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The offshore skills you need to be bluewater ready

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What are the skills you need before casting off on a transocean or bluewater adventure? Offshore training skippers share their advice

You might have a departure day circled red in the diary and be furiously working through a to-do list to get there. Or maybe you’re considering a bluewater sailing adventure in future, and starting to think through the preparations you need to make. You might even have postponed your big trip, and be considering how to make the most of an extra sailing season at home.

Either way, in between the jobs lists of boat upgrades and household admin and everything else, it can be easy to overlook one area of preparation: yourself. How ready, really, are you?

Are there skills or areas of knowledge you and your partner or crew could work on? Would some coaching or additional experience boost your confidence? Now, with a lot of people’s sailing plans in hiatus, could be just the time to learn.

Learning to anticipate the weather conditions leads to more relaxed sailing, says 59° North’s Andy Schell. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Regardless of whether you followed an RYA/ASA training pathway or similar, or have learnt through time on the water and poring over books and YouTube tutorials, some bluewater skills just can’t be practised until you have to do it for real.

Anchoring in coral, for example, is a hard situation to replicate. Nevertheless, there are a small number of specialist training providers who offer skills coaching specifically for sailors who are preparing for bluewater sailing and ocean sailing. We asked these hugely experienced training skippers which skills they think are worth focusing on.

Beyond your comfort zone

Amanda and John Neal have run Mahina Expeditions for over 30 years, offering onboard teaching courses, as as well seminars and their own coaching manuals.

This year they’re running 9-12 day ‘Ocean’ courses in the Pacific north-west. The curriculum, which includes training in storm survival techniques, reefing techniques, MOB retrieval practice using a life sling, learning how to make sail repairs and rig inspections, diesel and electrical training, and navigation skills from celestial navigation to sat comms, is a great starting point for anyone wondering where they might have a skills gap.

“Our goal is to have people ready to circumnavigate after 10-12 days with us,” explains John Neal.
For some sailors, going on a course like this is about accelerating the learning process, for others it’s about pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. “That’s why a lot of clients join us, because they would much rather go through these kind of testing scenarios with some structure and some backup.”

Pragmatically, doing an offshore training course may help reduce insurance premiums. “There’s so few offshore insurers in the world, and they all know who we are and in many cases send people to us,” explains John Neal.

Invaluable real-time weather analysis. Photo: Mahina Expeditions

He adds: “We encourage people to get documentation for everything they learn. Present this to the insurance company because insurers are just working on risk.”

“Your commitment to gaining as much knowledge and experience before setting off will save you time and money, and ensure you have the best chance of realising your goals,” adds Amanda. “Often these plans won’t quite go your way, but this just readies you for the realities of the life at sea.”

Weather forecasting for bluewater passagemaking

“The skill I’m most passionate about teaching, and the one that will give you the biggest bang for your buck, is weather forecasting – interpreting GRIB files, reading synoptic charts and forecasts and anticipating how you and your boat will handle changing weather at sea,” says Andy Schell of 59° North, which offers offshore passages with training opportunities on its Swan 48 and 59 yachts.

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“If you master this, there should rarely be surprises offshore. This, combined with boat handling skills – not just basic sail trim, but rather how you reef the sails to eliminate wear and tear (flogging), how you set up a downwind preventer system, how you trim sails to make life easier on your autopilot – will, more than anything else, make passagemaking more pleasant and drama free.

“I’ve found that by learning to anticipate the weather and make adjustments to the boat’s sail plan and course ahead of time – being proactive rather than reactive – I’m much more mentally at-ease at sea and enjoy the passage more. And learning about weather forecasting is something that’s perfectly suited to lockdown times.”

Schell suggests a good exercise is to practice creating your own routes, before getting the computer to calculate an optimal route. “I keep it simple: based on the weather pattern, is this passage going to be rhumbline? Or will it favour one side or other of the rhumbline?

Know how to interpret your weather data. Photo: 59° North Sailing

Remember too, with offshore cruising, weather routing should be optimised for comfort, not speed. Sometimes spending an extra day at sea beam-reaching is preferable to bashing to windward if you can make a slight route or timing adjustment.”

Schell uses LuckGRIB software on an iPad offshore, into which you can input your own boat’s polars. “In ‘cruising mode’ I set our performance at 75-80% of the polars, knowing I can match or exceed these predictions most of the time.”

Jeremy Wyatt, who has seen hundreds of cruisers off on World Cruising Club rallies, agrees that forecasting is a skill to prioritise. “While ocean weather patterns are often more predictable than those in coastal waters, you need to be able to look at the big picture – literally, if you are using GRIBs.

