Angry seas make a good harness and tether a necessity for working on deck.
Preparing for an offshore passage is not an academic exercise for me these days. I'm gathering my thoughts and my gear in anticipation of the Newport-Bermuda Race, which starts on June 16. I'll be in the crew of one of the oldest boats in what promises to be a record-breaking fleet of more than 170 boats. She's the 53-foot, 64-year-old wooden sloop Kirawan
, designed by Phil Rhodes and now owned by Sandy Horowitz, who has trucked her east from Los Angeles for the race. She won the 1936 Bermuda Race in a blow gusting up to 40 knots right on the nose, and if we get another hard chance Kirawan
should do well again. Stiff enough to stand up to it, and narrow enough at 12.5 feet to slice through a typical messy Stream seaway, this handsome classic with her sweet sheer should give us a good ride.
Preparation for any offshore passage has to take into account the quirks of the course and its environment. Here's what I know about the Bermuda run after a dozen of them:
The boat is on her own. This is a true ocean passage. Most of the 635-mile rhumb line is out of sight of land, and the middle third of the course is beyond the range of rescue helicopters.
The climate changes dramatically. The race starts in the cool New England late spring. A day later we enter the Gulf Streamthe broad river of 80-degree, almost perpetually rough water flowing northeast through the western Atlantic. A couple of days after leaving the Stream, we'll finish in the tropics, enveloped in the fragrance of oleander wafting off Bermuda.
The passage can be damn rough.
Enough fresh air for you? The prevailing winds of the Bermuda Race can dish up plenty.
When a solid northerly blows contrary to the three-to-five knot current, the Gulf Stream feels like the world's worst water. Conditions aren't much smoother when the prevailing southwesterly blows with the axis. Because the Stream's big eddies carry water in all directions, the sea is sloppy at best and horrendous at worst. On a boat with low freeboard, like Kirawan
, lots of solid water flies aboutand with great velocity, too, for the Gulf Stream is a powerful generator of black squalls and other unpleasantries.
The weather usually eases east of the Streambut not always. In the 1972 race, in Dyna, we sailed through the tail of an early-season hurricane and had 40 knots and lousy visibility when we approached the low island, guarded by sharp coral reefs. Without GPS (it hadn't been invented) and Loran (it was barred for the race), we weren't sure where we and the reefs were, so we carefully felt our way along. We sailed toward the island until the waves shortened and the water cleared to indicate shoals, then tacked (quickly!) out into smooth, dark, deep water, before going back in. These surgical probes led us to the tiny markers at the end of the reef, where we turned toward the finish line off St. David's Light.
With that tense memory out of my system, let's think about preparing for the race.
At the top of any sailor's list is good wet gear. This includes sea boots, a neck towel to keep drips from making their way down, and (most important) the best jacket and trousers that can be afforded. I have a breathable foul-weather outfit. In the warm Stream, I'll probably wear it over a T-shirt and shorts. Those clothes, and almost everything else I'll wear, are made of synthetic materials so they'll dry quickly.
At 64 years of age, the venerable Rhodes sloop Kirawan still does well in heavy going.
With the boat shouldering her way through 10-foot breakers, hatches will be closed and vents removed or turned downwind. So if it's warm and wet on deck, you can count on a stuffy, humid cabin and upset stomachs (or worse). This is good reason to be attentive to diet before and during the passage. Forsake fats, grease, and alcohol. Take seasickness medication early. Drink Coke Classic (which for some reason settles the stomach). Stay well hydrated and try to eat something.
What about boat preparations? The race sponsors, the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, are famously rigorous about safety (only one life has been lost in 41 Bermuda Races). Ron Trossbach and his committee have assembled a web site full of solid information that any cruising sailor will want to consult: www.bermudarace.com. For the safety page, click on the Race Application and Inspection FAQ link, where you'll find good advice on emergency steering, crew overboard rescue systems, electronics, storm sails, and other topics. The site also has links to some fascinating weather and Gulf Stream pages.
My personal safety gear will include the loudest whistle I can find (in case I go into the water) and a flashlight (a palm-sized Garrity Life-Liteeasy to find and it floats). I also carry a Leatherman tool kit for tightening set screws and shackles, which can shake loose in these conditions.
But the most important gear I'll pack is the combination automatic inflatable PFD/safety harness. I'll wear it and hook it on whenever I'm on deck.
Anyone heading offshore must think seriously about systems to keep the crew on board in very rough weather. You'll have to go forward to change sails or reef, and also to take a regular tour of inspection to search for frayed lines, torn sails, missing cotter pins, poorly cleated or coiled lines, and other trouble. A few years and a couple of Bermuda passages ago, during a midnight tour the beam of my flashlight found two glints in the lee waterway. They turned out to be the roller furler drum's set screws, which had shaken loose and washed aft. Without them, we would not have been able to furl or reef the jib.
If you must go forward periodically, you must wear a safety harness and hook it on to a jackline. Jacklines are lengths of webbing, wire, or rope running fore and aft on the side decks between through-bolted fittings, like cleats and padeyes. There's a running debate about the best material for a jackline. Some people like wire because it's strong, even though it rolls under foot. Others prefer rope because it's handy, though hard to distinguish among the various lines on deck. The third material of choiceand my favoriteis sturdy webbing, like a safety harness tether. Webbing lies flat and is unique in color and shape, so it's easy to find, day or night. Granted, it stretches when wet. To minimize stretch, soak the webbing before laying it out, then pull it out tight so it shrinks bar-taut.
Here's another jackline tip: While it must be led all the way to the bow so the crew changing jibs can hook on, the jackline should not run all the way to the transom. Leave a space of about seven feet, hooking the steerer's harness tether onto padeyes or cleats. Why? So someone who's hooked on and falls over won't be dragged astern and drown without a chance to crawl back aboard, as a poor fellow did off San Francisco Bay last year.
Next month I'll report on some lessons I learned in this year's Bermuda Race.