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Offshore sailing skills: All you need to know

What does it really take to step up from coastal cruising to offshore sailing? Rachael Sprot talks to crews about essential offshore skills

A small yacht sailing offshore
Small yachts rely heavily on sail power alone, making for a fulfilling or potentially frustrating experience. Credit: JK Maxi

‘Give me five minutes to chop down a tree,’ the woodsman says, ‘and I’ll spend the first three sharpening the axe’. This philosophy holds true for offshore sailing, but the proportions are more unbalanced.

For many taking part in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC), the three-week crossing is the culmination of years of preparation. But apart from time, what else does it take to get into ocean sailing? I spoke to the crews of the 2021 ARC to find out.

The 2021 event was the 36th year of the supported Atlantic crossing. Despite all the disruptions of the last few years the Rally has never skipped a beat. The usual start date for the 2,700-mile route is November, but this year, due to demand, a second departure in January 2022 was offered.

The ARC+, which goes via Cape Verde, has also increased in popularity and now finishes in Grenada. The route makes good use of the trade winds which are more reliable at the lower latitudes, and shorten the journey, which makes it a top choice for families.

However, tragedy struck this year’s ARC just under a week into the crossing. Max Delannoy, skipper of Agecanonix, died following an accident in gale-force winds with a 4-5m sea state.

An ocean crossing is a great time to try astro-navigation, even if it’s an optional extra. Photo: Emily Morgan/Anna Black

There were two other crew members on board; father and son Jean Philippe and Philippe Anglade. Philippe was also injured. They issued a Mayday and MRCC Ponta Delgada guided the rescue, diverting the cruise ship, Mein Schiff, to assist. The two crew and the body of Max Delannoy were evacuated. Agecanonix has since been recovered, assisted by the Yellow Brick tracker which continued to transmit its position.

Emergency drills for offshore sailing

The importance of emergency drills and safety training came into sharp relief when Charlotte Jane III, a Hanse 588, suffered catastrophic steering damage and the five crew took the decision to abandon the vessel. They were approximately halfway between Gran Canaria and St Lucia when the situation deteriorated to the point where it was no longer safe to remain aboard.

The single spade rudder has two totally independent steering systems. Theoretically the standby system should be isolated from harm when not in use, but for unknown reasons, both systems were damaged beyond repair.

Hanse does not supply an emergency tiller with the 588 because the tender garage impedes access to the rudder stock. However, if the tender is removed there is an access port to the stock and it does have an emergency tiller fitting.

Getting into a liferaft in rough conditions was treacherous, let alone getting out of it. Photo: WCC/ Magic Dragon/Dorothy Halling

The crew deployed the drogue to stabilise the boat whilst repairs were attempted, but the boat was thrown around in the swell.

An Oyster 55, Magic Dragon of Dart, was an hour away when the crew received a Mayday call, and stepped up to assist. The 30-tonne blue-water cruiser was crewed by Rod and Jane Halling, their three young children Dorothy, 9, Peter and Vera, 4, Rod’s elder daughter, Lizzie, and experienced sailor Craig Gray.

The conditions for the transfer were treacherous with strong winds and 3-4m swell. The Hanse’s drogue hampered the approach angle and the swell posed a risk of the rigs clashing if they came too close together, so the five crew had to abandon to the liferaft for the transfer.

It was successfully accomplished, thanks to the seamanship and experience of those involved. After recovering from the initial shock, the skipper of Charlotte Jane III fixed Magic Dragon’s broken watermaker and the two crews became fast friends. The Hanse 588 has been recovered and is safely in St Lucia.

Reflections on a rescue

The crews identified several important lessons from the incident:

The liferaft didn’t inflate immediately. It took several attempts to trigger the cylinder, which takes much more effort than you think.

Getting into a liferaft from a vessel which is pitching was difficult and dangerous. The Hanse has high topsides for her length, and the crew had to jump down into the raft. Once detached, it took some time to drift far enough away from the Hanse for rescue to be attempted. The liferaft drogue was not deployed, but the large pockets of water ballast reduce leeway to a minimum.

Rod initially approached the liferaft to windward, as you would during an MOB drill. However, there was a serious risk that the Oyster would be thrown onto the raft by a big wave so he changed tactics and left it to windward – an important lesson when dealing with big waves you often find offshore sailing.

