A good sailor learns from experience, or better, from the experiences of others. Theo Stocker looks back to see what seamanship and safety lessons we can take from this year’s events
‘My main take away from going overboard was how important it is to debrief and to get the crew to talk about it.’
Dee Caffari MBE is one of the world’s most experienced ocean sailors and skippers, having skippered a Volvo Ocean Race, a Global Challenge, a Vendée Globe, and the Barcelona World Race, as well as being the first woman to complete a westabout circumnavigation in 2006.
Nevertheless, in June this year, she found herself hanging over the side of a 50ft yacht, holding on by nothing more than a spinnaker sheet.
It was a sobering experience for her and the crew, and illustrates how no-one, however experienced, is immune from getting into difficulty at sea.
If you were to do a debrief of your season, what would you discover that you could have done better, and what close calls did you get away with?
Here are some lessons that some of the best sailors have learned in 2019…
1. Sail fast in big waves
It is a rare experiment that exposes a large group of standard cruising boats to the rigours of the Southern Ocean and a non-stop circumnavigation, but that’s what the 2018-2019 Golden Globe Race did.
Fewer than half of those who started finished the race, with several boats knocked down or dismasted.
Having been knocked over to 120º, Dutchman Mark Slats threw warps out astern to steady his Rustler 36 Ohpen Maverick, but found the boat hard to control.
Once he had fixed the windvane steering on his boat, he retrieved the warps and the boat ‘began to sail a lot better’. To minimise the impact of the waves and to gain control, he found that sailing at ‘maximum power’ with the waves was the best tactic.
Finnish sailor Tapio Lehtinen, agreed: ‘Having set the storm jib and lashed the mainsail down, I then kept the boat sailing as best I could, and keeping her pointing 15º off dead downwind, in order to avoid broaching.’
Yacht designer Merfyn Owen explained, ‘When a wave meets a boat, something has to happen to that wave’s energy. You are far safer going as fast as you can – so reducing the relative velocity of the waves hitting you.’
2. Sail for the weather
While some weather forecasts were received by radio on the GGR boats, yachts taking part in the Longue Route, a non- competitive one-and-a-half circumnavigation event in tribute to Bernard Moitissier, were allowed to use satellite communications.
Although half of the competitors also did not complete the course, there were no dismastings.
Regular detailed weather forecasts contributed to enabling this fleet to avoid the worst of the weather.
Dee Caffari explained, ‘With the weather information available these days, quite often you can choose your wind strength and sea state you are happy to experience and choose the appropriate path. Satellite comms allow greater levels of security and reliability and this extends not just to sharing communications material off the boat but also for safety and weather information.’
Sailors closer to home also found weather data invaluable.
Paralympic sailor Helena Lucas, who competed in the Azores and Back Race (AZAB) for the first time this year, told YM, ‘The Iridium Go and PredictWind Offshore App were essential.’
Susie Goodall, who also sailed in the AZAB following her return from the GGR, added, ‘Set up satellite communications, especially email, and routing software before leaving port. Although we obtained forecasts and race updates, we should have set this up beforehand so we could focus on racing.’
3. Stability is key
‘If I hadn’t shortened my mast by 1.5m [before the race] then I would have been dismasted. I am the only one to have capsized completely and still have his mast.’
GGR winner, 74-year-old Jean-Luc Van Den Heede, found that in heavy weather, having the most stable boat possible with as little weight aloft made him more seaworthy and faster.
Adding weight aloft, whether with radar and solar panels, or weight on deck can all have a significant impact on a boat’s overall stability.
4. Let your boat protect you
Kass Schmidt, who was sailing her 36ft custom-built Rob Humphreys boat, Zest in the AZAB, also spent a lot of time setting up her boat for shorthanded offshore sailing.
‘The main changes we made were aimed at making the boat easy to handle, with most tasks do-able from the front of the cockpit. Work included a new autopilot, reefing set up to allow the mainsail to be reefed from cockpit, non-overlapping blade jib on furler (easier to handle than the original big overlapping genoas), and new instruments and plotter enabling navigation from cockpit and below.’
In doing this, Schmidt was able to limit the number of times she needed to leave the safety of the cockpit for normal sail-handling manoeuvres.
Vendée Globe sailor and skipper of his seventh IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss, Alex Thompson has taken skipper protection to the extreme.
