Category Archives: Safety

Safety at Sea Redux

IMG_6150I recently had the opportunity to attend another Safety at Sea seminar at the Annapolis Naval Academy with some of my crew. Although I have probably taken half a dozen of these courses in the U.S. and the U.K., I always look forward to them and come out learning something new.

Opening remarks, in typical fashion focused on recounting disaster stories and the people who lost their lives in various offshore races including the Fastnet Race in 1979. It is an eye opener for many people new to going offshore, as they realize how serious being away from land can be, how quickly events can deteriorate and disaster can strike.

safety locationsAfter the opening remarks and some much needed coffee, the day kicked into gear with the first session focused on care and maintenance of safety equipment. The one takeaway which I would recommend to everyone, is not just have the safety equipment on board, but to train with it as well. Does everyone know how to test inflatable life jackets and repack them afterwards? Are heaving lines and lifeslings properly faked (packed in their bags)? Have you tried throwing them to see that they come out smoothly? Do you and the crew know where all the safety equipment is? A picture can be worth a thousand words here!

IMG_6017Later in the morning, gears shifted somewhat to focus on MOB (man person overboard) prevention and recovery. The mantra was, “Be Prepared!” Know your equipment and know your crew. Know what each of their limitations are (both crew and equipment). Do you practiced MOB drills regularly?

I make it a habit to have each one of my crew members practice MOB recovery. But then, that’s me being selfish. If I were to ever fall overboard, I want to spend as little time in the water as possible! Another practice that I’ve established on my boat is a clear set of rules as to when to wear a lifejacket and when to use a safety tether. In general, if you’re uncomfortable on the water or seasick, wear a lifejacket. If the weather is rough or the mainsail is reefed, wear a lifejacket. If visibility is low due to fog or heavy rain, wear a lifejacket. And, ALWAYS wear one when sailing overnight. At least, those are the rules on my boat.

IMG_6010In the afternoon the Navy midshipmen put on an in-water MOB demonstration under demanding conditions: air temperature was 39 degrees, water temperature was 42 degrees and winds were a consistent 20-25 knots. Several different MOB recovery methods were demonstrated including a very impressive MOB recovery while under spinnaker. The latter was accomplished in less than 2 minutes!

Later, it was back to the lecture hall to listen to two people from NOAA’s Ocean Prediction Service talk about weather awareness and forecasting. The discussion focused on understanding surface charts (for offshore sailing), identifying growing thunderstorms and squalls and steps to take both prior to taking the boat out and also while out on the water. It basically boils down to knowing the forecast BEFORE you go out and continue to monitor the weather while you’re out.

DSC01171The weather discussion set the stage for the next session – heavy weather sailing. Granted, the concept of heavy weather sailing is relative depending on one’s experience. If your sailing experience has been in a protected harbor on a 24-27 ft boat then 20 knots can seem rightly intimidating. On a larger boat sailing offshore, it could be much more than that. Crossing oceans, weather systems can pack a quite the punch with high winds and big seas. When I crossed the North Pacific Ocean in Winter from China to San Francisco, 35-40 knot winds with 20 foot seas and blue skies was a good day. 60 knot winds and +40 foot seas less so!

Running with a poled-out Yankee

Again here, preparation (read practice, practice, practice!) and having the proper equipment is key. Do you have the proper reef points on your sails? If going offshore, do you have a storm jib and storm trysail? Have you practiced rigging it beforehand? Trying to hank on a storm jib on the bow in high winds and big seas is not the time to learn. Is everything down below stowed away so nothing can fly around potentially causing injury? Is the crew prepared, meals planned ahead of time? There is obviously much more to sailing in heavy weather, but it can be “fun.” Again preparation is key! Know your own, your boat and your crew’s limitations.

No Safety at Sea seminar would be complete without discussing medical issues and first aid. This year, the focus was on dealing with seasickness and hypothermia. Although many dismiss seasickness or mal de mer as the scourge of newbies, that is not the case. Given the right conditions, almost anyone can find themselves overcome by seasickness. After 30 years of sailing in sometimes challenging conditions, I thought I was. All it took was a bad storm several hundred miles off the coast of Japan with 50 knot winds blowing against the direction of the Kuroshio current and I finally understood what seasickness is all about!

I should note that seasickness by itself is not a medical emergency. It will subside after a few days at sea – it may not be pleasant, but it will subside. However, it can lead to symptoms that do need to be monitored, chief among those is dehydration. If you or one of your crew becomes seasick, it is vital that fluids are given (and a small garbage bag by his/her bunk!).

Prevention though, does wonders here. If someone is prone to seasickness, then medicine or other remedies should be administered before leaving the dock or before heavy weather hits. Underway, it can be helpful to stay on the deck and focus on the horizon. If someone is beginning to get seasick, giving him/her the helm can help significantly – provided the conditions warrant it. If it is challenging conditions you would want your better helmsperson to steer the boat.

