It only took 24 hours on the Atlantic Ocean to teach me a few valuable lessons. The first thing is probably the most important. Experience counts. You can read about all the things in the world you think you might need to know, but once you get out there you realize there’s always things and situations that you weren’t expecting. There’s no chance of preparing yourself for something that you have no understanding of. It just isn’t possible… And it’s not possible to fully understand something until you’ve experienced it. Atleast not for me. I need to see to understand most things. That’s part of what drives my need to travel and explore. Reading about something is never enough.
A Few Offshore Lessons
When the radio changed it’s tune from the decent forecast to the nasty gale warning and small craft advisory, a more experienced sailor than I would have known what to expect, and possibly made the decision to turn around and wait out the weather. But, all the reading I’ve done and the limited experience I have told me that a little squall would be manageable and we had a few techniques to get us through. In the big picture, that was all true. The storm really wasn’t so bad, we handled it well enough…But, both us and the boat were completely unprepared for even a small storm.
The question is, how could we have known this without ever being in a storm before? The boat looked prepared. We felt prepared. But, we weren’t… Why? Because reading just isn’t good enough There’s no substitute for real life experience, on any level. The only way to know if you’re boat can handle a storm, is to take it out in a storm. The only way to know if you can manage a boat in storm conditions is to go sailing in storm conditions. That’s all there is to it.. Do you know what 7 foot sea’s will be like? I thought I did… I’ve seen pretty big seas in the Gulf of Mexico as well as some violent chop in Lake Michigan. But I’ve never seen 5-7′ violent chop on the Atlantic Ocean There’s nothing to compare it to.
So how do you get experience? You go out sailing in conditions that are less than ideal. Once you’re used to that, you go out in squally conditions, then storm conditions. You experience them nearshore and offshore. You anchor out in a storm, you sail into port in high winds, you shut your engine down and pretend it doesn’t work, you turn off the electronics and see if you can find your way home… You build upon your experience in a deliberate manner. Small steps would be best.
This is called the Shakedown. A boat needs to be shaken down thoroughly. But it’s one of those catch 22 situations. You don’t want things to be breaking while you’re sailing offshore. But how do you know what’s going to break until you take it offshore? Most people solve this problem by throwing money at it. They just replace everything, buying new gear and overbuilding everything before they ever even leave the dock. I’d say that’s a viable strategy if you have the money. But I don’t have that luxury and I’m sure most people reading this don’t either. So we’re left with only one option, the adventurous option And the smaller steps option. Taking the boat out in progressively worse conditions until you’ve experienced enough to satisfy your curiosity, as well as work out all the kinks in the boat (and there will be kinks!).
Weather and Sea State; the two biggest surprises… This particular storm was very fast moving. I should have known considering it was a good forecast all day, then it suddenly changed. The sudden change in forecast should have tipped us off that we were in for more than we bargained for. But in our minds, ‘a squall is a squall, we can handle a little rain and wind once we get offshore’ What we didn’t expect was to be hit full force with this storm before we even made it out of the channel. From the time the storm was forecast to the time we saw it on the horizon was about 1 hour (right about the time the motor died!). From the time we saw it on the horizon until it was directly over us was about 1-2 hours. So, we were two hours out before we had any real indication things were gonna get bad. But, two hours out is a long way to turn around and sail directly into the storm and then attempt to find an anchorage in those conditions, without a motor… So we were stuck in it. The biggest problem we had with the storm is that we were much too close to land to employ most common storm tactics. We had to keep sail up and keep sailing away from land, there just wasn’t any other option. So if you’re gonna plan on being in a storm, try to plan on it being as far offshore as possible. Land and shallow waters are what breaks boats, not the sea (usually). It’s far more dangerous to be 10 miles offshore than it is to be 100 miles offshore. The common way of thinking is “if we stay close to land then we can run into an anchorage if the weather gets bad”. That’s all fine and good if you have a fast boat and a good running motor. But what if the motor is out? What tactics will you use to ride out the storm then?
