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Preparing for a sailing trip entails a lot of planning. In this blog, we take a look at some of the many safety aspects that a skipper needs to consider before heading off on a cruise.

The degree of preparation, knowledge and equipment needed for cruising will vary considerably, depending on type of sailing you have planned. Fine summer afternoons pottering around sheltered home waters are naturally less onerous than planning a long distance cruise or even heading offshore and crossing oceans.

Inshore cruising

At a basic level there’s still much common ground with all types of cruising, whether shorter inshore trips or longer offshore voyages.

For example a yacht may be knocked down by a breaking wave when close to shore, and if heavy items such as tools, batteries, ground tackle and tins of food are allowed to move around in rough conditions they can damage either the vessel or crew members. Similarly, losing a washboard in heavy weather could spell disaster, so attaching them to the boat with a lanyard makes sense, and the companionway should be capable of being secured from above and below deck. Anyone who doubts the need for this should remember that the overfalls that form off coastal headlands have the potential for breaking waves that will lay a capable vessel on her beam ends.

Longer voyages

A boat undertaking a longer voyage will also need to be equipped to be self sufficient, potentially for long periods of time, with the spares and tools to undertake significant maintenance when necessary. It will also need a higher level of equipment – including first-rate ground tackle that will hold in a gale, plus heavy weather and storm sails.

At least two bilge pumps are needed, including, one that can be operated from below and a second that can be operated on deck, with all cockpit lockers closed. An emergency tiller should also be provided in case the regular one breaks (easily done if someone falls against it in heavy weather) or the wheel steering system fails. In both cases make sure you know how they are fitted – this is not something you want to be trying to figure out on a black night two miles off a lee shore in a rising gale.

Total rudder loss is also something that must be prepared for in advance. Offshore racing regulations, for instance, require crews to have tried at least one method of steering their boat without the rudder and cruisers ought to follow suit.

Many of the hard-won lessons of the ill-fated 1979 Fastnet Race are just as applicable today, as is this profound advice from the official inquiry report into the race: “In the 1979 race the sea showed that it can be a deadly enemy and that those who go to sea for pleasure must do so in full knowledge that they may encounter danger of the highest order.” Although both weather forecasting and the boats we sail have improved enormously in the past few decades, it would be complacent to assume that a storm of equal intensity could not ravage a yacht on a passage of more than a two or three days.

The human factor

Whether on an afternoon’s sail that turns into an unexpected upwind slog, a 60 mile crossing of the English Channel, or a five day crossing of the Bay of Biscay, there’s arguably more chance of the human factor being the weak link in the chain than problems with the boat.

The skipper and crew need to carefully pace themselves physically to keep functioning, with adequate food, drink and rest. In particular it’s worth remembering that sleep deprivation quickly leads to severely impaired capacity for flexible and innovative thinking, exaggerates tendencies to take risks, and reduces motivation. Equally, we are not able to function effectively for long periods of time without proper nutrition – even on day sails.

Finally, it’s worth having a plan to feed everyone on board, plus always carry further additional supplies of food and water in case the passage takes longer than expected.

Safety at sea principles

Safety at sea is not as simple as just spending money adding shiny new emergency equipment such as liferafts, danbuoys, distress flares, EPIRBs and so on.

Propeller care and maintenance

Propellers are complicated and repairs should be done by specialists but owners can carry out checks and some routine maintenance themselves when the boat is in the boatyard. A propeller is critical to a boat’s performance, fuel consumption and ride, so it makes sense to keep a propeller in good working order.

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Cutless bearing replacement

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