One of my early offshore passages was a crossing of the English Channel. It was Easter week and still cold out on the water as I began, just one of the crew taking advantage of an opportunity of a weeks sailing to the Brittany coast of France. We set off from Falmouth heading out past Black Rock into some largish swells and as we cleared the Lizard the full Southwesterly wind and seas made the motion uncomfortable. Despite the dodger, it was wet in the cockpit as we beat to windward, our friends on a sister ship behind us.
In anticipation of the passage the skipper had prepared a watch schedule and we were soon taking advantage of our off watch times to rest and warm up below. As night came on it became evident that our skipper was suffering from mal-de-mer despite the medication he had taken, and without really excusing himself he failed to appear for his watch. The still energetic and enthusiastic crew of which I was one just carried on. Next to go was our navigator who after feeding the fishes profusely went to his cabin and remained there all night apart from a couple more brief and unpleasant trips on deck. So it was, that with little experience, I found myself having more of this than the remainder of the crew. Sometime in the night I decided we needed to reef and despite feeling a little off color myself we completed the task without incident. Then it seemed prudent to plot a position on the chart which again I did. This done I spoke on the radio with our friends somewhere off our starboard quarter and together we discussed our situation. With the wind from the southwest it was evident that we would not be able to make our intended destination and so we chose the alternative of L'aberach which we could lay more easily. The situation was discussed with the skipper who rationally listed our options: "we can carry on beating to windward for the next 24 hours and make our intended destination, or we can head for L'aberach and make landfall tonight, or we could heave-to and make our entrance to L'aberach in the morning". With little opposition from the skipper we chose to make a night approach and I set about plotting a course to steer. From my earlier plotted position I calculated the rhumb line course and then allowed for leeway in setting a compass heading for us to steer. Having informed the skipper of this we changed course and I called our friends on the radio to advise them of our decision. They concurred with our choice and they too altered course. A short while later they called us back, "Hey Jeremy what course did you calculate?", I looked at the log and repeated our course. "We just plotted it and that's not what we got," came the reply. And as it turned out I had been wrong. All my calculations were correct but I had plotted our initial position one whole degree wrong! Fortunately they spotted the mistake and we amended our course and eventually made our entrance to L'aberach surfing down some huge seas as the water shallowed. Eventually as the motion lessened once we were in sheltered waters our seasick skipper reemerged to take charge and with some anxiety we headed in and anchored. That night we all slept well.
Though we made our harbor safely it was with a large amount of luck for a number of mistakes were made. Firstly with both the skipper and navigator suffering from seasickness we should have been hesitant at closing the coast at all but that is one of the dangers of inexperience. Then I made what could have been a disastrous mistake in the navigation. Again it was inexperience as I was having to cope with too many new and different responsibilities all at once. And lastly I now shiver at the thought of our entry in to a strange harbor at night in rough conditions and with little experience. The saw-toothed rocks which we saw the next morning only served to reinforce the real dangers that we had put ourselves in.
The mistakes made during the passage were obvious but what of those errors of ommission; those things that ought to have been done before the trip ever began. Looking back now I can see all too clearly that though the boat was satisfactorily equipped for the passage, the skipper and the crew were not. Though most people will get queasy at sea, particularly when it is rough, a person who is so handicapped that they cannot take their watch is certainly not an able skipper. To a slightly lesser extent, the same applies to a navigator.
To be a good skipper requires experience. Not experience of lesser sailing such as undertaken in protected waters, for no matter how many years this has been done it does not prepare one for the demands of ocean sailing. To be an able skipper it is necessary to have been an able crew on several similar passages, to be able to assimilate the experience of night sailing, of reefing, plotting positions when its rough and you are tired. It is no more realistic to set off on your first offshore passage as skipper as it is to captain a plane having never flown before!
Though an overnight passage along the Texas coast to Port Aransas may seem straight forward enough to be undertaken with little or no experience, it is in many ways a trip similar to the one I took from England to France. In fact a passage from Galveston to Port Aransas is somewhat longer. Both passages involve an overnight sail in shallow waters that can produce short steep seas. In both there are hazards to navigation caused by shipping, and though there are no rocks to speak of along the Texas coast, the fact that it is a lee shore in the prevailing southeasterly winds amply makes up for this danger.
If you are serious about sailing offshore and consientious in your regard for the safety of your crew then set yourself a realistic program of fitting-out. Before I took a boat offshore with a crew this is what I undertook:
* A basic navigation class
* A coastal navigation class
* A one week on-the-water class for crew
* A one-week on-the-water class for watch leader/ first mate
* A one-week on-the-water class for skippers
* Many weekends as skipper of my own boat day-sailing along the coast.
Maybe I could have reduced this program somewhat but it was right for me. What about fitting-out yourself for coastal or offshore sailing?