Boating Life: Blue Water Passages

From "Perfect Storm" by Warner Bros.

From "Perfect Storm" by Warner Bros.

One thing we are often asked about world cruising by sail boat is whether we are frightened by going on long passages across the ocean. The thought of going out to sea alone on a small boat hundreds or even thousands of miles from any land makes a lot of people nervous. After all, we have all heard many stories of disasters at sea where lives have been lost. The Titanic hits an iceberg, people lost in major storms (the movies Perfect Storm and White Squall leap to mind), then there are shipwrecks (the book Robinson Crusoe, TV show Gilligan’s Island, and movie Swiss Family Robinson are probably the most familiar), and of course we have all heard of pirates countless times. Boats who have equipment failures or are damaged due to storm, or collision with an object or large animal (e.g. a whale), are at risk and may need rescue.

The fact is that sailing around the world does present risks. And, during a blue water passage you will be far from land and help might be far away. You can’t call 911 on your cell phone and get immediate help. In the past year, we have heard of several incidents where sail boats have been lost, and even people have been killed.

Today’s modern sailor is infinitely safer than sailors a hundred years ago or more. We have better communication technology, better weather forecasting, the ability to make our own fresh water, stronger boats, radar (for seeing objects or land miles away in low-visibilty conditions), much more accurate charts, GPS technology for navigation, and much more.

One of the biggest risks in the past was the weather. With modern weather technology we know where the worst storms are located and can forecast the potential of a storm days in advance. We also have hundreds of years of weather data that tells us the best time of the year to leave for any given passage. With modern communication technology the sailor can get new weather forecasts throughout their voyage and see new developments en-route. This gives them the chance to change their course if necessary to seek safe harbor. Today we can even communicate with weather forecasters to get help when needed. And, most sailors today also have engine power – so they are able to use this as an additional aid to getting out of the weather’s path ahead of time, or if their sailing equipment is damaged.

Computer and GPS navigation

Computer and GPS navigation

Navigation is perhaps the biggest change in the last 20 years. GPS technology is probably the single biggest improvement in navigation. Every sailor today relies regularly on GPS technology for positional accuracy to less than 5 meters. There are charts available for most of the world’s navigable waters – although still today some of the charts are based on data decades old. We also now have aerial and satellite imagery available (thanks to Google Earth) for most of the planet now. Combine this with the use of radar, new AIS technology (which gives accurate position, course, speed, and more data on other boats), even more advanced technologies (FLIR, sonar, etc.); and suddenly navigation only becomes a serious issue if you lose your equipment or you are in serious weather close to land. The biggest threats to navigation today are the possibility of a lightning strike or electric or equipment failure on the boat, or poor decision-making. Most sailors carry multiple GPS devices as a precaution.

Modern communication technology allows us to communicate from anywhere at sea (as long as we have functioning equipment). Although we might be hundreds of miles from land, we can call for help in a number of ways. On Tahina, we have 5 main ways for calling for help: VHF radio (short range – about 25 miles maximum), HF Radio (long range – calls can be made 2000 miles or more depending on atmospheric conditions), satellite phone (we can call rescue agencies directly from pretty much anywhere in the world), EPIRB (a globally approved emergency beacon system based on satellite technology and GPS), and finally E-mail by either HF radio or satellite. The EPIRB can be manually activated, or automatically activated (by being immersed in water). Although we may be hundreds of miles from land, there is almost always other boats and ships at sea, sometimes only a few miles away – just over the horizon. Once alerted to your need, another vessel can usually be directed to your position within hours or a day at most. Rescue services can usually reach a mariner in trouble within a few hours at most by air if necessary.

The next biggest risk is piracy. It’s a shame to think that with all our modern technologies, we still have piracy as a major threat in some of today’s oceans. Most people are aware now of the danger in the Red Sea due to the pirates based in the ungoverned country of Somalia. They have not only been capturing large merchant vessels, but have also captured several pleasure yachts and held their crews hostage, or even killed the crew (this happened earlier this year on the s/v Quest). There are a few other places in the world where piracy is a threat as well. And, there is always the risk of burglary in anchorages. The fact is, that we all know of places in our own countries where crime is a problem. You don’t go into a dark alley at night alone in most cities. So, the best policy is to be aware of where there is a problem, and avoid going there.

Boats who have run into problems in the last year mostly were the result of a combination of multiple issues simultaneously. Most of the boats were lost or damaged due to issues involving fatigue, weather, equipment failure, and poor navigation decisions all operating in concert. These things can happen quickly in unexpected conditions, but there are procedures – if followed – that can greatly reduce the risk of boat or life loss. There are freak accidents. We have heard of boats damaged by collisions with objects at sea. A boat just like Tahina collided with a tree at night 200 miles off shore while leaving Panama in the rainy season earlier this year. Both his rudders were damaged and couldn’t be used. Fortunately, the skipper (a friend of ours) was savvy enough to use his engines and a drogue to steer his boat back to the mainland to get repairs.

The fact is that today’s modern experienced sailor probably runs about the same risk of having a serious accident as driving a car in the city. The biggest difference is that a sailor who has the least risk is one who has educated his or her self with the necessary skills to sail safely. Skills to sail safely can only be learned from a combination of education (book and/or schooling), and actual sailing experience. In addition, those people with good problem solving skills, good decision making skills, and mechanical repair capabilities are the least likely to have serious problems at sea.

So to answer the question about whether we are frightened about going to sea. The answer is no – in fact, we are usually excited about going on a passage. However, one thing all good sailors have is a healthy respect for the sea and the risks it presents. We make sure our boat and crew are ready, the weather is right, and that we follow our procedures faithfully on passage. Most of our passages involve nice weather (due to good weather forecasting), excellent sailing, fishing, beautiful night skies filled with stars, the chance to see interesting marine life (whales, dolphin, albatross, jelly fish, sharks, and more), the solitude of not having anyone around other than your crew, and the chance to continue to test and develop your sailing skills. The biggest reason we like passages though is the prospect of visiting a new and exciting place over the horizon.

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One Response to Boating Life: Blue Water Passages

  1. Another island vanishes over the horizon. Photos galore, blogable memories, all rapidly dwindling smaller and smaller with every easy motion of the sea. “Au Revoire New Caledonia” you say, smiling.

    Who knows, maybe you will return one day. Maybe not. But it’s still “Until I return” when Tahina sets sail.

    Meanwhile, just there, in Tahina’s broad wake, there are those you’ve touched with friendship who are following you – waiting, like you are, to discover on this blog what’s next on your global adventure.

    Sail on, my friends. But it’s not Au Revoire, because you are still very much right here in our hearts.

    Richard and Freddy

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