The further you are offshore the more storm tactics you have available. We drifted nearly 20 miles in the 8 (or so) hours we were hove-to (or just drifting). And we weren’t even 20 miles offshore…We got real lucky on that one. The first part of the night, after the storm, the wind was too light (or non-existent) to sail in any direction. So we were just drifting, luckily away from the shoals… Then later in the night when the winds came back, we were able to heave-to, and it was just luck that our hove-to position pushed us in the right direction. At that point we couldn’t sail at all because the halyards were so tangled in the rigging, so we had to wait for daylight before we could even see the problem or try to fix anything. We literally could not control the direction of the boat almost the entire time from the start of the storm until the next morning when we fixed the sails. This lack of control was dangerous, to say the least… and brings me to the next lesson.
Boat preparedness; The boat boat needs to be ready before any real offshore sailing. There’s a lot more to “seaworthyness” than the design and build quality off a boat. Those things are important, but there are many more important aspects to seaworthy vessel. This is why the ‘small steps’ approach to gaining offshore experience is really important. The tougher the conditions get, the more likely things are to break or become unmanageable. So you don’t want to just go out into a storm to see what breaks, since there’s a good chance Everything will break all at once
When you’re sailing in good conditions and something breaks, it’s usually fairly manageable. I remember my mainsheet parted while tacking out of the Choptank River. The wind was around 15kts and the bay wasn’t too rough at that point. It wasn’t too difficult to wrestle the boom under control, heave-to, and go about making a new mainsheet. But if that would have happened in the middle of this storm, then what? a violent jibe of the boom could take the whole mast down, and there’s no way I could have controlled the boom by hand in any higher winds. There’s good reason for having that 4-1 purchase on the mainsheet So the point is, because it was mild conditions, it was manageable. But, if I had just set out into a storm, it would have been completely unmanageable. So you go out in mild conditions, see what breaks, fix it. Then go out in a little worse conditions, see what breaks, fix it. etc.. etc.. until you know everything on the boat is as sturdy as it can be. And you know that when things do break, you have the parts and ability to fix them, since there’s always a chance of something breaking on a boat, no matter how new or well proven it is.
Having spares and backup parts is important. You gotta be able to fix something when it breaks. But fixing things at the dock is completely different than fixing them at sea…. How well does your boat sail to windward with the jib alone? Probably not too well… so how do you sail back into a windward anchorage after you lose the main sail? What if you’ve lost your jib, does your boat heave-to with the main alone? Can you control the boat with no motor and only one sail long enough to fix the other one? If conditions change rapidly, can you shorten sail fast enough? Can you shorten sail enough to sail through a gail? You might need an extra reef point in the main, or a smaller storm-sized jib for certain conditions, but you’ll never know by reading alone…
Motors are unreliable. Even the best of them… You have two choices, either learn how to handle the boat in all conditions under sail alone. Or have a bunch of spares for the motor and the know-how to trouble shoot a problem, and the tools and experience to fix it at sea. Obviously, I don’t think I can afford to buy all the spares I could possibly need, so learning to sail this boat really well is on the top of my list of priorities these days… Chances are, when the motor goes out, it’ll be at the worst possible moment… Ours quit right in the middle of a very narrow shipping channel, with a storm approaching our stern, building seas, a heavy current, and shoals on both sides of us! We didn’t have time to assess the problem. Even if we did have spare parts for the motor, we would never have been able to fix it in that situation. All we could do was start sailing, directly upwind, tacking through the channel and doing our best to avoid a collision. But just as we gained enough ground to start actually sailing, we were hit with more wind than our sails could handle. The storm kept us extremely busy, to say the least No chance of fixing the motor then… After the storm (and this was a short storm)? well, we were absolutely destroyed, physically and mentally… No chance of fixing the motor then… What about the next morning, after we hove-to all night and then got the sails working again? Let me just say that sea-sickness has a way of setting in whenever you try to focus on something down in the cabin. No chance of fixing the motor then… So even if we had the spares and the knowledge, they both would have been useless for a very long time. It was sailing and luck alone that got us through.
