What can I do to prepare for the unexpected when it comes to sailing, such as storms or any other events that could occur?
Tom Wood responds:
Your question lies at the heart of both the beauty and the terror of sailing—indeed of life itself. It is the basis for many questions we receive, although most are couched as a concern about one specific circumstance that may arise.
Preparing for a sail—whether long or short, or racing or cruising—involves a major investment in knowledge and gear. The farther we want to sail and the longer we wish to stay, the more time we need to spend to prepare ourselves and our boats for the voyage. The daysailor is not immune from preparation, but he or she is less likely to put the vessel in harm's way and can stay home if the weather appears unsettled or there are health concerns. Even then, however, the weekend sailor needs to know the basics of sail handling, rules of the road, water safety, basic charting, and maybe a little first aid at the very minimum.
As sailing takes us farther away from home, the need for preparation becomes more complex. Gear, knowledge, skills, and reference materials dealing with heavy weather, mechanical systems, medical problems, communications, advanced navigation, and a host of other issues of seamanship become a life-long quest. And I firmly believe that this is one of sailing's universal appeals—that anyone can begin by learning the basics of sailing, but that no one will ever master every single skill necessary to be completely independent. It is a journey without an end—a mission to be as self-sufficient as possible that can never be totally accomplished.
It could be perhaps argued that it is exactly the unexpected that we are so apprehensive about that is the source of sailing's joy. We have developed, in our modern comfortable homes, effortless travel, and controlled environment, a false sense of security—of isolation from the unexpected. But in reality, life is fragile, and our complacency ashore can be shattered in a few moments by unexpected threats to health, wealth, or life itself. One evening with the local news is a graphic reminder of the threats posed to us in our everyday lives. We prepare for these events by reading about the potential pitfalls, locking our doors, buying insurance, and getting a routine health exam. The good news is that most days are completely normal for most people, with the unexpected remaining—well, unexpected.
Sailing is little different. We have purchased two life rafts, but never used either of them. Should we damn the expense or give thanks that they were never needed? Like the news ashore, we only hear about the boat that sank and cast its crew into the cruel sea. Never does the headline shout, "4,000 sailors come safely home tonight."
And just to be a more perfect reflection of the inherent unfairness of life, we have met cruisers who bought a boat, never invested in as much as a flare gun or a first-aid book, and took off sailing. They learned to sail on the way to Panama and we got a postcard from them when they got to Australia. Other friends of ours took every course, had every piece of gear and all the books, and he was seriously injured in an auto accident before they untied the dock lines. Talk about the unexpected.
So where is the answer to your question? I personally have always been a little on the conservative side—a bit of a Boy Scout as some detractors have called me. But I have often had the book, part, tool, or knowledge to solve our unexpected problems while cruising—and the problems of a fair number of other cruisers as well. My philosophy has been that it is impossible to be over-prepared. Like dressing for the weather outdoors, if you take warm clothes and don't wear them, they won't hurt you; but if you don't take the warm clothes and need them, you'll be in trouble.
But even here there is a caveat. There is a standing joke in cruising circles about all the friends we have who are still back home preparing to go cruising. Just another few thousand dollars in the bank, just one more course in celestial navigation, or just one more essential piece of gear stands between them and casting off. Of course, the unexpected always arrives for them too in the form of a financial reversal, a health decline, or family emergencies. Many never leave their home harbor.
So the balance is yours to find. My advice is to work toward getting as ready as you think you ought to, and then leave when you have your planned preparations 90 percent complete. Once you're out there, you'll find that most of the things you worried about never materialize—until the unexpected happens, of course.