Offshore sailing course

A recent sea survival course contributed to the success of the rescue

The crew could not find a way of securing the raft alongside. Magic Dragon threw them a line, which the skipper of Charlotte Jane III clung onto whilst everyone else scrambled aboard.

This took huge physical effort from all parties. A throwing line is included in every liferaft SOLAS pack, but it isn’t actually attached to anything. There are only two strong points for securing a liferaft: that for the painter and that for the drogue. If you’ve cut the painter short, which may be the only option in an emergency, you could use the drogue line if it hasn’t been deployed.

Jane was in constant communication with the crew of Charlotte Jane III throughout. As well as managing the logistics of the operation, good communication like this inspires confidence in those being rescued.

The crew of Charlotte Jane III attended the Sea Survival course just before setting off. Magic Dragon had been practising MOB drills on the day the race started. There is no doubt that this training contributed to the success of the rescue.

Steering failure

Jeremy Wyatt of the World Cruising Club explained that steering failure has been the single biggest cause of abandonments during the offshore sailing rally’s 36-year history. It left me wondering what preparations other boats had made for steering failure, rudder damage and rudder loss.

Wolfgang Hass, skipper of Jeanneau 54DS Gian, emphasised the importance of having an effective emergency tiller set-up. ‘Most emergency tillers are very short and you don’t have much leverage,’ he explained. ‘I have had additional eyes welded onto mine so that I can attach lines to it and control it from a winch’.

Offshore sailing emergency tiller

Get familiar with your emergency steering, and try it out under way

He was also carrying some plywood boards, already epoxy coated, and he’d asked Sika (of Sikaflex) to equip him with whatever substances might be useful en-route. It was the fastidiousness that you’d expect from a Swiss engineer.

Richard Foulkes, owner of Sweden 390, Raven, had replaced his rudder bearings and steering cables prior to departure, and made regular inspections of the steering gear during the crossing. Being familiar with your steering gear, carrying spares and knowing how to fit them is an essential skill for ocean sailors.

Total rudder loss is a different ball game altogether, and many skippers were dubious about how easy it would be to steer with a floorboard lashed to a spinnaker pole.

Those with twin rudders have some redundancy, although the positioning further off the centreline and the fact that they’re nearly always spade rudders, arguably makes them more vulnerable in the first place. Traditional skeg-hung rudders are increasingly hard to find in modern designs; even Oyster have moved away from them.

Self-steering gear with an independent rudder was the only genuine answer to the question of total rudder loss when offshore sailing, but it won’t necessarily compensate for the reduction in directional stability, especially on fin keel boats. Many people were carrying drogues, which have proved effective for rudderless steerage.

The crew of Gian were well prepared for steering issues that large waves can cause. Photo: WCC/Gian/Wolfgang Hass

Although you wouldn’t want to test emergency-steering kit in challenging conditions when sailing offshore, you do need to spend time familiarising yourself with it, preferably at sea. The more you practise with it, the better it will serve you when you need it.

Setting up an autopilot correctly is important. You need well-calibrated inputs from your instruments to get sensible outputs. Remember to set it to wind angle and not the compass, to avoid an accidental gybe during wind shifts.

Autopilot failure is a demon that needs addressing. Spare motors and control units are essential. Make sure you know how to fit them before you set out offshore sailing. As Amel 55 Rupella discovered, there are situations where no amount of spares will help. Water ingress in her rudder compartment ruined the boat’s autopilot and the crew had to hand steer the rest of the way.

Like all technologies, autopilots can strip us of the ability to steer ourselves. For many people, the ARC is their first taste of big ocean swell. It’s important to get used to helming in those conditions, starting off in daylight when you have a horizon to watch.

Wendy Lainton was a member of the crew on board Sigma 38, Sam. The crew of five hand-steered all the way: ‘We had some pretty big seas. At night it took two people to helm: one person on the wheel and another to call out the true wind angle.’

Mark Zamaria, skipper of Dehler 42, Division, explained that they too didn’t want to rely on the autopilot as they’re so power-hungry.
Turning your autopilot off will also give you a feel for weather helm.

A powerful autopilot can mask the symptoms of being over-powered until it’s too late and you broach.