There’s a lot of smaller lessons about sailing in general that I learned during this experience, but I think I’ll have to experience them a few more times before I have any authority to write about them…So, let me just touch on a few more things.
Cockpit clutter really wore on my state-of-mind. There’s nothing worse than tripping over things in a storm… Bungling about in the cockpit, and being on deck, are the two most dangerous things you can do on a small boat in a storm (or even just offshore in good conditions). It’s imperative that the cockpit and decks are clutter free, at all times, on a small sailboat.
About going on deck… It’s freakin scary! Being tied to a tether does very little towards making you feel safe on deck. You’re holding on for dear life up there. We didn’t have our sealegs so it was probably 10 times worse being our first day out than it would be several days into a longer trip. Going up to the mast is bad enough, but going out to the foredeck is absolutely terrifying in the type of seas we were in. The worst part about is, on most small boats, once you get past the cabin-top, there’s nothing to hold onto. How can you hold on for dear life when there’s nothing to hold onto!? Foredeck handholds are top priority for me on this boat before going offshore at all. I don’t care if you have the best roller furler in the world, always plan on going on deck and figure out what it will take to make it as safe as possible. Lifeline netting and tethers aren’t what I’m talking about either. When you’re hand is gripped around something solid, you feel safe. Having a piece of rope “just in case” does not…. I don’t ever want to be on the foredeck without something to hold onto again.
Although, when it comes time, you really have no choice… The feeling of being powerless against nature is a powerful thing. When you gotta go on deck to fix something, you’re doing it because you have no other choice. You don’t have the option to say no, or the power to make any other decision except the one that has been givin to you. It just has to be done and you’re the one to do it, like it or not… This level of powerlessness runs deep on the ocean. You can’t control the wind and the waves, no matter how much you hate them, how much you scream at them, how many times they knock you down… no matter what, you’re stuck in it! It’s not going away and you can do absolutely nothing but deal with it. Also, I used to worry about lightning strikes… But, when you’re surrounded by lightning you quickly understand that it’s completely out of your control. There’s nothing you can do. You can’t “duck” away from it, you can’t sail around it, you’re rubber shoes aren’t going to help anything, you can’t just avoid touching the mast when you gotta go foreward. You’re completely powerless, and there’s nothing you can do in that situation except pray and then do whatever it is you gotta do to keep the boat going.
So, having a seaworthy boat is important. But it takes experience to make a boat seaworthy. It’s not the particular brands of gear, or what type of keel the boat has that matters. It’s how well you can manage the boat in whatever situation you find yourself in. Maintaining control of the boat is the absolute top priority, but how do you control the boat when there’s no wind? Or when you the only direction you can sail, is the wrong direction?
What do you do when the motor quits? Can you sail downwind with nobody at the helm while you’re on deck? Can you sail upwind without a mainsail? Can you fix either of the sails when something on them breaks? Are your lines going to get tangled up and cause a problem? Are your sails small enough for heavy winds? If your electronic navigation goes out, in the dark, with no visibility, will you know where you are, or you’re going?
These are the types of questions that can only be answered with experience. Nobody can tell you the answer to these. Not even those experienced people writing books and talking on forums, they can’t answer the questions for you and your boat. I’m guilty of this myself… I don’t ever want to tell people what’s best for them… All I can do is relate my experiences and hope it helps out. But, mostly I just hope it’s fun to read, and maybe provides a little inspiration. I don’t think there’s anything more important in this entire life than going ‘out’ and getting experience. Whatever it is you want to do, go do it… The important thing is that once you do something, you become better qualified to do the next thing. Build one thing upon the other… Take smaller steps if you need to… it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re out there doing something rather than just dreaming about it.