At 26, when I first decided to cross the Tasman Sea on my own, I was light on ocean experience but big on fear. So I read books. Not the inspiring travel guides “sell your house and run away aboard a yacht” books. Disaster books. Everyone I could put my hand on.
Accounts of the 1979 Fastnet, Storm in the Pacific, Red Sky Dawning (now called Adrift after the movie made about it), Once is Enough,and three accounts of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race. Always with a notebook handy; I would write notes (sometimes with a trembling hand) about how I would prepare the boat. I enacted all of the recommendations on my yacht before leaving for that first, solo, ocean voyage.
I don’t think anything I will write in this article is rocket science, however I was shocked when our Cat 1 Safety Inspector told me he thought we had the best layout of safety gear, and the best strategy for dealing with a crisis, that he had seen. This isn’t revolutionary; we have just spent a lot of time thinking about what we would do if we had to step off the yacht, or if we were in a collision, or a near miss, or dismasted.
Everything we do with regards to safety on the yacht we work on the theory, that if we have to do it, then we are going to be under stress. We will probably be fatigued. It will probably be the end to a very bad day. And that is the time when you are likely to forget, or make dud decisions. On this basis I have tried to make the safety plan on the boat as dumbed down as possible, and, where possible, replace an under pressure decision with a practiced process.
From Category 2 up in Yachting Australia safety regulations, you are required to have a diagram of where all your safety gear is located. I have sailed on many yachts with “compliance diagrams” which meet the rule. But in my opinion, there is far too much information to be contained on one diagram; on Apriori we have three. The first is for safety gear above decks, the second is safety gear below decks, and the third is for the through hull fittings. Then there is a fourth, with emergency radio procedures.
Our boat is the only one I have seen with the third diagram. But my logic is simple; if there is a large, sudden ingress of water without an impact, chances are it is a skin fitting that has failed. I imagine that if this happened to me, I would remove the laminated diagram from the navigation table bulkhead, then walk the boat from transom to bow and check each one in order.
As for having above and below decks, I split them out as there is too much information to be on one diagram. While discussing too much information on one diagram, it also means smaller lettering. Both my partner and I need glasses for fine print. At night or under stress, glasses are essential. So why make the print small? (Note: We keep $5 magnifiers all over the boat, including several in the first aid kit and navigation table, just in case).
Our fourth diagram above the navigation table has all the information that you would need to call out on the radio if you have a mayday. But it is also great to have it at hand for less experience crew who we are trying to upskill at using the radio for logging on and logging off with the authorities. It all helps to build confidence and a process that will be useful in the event of a disaster.
Leaving the boat:
We have an area in the boat I call “Evacuation corner”. If you need to leave, and leave fast, everything is in the one place. The first item is the EPIRB’s, of which we have two. One is out of date but the battery still tests positively, the other is in date. They are both still registered and functioning, but the “in compliance” EPIRB is clearly marked TAKE THIS ONE FIRST. But if you have two, why not take them both. During our recent Safety at Sea course, they recommended setting off two in an emergency. From the rescuers point of view, one could be an error. Two going off in the same boat means it is time to scramble.
There are two ditch bags, one with flares and signaling devices, the second with the VHF, spare GPS and batteries, signaling mirror and sea water dye. These are both kept in place with shock-cord, however there is a lanyard attaching them both of them and in the middle is a snapshackle. As standard, the snapshackle is attached to a prominent saddle above both of them. In need, just remove the snapshackle from where it lives on the saddle, attach it to your harness, grab the EPIRB (two if you have time) and walk on out.
Assuming you have a little more time, there is a 20L jerry jug of water within reach under the navigation table, just to the right. It is strapped in but with a quick release snapshackle. If we are getting on the raft, I would enjoy supplementing our drinking water.
Adjacent to the companionway on the starboard side, is “Attracting attention” corner. Within easy reach of the cockpit and without looking, there are three white handflares velcroed in. Just next to it is an air horn (yes, it needs replacing due to rust issues!). We also have a range of cyalume sticks for any occasion you need, but I imagine having them to throw overboard if someone went over at night. They are also good for attaching to small children at night to make sure you know where they are.
Reading Adrift/Red Sky Dawningas well as the classic Smeeton book Once is Enough (their yacht was pitch-poled twice), I became paranoid about weight forward of the mast as well as what would happen to the crew below in a severe capsize. I was explaining to a friend how I would like an aircraft style seatbelt to contain me to my bunk in the event of the worst. Being a diver, he suggested a weightbelt bolted to the pilot berth. That is what we have now. I’ve only used it once, and thankfully then, it wasn’t necessary.
We have a towing bridle which we use for both towing or being towed.
We have had to tow a number of boats, sometimes planned, sometimes unplanned. But when your yacht, which was not designed to be a tug, is being used as one, there are two things to consider.
An effective towing bridle will spread the weight. Ours goes around the primary winches, loops around the secondary winches, then loops around the deck cleats, through the fairleads, spreading the load over six fittings. If we were sailing and towing, then we would omit the leeward primary winch, but we still have five. Secondly, the tow-line is on a bridle which makes steering the tug boat infinitely easier.
If we need to be towed, then again, we do not wish to put all the load on one cleat. We also have a bowsprit, which is very vulnerable to being damaged by a tow rope. For a short tow in good conditions, we can use the bridle around the bow cleats and it will keep the towline clear of and (hopefully) under the bowsprit. For a long tow, or in rougher conditions, we have looped the bridle around the bow cleats, then attached it to mooring lines, which we have wrapped around the mast and then back to the winches on the cabin top, effectively spreading the load across six places.
While we have never used it in anger, we would also use the towing bridle to launch our drogue over the stern, if caught in cyclonic conditions.
Books could be written about this, but there are a few key issues for us. Firstly, the Lifering, which needs a drogue, and in our case a jonbuoy (inflatable danbuoy) need to be secure enough to not go over, but easy to deploy. We also carry a lifesling and have a heaving line if the person is conscious and nearby. We carry a side opening snapshackle which can convert the spinnaker brace to a crane, when attached to the mainsheet bail, to pull an unconscious person out of the water. We have practiced this and it works.
My last point on this topic, is just to think it through, and then further to that, actually practice it. We have practiced putting our stormsails up. We have practiced MOB (I have gone overboard and pretended to be unconscious). We have dry runs of launching the liferaft and collecting the gear. When I told a member of my local yacht club that we do all this, he commented “What a waste of time, as you are practicing in good conditions and when you have to do it it will be bad!”. My response was, “When you have to do it in bad conditions, wouldn’t it be better if it wasn’t your first time?”.