Offshore sailing headsails

Poled-out headsails are a more flexible sail plan than a spinnaker and can quickly be furled away in squalls, as on Jeanneau SO410 Amanaki. Photo: WCC/OliverVauvelle

Offshore sailing downwind

Poling out

Poled-out headsails were the go-to for most boats in the 20-25kn trade winds and is a classic downwind offshore sailing setup. Although much easier than running with the spinnaker, there were still several instances of bent poles and pole tracks sheared off the mast when using white sails. The pole requires careful set-up.

Spinnaker / genoa pole set-up

  • It needs to be firmly braced without any play.
  • Keep the pole horizontal: it is designed to be used in compression. If one end is higher than the other you risk bending it.
  • For headsails (not spinnakers) rig a snatch block or low-friction ring at the outboard end to run the sheet through. This will be kinder on the line than running it through the beak.
  • A separate guy is essential if the pole is to be independent of the sail.
  • The mast track is not designed for large, lateral loads. If you pole out a large genoa it’s tempting to pull the pole well aft to keep the sail tensioned, but if there’s a big squall or the headsail backs, the sideways pressure on the track can shear it off the mast.
  • If in doubt, roll up some of the headsail to reduce the angle of the pole, especially in squally conditions.
  • Carrying two poles allows you to pole out a second headsail on the leeward side, and provides some redundancy if things go wrong.

Use low-stretch lines and keep preventers tight to avoid shock-load failures. Photo: Poled-out headsails are a more flexible sail plan than a spinnaker and can quickly be furled away in squalls, as on Jeanneau SO410 Amanaki. Photo: WCC/Alan Cooke/Misty Mhor

Preventers

A gybe preventer, although never to be relied upon, is essential to crew safety, particularly when offshore sailing. With a substantial sea running and a big cross swell, the chances of a crash gybe were high this year. Several boats experienced preventer failure. Owing to the enormous loads involved, preventers need to be well designed.

  • Preventers should be led as far forwards as possible, and then back to the cockpit.
  • Shock loading can cause failure – make sure your preventers are kept under tension at all times.
  • Few decks are laid out with a designated preventer system so they often have a sub-optimal lead via cleats and fairleads. However, not every deck fitting will take the loads involved. Always check that the fittings you’re using are securely reinforced below decks.
  • Avoid creating a dangerous apex where the failure of a single fitting would be catastrophic. If you’re running lines through a block on the bow, soften the angle by taking it through a fairlead first.
  • Consult your rigger to help you design a safe system.
  • Ensure you have dedicated preventer lines and make a point of replacing them more frequently than your other running rigging. Don’t be tempted to use an old sheet or halyard which is already beyond its working life.

Chafe

Halyards that remain in the same position for days or weeks on end will suffer chafe to outer sheathes and then inner cores. Many yachts in this year’s ARC suffered multiple halyard failures, some to the extent that they could no longer fly a full set of sails.

The two lines most affected by chafe are headsail halyards and the preventer. Furling headsails tend to go up for the season and stay up, meaning the pressure point is never changed and there’s no opportunity for inspection.

Offshore sailing chafe

Stitch protective sheaths onto lines subject to high wear

Preventers often have excess movement and take complex routes around things like cleats and fairleads. These make for aggressive points of contact compared with the dedicated sheaves and blocks of other running rigging systems.

Chafe can be reduced by some simple measures:

  • Ease your halyards by an inch or two at dawn then tension them back up at dusk to move the pressure point.
  • Protect sections of line that are prone to chafe by removing the outer sheath from an old line and milking it onto the line you’re using. This works particularly well on preventer lines. Stitch the protective sheath into place carefully so as not to create a snag-point, and check the line runs smoothly through any blocks or sheaves before setting off.
  • Inspect for chafe on a twice-daily basis, using binoculars if necessary to check the masthead.
  • Spare halyards are a must for ocean sailing. Try to alternate using the port or starboard spinnaker or headsail halyards to share the wear and tear.
  • Carry a spare full-length halyard and know how to mouse it through by stitching or taping it to the old one. If you notice chafe on any line then replace it proactively.
  • Allowing sails to flog accelerates chafing. When a full main sail flogs in light airs and a rolly swell, tightening the outhaul or putting in a reef will reduce the belly and stop it building up so much momentum.

