Preparing to Sail Offshore, Part One - SailNet Community
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Preparing to Sail Offshore, Part One

An offshore boat is one that a crew can be comfortable and safe aboard, for several days or even weeks at a time.
"We've looked at so many boats," people frequently say to my husband Andy, who works as a yacht broker, "but how do we tell if a boat is fit to go offshore?" As we've recently crossed the Atlantic from the US to Spain in our Beneteau First 38, knowing what to look for, check over, and replace for an offshore passage is extremely fresh in our minds!

Regardless of the distance from land, any voyage lasting several days at sea can be termed offshore. For example, a trip from the Pacific Northwest to San Francisco requires extremely careful preparation, even though the 700-mile passage may take you no further than 50 miles off the coast. The difference in a trip like this and a prolonged voyage, such as an Atlantic crossing, comes in the time spent away from supplies and professional help. Lengthy offshore voyages require self reliance, mechanical competence, and the use of quality equipment to ensure that breakdowns are minimal.

Preparing to go offshore includes both the inspection and upgrading of a vessel with the addition of any necessary equipment for the planned voyage. Comforts on board are very important, but consideration must also be given to survival in extreme conditions, even though getting caught in a hurricane at sea or being rolled is extremely unlikely.

Hull and Deck Construction    Quality from boat to boat varies greatly, meaning that careful inspection is necessary for those vessels purchased with offshore passagemaking in mind. Choose a boat whose sisterships have proven themselves offshore. Have the vessel surveyed by a competent surveyor who knows you plan to be crossing oceans. Don't fall for a huge boat just because it looks comfortable at the dock, as it maybe be unmanageable at sea. Anyone who has experienced 50 knots plus at sea will tell you the forces generated by the wind are tremendous, and handling or changing sails can be extremely difficult. Hence, the vessel's ability to cope in extreme conditions also has to be considered, especially when there are only two on board.

If you already own a boat, there are several areas to inspect before going over the horizon. The hull to deck joint should be permanently bonded, not just bolted. The bulkheads should likewise be properly attached all around their perimeter, not just to the hull. Rig loads need to be properly transferred to the hull, and all ports, hatches, deck lockers should be stout enough to take a knockdown.

A breakdown in this part of the boat has the potential to cause serious delays abroad. In distant locales, having the right spares onboard can be priceless.
Steering Gear   Whether the boat is brand new or well used, every piece of gear should be checked. The boat must be hauled so that thru-hulls, the propeller gear, rudder supports and all other metal can be inspected for integrity and electrolysis. Make a record of the prop size, the shaft length, diameter and taper. Also, carry spare zincs and cutlass bearings, and consider a spare propeller and key, particularly if your boat has a feathering prop. Inspect and repack the prop-shaft and rudder glands, and check the rudder bearings, cables, quadrant, and the attendant steering components.

Because they're critical components for safety, rudders warrant special attention. Spade rudders require a massive rudder-post. One of the reasons we chose a Beneteau is that their rudders are engineered robustly. Our spade rudder has served us well and twice, when needed, we were easily able to drop it when afloat. The first time was in Madeira, after another boat had lifted our anchor and Bagheera drifted back on to the sea-wall smashing the rudder from the stern. The second time was in Thailand, when we had to get our prop-shaft straightened. Removing the rudder when anchored in 40 feet of water was quite exciting, particularly as it is quite buoyant from the foam filler!

Groundings and collisions with objects at sea can dole out tremendous strain on rudders. Rudder posts need to be robust enough to take the worst-case scenarios.
Skeg-hung rudders are a mixed bag. Many skegs are too weak to withstand a heavy collision or the load from a heavy grounding and can tear out of the hull. If well-built, however, a skeg does add some protection and directional stability.

Rudders mounted on the back of the keel are well protected from collisions, but just as vulnerable as any other to damage from dragging back into shallows. They are generally impossible to remove except when the boat is hauled. And, with any rudder design, it is important to prepare a strategy for steering the vessel to safety should the rudder be lost.

Bottom Paint    Modern, co-polymer bottom paints are ideal for the offshore voyager. These gradually erode away and perform best if the boat is moving rather than tied to a dock. Co-polymer paints can be applied in sufficient thickness to give prolonged protection (some freighters have obtained up to four years from a single application). Before leaving Australia, we applied four coats, alternating light and dark blue so wear could be monitored. Two extra coats were applied at the waterline, at the bow and leading edges of the keel and rudder. Three years later, only the waterline needed a touch-up.

