Abby Ehler gives her advice and top tips on how to prepare a boat for the season ahead, from planning for the worst, to defining your goals, having a checklist for the start of the season is essential.
Abby Ehler has competed in three Volvo Ocean Races and run top race boats including Farr 40s, TP52s and the 76ft mini-maxi Nokia Enigma. She has also been a key player in shoreside management for the America’s Cup and SailGP. So there are few people in a better position to understand what it takes to prepare a boat and crew for the season ahead.
Ehler says she ‘fell into’ the world of boat captaining, but was delighted to discover she had a natural aptitude for it. “I enjoy the elements of boat captaining because it requires a lot of attention to detail, high levels of organisation and logistics. So I guess it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it works to my strengths,” she explains.
Even if this part of campaigning is something you put off, rather than relish, these tips from Ehler will get you on the right path to prepare a boat more efficiently and with much greater reliability.
Define your timeline
Identify the event where you want to be operating at your absolute peak and work out how many days, weeks and months you have before then. Once you’ve got your timeframe, split up the areas of work: rigging, winches and deck hardware, sails, the bottom of the boat, and mast.
Highlight your key dates, eg the date the mast goes in or boat launches in the water. Those deadlines will govern doing all your mast and associated rigging jobs, making sure that’s all checked and ready prior to that set date.
Likewise on the day the boat is launched you want to make sure your underwater surfaces, rudder bearings, and any underwater elements such as depth sounders have all been ticked off before the boat gets wet.
Sea trial first
As soon as the boat launches, you can guarantee the job list will increase tenfold. Then add crew into the mix, and the list will increase again. This is why it’s important to nail as many tasks as you can before the boat goes into the water.
It’s vital that your first sail after a long lay-off over winter is NOT a race, but a sea trial. After the boat has been out of action for a long time it’s really important just to have that time to shake things down. You want to test the systems without the pressure of racing.
Few shortcuts pay off in the long run. Pre-empt potential bottlenecks in your suppliers’ network and prevent any unnecessary stress and rushed jobs with last-minute demands and requests. Get your service orders in with the sailmaker, the boatbuilder and any contractors well before the summer rush begins.
When you’re out on the water too, make sure you do things in a methodical way. There’s often that person who wants to rush in and fix things using just their multi-tool rather than getting the right spanner. You can almost guarantee something will go wrong as a result of that rushed approach.
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Check your rig
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‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is another dangerous cliché. Just because you can’t see something below decks doesn’t mean it’s not going wrong. It could be that hydraulic ram right up in the bow. Or the steering cables, or the rudder bearings, which might involve crawling through some horrible, small cave to inspect them.
You want to fix everything you can fix right away: don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today.
Prepare a boat with checklists
When tiredness sets in, it’s easy to forget things. So I’ve used checklists I’d prepared before we left that would cover off all areas of the boat. One list was basically a quick walk through the boat checking for any chafe in the running and standing rigging including the steering cables, checking the hydraulics for any obvious leaks etc. This helps take the human error out of missing something or forgetting about it.
Another tip is that if you know you need an 8mm Allen key to adjust the steering quadrant, paint ‘8mm’ on the side of the quadrant so you’ve got that immediate reference. Same if you need to go aloft to do a wand change on the masthead: you only want to go up the rig once, and with the minimum of kit, not a heavy toolbag.
Expect the worst
Hope for the best but prepare for the worst is a useful approach in any scenario and particularly when you’re going on a long offshore. Be a sponge for information from people who have that particular race experience under their belts. Also know your boat inside out and be aware of any weak spots.
Make sure you’re carrying spares to cover off enough of the elements that could potentially stop you from finishing the race. Good preparation will put you in a much better place to weather the storm.
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