Tag Archives: sea survival

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.”


Ocean Racing Awaits

Clipper Level I Training

I just spent the past eight days in classrooms and sailing in the Solent and the English Channel preparing for an adventure of a lifetime. In March 2012, I will be taking part in an ocean race, the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race! I will be on the longest and toughest leg, sailing 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Qingdao, China to California. This is not a sail for the faint of heart as the Pacific storms are known for their intensity. In the last race, one of the racing yachts was dismasted in the Pacific Ocean when a rogue wave hit them broadside, flipping the boat 120 degrees before it self-righted.

Our first day of Level 1, training was spent with a RYA (Royal Yacht Association) First Aid course, learning CPR, near-drownings, the effects of cold water shock, and other types of emergencies that could arise on a boat. In addition, we also practiced the recovery position both in the classroom and in the confines of one of the boats. That was quite difficult, as we had to maneuver the “casualty” in a narrow area.

In the afternoon we were formally introduced to the boat that we would be spending the next six days on. She was a Clipper 60 which had sailed around the world in the 04/05 race. Quite a bit different from my Hunter! Whereas I have two sails (excluding my storm sails) that easily roll out and back in (roller furling), the Clipper boats have eleven which have to be man-handled up on deck from down below in the boat, attached and then raised. These boats are stripped-down ocean racing boats that accelerate and sail very quickly.

We were also introduced to our accommodations, bunks that line the sides of the boats with lee clothes that are designed to stop a person from rolling out when the boat is heeling, or leaning – sometimes heavily – to one side. The Ritz Carlton it’s not! The boat also has two basic heads (toilets), a galley (kitchen) with a three burner stove and oven. However, there is no microwave or fridge, just two coolers in which our perishables were kept. All in all, it was a cozy boat for the 12 of us who would be living and sailing together for the next six days.

The next couple of days were spent learning the terminology of the different parts of the boat along with all the different lines and sheets (ropes) that would be used to raise, lower and control the different sails (yankee, staysail and mainsail). Along with learning the terminology, we also practiced as a team to raise and lower sails, tack, gybe and respond to man overboard drills. These went on repeatedly and by the end of just the first full day of sailing, I felt completely wiped out. By the end of the second day I was so physically exhausted, I had trouble keeping my eyes open as our skipper, Gordon, was briefing us. Then again, the jet lag didn’t help either.

Our second day of sailing (third day of training) took us out into the Solent, past Ryde on the Isle of Wight (supposedly the inspiration for the Beatle’s song, Ticket to Ryde) and on to Cowles where we spent the night.

As with most mornings, day four arrived early with breakfast being prepared by two members of the crew (we all took turns on ‘Mother Watch” cooking and cleaning for the rest of the crew). After breakfast, Gordon and Rich (the first mate) taught us how to rig the spinnaker guy and sheets and the spinnaker pole. That was interesting and fun, if a little confusing as it just introduced a bunch of new lines or ropes that we had to become familiar with! Nevertheless, we managed to rig it, after which most of us took turns climbing out to the end of the pole to see what that was like. It was actually a lot of fun at the dock, however I could imagine it would be a different story if – or when – we have to do it in pitching seas and heavy winds!


In the afternoon, we left Cowles and began our next trip – our first overnight sail – to Portland. This trip took us out past the Needles (the western-most point of the Isle of Wight) and into the English Channel. As the crow flies, the distance from Cowes to Portland is only about 50 nautical miles, but we extended that during the night by sailing several times out into the English Channel close to the shipping lanes and back.

Again, this trip was marked by countless tacks and gybes as we learned to work together as a team. Tiring as it was, it was a great feeling to execute a tack or a gybe smoothly and efficiently together as a well-oiled machine (perhaps aspiring machine with a few moments of stuttering). Each day we seemed to be getting better and better at working as a team on the different evolutions (raising, lowering and changing sails, as well as tacking and gybing). That has been one of the many highlights of the training.

As we sailed into the night, we started with pleasant weather albeit cool, with the wind between 5-15 knots, seas smooth and temperature in the high 30s. Our skipper had organized us into 3 hour watches and I was on the 9–12 am and 3–6 am watches. These are normally my favorite watches when I am sailing overnight. In the evening I enjoy watching the stars shining in the sky far from land without any city lights spoiling the view. The early morning watch is normally equally beautiful as the eastern horizon is slowly revealed with the barest glow long before the sun pokes its head above the horizon.

Alas, this night it was not to be. Although the evening started out fine, the wind and seas did pick up a bit as the night wore on. We had wisely reefed earlier in the evening, so we were prepared for the rising winds. However, what many were not prepared for was the feeling of being down below with the boat rocking and bouncing in the increasing seas. As it came time to end my first shift of the night, I decided that rather than sleeping on the top bunk all the way forward, it would be more comfortable to sleep on the sails on the floor. Even though it was a bit bumpy sleeping forward, it was comfortable. Unfortunately, the 2 ½ hours of sleep ended far too quickly.