“Weather forecasts for oceans cover large areas and are much less detailed than closer to shore, so you need to understand how the forecasts are produced, their limits and importantly why and where to expect variations.

“There are some excellent ocean weather courses and it is well worth investing in this type of training.”

For learning resources, Jeremy Wyatt and the Neals both recommend the RYA Weather Handbook  by Chris Tibbs.

“If there isn’t a marine weather course in your area, consider signing up for an online course through www.starpath.com,” suggests John Neal. “Also, start studying Windy.com for the area that you’ll be cruising. If you’re heading further afield, Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes provides overview of both regional and specific passage weather patterns.”

Coaching from the cockpit. Photo: Sailing Totem

Other recommendations include a subscription to morganscloud.com by sailor John Harries (‘a bargain’ according to Schell at around $20 per year), and free tutorials available on Luckgrib.com.
“Behind it all is a real understanding of the different weather models, how they work, what they do and don’t do, etc. Even if you don’t use the software [it’s] very helpful,” Schell says.

Downwind helming

Often bluewater sailing in tradewinds will, if you’re lucky, involve many miles of sailing deep downwind. However, even relatively experienced sailors may not have sailed in those conditions for sustained periods, says John Kretschmer, who has taught over 130 offshore training passages.

From 2021 John Kretschmer Sailing is running offshore training voyages over a five-year circumnavigation.

“Be prepared for long periods of downwind and off the wind sailing. This might sound obvious but most coastal sailing is upwind, or reaching. A lot of times the only serious downwind sailing we get is racing, with a crew, fully tuned in to the spinnaker. That’s not the way you will sail off the wind on a long passage.

Hone your downwind sailing skills in big breeze conditions. Photo: 59° North Sailing

“We go to great lengths to plan passages with winds, which often means deep reaching or running,” Kretschmer points out. “And yet, the boat is often not set up for it, or the crew is completely surprised how challenging it is to deep reach in 25 knots apparent wind with 4m following seas.

“You need to prepare for this. First, you need to have a well-designed boom preventer system rigged and ready before you head offshore.

“Secondly, you should have a whisker pole on a track and be well versed in poling out the headsail. This is a technique that you must practice before you shove off. Trust me on this one; you’ll use the whisker pole far more than you think. With the boom prevented and the headsail poled out, the boat settles down.

“You also need to hone your downwind helming skills. I take people to sea for a living, some really good sailors too, but I’m always surprised how few have good, deep reaching helming skills. Consider your self-steering, either autopilot or wind vane; can they handle serious, downwind conditions? And can you handle steering in big seas? When it really matters you’ll need to steer with confidence.”

To develop downwind helming skills, you’ll need to put yourself in the right situation to learn. “There are some online videos that do help with downwind helming concepts, but it is one of those things that really only comes with practice,” says Kretschmer.

“On-boat coaching is a great way to go. A ‘pre-passage passage’, with a coach or able skipper, is a really good idea. Be sure to turn it into a skills course, not a pleasure cruise. Turn the autopilot off for the duration of the course, that’s incredibly instructive. It seems crazy to go searching for big seas but it’s well worth it. Our ‘heavy weather’ passages sell out a year or so in advance!”

Bluewater Reefing

One to practice, rather than be taught, but taking a fresh look at your reefing routines and rehearsing them will pay dividends, says Kretschmer. “Make sure your reefing skills are fresh, and your reefing system is effective.

“Consider this scenario: it’s blowing hard, you’re sailing on a deep reach and decide you need the second, or even third reef in the mainsail. Your crew, the family, is feeling a little dodgy, a little scared, the boat is rolling and feels close to being out of control, and you need less sail.

Practise makes perfect when it comes to your reefing routines. Photo: Vivian Vuong

You can’t just come up into the wind and start flogging the sail violently, that strategy does not work offshore in a blow, at least not for long.

“You need a strategy and the right system to allow you to a pull another reef into the main, and it’s a combination of having a good mainsail track system, and coordinated sheet and halyard control.

Practice this technique. For some reason we’re rarely taught this but offshore, with a small crew, this is the skill that will make your life better.

“Also, be sure that your headsail furling system is beefy enough to reef without completely flogging the headsail. That’s where the dangers lurk, flogging sails snarl furling lines, flailing sheets break things, and suddenly just shortening the headsail has created an emergency. These are skills, and techniques, that you can practice.”

