Sailing is so easy that anyone can do it – you hardly need any experience at all – until things start to go wrong! And then it seems you cannot have too much experience or have prepared too well to cope with a situation that is becoming increasingly difficult.
As a teenager I was a Scout and the Scouts’ motto Be Prepared has remained with me in my sailing. To be prepared means that you need to consider what is likely to happen and then ensure that you are equipped to deal with it. Being prepared is a great philosophy for skippers.
To give you some idea of why preparation and experience are necessary, consider what you would do have done in the following three hypothetical situations.
It’s a bright sunny Saturday in February and you are keen to get out sailing for a few hours even if it is on your own. It seems months since you were able to take the boat out as the steady stream of cold fronts always seemed to occur on the weekends. But this time the front blew through early on Friday and so now you are looking forward to a great sailing day with 10-15 knots of wind from the North and sunny blue skies.
At the marina you load your gear aboard, and turn the key to the trusty diesel. After a few anxious moments when you think it will not start, it suddenly does and after a cloud of smoke clears from the exhaust it settles down to its regular steady drone. Lines are cast off, reverse gear engaged and you back out of your slip and are on your way. Out of the marina you follow the channel out to the bay and its only then that you notice how cold the steady North wind really is. Never mind, you are intent on sailing even if its only for a couple of hours.
You pass the other marinas on each side of the channel and after passing an undeveloped area of the channel with old stakes sticking up either side you will be ready to begin sailing but then it happens, the engine dies. What do you do now? The wind is blowing you sideways down towards the stakes along the lee shore and who knows what other obstructions are there just below the surface!
What would you do?
You have owned your 30 foot sailboat for about a year and you and your partner have regularly taken the boat out so that you have got to know the vessel pretty well and your sailing has improved considerably. It is Sunday afternoon and you are waiting for your two friends and their 11 year old son to arrive at the boat so that you can take them out for the long promised sail. And if its anything like yesterday it will be a perfect day for it; warm, sunny and with a light breeze of less than 10 knots. At last your friends arrive at the boat and climb aboard with enough gear for a week! Eventually it is stowed below, and with them all sitting in the cockpit you and your partner follow your well tried and tested technique for leaving the slip. As usual this works fine and you are soon on your way, motoring out the channel and your friends are already having a great time.
Once out in the bay you hoist the mainsail and unfurl the genoa and start sailing on a beam reach. Its pleasant and relaxing. After seeing you at the helm your friends take up your offer to let them steer while their son goes forward to sit on the bow. It couldn’t be better. Everyone is relaxed, even you. Sailing along you notice another boat approaching on a potential collision course so you call to the 11 year old at the bow to come back to the cockpit and you ask your friend at the helm to turn to port. But they get it wrong and turn the wheel the wrong way. The vessel gibes accidentally and as the boom flashes across the boat it catches the 11 year old solidly and before you know it he is overboard and in the water. His father at the helm panics and before you can stop him he has jumped overboard to rescue his son.
What do you do now?
It’s a summer afternoon and you are out about your 40 foot sloop sailing in light airs when you notice a growing cumulus cloud forming over the land: a typical afternoon thunderstorm in the making. No matter, you can sail for a while longer and if it appears to be heading in your direction you can always head in. For a while it seems to be hardly moving but when you look a while later it has spread across the whole area and it appears to be blocking your return. Now you decide it is time to head in and so you crank up the engine, furl in the genoa but leave the mainsail to steady the motion. As you motor in you realize, perhaps too late, that this has become a pretty big storm. There is now plenty of lightening ahead and the rain is clearly heading your way. You and your crew barely have time to don waterproof jackets before it hits. The boat heels heavily to port and turns up into the wind but your fully battened mainsail snaps sharply and before you can release the halyard to drop the sail it splits at the leech and the tear runs across to the luff. The visibility is almost zero in the driving rain, the sail is flogging madly and you go forward to the mast in an attempt to get the sail in. But in doing this you loose one of the genoa sheets overboard and within seconds the boat lurches and the engine dies. The mainsail is still set and the boat heeled as it drifts downwind.
What do you do?