In an interview with Yachting World, he explained, ‘I wanted to stop being wet and I wanted to see more of what is going on.’
To solve this problem, he has moved the cockpit of his new boat to aft of the mast, and fully enclosed it. ‘To see the jib, on the old boats you’d have to come out, walk up the side of the boat, look, come back in, do some winding, then go back to look again. It’s unsafe.’
Few cruising sailors are likely to go this far, but boats like the new Bente 39 and the Garcia Exploration yachts already incorporate fully protective coach roofs.
What are the changes you could make to how you do things on board to reduce your exposure?
5. Improving awareness
Keeping a lookout is a fundamental part of good seamanship.
The new Hugo Boss carries seven moveable cameras, viewed on screens inside the enclosed cockpit.
This technology is already available for the cruising market.
The new Raymarine ClearCruise Augmented Reality software overlays a video image with data such as AIS targets and navigation marks.
While this may seem like a gimmick, it has huge potential for the correct identification of marks and ships and avoiding confusion in pilotage and collision avoidance.
The newly released Vesper Cortex system integrates VHF radio and AIS into a smart-phone-like handset, in which identification of a collision risk, making contact by DSC, and planning an appropriate course alteration is done with just three taps on screen.
Clear and quick, these system help make key data easily usable with the minimum opportunity for confusion.
6. No-one is immune
Professional sailor Dee Caffari was sailing on board a 50ft racing boat during the SoCal 300 from Santa Barbara to San Diego at the end of May this year when her boat was hit by a wave during the night.
The boat rolled to windward, and then to leeward when Caffari, who was trimming the spinnaker, found herself in the water, attached to the boat only by the spinnaker sheet she was holding.
‘The rule on the boat I was sailing was to wear a lifejacket when on deck and always clip on with your tether at night,’ explains Caffari. ‘At the time of the incident, I was not clipped on with my tether. I wanted to shout out to let them know where I was and that I was okay, but I was being pulled through the water by the spinnaker sheet that I was still holding onto.’
As the boat slowed down Caffari was able to reach a stanchion, from where she was pulled aboard.
‘My main lesson from this incident was how important the debrief of the incident is. I was fine but nobody spoke of it when I was on deck, yet when I went below they were all talking about what they heard, what they were doing, what they thought happened. The other take away was just how noisy flapping sails are at 25-30 knots. No one can hear each other while sails are being dropped.
‘It has not changed my view of safety or MOB incidents, as I was pretty firm on training, best practice and learning. I guess I should practise what I preach! The big change was actually clipping on when wearing a harness, even in the cockpit, as that was my mistake that caused the incident to take place in the first instance.
7. Clip on properly
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) published their report on the death of a Clipper Round the World Race crewmember earlier this year.
It stated that Simon Speirs was on the foredeck assisting with a sail change in rough seas when the boat accidentally gybed, throwing him overboard.
He was clipped on with his tether and harness and was dragged through the water.
A halyard was passed to him, but before he could attach it, the clip of his tether, which had lodged under a deck cleat, twisted and opened, allowing him to drift away from the boat.
By the time he was recovered, he was unconscious and could not be resuscitated.
While most cruising sailors would do well to emulate the seriousness with which Clipper crews train for man overboard recovery, few of us would have looked at our boats’ decks for snagging hazards should we fall overboard.
All Clipper crews use tethers with long and short strops, clipping on with the latter wherever they are working. For cruisers who often sail shorthanded, these practices should be taken even more seriously.
8. Know your lifejacket
We tested a large number of 150+N lifejackets suitable for offshore cruising this year.
While they all met the safety standards, we found a wide range of design and function.
Whatever their merits, we were struck by the importance of having hands on experience of how your lifejacket’s features work in the water.
When it comes to buying a one, there are also choices of which ones give the most freeboard, and what kind of harness attachment you want. In the water, these differences are critical.
As Dee Caffari notes on her man overboard, ‘We all feel invincible. It can often take an incident to be reminded, falling with the motion of the boat or being surprised by a big wave motion, or getting washed down the deck. Then in the more extreme case you hear of terrible accidents happening. The reality hits hard. I think most of us know it and maybe need to be reminded of it at times.’
So whether it’s your personal safety equipment, your boat setup or your processes, where could you improve?