Cruising Dangers, Part Three - SailNet Community
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Cruising Dangers, Part Three

Operator error—mistakes in navigation are one of the most common causes of calamities at sea, and they're also among the most easily avoided.
One of the major causes of damage or loss of boats or big ships is navigation error. Sixty years ago a sailor could go for many days without a break in the clouds or a visible horizon to use for a sextant sight. They had to rely entirely on dead reckoning. The development of electronic aids, from radio direction finding through Omega, Decca, Loran, Transit Satnav and now GPS, has enabled us to know where we are with increasing accuracy. The current Global Positioning System gives continuous positions within a few feet. So it would seem that anyone wishing to cruise should simply get a GPS receiver and all their navigation problems are solved. Not so!

Firstly, GPS positions are far more accurate than many of the world's charts as these were originally produced by celestial observations and chronometers. For example, Flinder's surveys, completed in the early part of the nineteenth century are still the basis for many of the charts for northern Australia. When we strayed away from major shipping routes during our circumnavigation it was not unusual to find charted islands a mile or more out of their true position. In French Polynesia and even Mexico we found errors of small magnitude, and you can be assured these are commonplace almost everywhere in the world. So although a GPS is far superior to its antecedents, it cannot be relied on to make a night-time entry into a strange harbor or through a narrow passage between reefs. (Far more useful in these situations is radar.)

Secondly, electronics can fail. Battery power may be lost, or the boat could be struck by lightning as Bagheera was off the coast of South Africa. The electromagnetic pulse associated with a lightning strike is likely to fry all electronics, even those not connected to the boat's power, so that even your back-up GPS may be dead. Incidentally, if there is a lightning strike in the vicinity of your vessel, check out your equipment afterward. Although it may not be a direct hit, it might still affect your electronics.

Every open ocean voyager should have some familiarity with celestial navigation, says the author, as relying solely upon electronic navigation can often lead to problems.
To be sure, it is dangerous to rely solely on electronics. A knowledge of celestial navigation and regular practice is important. And maintaining a dead reckoning position at all times is just good basic seamanship. On board Bagheera, we mark our position on the chart and record it in the log book at every hour. The use of depths, landmarks and compass bearings will confirm the accuracy or lack thereof of an electronic landfall, which should never be taken as correct until confirmed by these ‘old-fashioned' methods.

It is also unsafe if only one person on board can navigate. Something may happen to this person, so all the crew should participate in the day-to-day navigation and have the ability to guide the vessle to port safely.

Of course there are other dangers that come under the heading of navigation. The things that mariners can't see, like containers floating barely awash, whales meandering by, or similar hazards to a passage-making sailboat are a concern to all sailors. Regarding ships, the answer is simply good watch-keeping. Always give these larger vessels a wide berth, regardless of who you think has the right of way. In addition, alert them to your presence by communicating on VHF Channel 16. And be particularly cautious of fishing vessels as they often move erratically and occasionally at great speed.

Containers, logs, oil drums and the like, including whales, will not be seen at night and often not by day, but damaging collisions are rare. In our six-year circumnavigation we had a couple of bumps with large turtles, occasional brushes with logs and we did hook a few fishing nets, but none of those incidents were threatening. None of our many cruising friends have sustained major damage through collisions, except one single-hander who woke up to find that he had sailed into the side of a freighter in the South Atlantic! These days, however, modern radar units with contact alarms are a wonderful bonus, particularly for single-handed or short-handed cruisers.

"Planning the early stages of your route so that you can stop every night in a calm anchorage where goods and services are available and where there are interesting places to visit can help smooth out the adjustment to life on board."

The initial route you choose can contribute hugely to the success or failure of your trip, and it is important to consider the experience and expectations of everyone concerned. For a compatible life afloat it is preferable to ease into the cruising mode gradually, particularly for those who have less experience or who have young children on board. Planning the early stages of your route so that you can stop every night in a calm anchorage where goods and services are available and where there are interesting places to visit will greatly help in the adjustment to life on board. Even with three years of cruising experience, after we stopped and spent a year leading regular lives ashore, it took us some time to re-adjust to life afloat as we resumed cruising and headed up Australia's east coast from Sydney to Darwin. How much the children had grown in one year was a particular shock, and the corresponding reduction in space on the boat required adjustments that were not only theoretical, but practical as well.