All in all, I found it a great weekend seminar hearing new ideas and reinforcing old ones. It was also a great weekend for some of my new crew. They realized the seriousness of going offshore and how quickly events can deteriorate if you are not prepared. But, I think they also see that sailing/racing offshore with the proper preparation and focus on safety can be exciting and fun. One phrase I learned in the UK with my Clipper training, and always like to remind my crew, is that “safety never takes a day off, because danger never has a holiday.”


Kitting out for an Ocean Race

Is that a wave or a mountain?One of the questions I am often asked, is what do you bring with you for a race across one of the biggest and coldest oceans in the world?  One thing I can say, is that it will be a challenge, as I’m limited to just 25 kilos of clothing and gear to bring with me for a five- to six-week race across the North Pacific Ocean on a route that could take me closer to the Aleutian Islands than Hawaii.  This will be a race across seas where the waves can be the size of four story buildings, and temperatures can drop below freezing.

Kingsbury above Lake Tahoe

Layering for the cold is vital

Luckily, having grown up in Canada and other cold places, I can say that I am somewhat familiar with the concept of layering to keep warm.  In the case of the Clipper Race, the concept is the same, the only difference is that rather than having a closet or two of clothes to survive the winter months, I’ll only have one duffel bag to carry everything I need.

So, to start:

Sleeping Bag

Ocean Sleepwear – Thanks to fellow Clipper sailor, Paul Rayner, I had the opportunity to try this out for a week of sailing in 38 to 48 degree weather in the English Channel.  All I can say, is fantastic.  I stayed both dry and warm in the bag, notwithstanding the constant drip of condensation on my forehead.


Base Layer: Icebreaker – For base layers I am bringing Icebreaker 260 leggings and a combination of an Icebreaker 200 t-shirt, Icebreaker 260 half zip and Icebreaker 320 full zip.  Why Icebreaker?  Simple, it’s merino wool.  Actually, it’s because I think it is one of the best base layers that can withstand a week of wearing day in and day out without smelling!  And, it is great at staying warm even when wet.  I have tried various synthetic base layers before and although helpful in wicking moisture away from the body, tend to smell more and more with each passing day!

It may not be obvious, but sailing across an ocean in a stripped-down racing boat does not give much opportunity to wash clothes.  The only chance you will likely have to do laundry is roughly once a week when you are on mother watch and spend the day down in the boat cooking and cleaning for the other crew members.  But, it is hand washing only, and with no heat on the boat, the chance of anything drying on a northern ocean crossing in March is slim to probably non-existent.

Mid-Layer: Henri Lloyd Nero Jacket and Salopettes – The jacket and salopettes are waterproof and windproof and the jacket has a nice thick fleece inner lining.  I will try to bring a second set of mid layers as a backup so I can stay semi-dry as long as possible.  I find nothing worse than being wet through-and-through when it is nasty and cold up on deck.

Paul & Shark Watershed sweater – Not for everyone, but I do love this sweater!  It is warm, does not hold water, and has been a constant companion under my foulies for many a year on those miserable cold days when the rain comes horizontally.

Outer Layer: Henri Lloyd Ocean Pro Smock and Ocean Explorer Trousers – Henri Lloyd is one of the sponsors of the race, so these are the foulies you will get.  The smock is a challenge to pull over your head (both on and off), but it is warmer and drier than having a zipper to contend with.

Shoes: Dubarry Ultima boots – expensive, but, oh so worth it!  My feet have stayed warm and mostly dry in these on many a cold weather sailing trip.  I’ll see how they fare though on the race.

Also, keep a dry pair of shoes down below for walking around and going to the head (bathroom).  It can be a tad wet in there and you don’t want to be in socks!

Other Essential Gear

Spinlock knee pads – Great for kneeling over winches when it’s time to grind. These are often overlooked by people, but at least for my aging knees, much appreciated.

Gloves – I’m bringing two pairs.  Gill Helmsman gloves which I’ve used before and are not too bad (they’re not 100% waterproof but are mostly warm) and new to try are a pair of Sealskinz waterproof winter mittens.  I am hoping these do a better job at keeping hands warm for those long, cold, wet nights at the helm.  I don’t like to use gloves for ropework, instead I find it’s better to use my bare hands and then put them back in fleece lined pockets to keep warm.  Sailing gloves just get wet and stay wet.

Toques and balaclava – Bring an assortment of balaclavas and toques (also called beanies for the Americans).  You will lose a few, so bring spares.

Sunglasses – A few pair.  Knowing me, I will lose one or two on the trip.

Spex Amphibious Eyewear – Basically goggles for watersports.  These are great for at the helm when it is raining horizontally or when waves are breaking over the bow and rushing down the deck.

