Two Tips to Make Your First Ocean Passage as Skipper Safe and Fun


I  grew up on the water. I had my first rowboat at age seven, my first sailboat at 11, and my first cruising boat—well, sort of, a Sea Sprite 22—at 17.

By the time I was 21 I had spent thousands of hours on the water, including plenty of sailing when it was really honking. I thought I was a pretty smooth operator around the water. And maybe I was.

But here's the thing. All of that sailing, with the exception of a few short forays in calm weather, was within the reef that encircles Bermuda, my home. Result: I knew diddly-squat about sailing offshore. And what's different about offshore, you ask?

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Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
You have done a nice job conveying the relentlessness of swell and its impact on every aspect of offshore life. People who have spent time offshore truly know the adage, “It’s not the wind, it’s the waves.” A short piece I wrote for the US Naval Academy publication, The Helmsman, might be valuable to some as it is directed to highlight some key attitudes that can make offshore passages more enjoyable.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Neil

Brilliant article.
Having a few 7-day +I can easily relate to Dick’s thoughts, but could never have put them down on paper like that.
I am passing the article on to my crew for Transatlantic in 2016, one of whom is a retired Royal Marine Commando with limited sailing experience, none offshore.
Dick, you should submit it to one of the mass market sailing magazines.

Bill Attwood

Hi Dick.
Thank you for the link to The Helmsman. I really enjoyed your article and the others too. An excellent publication which I guess is only available to serving and retired members of the Navy?
Yours aye,
Bill

Ben Hall

Regarding the availability of the Helmsman publication, it looks like it’s freely available online, and the release link was posted under the Announcements section here: http://www.usna.edu/Sailing/

Maybe future updates will also be posted there…

-ben

Drew Frye

I’ve caught myself yelling “just stop it!” at the swell a few times. Didn’t stop it.

Matt

I’ve tried that too, and doubtless will keep occasionally yelling it, with the same nil success rate but that won’t stop me!

RDE

Swell is the heartbeat of the ocean. That same heartbeat that enabled traditional Polynesian navigators to sense the presence of an island far over the horizon. A great sea boat finds its place in that rhythm rather than fighting to overcome it, as does a good sailor.

Rob Gill

Nice analogy.
Rob

Dave DeWolfe

John – excellent article and right on target. Thanks, and I am forwarding this to all my students. Some have done this with me, but all should read it.
Best for the new year to you both.
Dave

Stein Varjord

Hi John.

Well said, and it’s important for newbies to understand that there are no exaggerations here. Waves causing boat motion makes even the easiest everyday tasks into proper work.

As a skipper, it’s crucial to inform all crew about this and make sure they are prepared for the consequences. Normally, they will still not be fully prepared, so be aware and try to predict the troubles that may arise. Even how social dynamics might develop, and what might be necessary to direct it in a good direction, should be given some thought before a passage. A skipper is responsible for the boat, but the crew is a more important responsibility.

Avoiding death isn’t what we should focus on, as it’s not a realistic focus, but rather avoiding a bad experience. Helping with avoiding seasickness. Advice on keeping warm and dry. Try to help all sleep enough at the right times and get enough food and water. Finding ways to make all discover what an amazing experience an ocean crossing is. All those little moments that you never get anywhere else. The skippers job is to create a happy ship. Your main opponent is powerful, and as John clearly explained, it’s name is: Swell.

Now I should have stopped, but I have to admit that my main motivation for writing a post was the opportunity to revel a bit in the difference between monohulls and multihulls. Being primarily a multihull fanatic, 🙂 I’ve seen proven so many times how much easier life is onboard especially a catamaran when there is swell. The difference might be as if the waves were less than half the size. That is a BIG difference!

I have no illusions that such a claim from me will convince anybody fully of the magnitude of this difference, but I hope some will try it out. And I hope that those will try it in proper sailboats, not floating house rafts. 🙂 There are many good cruising cats, but also several bad ones.

RDE

Hi Stein,
Good point about the POTENTIAL comfort of a catamaran as an ocean going sailboat. Sail to Bermuda in November on a typical condomaran with fat hulls and low bridge deck clearance and you will be looking for a dentist to put your fillings back in place as soon as you tie up at the Dingy Club. Do the same passage on a catamaran with long skinny hulls that progressively absorb wave impact and has at least a meter of bridge deck clearance and you will have an eye opening experience.

