I have just returned to the office after a second record setting (for me, that is) crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. Last year I took an Island Packet 44 from Clear Lake to Grand Cayman (south of Cuba in the Caribbean Sea) and completed the 1000 mile passage in a few hours over 7 days an average run of over 140 miles per day. It was a fantastic run with a north and then northeast wind taking us all the way south through the Yucatan Channel and into the Caribbean before it moved into the east and became a head wind.
This last trip was aboard an Ericson 32, which I was taking from Clear Lake to Tampa, Florida. Aboard were Tom, owner of the boat, his friend Bob, and Joe, a yacht broker colleague who wanted to develop his offshore skills. The trip of approximately 700 miles took us a few hours over 5 days giving us an average of nearly 140 miles per day. It is by far the quickest passage I have made crossing the Gulf in either direction and, in this case, it was West to East which is usually a longer passage against the prevailing southeasterly winds. But it was another north wind that resulted in our fast passage.
Fast passages may sound impressive but they are usually the result of strong winds with the consequent big seas. Passage-making in these conditions can be exhilarating but when rough conditions occur before the crew have had a real chance to develop their sea legs, the experience is often less than pleasant. On this last passage the north wind was blowing when we left the dock but it was not until the second evening that we had to reef the sails. The wind built steadily during Wednesday to 25 knots and it continued at between 20 25 knots until late Thursday. Perfect sailing it seems as I write this: Caribbean strength winds from the north so that we were on a reach sailing mostly at over 7 knots without pounding directly into the 5 7 foot seas. These conditions are described by the Beaufort Scale (see Table 1) as Force 6, a strong breeze. Large waves begin to form with extensive white crests and some spray.
Large waves did begin to form and I was asked often by the crew what their size was and invariably I disappointed them with a figure much lower than they had in mind. For all aboard apart from myself it was their first offshore sailing in a small boat and these winds and sea conditions were something new and a little awesome. Though in many ways the conditions were not that bad it still proved a testing experience aboard and we were all (yes, me too) glad when the winds and sea began to moderate.
For two days (Tuesday night to Friday morning) it was not easy to live aboard the boat comfortably. Preparing to come on watch involved putting on sweaters and boots and foul weather gear without throwing-up or falling down or getting thrown across the cabin. Eating was OK but cooking was not, and for those two evenings none of us wanted to stay below and wrestle with the stove to warm up a meal. Even the most basic of functions using the toilet was difficult and near impossible at the height of the wind and seas. In short we stood our watches and then slept. We snacked on cookies and power bars and candy and none of us were smiling! Given the opportunity all of us would, I feel sure, have readily swapped the experience for a peaceful uninterrupted night at home in our own beds and I imagine that among the crew there were many commitments to never repeat the experience. Yet by Friday as the wind moderated to a Force 4 we were all cooking and cleaning and washing and smiling and it was a great trip and we were flying along making an incredible passage and it was fantastic sailing! And when we pulled into the marina in Palmetto, Florida late on Saturday afternoon the crew were justly proud of their accomplishment of having completed a 700 mile Ocean passage without serious problems and in record time. At that point all we needed was a shower and a meal ashore and we would have been ready to go again.
Coping with heavy weather takes preparation. The vessel needs to be of sufficient strength to cope with the conditions; the necessary equipment needs to be aboard the boat; and there needs to be sufficient experience to know how and when to use it.
When is a vessel strong enough?
There are some boats that are built so cheaply that will not do well in a sustained blow on an inland lake while, at the other end of the scale, there is not a boat built strongly enough that is guaranteed to survive a hurricane at sea. Most small sailboats (say 25 55 feet in length) will be able to cope with some testing conditions at sea. How much they will cope with before damage occurs depends on the initial quality and construction of the vessel. The more extensive your intended ocean sailing, the more you will need to consider these factors.
Typical problems aboard a vessel at sea in heavy weather include extensive flexing of the hull causing delamination of the hull, failure of the bonding between the bulkheads and the hull, failure of the hull close to the hull-deck join, loss of the rudder or of the rigging. All of these aspects of construction need to be considered before setting out for extensive ocean sailing.
Thin hulls will flex easily and a flexing hull is liable to delamination as the layers of fiberglass separate from each other. Where a vessel has a cored hull, the physical (as opposed to chemical) bond between the inner and outer layers and the core can fail resulting in a significant loss of strength in the entire hull. Aboard most vessels, the bulkheads create much of the rigidity of the hull. They are often fiberglassed directly to the hull but on less well-built boats they may be slotted into preformed notches in an inner liner. How thick the bulkheads are, how much has been removed to create the accommodation (doorways etc.) and how strongly they are attached will affect the ultimate ability of the vessel to cope with really testing conditions.
