After listening to the weather radio cycle through the observations and forecasts for the area, checking out weather websites, reading the newspaperís weather forecast and tide tables, and, finally, watching the Weather Channel on television, I either choose to stay home and do chores or head out to the marina.
Step one before shoving off is to rule out the possibility of dangerous weather conditions, followed by ruling out dead calms, heavy rain, dense fog, high heat and humidity, or other weather that doesnít strike me as the kind of stuff I want to sail in.
I have a ritualistic set of behaviors I follow before going for a sail. I practice these all the timeóan obsessive complex that probably isnít healthyóeven if there isnít a remote chance that sailing can be squeezed into the dayís agenda. Iím establishing good habits to guard against not knowing of the conditions when the spirit suddenly compels me to get out on the water.
Once I decide to go, I grab the keys, some bottled water, perhaps a snack, and my seabag, before heading for the marina. Step two is to leave a note for my wife, or in the case of extended sails, a float plan with identification and destination information. The seabag is a canvas tote bag with an accumulation of stuff that may or may not be needed on the boat or at home, and so commutes with me. Some of this stuff is mandatory for any boater, the rest is purely discretionary. A list of these items follows in the sidebar below.
Checking the weather and tides and taking my stuff are not the only things that need to be done before leaving the dock, especially when Iím sailing alone. A number of to-do items are a matter of routine in order to enjoy sailing safely and without fuss.
A visual inspection of the boat follows which eliminates the possibility of obvious problems. Is the anchor still secured to the bowsprit? Did a thief break into the cabin and steal the electronics? Is the waterline where it should be? Did the neighboring boat put a hole in the hull?
Some odd, disturbing things can turn up during these visual inspections. On separate occasions, I have found a broken cotter pin on deck and a nut sitting by itself inside the engine compartment. After thorough examinations of everything that might have lost a cotter pin or a nut, I couldnít explain either find. Everything still worked, but I kept a red light blinking in my head to remind myself that something might come loose at any moment, and entertained paranoid thoughts about anyone who might want to just drive me crazy. I carefully set aside the loose parts where I could find them again in case I ever discover where they belong.Opening the engine hatch to check the bilge for any fluids that shouldnít be there, such as water, oil, or diesel fuel, also gives you the opportunity to catch any rust or corrosion before it gets out of hand, and to fix anything that might have come loose, such as an errant electrical connection. Similarly, I take a quick look in the cockpit lockers to see that no one has walked off with anything essential and that nothing has shifted into a hazardous position, like an aluminum boat pole crossing the terminals of the battery.
A day of whomping across big seas and large wakes can leave me too tired to do these checks after Iím back at the dock. But the chances are good that something has shifted, come loose, or even broken, and the time to check is before heading out again.
After these checks, and making sure there are enough fuel and oil, I turn on the engine and let it warm up while taking off the sail cover and getting the lines ready for use. Running the engine while Iím doing these other tasks lets me listen for any unusual sounds that might indicate trouble. Is the exhaust gurgling and spouting out water as it should? Are there any different vibrations or rattles? If the engine has a problem, I want to know now, not when I need it to get out of a current thatís pushing me onto the rocks.
While Iím still at the dock, I also set up whatever lines I can to eliminate any hassle while Iím on the water. This not only makes it simpler and safer to raise sail, especially when the wind is blowing and it's hard to keep the boat pointed into the wind, but it also makes sure I touch everything and know that it is working.
So I lower the centerboard (which also makes it easier to maneuver out of the slip and the marina), loosen the lazy jacks, halyards, and mainsheet, and take the mainsheet out of the clutch. If the breeze is stiff and I think Iíll want a reef in the sail, I do it at the dock because its easier to shake out a reef than it is to put one in while Iím on the water in a half-gale. These steps, of course, are particular to my boat, a Mystic 20 catboat, and will be different for other boats, but the idea is to get things ready and inspect them before they are needed.Experience has taught me that in the flurry of raising sail, it's easy to overlook something. When I forget to take the mainsheet out of the clutch, the boat can heel over suddenly as the raised sail catches the wind. The same thing happens when I forget to untie the mainsheet from its coil and it jams instead of running freely. And in the few moments it takes to uncleat and uncoil the halyards and begin hauling, the boat can fall off from the wind, and raising the sail becomes a frustrating exercise instead of the simple joy it should be. None of these things are necessarily dangerous, but they can certainly be embarrassing in front of crew and other boaters nearby.
If I have someone new along as crew, I give them a brief tour of the boat and its facilities, especially the safety equipment and head, and describe what Iíll be doing and what their role will be as we leave the dock.
Finally ready, I look out over the marina and out to the bay to see what other boaters are doing and what the real weather, not the forecast, has in store for me. Then I shove off, and the sail begins.
- Get the weather forecast.
- Read the tide and current tables and take the moonís phases and its varying strength at different times of the year into account.
- Take the keys, water, and other refreshments and snacks as needed.
- Fetch the seabag. In my case, the essentials in this bag are binoculars, GPS, charts, guidebook, and watch. Other items include a jacket and extra socks, a towel and swimtrunks, and a book (currently, Maurice Griffithsí The Magic of the Swatchways).
- Make sure someone on shore knows what the sailing plans are and can provide identifying information to help rescuers spot the boat; a float plan is necessary for unusual or extended sails. The float plan is a basic description of the boat and emergency contact information. A copy should be on file with the marina and a significant other or a sailing buddy. If the sailing will be different than usual, the float plan should include the itinerary, with destinations and expected arrival and departure times.
- Inspect the exterior of the boat for damage or loss.
- Check the engine compartment for loose or broken gear, fuel and oil levels, dirty bilge water that could indicate an oil or fuel leak, and for routine maintenance that needs to be done.
- Look inside the cabin and lockers for gear that might be missing or might have shifted or broken.
- Run the engine to warm it up and listen for problems.
- Prepare all lines for sail handling.
- Brief passengers or crew on safety equipment, head operation, and the plan for getting away from the dock.