Petzl Headlamp – LEDs are the best, and you will need one with a red lens for night sailing.

Waterproof flashlight – Having a spot beam for checking distant objects (top of mast, the end of the spinnaker pole) is better than a headlamp which tends to disperse the light.

Multitool – I’ve had the Alinghi multitool from Wenger for many years, and this is a necessary tool for the boat (has a shackle key).  Make sure it is tied to you so you don’t accidently drop it overboard.

Handwarmers – These are air activated and good for 8 hours. They really work well when you slip them in your gloves when you’re at the helm or in your pockets when working the sheets or lines (ropes).  After your watch is done, they add warmth in your sleeping bag.

Quick dry towel – Not that it is likely to ever dry on the trip.  Also, it is unlikely that you will have a shower on board. Wet wipes will be your best friend!

Fanny pack – And you thought these things went out of style!  Great for keeping things in (chap stick, sun/wind cream, snacks, flashlight, spare toque) when heading up on deck.

Waterproof notebook – Good for jotting down notes/thoughts/musings while up on deck.

Skin protection – sun cream, moisturizer, or whatever protects your skin. It’s not just for sun burn, though.  Wind burn can be just as damaging for the skin as the wind dries out your skin and can irritate it.

Carabiners – These are good for organizing and hanging things from the bunk.

Dry sacks – The one constant on the boat is that everything will get wet if not stored in dry sacks.  Have several with different colors or that are see-through for organizing your clothes.  It’s much easier to find what you need when you are waking up to go on watch and don’t have a lot of time.

Surfing at 22 Knots!

Clipper Level IV Training

If there is one word to sum up the week I spent in July racing in the English Channel, it is damp, damp, damp. Dampness that permeates everything. Your clothes, your bunk, your sleeping bag. Dampness drip, drip, dripping down on you from the bunk above your head. A week, never dry, just different degrees of damp. Either damp out on deck from the rain, or soaked on the bow as waves crash over you trying to wash you down the deck. Damp!

But, it didn’t start out that way.

I arrived in Gosport under sunny skies a day early to victual for the coming week. That includes planning a menu for 15 people for 6 days and then going out food and supply shopping and staying within budget. Not an easy thing to do! Luckily Tom helped in the evening with the menu planning and Tim and Dale helped with the shopping the next morning. It was quite a challenge, but we managed to stay just within budget and hopefully had enough provisions for 15 hungry sailors for a week (fingers were crossed!).

Our first day started out pleasant enough with sunny skies and nary a breath of wind. The rest of the crew showed up during the morning while we were shopping and by noon, all were assembled for our safety and race briefing prior to the start of the week of the races. It was great to see some familiar faces. Andrew, Dale and I had sailed together previously and we were looking forward to sailing again this week. After the crew briefings, all 10 boats slipped their lines at 3 pm and headed out into the Solent for some ‘skills and drills’ before starting the race on the next day.

One of the drills we practiced with Visit Finland was a boat-to-boat person transfer in case we needed to move a casualty to another boat where a doctor may be onboard. This consisted of one person being lowered into a dinghy and a then a line being let out with the dinghy trailing further behind. The second boat comes up slowly on the windward side to provide protection and a line is then handed/tossed over and made fast. Once that is done, the line to the first boat is let free. Once the dinghy is trailing right along side our boat, the person is then lifted up into the boat with a spare halyard (rope) that is attached to his harness. Transfer complete! I’m sure much easier to do though in the calm waters of the Solent then in a Pacific storm with waves the size of townhouses. Once we had him transferred, it was time to send him back to Visit Finland. After all, we didn’t want him to stay onboard and hear any of our pre-race strategies!

Another drill we practiced, was learning how to properly tow another boat, in case one boat was disabled. This entailed setting up a bridle (a rope going from one side of the back of the boat to the other side) from our stern. The other boat’s line was then tied onto that and it was towed behind us, with the rope long enough to account for the distance of the waves between us.

The day of the race started out nicely with all 10 boats lining up south of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel for a helicopter photo shoot.  It was great to see all boats lined up for the start. Unfortunately, I was on mother watch at the time, so was downstairs preparing tea and cookies for the crew (who said ocean sailing isn’t civilized). It was a typical summer day in England with mixed sun and clouds with hints of rain on the horizon. Just before the race start, we found out the details of the race. It was an upwind dash across the English Channel to one of the islands off of France, followed by a reach to a mark past Eddystone light and then a downwind run back along the south coast of England to the finish of the Needles, the western entrance to the Solent. All in all, a 350 mile run.