What you could do in situation 1
Your options will be limited by the preparation you have done. If you have an anchor at the bow with the chain already attached you may have time to release the anchor and stop your vessel drifting down onto the unknown hazards. Once anchored you could try and restart the engine, call for assistance or attempt to set sail (though this would be difficult as you are alone and would have to raise the anchor while under sail).
An easier option would have been available if you had already taken off the mainsail cover and hoisted the main. It is just as easy to motor out with the main up but if the engine dies you can immediately begin sailing. With the main up you could probably have sailed out into the bay on a beam reach and, once clear of obstructions, tried to find out what your engine problem was.
Both solutions require you to have had some foresight as to potential problems. The anchor would need to have been ready to release and/or the mainsail already set.
Is your anchor ready to deploy quickly? And do you hoist your main (or at least remove the sail cover) as soon as possible?
What you could do in situation 2
The narrative for this situation does not give you all the information you need. Was the 11 year old wearing a life vest as required? And is the boy injured or not.
Assuming the best possible scenario, the 11 year old is wearing a lifevest and he is not injured, you still have a serious situation to deal with. There are two people in the water and you need to recover them as soon as possible. The boy’s father will probably need some flotation aid, and you will have to keep your eyes on two persons as you maneuver to recover them. One of the safest and easiest methods is to use a Lifesling which can be deployed from the stern and the victims in the water then circled at a safe distance until they can catch hold of the line. Even then, assuming you can maneuver so that both can get hold of the line, you have to recover them aboard which is never easy especially when swells are causing the vessel to bob up and down precariously close to the victims in the water.
If the situation is more serious: the boy has been injured, he has no lifevest, or his father is in difficulty then you may need immediate assistance.
Hopefully such a situation never occurs to any of us though it surely will sometime to someone we know. Preparation, equipment and seamanship can all help to stop such a serious situation from becoming a disaster.
Preparation could have involved a crew briefing, ensuring that the 11 year old was wearing a lifevest, that your friends could swim. Equipment necessary in such a situation may include lifevests, throwable floatation devices, a Lifesling ,a man-overboard pole and a VHF radio. Is the Lifesling fitted correctly with the bitter end secured to a solid part of the vessel and the line properly stowed for easy deployment? If victims are going to be recovered from the water using a hoist how will this work and is all the necessary gear aboard. If you need to send a Mayday or Pan-Pan distress signal using your VHF radio are you sure it is working correctly? Lastly, do you personally have sufficient experience to safely cope with such a situation? Have you ever practiced man-overboard recovery aboard your own boat?
What you could do in situation 3
You have a number of problems to deal with but as yet the situation is not serious. The mainsail needs to be lowered and now with a probable line around the propeller you will need to get the anchor deployed before you get blown ashore. Fortunately so far no one has been hurt or lost overboard and you need to keep it that way. You know that these summer storms rarely last long but even so, a person who falls overboard may be in a very serious situation. Before anyone goes forward to lower the main and then deploy the anchor perhaps they should be secured to the vessel using a harness and tether attached to a safety line. If these are not available then they should at least be wearing a lifevest.
Assuming that you can lower the main and then deploy the anchor satisfactorily there is every possibility that you can ride out the weather and then, when it has blown over, deal with the line around the prop. This may be accomplished simply by turning the propshaft by hand in the opposite direction to its normal rotation while pulling on the line in an attempt to unravel the line from the shaft. It works occasionally but in most cases it is necessary to get in the water and cut the line away. This will require mask and snorkel and a sharp knife. And if this does not work, you can either decide to sail back (not a good idea with a shredded mainsail) or call for assistance.
Would you be able to cope in a situation like this? Do you have aboard the necessary gear to do so. And what about your anchor – is it ready to deploy and is the bitter end of the line already secured to a strong point on the vessel so that it cannot follow the anchor overboard?
Hopefully this year’s sailing will be pleasant and enjoyable. I hope that you have some great times and great sails out on the water. But just in case you have some problems don’t let them be unforeseen: be prepared for them by making sure you have the right gear, that it is correctly installed, that it is in working order and that you know how to use it!