Any sort of offshore trip requires preparation. Here are some tips to make sure you have your bases covered whether you're heading out for a weekend or an ocean crossing.
After years of planning, sailing, and scheming, my husband and I, along with two friends, decided it was time to take our sailing adventures to the next level: long-distance ocean crossings. We did what any rational people would do. We quit our jobs, sold our house, bought a boat, and began prepping.
None of us had ever gone on a long-distance ocean crossing before, but we didn’t let that stop us. We relied on the knowledge and experience we gained from racing and shorter adventures to help us formulate our offshore sailing strategy.
Always Make Sure to Check the Weather, then Double Check It
My husband and I got married on the beautiful shores of Beaver Island, a large, remote island in northern Lake Michigan. Sailors at heart, we threw caution to the wind and took our 19-foot O’Day Mariner the thirty-two nautical miles to the island instead of riding the ferry. As we departed the dock for a night sail, the skies were clear.
Six hours later, we could see St. James Harbor on the north end of the island, but the winds began to pick up. A few hours after that, we were surfing down waves at double-hull speed. At first it was fun and exhilarating, but it soon became overpowering. Looking back, I’m glad the sky was black and the moon was just a sliver. If I could have seen the waves towering over the small craft, I may have realized how much danger we were actually in.
We’re now religious about checking the weather, no longer leaving the dock on a whim (an amateur move). We prepare before each leg of our trip by checking all of our favorite weather sources, including: NOAA weather buoy information, Windyty, Sailflow, The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, Passage Weather, and much more. We also purchased a satellite phone so we can access weather information while offshore, as well as getting updates on our single sideband receiver.
Know the Limits of Your Crew Members
It’s important to keep in mind the physical and mental limits of each individual on your boat. When choosing your crew, make sure you trust the people you are with. These are the same people that may have to rescue you, tend to your injuries, or help you keep your boat afloat. Make sure you choose people you feel are capable, confident, and trustworthy. Go for a few practice sails with your crew in good and bad weather. Make sure that your crew understands safety procedures and knows where your supplies are located. Most importantly, make sure everyone is aware of their role on the vessel.
Apart from lifesaving matters, you’ll also spend great amounts of time in very small quarters with your crew. If you know the most experienced sailors, but you can’t get along, it’s worth your time to keep looking for the right crew for your adventure.
Go Racing, Even if You Hate It
As a cruiser, I’ve always enjoyed the relaxed, slow pace of sailing: watching the way the bow cuts through the water, the sound of the wind and the waves propelling the boat slowly forward, the occasional seagull. But boy am I glad my husband insisted on me racing in our local league.
I had always envisioned racing as a bunch of testosterone-filled men yelling at one another as they jockey for the start line. I assumed I would mess things up, costing them the race (and me my pride). It would be the kind of high-pressure situation I avoided in my cruising lifestyle.
I was right. My first race was on an Olson 30 with a crew that had been sailing together for decades. I was scared, intimidated, and paralyzed. For the first few races I watched and learned as I slowly began participating. Sure, I was yelled at. I opened clutches when I shouldn’t have, I couldn’t remember which halyard was which, and more than once I may have been responsible for costing the seasoned team a race. But racing boats also prepared me more for cruising than cruising ever had.
Racing forced me to make quick decisions in stressful situations. It taught me how to work with a team and how to communicate quickly and effectively, without self-doubt.
Enter enough races and push the boundaries hard enough and you’ll do more sail changes and maneuvers in one hour of a race then you may do during an entire ocean crossing. You’ll learn the limits of a vessel and what happens when you push it to the brink. You will learn, you will grow, and you will be a better, more capable cruiser because of it.
Have the Necessary Safety Gear, and Then Some
In 2012, my husband, two friends and I took a trip to Lake Superior to spend a few days boating around Grand Island and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We set up our home base on the north end of the island, and the next day packed our tender with all the things we thought we would need to explore the sandstone cliffs: a cooler with snacks and drinks; our swimsuits, towels and extra clothes; an extra gas can, knife, and a lighter.
It was a beautiful northern Michigan day, not a cloud in the sky. There wasn’t another soul in sight. Then we saw a Coast Guard vessel round the corner and approach our boat. After a quick hello and small talk, the Coast Guard asked to see our registration and to provide proof that we had all the required safety equipment. We provided our registration, showed them our throw-able and then got out one, two, three lifejackets. My face turned red as I tore apart everything in our small boat. We had packed everything we could possibly need, except for the required amount of lifejackets. I was mortified that I couldn’t produce it, but even more embarrassing was that I could have put one of our lives at risk.
The officers were nice, but they wrote us a ticket (which I deserved). To this day I am thankful that the Coast Guard was there. It left a big impression on me and made me realize the importance of double-checking all our safety equipment every time we leave the boat.
Before going offshore, make sure every crew member knows the emergency drills and where emergency supplies are stored. On Further, we now carry two lifeboats and have a fully stocked ditch bag. Each member of our crew has a PLB attached to their lifejackets. We have a medical kit that I’m sure rivals that of an EMT, and each member of our crew is first-aid trained.
On the water, your crew and your equipment are your only safety net. Double check it. Triple check it. Practice redundancy. It may save your life one day.
Preparing to go offshore for the first time can be scary. Instead of jumping right in, start with smaller trips and learn from your mistakes. Those experiences will help you become a confident and capable offshore cruiser in no time. How do I know? I did it myself!