Experienced cruisers know that a huge amount of cargo will be carried on a long trip. All this extra gear, such as the increased number of batteries, extra fuel, multiple anchors and chain, provisions, tools, spares, books, and more will make the boat float lower. Therefore, for offshore passagemaking, antifouling paint needs to be well above the waterline, so the bootstripe may have to be raised. We have redone ours twice! It was the souvenirs that did us in, such as the rocks and fossils collected by our son Colin and the 12-piece dinner set I purchased in Singapore!

Check All Fittings    All suspect fittings on the hull and deck should be resealed. All stanchions must be inspected carefully as a crewmember's life could depend on their integrity. Lifelines over 10 years old or visibly damaged should be replaced. Plastic coated wire needs special attention as corrosion may be hidden underneath the coating. If this is suspected, err on the conservative side and replace these before they break.

Cockpit lockers should have strong latches that will hold them closed in a knockdown, and should be sealed, if possible, to prevent the ingress of water in the event of being pooped. Anchors and anchor lockers merit special attention. Both must be securely fastened at sea, with the locker sealed to prevent water entering. Drainage may need to be improved. Arrangements for the mounting or stowage of such items as the liferaft, dinghy, outboard, solar panels, radar, or wind generator need to be made. It is not safe to have heavy items rigged to the lifelines. Strong points for attaching jack-lines along the deck and in the cockpit may have to be added.

All tangs, fittings, swages, and other rigging components need to be inspected closely before setting out for the wild blue.
Rigs    When we ordered Bagheera in 1985, we opted for a taller, keel-stepped mast instead of the standard deck-stepped spar, and opted to increase one size in rigging wire. The taller rig allowed us to fly more sail in light air. A keel-stepped mast is also preferable to deck-stepped ones because if the spar breaks, (normally at the spreaders), it's likely a useful stub will still stand, allowing you jury-rig some sail area.

Before every passage it's important to inspect the rig carefully, and at regular intervals all swages and fittings should be checked with a crack-detection dye kit. Every piece of standing rigging has been replaced since we purchased the boat 16 years ago, and we strongly recommend that before undertaking an ocean crossing any rigging older than 10 years be changed, even if it appears sound. Wire can harden with age and become less able to resist the constant changing loads of a storm at sea. Two grades of 1x19 stainless wire are commonly available: 316 grade rigging wire does not stain brown like 302/304, but is weaker and more expensive. Also, swageless terminals better resist cracking and are easy to replace.

Most sailors forget this vital part, but the gooseneck is a weak link in the rig and should be inspected to ensure that it is both robust and can rotate to align with the sheets. Clevis and cotter pins, tangs, turnbuckles, mast lights, and all other fittings must  additionally be checked. Beware of large stainless fittings on aluminum spars as there may be weakening due to corrosion hidden under them. If you're planning on cruising in the tropics, consider fitting mast steps, at least to the lower set of spreaders, for increased visibility for sighting reefs as well as for facilitating maintenance aloft.

"Prior to any offshore passage, sail-handling systems and  components should be thoroughly checked over. It's always easier to fix it at the dock than underway."

Sails    Roller-furling gear is now well proven offshore and has become a boon for shorthanded cruisers, making sailing much easier and safer than clambering on the foredeck. Units vary, however, so be sure to buy one that is up to the task of prolonged offshore passagemaking. Many boats also have mainsail furling systems, either in-mast or in-boom. We replaced our original genoa furler in 1998 with a Profurl unit and have also fitted their in-boom mainsail system to the boat. This combination has made sail handling in all conditions very easy, especially with the recent addition of an electric winch. Prior to any offshore passage, sail-handling systems and their components should be thoroughly checked over. It's always easier to fix it at the dock than underway.

You may also have to modify the rig to fly storm sails. On Bagheera we have fitted a movable inner forestay, supported when in use by running backstays. This is used for a hanked-on storm jib. It's critical that sheeting arrangements for these sails should be worked out before you encounter your first storm at sea!

Because they're often subjected to flogging, strong winds, and ultraviolet light, sails have a finite life. An overhaul by a sailmaker, with extra stitching at the seams, and adequate chafe patches may suffice. We recommend sails made from close weave, lightly resinated, supple Dacron with triple-stitching and double reinforced batten pockets and corners, as well as chafe patches. Before we moved to in-boom furling, we had a mainsail made for Bagheera that also had three deep reefs, each over six feet apart, and the clew was higher than the tack so that rain could be caught and funneled to the tanks from the forward end of the boom. This sail would have given racers a fit, but it moved the boat well (at least 150 miles a day) and it served us for 11 years and over 50,000 miles.

