Bluewater Passage Preparations or

How to Sail Off the Edge of the World!

Part 1 — Posted: September 4, 2015

Click here for Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

First Major Bluewater Passage

It felt like sailing off the edge of the world on my first major ocean passage, around the Pinnacle Rocks of Cape Flattery at Neah Bay in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This was a coastal trip from Seattle to San Francisco with a few stops along the way. I’d read the guides so I knew that during a severe storm the Coast Guard closes the intervening harbors and the first all-weather entrance south of Seattle was San Francisco, about 800 miles away. Our passage turned out just fine and we were fortunate to have enjoyable conditions most of the way.

Since then, my wife and I have accumulated over 100,000 sea miles during our World Circumnavigation, several trips to Alaska, three times through the Panama Canal and up to Nova Scotia, Canada. Along the way, I obtained a USCG Master’s License. We’ve had a chance to learn so much about bluewater passagemaking. Also, having read thousands of pages of cruising guides and met many other bluewater cruisers, we have encountered lots of useful information but it is sometimes conflicting.

If you are an experienced sailor considering your first bluewater passage or a circumnavigation, where do you start? This article is intended to make it easier for you—not with specific lists of “must-have” items but with the concepts behind them so you can make your own decisions. We’ve met bluewater cruisers who just load up on extra provisions and cast off. At the other end of the spectrum we’ve met sailors so caught up in preparations that they end up never leaving the dock. The ideas below will put you in between so you can set out with more confidence.

The priorities for any bluewater cruise are to make your trip as safe and comfortable as possible.

Here’s how a bluewater passage is different than an afternoon on the bay and how you can prepare yourself, your crew, and your boat to have a great time on passage.

Figure 1. The Pinnacles at Cape Flattery—Like sailing off the edge of the world!

Passages Are Longer

Many people consider this idea and many do not really get past it.

Food Storage—Obviously, if you are planning a week-long passage, you need food and water sufficient for the entire crew for the entire passage with some additional safety margin. You’ll need a meal plan which considers the storage and refrigeration available on your boat. For a longer trip, you’ll need to take into consideration that food might not be available at some of your destinations—particularly if some of your crew have special dietary needs.

On our recent World Circumnavigation on S/V Celebrate, we had an excellent, roomy freezer so we could plan to have fresh fruits and vegetables for about a week out of port and then fall back to frozen for the duration of the passage. Because of our watch system (more about this later) we could all be together for dinner and often lunch but everyone was on their own for breakfast and snacks which could be taken from a large designated supply.

Figure 2. At about 3,000 miles, Galapagos to Marquesas is one of the world’s longest passages.

Fresh Water—Of course, a critical resource at sea is fresh water and most long-distance cruisers have a watermaker on board. While it is possible to rely on shore-side water taken in tanks if you don’t have a watermaker, the careful rationing and salt-water washing entailed can be a deterrent to many cruisers. But even with a watermaker, care is required. On Celebrate, we have a 150-gallon freshwater tank. When the gauge reached about half-full we would run the watermaker and refill it. That way, if/when the watermaker failed, we would still have 75 gallons onboard which could get us to our destination safely. We also have a saltwater foot pump at the galley sink to make it easier to get seawater when needed.

Our watermaker runs on 120v which means it will only run when the genset is running. On our previous boat, we had a watermaker which ran on 12V so it would run on batteries. From a practical viewpoint, even the most efficient watermaker is likely to exceed the output of your solar or other auxiliary power source so you’ll need to run your engine or genset anyway to make up the loss. This also means that even with an efficient 12V watermaker, you will need to ration water if the primary charging system fails (engine or genset) as you’ll have to cut back on watermaker use.

Another point on water…not all of your destinations have water available. When you are at anchor in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean or Fiji, for example, you can run your watermaker. When you are docked in Bali, for example, the water on the dock is not potable and the water in the harbor is too dirty for watermaker operations. Although you can always purchase containers of drinking water, this leads to the interesting turnabout where we had plenty of water when we were at sea but had to be much more careful when docked.

Figure 3. A watermaker is considered a MUST item by many bluewater cruisers.

Fuel—When the wind dies, you’ll probably be happy to have an engine to continue your passage. Diesel fuel is available around the world at virtually every developed destination so you can get refills but you need to consider the fuel prospects for a passage exceeding 2,000 miles. Further, with downwind sailing, a nice 10-knot breeze which would be fine on a reach is insufficient to make much progress on a run so you might be using your engine more than you expect. (1) It’s important to know how much fuel your engine uses and (2) you’ll need to consider augmenting your boat’s fuel capacity.

On Celebrate, we measured our fuel usage and calculated an overall range of 900 miles at 2,000rpm. Subsequently, on our passage to the Marquesas from Galapagos (2,980 miles), we had no wind for about a week followed by a week of great wind (but only when holding a course 10 degrees south of our destination) so when the wind died again, we had less than half our fuel remaining and still 600 miles to go to Hiva Oa. Furthermore, at Hiva Oa, fuel is only available via jerry jugs which is not really practical for the amounts of fuel needed to motor a boat the size of Celebrate. That’s when we experimented and learned that at 1,200rpm, the boat would make 4.5 kts and burn less than a gallon an hour. On this “restricted” fuel use, the overall range of the boat under power is actually 1,800 miles.

There are only a few really long passages in a circumnavigation and Celebrate’s nearly-300-gallon fuel capacity is perfectly adequate with proper management. For most cruisers, augmenting your boat’s fuel capacity with jerry jugs on deck is a viable option. Many cruisers with catamarans opt for a fuel bladder in the cockpit. Transferring fuel into the main tanks can be a bit of a chore especially when it’s rough but will only be necessary on the longer, windless passages. On our previous boat, Chére, before we headed from Seattle through Panama to the East Coast, we added a watermaker and then converted one of the water tanks to fuel by putting in a bladder and a transfer pump. This increased the fuel capacity from 40 gallons to nearly 100 and made the trip practical.

End of Part 1. Click here for Part 2