How much strength is needed will depend on the type of sailing you will be doing (will you be single-handing round Cape Horn?), what level of risk you are prepared to take (there is always some even aboard the strongest vessel possible) and what your level of experience is: less well-built boats can survive tough conditions with an experienced crew to look after the vessel.
The joint between the hull and deck of most sailboats is a critical area of construction. If the join is not well made it can fail by opening up at sea and letting water in but often it is not the join that fails but the area immediately below the join where the hull sides begin. Failure can occur in severe conditions when a vessel falls off a sea and the leeward side hits solid water. Experienced crew can help avoid these conditions in most heavy weather situations.
Rudders need to be sufficiently strong, in good condition, and well supported. A solid stainless steel rudder would be useless if it were not attached strongly enough to the hull of the vessel. But again, how strong is necessary will depend on a number of factors including the design of the rudder, how it is attached and the experience of the crew. Most ocean racing boats have fairly lightly made balanced spade rudders that are easily damaged if sufficient care is not taken in managing the vessel. Most cruising vessels will sacrifice some performance for something more rugged. The same applies to rigging. I read a few years ago that on many ocean racing boats the rigging is designed to cope with 80% of the anticipated load. I would prefer 120%! Stiff mast cross-sections and sound, strong rigging will cope better with the shock loading caused by pounding. And stronger, simpler rigs with fewer spreaders and no running stays will be easier to manage by those who are less experienced.
What equipment is necessary?
At sea it is always nice to feel that you still have something left in reserve as the wind and seas build. In the 25 knots that we had during my last Gulf passage we still had up the 140% genoa (fairly well furled) and we had two reefs in the mainsail. Had the wind increased further we could have set the smaller 110% genoa, put in the 3rd reef in the mainsail and even then had the storm jib to use should conditions further deteriorate. The boat was definitely well equipped for the passage and it was comforting to know we had these options available.
For longer ocean passages, skippers may want to consider a storm trisail (a storm sail to set in lieu of the mainsail) sea anchors and drogues. All of these items are largely for use in the most severe and testing conditions. World cruisers may have the gear aboard but few will ever need to use them.
Of more practical consideration is the need for secure berths below with strong leecloths as necessary. Plenty of handholds to grab on to in the main cabin and the head. Food that can be easily prepared or snacks that can be used (as we did) without cooking. The crew will need good, waterproof foul weather gear, and a good safety harness and tether.
What experience is required?
Every year I see crews setting off aboard their strongly built and extensively equipped vessels only for them to return a few days or weeks later, chastened and dejected, their plans for years of idyllic cruising jettisoned during their first encounter with conditions often no worse than those we encountered in the passage to Tampa. It is tough offshore even in moderately strong wind conditions and it is not easy to reef sails or steer let alone stand watch for long periods while getting little sleep. Even in 25 knots a crew can quickly become tired. Imagine how the situation can be exacerbated by lack of experience. Putting a reef in too late is much harder, and a delayed decision will have resulted in tougher going with the vessel heeled further and harder to steer. The risk of blowing out sails is increased as is the strain on the crew.
An inexperienced skipper and crew will have enough new situations to deal with at sea, at night just coping with navigation and shipping and safety harnesses and getting sufficient rest even in 10 knots of breeze. In more testing conditions those beyond the previous experience of skipper and crew anxiety levels will be raised creating more tension and as a consequence the chances of seasickness occurring is dramatically increased. And when skipper and / or crew become seasick even the most basic decisions are often deferred.
I have left seasickness until last but it is perhaps the most significant aspect of heavy weather. Yes, even in our Caribbean 25 knots we all felt queasy and even I threw-up once after staying below too long to do some navigation. Without experience offshore you do not know whether you will suffer from seasickness or not (most do when it gets rough); you do not know how debilitating it will be; and you do not know what will help you cope with it.
If you want to cope successfully with heavy weather at sea then you do need a good boat and the right gear. But most of all you need the experience to be able to safely look after yourself, the vessel and the crew. And experience cannot be gained by reading books. If you are planning your first offshore passage then go ahead. But dont expect to go as skipper until you have sufficient sea miles under your watch cap to feel confident that you too can make the right decisions when conditions begin to deteriorate.