Yes, your sailboat must be seaworthy, but maybe more important than that is understanding these tips for offshore sailing safety. These are the offshore sailing skills – the seamanship – that can keep your crew safe while sailing offshore.
Safety When Sailing Offshore
When you decide to leave the shipping lanes, the coastlines, and common paths near shore, that’s when the true bluewater experience begins. However, this experience can be nerve-racking for many sailors! That’s good because the ocean does not forgive mistakes. A VHF, an EPIRB, and a life raft might be necessary items, but safety begins with sailing skills and seamanship, not just emergency response tools.
So what are the most important offshore sailing safety tips?
Confidence in your Sailboat
Again, you shouldn’t be offshore and definitely not days away from shore (bluewater sailing) without an ocean-rated sailboat. Beyond that starting point, you should also build skills sailing in a variety of locations. And you should frequently inspect common points of failure:
- Standing rigging is free from rust, cracks, and is properly tuned.
- Check for loose pins, sheaves, and bolts.
- Running rigging is in good condition and points of chafing are protected.
- Electrical systems are reliable including running lights.
- Steering and rudder bearings are in good working order.
- Engine coolant, fluids, hoses, filters, and pumps are well-maintained and have 2 spares each.
Safe Weather Choices
It’s hard to have unsafe conditions at safe without weather. On the flip side, it’s easy to find yourself in serious conditions if you sail in the wrong weather. Know your weather forecast, watch for low pressure systems, brace yourself for squalls, and know the currents.
Oh, and understand the seasons. Where are you sailing? And what are the best times of year to sail there? For example, don’t sail the North East Coast of the U.S. in January. Don’t sail the Caribbean in September.
We recommend owning a copy of Jimmy Cornell’s Wolrd Cruising Routes to get a big picture of weather patterns for different cruising grounds. You’ll when to sail where in the world.
Have a Plan for Steering Failure
Nothing creates dangerous scenarios offshore more than steering failure. This could be damage or loss of the rudder. It could also be damage to the steering system(s) as was the case in the 2022 ARC when a Hanse 588 lost steering from both of its helms.
The Hanse is a large sailboat, but was at the mercy of 4-5 meter seas when the crew had no way to steer the vessel. The Hanse 588 does not come with an emergency tiller. The captain and crew abandoned ship and were rescued by a nearby sailboat.
Plan for steering failure with backups such as:
- Knowing how to use the emergency tiller
- Preparing to build an emergency rudder from a door and hardware
- Having a backup rudder such as a Hydrovane
- Understand your steering systems, carry spares, and know how to make repairs
Autopilot to Fight Fatigue
Know how to use the wind vane mode of your autopilot. Know how to inspect, maintain, and repair your autopilot. Safety offshore depends on being well-rested, and nothing makes easier than that phantom helmsman – the autopilot.
Offshore Safety Requires that You Watch for Chafe
Failure in your running rigging can be prevented. If not, it can make for challenging, if not dangerous, conditions.
Check for chafe twice a day when offshore. Reduce pressure points on halyards by easing them at night on long passages. Remove or cover sharp edges on fittings. And carry extra halyards. Know how to run them if needed. Replace chafed lines as soon as possible.
Understand When and How to Use Storm Sails
Carry at least one storm sail. This could be a storm headsail or a trysail (or both). You might opt for a backup working jib (what is a working jib?) that can reef well, but an extra storm sail is necessary in case one of your sails fails. Also, practice setting these sails prior to going offshore, so you and your crew know how to use them. When the conditions are rough, you need to know what you’re doing and know that all the extra lines are at the ready.
Now that we’ve tackled the big skills for offshore sailing safety. Let’s go through a quick list of seamanship skills.
Skills for Offshore Sailing Safety, Top Tips
These top tips are advice and lessons that offshore sailors know to remain safe during offshore passages:
- Sleep during the daytime
- Divert when you think you should
- Eat frequent small meals and drink plenty of fluids
- Take seasickness tablets as needed before any major symptoms
- Watch for squalls on the radar
- Maintain a fair night watch schedule
- Reef before you need to
- Monitor batteries
- Reserve fuel for when you need it, not to get a quick start
- Maintain a tidy ship
- Monitor your bilges
- Have spares for life vests
- Tether in at night, when leaving the cockpit, and whenever conditions warrant