed the pump to a slightly larger piece of marine plywood than the base of the pump in order to stand on the wood to stabilize the pump while pumping. The pump could be taken to anywhere on the yacht and was instantly functional. It is the only manual pump that I know that is approved by the U.S. Coastguard to replace a motorized bilge pump. I have a mark on the mast inside our yacht that is my indicator that to tell me that we will not be able to stop the boat from sinking if the water level rises above it and this can be highly motivating.
The most common cause of yachts sinking while sailing is caused by a collision with a submerged object such as a coral reef or rocks which is why navigation is so important in coastal zones. Deep in the ocean there are few submerged objects to damage the boat and collision with another vessel is probably a greater danger. We carried both paper and electronic charts and noticed in a couple of places in the Pacific that our electronic charts were inaccurate. I would be extremely cautious to rely solely on the electronic charts for making landfall especially at night. Before entering several bays and ports during our voyage I stood offshore waiting for daylight and tried whenever possible to arrive at our destination during the day. If you are going to navigate near coral reefs you are advised to try and navigate with the sun high in the sky and behind you and many cruisers in places like Fiji will only navigate between 10 am to 2 pm. The charts for many islands in the south pacific are often sketchy and have to be re-placed by eyeball navigation when entering shallow water with coral reefs. The Australian flagged sailing yacht Quest was lost on a reef while trying to enter the island of Savusavu in Fiji in 2011 and the yacht RIRI who we were in contact during our Galapagos to Marquesas passage was lost on a reef in Palmerston several weeks later after their mooring buoy broke. When we entered the Tiaputa pass to get into the lagoon at Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Atolls the current was running at around seven knots against us and a yacht that lacks the engine power to force its way in may run into major difficulty in such a situation. Whilst the South Pacific islands look-like idyllic picture postcard sailing they represent serious navigational challenges and they have caught out many experienced skippers. Gypsy Moth IV of Sir Francis Chichester fame being sailed by professional crew ran aground in 2006 and was stuck on the reef for six days and badly damaged just a few miles from the Tiaputa pass on Rangiroa. Many sailors avoid the Tuamotu Atolls because of the navigational challenges that they hold. I had the good fortune of learning navigation before the advent of GPS and chart plotters and the basic non-electronic navigation was re-enforced by British Yachtmaster exams. Having spent months in the Caribbean, Red Sea, Maldives and Australia on both sailing and diving holidays I had some experience of navigating around reefs and fortunately did not have to rely on electronic charts or GPS. A hand compass, paper chart, pilot book, binoculars and Polaroid sunglasses are often better and more reliable tools than an electronic chart plotter and GPS in these areas. You will often develop a sense of something that is not right and be able to react much faster if you switch off that plotter.
The track line that I put on the plotter to take us into to Wreck Bay in San Cristobal, Galapagos would have taken us straight on to the reef if I had followed it. Eyeball navigational to see the light brown, light blue and deep blue colors of the sea to give you a good idea of depth or the position of the channel is very important in these regions. The way that the waves break or the sea swirls may also help to locate rocks or currents. It is important that you post somebody on the bow of the boat or even on the first crosstree on the mast because your depth gauge will only detect a coral bommie (coral outcrop often in the form of a pillar) after you have hit it. If there are other yachts in the bay or lagoon call them on the VHF radio and get them to check your alignment as you come in, do not be shy to ask them for advice as they have already successfully entered the lagoon. While waiting offshore I called the local police in Rangiroa in the absence of other yachts to check the slack water times in the pass before entering as we could visually see that there was a very strong current churning up large waves where the lagoon water met the ocean at the exit of the pass. The police called the local dive club and confirmed my calculation of the best time to run pass.While sailing off the coast of Colombia we struck a submerged container that had probably fallen off a cargo ship. We hit the container while sailing at close to 10 knots in pitch black conditions and the sound of the metal on metal impact with our aluminum hull is one I would be happy never to hear again. The container gouged the hull for 10 meters while making contact with the keel and the rudder. I am reasonably certain that many GPR (plastic) boats would not have survived the collision as the hull would have been ripped open and a ten meter tear below the waterline in a small yacht would be impossible to staunch. One of the reasons that I choose an aluminum hull to sail across the Pacific is that a surprising number of yachts hit reefs due to lack of navigation information and lack of ports that could be used to avoid anchoring during storms. Another safety feature of the open architecture of an aluminum yacht is that you can easily access the inside of the hull by pulling up the floorboards to see if you have been holed. On many modern designed GRP boats they use both internal moldings to stiffen the hull and pre – molded units for the heads/showers that restrict access to the hull. Within 30 seconds of hitting the container I had already pulled the floorboards up and was certain that we were not holed and the drive shaft was still connected to the motor. This allowed us to direct all of our attention to the damaged rudder gear. There has been a lot written concerning the vulnerability of rudders that do not form part of a full keel. Older types of sailing yacht had a long keel running all the length of the hull and ending with a rudder hinged off the back of the keel. During any frontal collision the full keel will protect both the drive shaft and the rudder. More modern yacht designs have shorter but deeper keels and the rudder is suspended from the back of the boat by a rudder post and is often several meters from the back of the keel. Whilst we were in the Canary Islands waiting to cross the Atlantic Ocean a 50 foot modern European designed yacht was lost during a storm due to the loss of its rudder and eventually broke up on the coast of Lanzerote. The crew of the boat launched the life-raft only to find that the painter (strap) used to inflate the raft had not been attached to the raft and therefore would not inflate. Fortunately they were rescued by helicopter and survived. A 53 foot racing yacht was abandoned 60 miles south of the Canary Islands at the start of the 2009 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) having lost their rudder. The crew were rescued by helicopter and an attempt was made to tow the boat back to the Canary Islands however the deck cleats were not strong enough to withstand the towing force and neither was the deck stepped mast. Most offshore and many coastal yachts have emergency steering systems but these do not include a spare rudder due to its size, weight and the structure required to mount the rudder on the transom. We carried a 1.5 meter long and 0.6 meter wide board made out of marine plywood. Two rows of holes were drilled in the leading edge and the rows were spaced to just less than the width of my spinnaker pole. The pole could be attached to the board by “sewing” a rope through alternate holes in each row to form a rudimentary rudder. The end of the spinnaker pole could be controlled by lines leading to the cockpit’s primary or secondary winches and using a transom attached fulcrum. Whilst I think this arrangement could assist the steering of the boat in calm weather in the event of the loss of our rudder I have no doubt that it would be incapable of steering the yacht upwind in rough weather. As our planned route was downwind or at least with the wind behind the beam and with the Jordan series drogue to cope with holding the stern to the oncoming waves in extreme weather we felt at least we had a partial solution to rudder loss. The Jordan series drogue is a long thick rope with a large number of small cones made out of nylon sewn into the rope and a 10- 15 kilo weight attached to the outboard end. The drogue is attached by a bridle to the stern of the boat and this will not only slow the yacht to 1-2 knots in a survival storm but it will also hold the stern of the boat perpendicular to the waves. Any yacht will capsize if it is exposes its beam (side) to large breaking waves that are greater than half the length of the yacht or one and a half times the width of the beam of the boat.