Jury Rigging

Gear failure is par for the course when offshore sailing and is something all ocean sailors must contend with. It’s important to be able to make do and mend. The crew of Calash, a Sweden 45, had various problems with their powerful, fully battened main: four cars broke and the vertical gooseneck pin pulled out when the roll pin, which secured it sheared, twice.

They had a good set of spares on board to replace the broken cars, and with the help of some threaded bar and ingenious lashing the boom was secured well enough for the crossing.

Jury-rigging solutions are part of ocean salling, like Ruth II’s lashing and purchase to replace the failed hydraulic vang. Photo: WCC/Ruth II

The team aboard Misty Mhor managed to repair their damaged pole track en route, with skipper, Jon Moss, described as a ‘master mender’ by his crew.

Division chafed through their second reef and since there was no third reef point on the sail, they made do with their tri-sail for some of the crossing. They’d practised setting it before heading off so the process was relatively straightforward.

‘Gear failure was very much on our minds from the start,’ explained owner Patricia Zamaria. ‘We were vigilant about checking the boat over during the crossing.’ Ollie Vauvelle, skipper of Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 410, Amanaki, fixed the mast fitting for their spinnaker pole by cutting up an old bicycle lock.

It takes a good set of tools, determination and imagination to make effective repairs at sea with limited resources, but it’s amazing what can be overcome if you set your mind to it.

Regular deck walk-rounds, plus crew training, will help you spot issues before they become serious. Photo: Emily Morgan/Anna Black

Gear failure can have unforeseen consequences. The watch system breaks down whilst repairs are made and crew may become fatigued.

If one sail is out of action the sail plan is unbalanced, making the motion less comfortable and helming more difficult. This may lead to an increased likelihood of rounding up in squalls or crash-gybing. The reduction in boat speed also increases voyage time, putting additional pressure on resources such as food, gas and water.

Things to check on a daily deck walk when offshore sailing:

  • Standing rigging at deck level
  • All lines for chafe
  • Blocks
  • Shackle-seizings
  • Gooseneck, vang and mainsheet fittings
  • Guardwires and jackstays

Offshore sailing routing

Routing is one of those things that it is impossible to get completely right, except with hindsight. Technically there are three routing options: follow the Great Circle; follow your compass down the rhumb line or follow the weather.

At the start of this year’s ARC there was a well-established high-pressure cell over the UK and another ridge north of the Canaries. This unseasonal picture meant that winter depressions were trapped much further south than usual.

The trade winds, which are normally within striking distance of the Canaries, were south of Cape Verde and blocked off from the fleet by a large area with no wind at all.

Offshore sailing routes

The ARC fleet split across a wide range. Racing crews stayed north for (a lot) more wind, and those wanting comfort went south, but still had breeze

It presented skippers with an unenviable choice: find wind on the edge of the low-pressure systems but be prepared to sup with the devil, or motor south to find the Trades by burning valuable diesel at the start of an offshore sailing passage.

After listening to meteorologist Chris Tibbs’ advice during the skippers’ briefing, nearly all the boats in the cruising division, where engine use is permitted, went south, many with jerry cans lashed to the side decks.

Their prudence was rewarded with more wind than expected, and most of them recorded a modest 18-36 hours of engine use. Those that took the northern route were less fortunate. They also experienced more wind than forecast, reporting gale-force winds at times.

These days most people have access to weather forecasts en route, allowing the plan to be refined as you go. But this year’s ARC was a potent reminder that no amount of technology can deal with the weather for you or relieve you of the decision-making process.

Many of the crews that stayed north encountered strong winds and rough conditions. Photo: WCC/Alan Evett

Routing skills are often hard won through experience, but you can short-cut some of the learning with good research:

Go traditional and consult the routing charts. Each ocean has one per month, but you probably only need to buy a couple: one for the way there and one for the way back. They’re a treasure trove of information accumulated through years of real-life observations.

Check the routing charts against current surface pressure charts in the run-up to departure to help you understand how typical the weather is.

Following the ARC fleet tracker, which has weather overlaid, is a good way to develop routing skills without getting wet feet.

Case Study

When a rogue water bottle landed in the sink on Cloud Jumper, it had surprising knock-on effects. The Jeanneau Sunshine 38 was sailed by Chris and Kerry Stevens and their two children, Alfie, 9, and Rose, 11. They’re all taking a year out for an Atlantic circuit. ‘It fell on our sink tap and led to it running our entire portside water tank dry before the pump overheated and shut down!’ Chris explained. With two young children on board and battling big seas,
this was the final straw and they diverted to Cape Verde to reset.