A regular cruising mainsail should have slides, not bolt ropes, so that the sail stays on the mast when dropped. Racing gadgets like cunninghams, flattening reefs, and deep shelf foots are not needed on cruising sails.

Boats without furling gear will need a range of headsails, but on Bagheera we now carry only a 150-percent genoa, a 110-percent genoa and a short-hoist 100-percent jib, all of which furl, besides the bullet-proof storm jib that hanks onto the inner stay. Our furling mainsail has full battens, and since it can be reefed down to any size, we do not carry a storm trysail. Light winds are far more common than storms and a cruising spinnaker rigged with a snuffer is easy to manage and can considerably shorten slow passages.

Routine maintenance on winches dockside helps prepare them for the incessant use they'll see on an ocean crossing.

As most crews share the watch keeping it is important that the boat is set up for both parties to be able to manage the routines of sail management on deck, at least furling the genoa by themselves. Although this may mean larger winches, or lines led differently, it is a much safer way to sail. This is particularly significant for couples. Not having to disturb the other person while they sleep will, in the longterm, keep life much more pleasant—an important consideration on a small boat that is in the middle of the ocean!

Running Rigging    Chafe is a major concern on any blue-water passage. If a line is worn only at one end, for example from riding over a sheave, a few inches can be cut off and the snap-shackle can be reattached. The line can also be reversed, end-for-end to change the area being chaffed. As running rigging failures are most likely to occur in severe weather, any lines that are suspect should be replaced. Also, spread the loads where possible. For example, mainsheet blocks close together on the boom put heavy stresses on this point on the spar. If possible separate them widely to spread the load. In the first Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) in 1986, nearly 20 of the 209 boats that arrived in Barbados had broken booms. Besides excessive loads, these breakages were caused by inappropriate preventers. A preventer line is necessary to hold the boom forward when running downwind to prevent a jibe, but if it is stronger than the boom, when the boom drags in the water it will break before the preventer. This was particularly the case when a solid boom vang was rigged as a preventer.

A boom-brake to control the boom during a jibe is a good safety feature to add. A robust whisker/spinnaker pole is also essential for downwind work, particularly as modern cruising designs perform extremely well with the mainsail and genoa wing-and-wing. We have our spinnaker pole permanently mounted on the mast, finding it is far easier to maneuver from this position, than lifting it from chocks on the foredeck.

"Cockpit canvas is essential whether cruising the tropics or the high latitudes; its comfort can extend well beyond its cost."
Cockpit canvas is essential whether cruising the tropics or the high latitudes, and contributes beyond to comfort and enjoyment beyond proportion to its cost. A dodger is first on the list when it comes to protecting the cockpit from wind and spray. It should be strongly built with an opening front panel to allow a breeze at anchor and also have handles on the outside to facilitate movement on deck. For the tropics, the see-through plastic should be PVC, as lexan quickly goes brittle in intense sunlight and is hard to replace in some locales.

A bimini with strong stainless supports will keep the tropical sun and rain out of the cockpit, and we also have lifeline curtains alongside the cockpit to further shield us from reflection off the water. An awning over the boom keeps the boat cooler at anchor and can be designed to catch rain. Also, wind-scoops are an inexpensive and effective way of funneling cooling breezes through the boat.

The color and material used can make a significant difference to the awning's effectiveness. The lighter the color, the cooler it will be; dark canvas absorbs the sun's heat and radiates it down into the cockpit. The white PVC coated fabric we have on Bagheera has lasted eight years and is easy to clean. It is important to check all stitching of canvas carefully before departing, particularly if you having been using cleaning products containing bleach to remove the inevitable mold.

One spends a considerable amount of time in the cockpit when on a passage, so check the cockpit for comfort when buying a boat. One of the bonuses of modern designs is the increased size of cockpits, but whatever the design, comfortable cockpit cushions are a must, with float cushions convenient as safety additions.

For most sailors, budget constraints play a significant part in offshore preparation. With Bagheera, we started out with a basic but well-built boat, and have added gear as the need and our budget allowed. (Like most cruisers, we always have a wish list!) After sixteen years and over 70,000 nautical miles, our boat is now well-equipped, but pre-passage preparations are still a high priority and we don't hesitate to replace gear that we consider has reached the end of its useful life span. 

Ronbye and Silver Sailor like this.
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