For the first-time cruiser, there are some regions that are particularly appealing from the stand point of routing. The Caribbean (including Central and the North coast of South America) and the Mediterranean are ideal in this regard as distances are short and navigation is generally not complicated. The Caribbean provides year-round tropical bliss, although one does have to monitor the weather carefully during the hurricane season. The tragedies of the hurricanes in 1995 are a vivid reminder that you can never be complacent. The Mediterranean has a variety of seasons, and wonderful ancient cultures. Although very different, both areas provide many varied experiences for the less experienced cruiser.

Of course the route you choose will be dictated by your boat's location. If the boat is in the Pacific Northwest, for example, complications set in right away. Whether you head down the coast to San Francisco or across to Hawaii, the trip can be cold, rough, long, and by no means ideal for anyone who is uncertain about cruising in the first place. If your plan is ultimately to visit the South Pacific, then any crew reluctant to do the first long leg should consider flying in later to join the boat. If you need replacement crew there never seems to be a shortage of people keen to garner the experience of an offshore passage, as is evidenced by the advertisements in the newsletters of offshore clubs and associations .

Would-be cruisers also have the option of purchasing a boat that's already located in their desired cruising destination.
Another option for avoiding lengthy passages is to buy a boat that's already located in the area you wish to explore. We purchased our current boat in Europe and the experience taught us that bargains can often be found in destination ports such as Gibraltar or Hawaii. Sailors interested in this alternative might also try Ft. Lauderdale, FL, or St. Martin and Antigua in the West Indies. Although there are disadvantages to this approach; you won't have the luxury of working and getting experience on your boat at home, but many of these vessels have done previous long trips and are usually loaded with useful gear. And the time you would have spent in transit from your home can be spent orienting yourself to the new boat on location.

One word about weather, which is an important factor whether you're planning the long-term route or day-to-day trips. Several people have commented that as we were out for six years when we circumnavigated, we must have had no deadlines and could stay as long as we wanted wherever we wanted. In fact this is far from the reality. When cruising offshore one is constantly coordinating one's route with the world's seasonal weather patterns. Experienced sailors are cautious; they do not put themselves or their boats at risk by being in an area during the stormy season. They are familiar with meteorological terminology, weather symbols and charts, sources of forecasts and warnings and frequently listen to weather forecasts on the radio several times a day as this is fundamental to comfortable, crisis-free sailing.

In temperate and Arctic climes the seasons are distinguished by large variations and changes in frontal activity. In the tropics there are generally only two seasons: wet and dry. In some areas the wet season is also the time for hurricanes, cyclones, or typhoons, all terms for the high winds that develop out of tropical storms. In the Indian Ocean and South East Asian waters there is also a seasonal reversal in wind direction, the monsoon.

For those sailors who venture into the higher latitudes, gales, blizzards, fog, and ice await; as well as unusual wildlife.
Sailors in high latitudes are concerned with gales, blizzards, black ice, fog, and icebergs. In the tropics there are line squalls, lightning and tropical storms. Most cruising is done therefore in the dry or warm seasons. A typical South Pacific crossing, for example, is completed between April and November, when yachts either head down to Australia or New Zealand or head north of the equator to avoid the cyclone season. Caribbean cruising is best from December to June, and veteran cruisers head toward the north coast of South America, out of the hurricane belt, for the rest of the year.

If you do encounter an unavoidable storm, having a well-prepared vessel and managing it properly will help you get through. Hopefully you won't find yourself in the hurricane belt during that season (it is hard to get insurance coverage if you are). However, if you do get caught, you'll normally have at least a 48-hour warning of a hurricane, which generally offers enough time to get out of its direct path or head for a hurricane hole. Having a HF radio is essential for obtaining weather forecasts if you wish to cruise in places during the dangerous season. (But don't rely on only one source as you could be lulled into a false sense of security by local radio forecasts backed by governments intent on playing down the threat because of the potentially negative impact to tourism.) Sometimes a hurricane anchorage will be less than ideal and the boat may be in jeopardy. Depending on the circumstances a decision will have to be made to move ashore ahead of a hurricane. Never take the risk of staying on board in these situations; remember your lives are far more important than the boat.

In reality most cruisers are on the move during the good weather seasons, maintaining sufficient flexibility for weather, travel, and social events, then they hole-up in the off-season, often in one location. This is the time when boat repairs are completed, seasonal work is possibly obtained, or trips are made back home. Cruising children may also attend local schools and cruisers can reconnect with the world ashore. It is also the time when new cruising itineraries evolve. Unlike the indecision experienced when they first left home, these plans seem to blossom effortlessly within the nurturing community of fellow cruisers.

Liza Copeland is offline  
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