It was the right decision; they set off five days later with seven other boats who had also diverted. They came in last but with zero damage and smiles all round.

The family arrived safely, having made a wise choice to divert to Cape Verde. Photo: WCC/Cloud Jumper

The family took up sailing three years ago and have only owned the boat for eight months before the start of the ARC. I asked them what they’d learned during their first ocean crossing. ‘To reef before you need it,’ said Chris, a professor of engineering at Oxford University.

‘Watching for squalls on the radar, not trying to go too fast and being able to sleep in the daytime were also useful skills.’ Rose’s number one skill was not being seasick, and when I asked her how she managed it she advised ‘take the tablets early and don’t eat big meals’. Well done, Rose. Conquering your seasickness is no mean feat at any age!

Offshore sailing electrical systems

As boats become more technologically advanced, the spectre of electrical failure haunts us more than ever.

Almost everything on board these days relies on some form of electrical input: the autopilot, fridge, water-maker, navigation instruments, even the heads and the water systems on some yachts.

Old batteries give little to no warning before failing completely, and if one battery fails the entire bank becomes compromised. Before setting off it’s important to have a good charging system set up, and to test the health of your batteries, replacing any that are showing signs of deterioration.

Offshore sailing solar

A combination of wind and solar power, plus hydro provide a robust power regime. Photo: ARC/James Mitchell

Yacht power consumption and managing it is a top priority. ‘With six crew, and each one charging an iPhone or iPad, you can easily draw 10A, and that’s before the fridge, freezer or anything else is turned on,’ explained Wolfgang Hass of Gian.

Closely monitoring the state of charge and having more than one method of charging is essential. Most boats had wind generators and solar panels. Wind generators gave mixed performances on downwind legs due to the reduction in apparent wind, but they do well whilst sitting at anchor with the Caribbean trades whirring through them.

Solar panels were reported to be a powerful asset during the day, but with 12 hours of darkness in the tropics, some yachts experienced better output during the long daylight hours in Scotland last summer than they did on their way to the Caribbean.

Hydro-generators are fairly new to the scene. Those who’d fitted them were impressed by their output in this year’s fast sailing conditions but they are disabled by weed. For those running electric winches and air-conditioning, diesel generators were often the only thing that would keep up with demand. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution and, unless your power consumption is very modest, you’ll need an omnivorous diet to keep everything well-fed.

Key electrical check points

  • Take time to understand your boat’s electrical system and invest in some training if you’re out of your depth on this one.
  • Wiring diagrams are really helpful and worth creating if they don’t exist already.
  • Identify the fuses for all important systems and take spares with you.
  • Get some training on DC fault finding so that you have basic multi-meter skills.
  • Carry spare inverters and voltage droppers if you have navigation systems that rely on them.

Decent food and well-run domestics makes life at sea more enjoyable as the crew of Emily Morgan found, above. Photo: Emily Morgan/Anna Black

Domestics

It’s a fragile existence at sea and the fabric of daily life can quickly unravel if you don’t tend to any loose ends. When we’re day-sailing, we reset every time we return to shore – offshore sailing we can’t do that.

‘It’s very often the domestics that get forgotten about,’ said Anna Black, ‘but the hard bit is the day-to-day stuff.’ Together with her husband, Bones, they run Emily Morgan, a Bowman 57 on which they’ve completed multiple circumnavigations. Bones added, ‘When things go wrong, it’s an accumulation of a number of small things.’

Maintaining a tidy ship may sound simple, but it’s surprisingly difficult when you’re sailing hard, especially with children or novice crew who are struggling with the conditions.

How to keep your boat shipshape

  • Make a rota system for cooking and cleaning to share the significant work of domestic life.
  • Everything should have its proper stowage place.
  • Don’t over-fill lockers as they’ll spill their contents when opened. Under-filling should be avoided too, as things will rattle around.
  • If you can, tackle routine jobs such as emptying the bilges as they arise rather than putting them off in the hope of completing the task during better conditions.

With thanks to the Gran Canaria Tourist Board and St. Lucia Tourist Board for their help in producing this feature


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