As I came onto the deck just before 3 am, I noticed that a vast majority of the crew were seasick and looking rather pale around the gills. There was no relief for many, even some who have spent a lot of time working on boats or have sailed along the coast of England. Interestingly, Jim, who had never stepped foot on a sailboat before this training, was one of the few who were fine! You can never tell sometimes who will be sick and who will be fine. And, for the record, I was not one of the crew that was seasick (others may dispute that). Although I was burping up some of my dinner, I did not feel nauseous at all (I ate much more than I should’ve but I was ravenous from all the hard sailing). However, when one of the other crew members on my early morning shift had to make a beeline to the stern (back of the boat), I decided that perhaps it may be a good idea as well and I headed for the lee side (downwind side) of the boat. A couple dry heaves later, I felt fine. And, no food lost (sorry for the details!). If that is what seasickness is like (again, which I dispute I was) then it is a piece of cake. Unfortunately, others were not so lucky. From what I hear, seasickness comes in two stages. In the first, you feel like you are going to die. In the second, you wish you had! I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the future.

During the early morning watch, with the wind increasing, two of us had to go onto the foredeck and drop the staysail, and it was exhilarating with the boat pitching and waves crashing over the bow! Jean Louis and myself managed to work our way forward and we pulled down and tied the sail as the halyard was being eased in the cockpit. Needless to say, it was also very wet and I was glad for my Dubarry boots and Musto foul weather gear, which were well-tested that night! There is no protection from the waves crashing over the bow of the boat, so when the wall of water comes, all you can do is duck your head down and hope you were quick enough. I should add that one of the basic principles which our skipper and first mate stressed is that at night, you are ALWAYS clipped on to the boat, whether working on the foredeck or in the cockpit. As they constantly stress, “Safety never takes a day off, because danger never takes a holiday.”

Cold and tired after a very wet and windy sail, 6 am was a welcome relief as I made my way down below and climbed into my sleeping bag. I woke up later that morning with the boat entering Portland Harbour, finally at our destination for the day.

Day five in Portland started out with us doing our regular post-sail routine of tidying up and stowing the lines and sheets (ropes) down below as well as flaking and stowing the sails. After a good wash down of the boat, and a breakfast, it was on to practice an actual MOB (man-over-board) recovery on the dock. The exercise consisted of one of the crew members lying on the dock with his lifejacket inflated as if he was in the water. I donned the climbing harness, set up our rescue lines and was lowered over the side of the boat, walking down the hull until I reached the “casualty”. At that point, I had to put a lifting strop (MOB sling) around his body and under his arms. Next, I slipped another sling under his legs so we could lift him in a horizontal position (to prevent hydrostatic squeeze in a real situation). I found out, this was not very easy to do, even at the dock! Nevertheless, a very useful exercise and one you hope never to have to do in an actual situation.

Portland, UK is an interesting town on the southern end of England. Besides being the venue for the 2012 Summer Olympics sailing events, it is also the home of Radio Caroline, which was one of the illegal radio broadcasting ships off the coast of England in the 1960s. It was also known as the Boat that Rocks and it (or others like it) was glorified in the fictitious movie, Pirate Radio with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Our sixth day of training got off to an early start with plans of leaving Portland by 7 am in order to reach the Needles when the tides were favorable. As soon as we were out in the harbour and raising the sails, we knew this would be an interesting trip. The winds were gale force eight (39-46 mph) out of the southwest which meant that we would have a mostly downwind run all the way back to Cowes. Sure enough, as soon as we were out of the harbour and in the Channel, the wind and waves made an exhilarating ride back. The sun also came out which made the day one of the best sailing days I’ve had in years. There’s nothing like surfing down a wave in a stripped-down ocean racing boat going 14 knots (16 mph)!

All too soon, the sailing part of the training ended and it was on to a day of sea survival training. Although I had completed a sea survival course before in the U.S., it was nothing like the one that the RYA (Royal Yacht Association) offers. The morning was spent in a classroom listening to lectures and slideshows on many aspects of sea survival. In the afternoon, it was on to the pool for several hours of learning how to swim with an inflated lifejacket (not as easy as it sounds), towing unconscious casualties, learning how to minimize heat loss in water and righting and climbing into life rafts.

By the late afternoon, it was on to a hotel at Heathrow for an early flight home, tired and exhausted from a wonderful yet demanding week of world-class sailing and education.

Link to Photo Gallery Below

Clipper Level I Training