Bang! And the race was off. We had a good start on the line and quickly settled into a comfortable 3rd place lead to the first mark. As the wind and waves began to build, it was a case of trimming the boat as well as possible, tactically plotting the best route (best VMG or velocity made good), and helming as steady a course as possible. Because we were in race mode and it was before we settled into our watch system, the time not spent changing tack or adjusting sails was spent hiked out on the rail, adding our collective body weight to the upwind side of the boat in order to help her sail flatter. For those that haven’t experienced that in the Channel with six to eight foot waves, it is a wet experience. At least we had a great view of the other boats with dozens of legs hanging over their sides. We were in good company!

As the day wore on, the rain began, initially as a light drizzle, then building to a comfortable, pitter patter on the deck, on the sails and on ourselves. Did I say comfortable? Well, at first, we were happy with our Clipper-supplied foul weather gear, as the Henri Lloyd ocean smocks were warm and dry. But, even the best gear will eventually surrender to the relentless English rain. By the evening, we were happy to go inside as the watch system started for a little sleep.

For the race, I was asked by our skipper Ben to be watch leader, a position that I was initially somewhat hesitant to accept. Although I appreciated the opportunity, because of the responsibility it entails – ensuring the safety of your crew and that the boat is constantly trimmed properly – it means that I could not be hands-on with much of sailing the boat. Being watch leader requires being constantly aware of all that is going on with boat and crew, and working sails requires a singular focus. The two do not mix. Nevertheless, I settled in the role and quickly realized that it is quite a challenging role as you are tactically responsible for sailing the boat as optimally as possible.

Although I have had considerable experience sailing prior to joining the Clipper race, it was primarily solo, often with the auto pilot set as I sail up or down the Eastern Coast of the U.S.. In contrast, being watch leader was one of constant attention to detail. Was the helm set on the optimal course? Were the sails beginning with the yankee, then staysail, then main properly trimmed? Could we squeeze out a tenth of a knot by sheeting in a tad? A tenth of a knot or 0.1 miles per hour may not sound like much, but over the course of a 350 mile race, it could work out to a half-hour lead over the nearest boat by the time we reach the finish line.

Of course, besides seeing that the boat is optimally sailed, one of the other key responsibilities is ensuring the safety of the crew. Nowhere is this more important than up on deck during a moonless, starless night. One of the key first steps to undertake is to ensure that everyone coming on watch is clipped on to the boat with safety tethers BEFORE they even exit out of the companionway and come up on deck. In addition, I require every one of my crew to loudly announce their names when they come up on deck and when they head back down below. I also do a head count periodically during the watch to see that everyone on the watch is accounted for. Sometimes that can be a challenge – particularly at 4 am – when we’re tired and exhausted, and I find myself having to recount several times.

During the night, we ended up losing several places and dropped from third to seventh at one point. That was disappointing to hear as many of us came up on deck later in the morning. Nevertheless, I understand how that can happen. Helming at night is a challenge during the best of times. With the moon and the stars present, it is possible to pick a point (or star) on the horizon and steer for that for a period of time (keeping in mind that the stars move over time). However, when the sky is cloud covered at night, there is no horizon, no star to aim for, so it is a matter of feeling the wind on your face and the boat as it moves through the waves in order to best steer a course. One mistake some people make is to be fixated on the compass and steer by that. However, by being fixated on the compass, you lose a feel for the boat, for the wind and for the waves. In addition, the compass tends to swing slowly with the result that you end up reacting to the compass, steering slightly to and fro.

Need I mention that it was still raining? Damp, dampness everywhere. Rain stinging your face as you’re helming the boat. Dripping off your nose in little rivulets. A relentless pitter, patter, beating a quiet rhythm on the deck. Down below, the dampness collects on the walls, the bunk you’re sleeping on, and the bunk above your head. Slow drips landing on your head. Ah, the joys of ocean racing! Why wasn’t this in the brochure?

By early morning, we  rounded the mark and quickly raised the spinnaker for a downwind run back to Cowes. It was a close race rounding the mark with two other boats on our heels. Fortunately, we timed it well and quickly distanced ourselves from the two.  With the rain finally stopping for a bit, the race was heating up. We managed to crawl up in the standings slowly but surely. It was a grueling time concentrating on sailing the boat as smoothly as possible with the spinnaker out and some moderate following seas (six to eight feet with the occasional ten foot wave). Grueling, but at the same time exciting! Nothing like feeling one of these stripped-down racing boats accelerating as she surfs down a wave. At one point, I felt her accelerating and accelerating, and the feeling was exhilarating as I felt ‘at one’ with the boat (hard to explain, without experiencing it). Then I heard Ben say with surprise that I had hit 22 knots (approx. 25 miles/hour), the fastest that he had ever seen these boats go.

Eventually we crossed the finish line early the next morning in second place. It was a great climb back from seventh and a great testament to the will to win that our crew exhibited. But more importantly, I think, was a will to win in the proper spirit of fun and camaraderie.