* and as a footnote, what counts is the length beam ration of the hulls, not whether they have fashionable bow shapes. And in order to have adequate carrying capacity for ocean cruising with this style of hull form, they need to be at least 45′ long.

Marc Dacey

Works perfectly! Crewing on offshore deliveries is indeed the royal road to even deciding if you WANT to go off soundings, and it’s done too late, if at all, by too many people contemplating the distance-cruising life. That includes me: we bought our go-to-sea boat in 2006, and although I did a coastal delivery in Portugal in 2007, it wasn’t until a Virginia to USVIs passage in 2009 that I experienced the full force of the sea for 9 out of 11 days. That is why I can say it’s not Day 1 you’ll feel it, but Day 3 and onward; the video you have looks pretty pleasant to me.

Pro-tip: Don your foulies on the sole, down there there is not as far to fall.

paul

I did my first delivery this summer from HI to CA…..through the effects of 4 hurricanes. I was returning a transpac boat. I had never spent more than a night at sea. I did a TON of reading and was more prepared than even the owner, who at first was hesitant to even allow my bag on the boat. I had my own foulies. I was the only dry person. I had warm clothes and waterproof winter gloves. They laughed until the owner decided to go 10 days north until making a right turn. Yup. FREEZING COLD at night. ….I was the warm one.

I learned a TON on that trip; about myself (I undersold myself not knowing what to expect), the boat, and crew interaction/morale. It was a priceless experience. Truth be told, a week after returning (from what I was told would be a 10 day trip) I was ready to do it again. I loved it.

paul
ps – by the end of the trip the owner was wearing my warm clothes and would only sleep when it was my shift. I started as low man on the totem pole. didn’t finish there! 😉
ps2 – i’m looking for more ocean trips. if anyone here is planning a big trip and in need of help, i’d love to talk to you.

Nick Kats

Comment on the difficulty of functioning at sea when there is lively motion. A lot of this has to do with the design of the boat. Modern monohulls usually have high freeboard, shoal draft, low mass & minimal keel. These tend to roll & jerk around much faster. Doing anything on this type is likely to be far more difficult than on the older types with low freeboard, deep draft, enormous mass (by today’s standards), and full keel.

Steven Schapera

Great article, thank you John. My first offshore was truly a baptism of fire (or, as you suggest, SWELL!) in 2007. I joined the delivery of my just-purchased Dudley Dix designed Shearwater 45 – it had been sailed from Cape Town, South Africa, to the Azores and I was joining a very experienced delivery Captain and his mate to cmplete the final leg to the UK. It was November, North Atlantic, awful weather, and a lot of wind on the nose. 10 days of open sea before we finally reached Falmouth, UK. It was hell, but I learned so much about both the discipline required for offshore sailing as well as about my beautiful new baby. Since then I have come to apprecaite even more her ability to handle SWELL, to forgive me for my limited experience because she is so well designed and built, that “an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure”, to keep it simple, and to always buy the very best quality SIMPLE gear that I can afford. Your article pretty much sums up all of what I have learned in the last 9 years. Wishing everyone here a wonderfull 2016!

Marc Dacey

Steven, that Shearwater 45 is one of the few modern designs I’ve lusted after. Glad to hear she got you home.

Steven Schapera

Thanks for the kind words, Marc. It is a beautiful boat – I have owned her now for almost nine years and with every season the love just gets deeper. She has taken me safely through some horrendous conditions and, whilst I was sick as a dog, I never felt unsafe. The designer is great too – every few months I email him with another question or two and I always get an answer within 24 hours. But its the boat itself that never ceases to amaze me: its really quick, very stable, quite dry, and very forgiving, The layout works for me too, and her lines ensure I am forever faithful.

Marc Dacey

I’m very happy to hear you are so pleased with her. Is she rigged as a schooner or a cutter?

Steven Schapera

She is a cutter, Marc.

Dan

Oh Swell !

https://youtu.be/jP7o8xl6hCw

A practice oil change or bleed the hydraulics hovering over a working quadrant. That will chase off the nausea

Good stuff John. Happy Year !