Anchoring

Another skill that is hard to learn, but key to master, is anchoring. “Many cruisers in UK waters don’t often get the chance to practice their anchoring skills, and certainly not in sand or coral waters,” points out Jeremy Wyatt.

“Having a reliable windlass, sufficient length of chain (100m for the Pacific), and two spare anchors are all key for a bluewater sailing yacht.

“You should have confidence in your anchoring technique. Being able to drop in just the right spot; being aware of currents and planning for wind shifts, and above all, knowing when it isn’t right and pulling up to try again. If you are not confident that your boat will be where you left it when you go ashore, you won’t be able to enjoy exploring the exotic places you are in.”

Seek advice on anchoring techniques. Photo: Tor Johnson

If you’re not confident in your technique it’s worth seeking out experienced skippers to glean advice from.

“In my experience it is a skill picked up from skipper to crew, and in conversation with other cruisers,” adds Jeremy Wyatt.

“YouTube is a good resource as well. Forums will add value for different anchor types, especially across specific boats and cruising areas. Then it is a case of ‘practice makes perfect’.”

Celestial navigation

“Celestial navigation is a foreign concept to most people and it can seem daunting with heaps of confusing mathematic calculations and terms, but there are methods that can be simplified and make it fun,” says Nathan Zahrt of Ocean Passages, which offers sail training passages, mostly between the US and Caribbean, and on-boat coaching.

“There’s no doubt that we live in the GPS age, but there has been a recent resurgence in celestial navigation. Celestial navigation is often thought of as just a skill to have as a back up for more modern methods of navigation, but it can be so much more than that.

The fundamental skills can be used as quick checks on position and heading without even looking at a screen.

Celestial navigation is making a comeback. Photo: 59° North Sailing

“Dead reckoning is the basis for celestial navigation and once a sailor is able to dead reckon, they’ll always have a good idea of their position and course. Knowing where the sun is or where stars and other celestial bodies rise can let you know you’re on course with just a glance at the heavens. The finer skills make every sailor safer and more connected to the natural world.”

Celestial Navigation, The Minimal Manual by Bruce Steely (new in 2020) is “the most simple and comprehensive celestial nav book that I have seen,” according to Zahrt. The Practical Celestial Navigation Facebook group includes frequent webinars and workshops for beginners through experts. Andy Schell also recommends reednavigation.com taught by Frank Reed.

Engine maintenance

“Diesel engines are daunting for many sailors. I meet sailors all the time who are completely intimidated by their diesel, so much so that they just say, ‘I’ll never learn how this thing works,’ and resign themselves to relying on mechanics if anything ever goes wrong,” says Zahrt.

“Once out crossing an ocean, however, there’s nobody to rely on but themselves.”

Engine knowledge is vital at sea. Photo: Mahina Expeditions

Jeremy Wyatt says that taking a diesel maintenance course can be a good investment: “Being able to do the basics yourself saves a lot of time in organising local mechanics. But most importantly, having the confidence to troubleshoot problems, and fix them (while at sea, or to avert a potential problem) is a tremendous asset.”

“Before heading offshore, you must know how to change fuel and oil filters, the water pump impeller, fuel lift pump and adjust belt tension,” advises Amanda Neal.

Nigel Calder’s esteemed handbooks Marine Diesel Engines and Boat Owner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual are still widely recommended. There is an online diesel maintenance course at boatersuniversity.com

Communication

So-called ‘soft’ skills are often overlooked, but in situations where you may be challenging yourself and those around you, interpersonal skills become increasingly important.

“The most important skills to develop are leadership and communication, which many people neglect,” says Teresa Carey of Morse Alpha Expeditions, which runs coastal and offshore sail-training expeditions between Maine and Bermuda.

“Most accidents at sea don’t happen because the crew as a whole lacks the necessary skills. Most happen because of a communication breakdown – even if people don’t like to admit it.

Interpersonal communication skills are often overlooked when it comes to training for life on passage. Photo: 59° North Sailing

“In the maritime world, there’s a tradition of having a strict hierarchy. I often hear people say, ‘I’m the captain, I have the final say.’ I have concerns about people who need to express this overtly. Sailing should never get to ‘the final say.’

“We’ve been in some hairy situations, and still [my husband] Ben and I have always been co-captains. It has never been a problem. We actively practice communication and leadership skills. We also focus on these skills in our training.

“In addition to technical skills, we give people practical, hands-on training as captain, crew, and co-captain. Many of our students have told us years later that the communication training saved their marriage, and they use our ‘tricks’ on and off the boat.”

Nathan Zahrt recommends the book Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny & Ron McMillan for learning more about communication skills under pressure.


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