As I write this column we are in the midst of this scorching summer when it is hard to envisage passage making along the Texas coast. But maybe by the time you get to read this we will have had our first fall front and a reminder that for much of the year the weather here is ideal for sailing.
And the thought of fall recalls the annual Harvest Moon Regatta. The race/cruise along the Texas coast from the Flagship Hotel at Galveston to Port Aransas. This year the race will begin on Friday October 9, and as this coincides with the Annapolis Boat Show, which I have to attend, I will have to miss the race for the first time in a number of years. Hopefully those who enter will have perfect winds this year and a great time. But don't be so complacent about this easy coastal hop that you don't prepare properly for what is an open water race of 150 miles along a noted lee shore!
Preparation for a passage is good seamanship but what it involves is dependant upon the experience of the skipper and the crew, and the type of vessel, its equipment and condition. Each skipper will therefore prepare in a different way for such a passage.
Besides the basic requirements of the Coast Guard there is a list of items that I always want to have aboard on such a passage and I consider these a minimum for coastal sailing.
Crew safety gear
As a first priority on any passage, not only do I want to try and ensure that everyone has a good time, I want to try and prevent accidents happening. For this reason I always try to have rules about when and how safety harnesses and tethers should be used. I try and ensure good safety in the galley by providing a protective apron and a galley strap and by making sure that galley items are stowed safely when not in use. And I try to ensure that the vessel is in good condition so that the chance of gear failure is reduced to a minimum.
Avoiding getting into trouble in the first place is far better than having all of the equipment to deal with such an emergency if it occurs. Practicing sound navigation is essential in this respect. But this does not merely mean having two GPS receivers aboard the boat. It means planning a course which takes into account the proximity of a lee shore, shipping, or any other navigational dangers. It means plotting positions regularly on a chart to be certain that you are heading where you think you are. And it means obeying the navigation rules, showing the correct lights at night and taking appropriate action in respect of other vessels.
Repair the boat items
It is inevitable that on any passage something will need repairing. On a well maintained boat it may be something trivial item that can wait until you reach port, but it may be something more serious such as a broken shroud or stay, a steering failure or a hole in the boat. Any of these can happen without warning and the well prepared skipper will have planned ahead for the possibility of such failures. In preparation for a passage, go over the boat and consider how each of the essential systems on the boat could fail and then mentally plan some method of repair. What if the main halyard fails? What if the mainsail rips? Play what if before you leave and make up a list of repair items as a consequence.
Even on a coastal passage along the Texas coast there will be times when you could be several hours away from medical assistance and so it is necessary to plan to take with you some medical items. Cuts and scrapes can occur at anytime. Broken limbs are unlikely but you may want to consider how you would deal with one if it occurred aboard your boat. Seasickness is a real possibility as are sunstroke and dehydration, and even hypothermia is a possibility at sea during a cold front in October! Besides a first aid kit, radio communications are very desirable as they will enable you to call for assistance or, at a minimum, obtain advice over the radio. But your boat's VHF radio will only work if both it and the antenna are in good condition. Cellular phones work well when among the oil rigs but beware; many of the newer type of digital phones do not yet work out in the Gulf!
If someone should fall overboard without being attached to the boat then you immediately have a serious situation. If it is at night or the conditions are rough it is even more so. Having the right equipment will not prevent such an occurrence but it may make all the difference in safely recovering a person if this should occur. A horseshoe buoy, manoverboard pole and lifesling are all on my list of essentials. But you can add to this with personal strobe lights, a light on the manoverboard pole, personal floatation devices etc. Clearly getting back to the person in the water is a first priority and in this the GPS manoverboard feature can be of assistance if all the crew know how to use it. And once you have returned to the person in the water you then have to get them back aboard which is rarely easy and sometimes virtually impossible without the right gear.
Abandon ship gear
Though it is hard to consider losing your boat at sea, a hole that is too large to patch or a fire that gets out of control will mean that you will have to abandon ship. And it is then that lifevests will be essential as will an automatically inflating raft or, as a minimum, an inflatable dinghy. Chances are that if you ever have to abandon ship along the Texas coast then you will not be in the dinghy too long but you may still want to have some water aboard and maybe other items too. A waterproof hand-held VHF radio is probably the best piece of equipment you could have with you in this situation apart from the raft itself. With the radio you should be able to call for assistance from the many other vessels that use the coastal waters.
Fire fighting equipment
With a clean and well maintained engine room and good galley safety, fire is not a likely event but should it occur it is serious. Besides the number and size of fire extinguishers required by the coastguard, you may want to consider an engine room fire extinguishing system, extra fire extinguishers that can be kept in the cockpit and a fire blanket that can be used in the galley.
Safety equipment required by the U.S. Coast Guard
- Lifevests (one per person)
- Throwable device (such as a horseshoe buoy)
- Fire extinguishers (number and size dependant on the size of the vessel)
- Sound signaling device (and a bell for vessels longer than 12 meters)
Minimum additional safety equipment I consider necessary for a coastal passage
- Safety harnesses and tethers for each person on the crew plus secure fixing points in the cockpit and strong jack lines along the length of the deck
- VHF radio (ideally one fixed and one hand-held)
- GPS (ideally two)
- Charts, plotting instruments and the knowledge to use them
- Manoverboard pole
- Lifesling (or other similar devices for recovering a person from the water to back aboard the vessel)
- Emergency inflating raft or, as a minimum, an inflatable dinghy, on deck, with sufficient air in it that it will not sink
- Fire blanket for the galley (if the galley will be used)
- Apron and galley strap (if the galley will be used at sea)
- A good first-aid kit and the knowledge to use it (such as Red Cross first aid and CPR classes)
- Repair items for the hull, rigging, steering, engine and any other system you consider essential