I’d like to see an AAC opinion piece on Performance Cats. We’re thinking about it

Alan Bradley

Before taking off on my own boat, I wanted to experience a true bluewater voyage. I signed on with John and Amanda Neil for a trip from Fiji to New Zealand. Guess what? In addition to the swell, we were on a port tack (and heeled over) for the first 4 days, all the time! Then we were on a starboard tack for 5 days. Duh! Why hadn’t I thought of that? Price – expensive. Experience – priceless.

Rob

Last week I finished my first “get my feet wet” offshore passage from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands to Maderia (~300NM). It was only 54 hours offshore, plus coastal cruising for a few days to learn the boat, but in our week on the boat we had everything from sustained Force 8 winds and 5 meter swell (by FAR the most I have ever been exposed too) to glass calm and everything in between. As an experienced sailor who had never been offshore prior to this trip I would echo everything John has outlined above. It was a great experience, learned a lot, and am excited to head out and do it again. Also in line with John’s recommendation, we went with an experienced mentor on an offshore tested boat through Velvet Adventure Sailing (http://www.velvetadventuresailing.com/), which I coincidentally found via advertisement on ACC. After being in some of the conditions we experienced on our trip, I could not imagine doing that the first time alone. Having an experienced skipper in charge, teaching, and making the critical decisions was a god send and allowed us to focus on learning the necessary skills and gaining experience. It was actually kind of fun to be challenging ourselves and a great feeling of accomplishment. However if I had to be in those conditions alone the first time, I am sure it would have been terrifying, and could easily have discouraged us from ever going offshore again. Having that experienced skipper watching over us, keeping us safe, and a tested boat we knew we could trust made a huge difference in our ability to learn and enjoy the experience.

Based on this trip, in my opinion, Velvet Adventures would be an excellent addition to the list of companies above to consider for learning the in’s and out’s of offshore sailing. They run a wide variety of different trips, from coastal cruising in Norway and the Canaries, to 2-3 day “beginner” offshore passages like the one from Lanzarote to Maderia I did, advanced passages like Azores to Plymouth, and various passages of different lengths and anticipated conditions in between. Lin is an exceptionally well-qualified skipper (her CV is on their website, so I won’t repeat it, but it is impressive) and she is an excellent teacher. Lin’s attention to safety, and making tough decisions to protect the boat and the crew (we had to abandon the 1st attempt at our passage and return to port to wait out the blow) were also good experiences to learn from. She kept us as comfortable as conditions could allow, while still providing the challenging learning experiences we were looking for. That is a tough balance for any skipper/instructor to maintain and in my opinion she executed it perfectly based on the weather and experience/condition of the crew. That gave me a lot of confidence that we were in excellent hands, and that she wouldn’t leave if it put anybody in danger, again allowing us to focus on learning and not having to worry about “are we safe”. The food on the boat was great, the boat itself is an offshore tested Oyster 55 that sails like a dream. And with prices for most trips around $120-150/day compared to $400-500/night with Mahina and Kretschmer and about $350/night on 59-North (and often times to/from more accessible locations reducing airfare costs especially for Europeans) they also represent a great value. Highly recommended.

David McKay

John,
Just a quick note to say thanks for pointing me to Andy Schell and Mia Karlsson in the “Gettin Out There” chapter. I’m just a few days off Isbjørn and had a fabulous learning experience from Halifax to St. John’s with Andy and Mia. Great recommendation and it would be hard to find better people to sail with or learn from. A+ experience.
Thanks again,
Dave

Marc Dacey

Even just talking with them at boat shows, they seem admirably sane. Or at least sane enough to go offshore in small boats and arrive alive and undamaged.

Mike hiscock

Having just completed my first trans Atlantic, I concur with all John’s comments. The boat was always moving, and in ways that were totally unpredictable.

Following the spirit of John’s advice, my wife and I did our first passage with Paul and Sheryl Shard of Distantshores.ca. It was a blessing to partake of their experience and their desire to pass it along. I would travel with them again in a heartbeat. They are heading off the the Pacific, so they will have ample cabins available for crew.

Ian Fitzpatrick

I’m late to comment on this chapter but I would add a recommendation for Christian and Saga his Swan 47. I did 900 miles from Plymouth to Oban around the outside of Ireland with him in April 2021. He’s a very experienced skipper, former instructor and Saga is a very well set up and seaworthy boat.

As I type this they are just mid atlantic on-route to Barbados and have an atlantic circuit planned.

I have no links other than as a satisfied customer. Details at http://www.saga47swan.com