If the stern or bow of the yacht are held perpendicular to the wave fronts the yacht can withstand much larger waves and the limit is only reached when the vessel is pitch-poled ( forward summersault mast over bow) either forwards or backwards. The typical nightmare scenario in a survival storm is that even under bare poles (no sails hoisted) the yacht is accelerated down the steep slopes of large wind driven waves until the bow eventually buries itself in the back of the previous wave and either stops dead to be rolled by the following wave, goes “down the mine” (meaning the yacht continues to bury itself in the wave at a sharp downward angle and the momentum of yacht is sufficient to overcome its buoyancy and sinks through swamping) or is pitch poled. None of the outcomes are happy ones and the reason that this occurs is that the energy that has to be dissipated from the instant stopping of the high speed mass of an ocean going yacht is very large. This energy is directly related to the speed and mass of the yacht. You cannot change the mass (weight) of the yacht at sea but you can change the speed. By deploying the Jordan Series drogue the boat will jog downwind at 2 knots retaining some forward momentum for steering and allow the crew to go and rest below decks and wait for the storm to pass. There are no recorded incidents of a boat being capsized that had deployed a Jordan. The device was invented but never patented by a Canadian coastguard, called Mr. Jordan; there is little commercial interest in the device as no-one can own the design. There are many other single cone or parachute devices commercially available however the Jordan is able to “catch “the boat being accelerated down large waves within two seconds due to the presence of cones all the way down the rope. The other drag devices have a large cone at the outboard end which can pull through the face of the following wave and therefore can fail to provide sufficient drag when you need it the most. Another issue is the elastic line stretch of a long single cone drogue can delay the time until the drag becomes effective. The parachute devices used to hold the bows of the vessels into the on-coming seas are called sea anchors and are designed to stop the boat as though it’s anchored offshore. One of the issues with these devices is the requirement to have very strong attachment points on the bows and bullet-proof anti-chafe gear on the rope/bridle exit from the bow. I believe all of these devices have their uses and a parachute may be a better option if your priority is to hold sea-room against a lee-shore (meaning you will take longer to hit the coast with the wind blowing your yacht on-shore if you point your bows into the wind and deploy a parachute) then if you jog downwind with the Jordan drogue deployed from the stern. There are however additional issues depending on the type of yacht you sail, our yacht is an ultra-light, meaning it is very light for the size of its sails and it has a deep but narrow bulb keel with a low surface area. It is half the weight of an average cruising yacht of the same length. These types of yachts do not sit quietly behind a sea anchor but tend to sail upwind even without sails this can be particularly hazardous as the boat is far more likely than a heavier yacht to turn beam-on (sideways into the on-coming waves) and get rolled and for this reason the Jordan was my only logical choice. If anyone wants further information read “Heavy Weather Sailing” by Peter Bruce or the UK government inquiry into the 1979 Fastnet sailing disaster.
Medical emergencies occur at sea and most of us are not fortunate enough to have a medical doctor on-board. We had attended first-aid courses before leaving and we had also attended a seminar covering the issues specific to offshore sailing. We purchased and carried on-board medical books targeted at illness and injury at sea. We also consulted with our family doctor, Doctor Sharara who prescribed a year’s worth of medication. We had both an iridium sat phone and a short wave radio so that we could access shore-based advice if necessary and we used the phone on one occasion in the middle of the Pacific to call Doctor Sharara (it was probably five a.m. for him). There is sufficient material written about this subject that is easily accessible over the internet and there are some very complete medical packs that are now sold specifically for offshore sailing. I even had a portable defibrillator on-board which I used to wake up my wife for her night watches……just joking.
Finally, I would say that safety offshore is also a state of mind of being cautious in terms of pushing the boat and the crew too hard. Whereas during my regatta days speed was my principle concern and while I would adhere to the required safety regulations we sustained various, fortunately, minor injuries over the years often caused by the crew trying to perform tasks and maneuvers as quickly as possible to save time round a buoy, flying a spinnaker in marginal conditions, reefing as late as possible, using the smallest ropes possible, crash tacking in close quarter situations and other risky tactics. Offshore the priority is getting to your destination safely and in good physical shape, it is the difference between a sprint and a marathon. The first is based on speed the second is based more on endurance. If you set off on an ocean crossing by pushing a heavily loaded cruising boat to its limits it is likely that at best you will have a long repair list to deal with before reaching your destination