It's all about knowledge, skills, and preparedness.
Coastal cruising is a lot of fun but can also be dangerous. Going to sea is all about knowledge, skills, and preparedness to control your situation and minimize your risk. You have a lot down pat from your experience sailing in coastal waters, but you may need to know more.
Have a plan. Practicing your plan is a good idea too. When you are out of sight of land, you must depend a lot more on your own resources. We always hope nothing goes wrong, but something can and often does. We must be prepared to handle the issues no matter what they might be. I usually begin a long trip, be it in coastal or protected waters, by asking myself a bunch of questions such as those below so I can formulate my plan. Some are general in nature and some are specific to the trip and the people involved. Taken at face value they are pretty scary questions. I don't mean to be discouraging, but do use them to generate your own, more comprehensive list. Then answer them all to ensure you are ready before you go.
1) What about man overboard situations? In the open ocean, waves are higher and people harder to see. Do you use GPS to mark the spot? Do you toss a float? What about search patterns? Does everyone wear coastal-rated PFDs? Do they have a light and a whistle? Have you and your crew practiced it? What will the water temperature be like? Can you get the person aboard if they are helpless from cold or injury?
2) What will the weather be like? Do you watch the marine forecast for a weather window? Can you afford to vary your timing? What will you do if you encounter unexpected heavy weather anyway?
3) If you will be out of sight of land you cannot use piloting skills. Do you have a plan in case you encounter a navigational equipment casualty, such as loss of your GPS? Maybe it is dead batteries, maybe it is loss of your hand-held overboard ... whatever. Do you plot your position on charts and compare it to your intended track (and make course corrections to counter set and drift)? Do you use a sextant? Will you sail towards land by magnetic compass, find where you are, and then sail home? Will you dead reckon to home from your last known position?
4) How will you communicate? If all else fails, you need to be able to call for help. VHF is mostly line of sight as are cell telephones. Do you plan to stay within range or do something else?
5) Winds on the open ocean are typically stronger than in protected waters but also steadier and more directed, which helps. How do you do in 20-30 kts winds? How does your boat do? What is your plan for shortening sail on a heaving deck? Will you have jack lines, do you have a favorite technique?
6) Stronger winds produce more strain on your sails and rigging. Are they in good shape? Are you prepared to repair your sails if you see a tear? What about repairing mechanical systems, especially engine-related? What if your water pump breaks? Do you have a manual pump, or do you carry bottled water?
7) How knowledgeable and skilled are the prospective members of your crew? You are responsible for them and the boat. You are responsible for everything that happens. Are they familiar with your boat? If they lack skills and knowledge, how do you plan to train them? Do they know how you like to do things? Perhaps a few trips together in protected waters might be in order if y'all have never sailed together before.
8) Have you inventoried and inspected your equipment lately? Is it all in working order? Have you replaced anything that has expired, such as flares and medicines? Do you have all the recommended equipment for coastal cruising? Do you have foul weather gear on board? Enough for everyone, or must they bring their own?
9) How is your first aid knowledge? What is the state of your first aid kit? Does it include seasickness treatment? What about your crew if you are the casualty?
10) Can you handle a severe casualty? What happens if you are dismasted? What if you are holed, such as a hose breaking, or a seacock or through-hull failing? Do you have soft wood plugs and a hammer? Do you have a tarp and a lot of spare line? Do you know how to rig a sea patch? What shape are your bilge pumps in, especially your manual pumps? It can take a while to get in to port, so your electric pump can drain a battery if your engine also fails to start.
11) What happens if your house and starting batteries die? Can you start your engine manually?
12) How many people will be on watch at one time? If only one person, how will you ensure he can't go overboard when everyone else is asleep?
13) How are you at heaving to? It is a useful technique when you need to fix something or need all hands to do something not involving sailing.
14) Think through handling multiple things going wrong at once. That is when most people get into serious trouble.
I'm a big believer in schools, too. If you plan to make a habit of this I strongly recommend you take the ASA course on basic coastal cruising or its equivalent.
Think it through, get prepared, then go have fun in confidence!
T. P. Donnelly
S/V Tranquility Base
1984 Islander 30 Bahama
Last edited by dacap06; 04-27-2011 at 08:52 AM.