Bluewater Passage Preparations or

How to Sail Off the Edge of the World!

Part 4 (Final) — September 24, 2015

Continued from last week—click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Most of Your Sailing will be Downwind

If you have a light-air downwind sail such as a cruising spinnaker (or “gennaker”), it’s difficult to rig it for single-person operation. We have a gennaker with a snuffer sock and it can be single-handed as long as the wind is light and the water is calm so everything works smoothly. Deploying the sail is usually just fine but if the wind builds and you want to bring it down, there can be complications. Often, the gennaker stays filled and the snuffer cannot be pulled down so a correction in the boat’s course is needed. This is easy if you have a foredeck person and a helmsman but very inconvenient for a single person running back and forth. Accordingly, with only two aboard and single-person watches, we do not use the gennaker as often as we might otherwise.

One alternative used by several catamaran captains I know is to use a “heavy-weather” spinnaker which is smaller and made of heavier material. It can be left up in most downwind conditions and some use it as their primary sail, seldom unfurling a mainsail.

Poled-out Genoa—We use a poled-out genoa more often than the gennaker. The secret here (which we learned in a seminar by renowned ocean meteorologist Chris Tibbs) is to rig the whisker pole with three lines: pole lift, foreguy, and afterguy (see picture) so that it will stay in one place on its own. With no genoa flogging around, one can go to the foredeck and spend plenty of time getting the pole rigged and positioned properly. Now, from within the cockpit, you can unroll the genoa and sheet in and the sail will fill wonderfully. If a squall approaches, you can roll the genoa up again and leave the pole in place so when the squall passes, you can just unroll the genoa again. If you need to, you can even bring the genoa to the other tack and leave the pole in place until it is convenient to go onto the foredeck and bring it back in.

TIP: To reduce chafe, when you do deploy the poled genoa, make sure the sheet knot is against the whisker-pole jaw. This way the pole will move with the genoa rather than the sheet sliding back and forth through the jaw.

Flying the gennaker is great fun but we have to keep an eye out for increasing wind and we seldom fly it after dark.

Here’s the whisker-pole end showing the stabilizing control lines. The pole lift holds the pole up while the fore- and afterguys (blue lines) prevent fore and aft motion. The genoa sheet hangs loosely through the whisker-pole jaw waiting for you to sheet in and sail off downwind.

About Your Boat

Well-found Boat—You may already have the boat you plan to sail or you may be selecting a boat for your passage. Keep in mind that almost any well-found boat is capable of ocean sailing. How do you know if your boat is well-found? Get a survey and tell the surveyor about your intentions. Watch the survey in progress so you can learn about the condition of the bottom then when you do your own checks down the line, you can see any changes. Search the designer/model reputation—do you know of other boats of the same design which have made similar trips, for example?

Once you have a sturdy boat, and a good assortment of safety and navigation equipment, everything else could be considered comfort and convenience. You can select equipment as space and budget allow—you can choose to go without a watermaker, inverter, etc.

Bluewater Boat Selection—A heavier boat will usually have a more sea-kindly motion than a lighter boat of similar size. For a given hull-shape, almost everything which makes a boat faster tends to make it less comfortable at sea and less reliable. Generally, you get more speed from a lighter weight boat, more sail area, and more aggressive sailing; all of these things can reduce comfort and reliability.

A multihull will probably have a smoother ride at a rolly anchorage but may or may not be more comfortable in a rough sea. It may be faster downwind. Also, a multihull will have more interior space than a monohull of similar length.

People have made extensive passages and even gone around the world in all kinds of boats and each boat has its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to have the boat you enjoy and are comfortable with. Boat selection is a matter of personal preference and budget so keep the ideas mentioned above in mind when selecting a boat (and also when toughing out a rough sea or repairing the inevitable breakage).

At 33 tons, Celebrate is a heavy-displacement bluewater boat with a comfortable ride but needs more wind to get up to speed.

A light-displacement catamaran has lots of interior space but a bumpy ride in rough seas.

You May Be Short-Handed

On Celebrate, we sail as a couple as much as possible. For longer passages we had a single crew-person join us to shorten the watch times and to act as a backup in the event one of us was out of action. This turned out to be extremely valuable when sailing from St. Lucia to Panama where Cathy was laid low by food poisoning and was incapable of standing a watch for a few days.

Depending on your preferences, you probably won’t have two people together on watch unless you have at least six crewpeople on board. Therefore, it’s best if you can rig your boat so that it can be handled by one person on a watch in most cases. To accomplish this, you’ll want to consider bringing lines to the cockpit so that reefing/unreefing and all sail trimming can be done without leaving the cockpit.

Celebrate, being a somewhat larger boat with nearly 2,000 square feet of sail area, has a considerable amount of gear involved in allowing her to be sailed by a single person on watch. The genoa is on a power furler and the primary winches are electric as well. The genoa can be furled by easing the sheet and pressing the button to roll in the sail. This is fine as long as we are far enough off the wind that the fairlead position isn’t critical. If the fairlead block needs to be moved, the forces on the sheet are great enough that the fairlead cannot be moved unless the genoa is furled entirely. On many boats, you need only to luff up a bit to ease the pressure on the sail but on Celebrate, if the genoa flogs at all, the forces on the sheet make it dangerous to be on the side-deck.

Again, because it is a larger boat, Celebrate has in-boom furling by Leisure Furl (Forespar). There is a knack to using it but it does allow Cathy to reef on her own single-person watch. In order to use the furler, the main must be completely depowered as it is actually sliding in the track and with any power, the luff-rope binds in the track and risks damaging the luff-tape. If you’re going downwind, you don’t have to turn the boat all the way around, though. If you sheet in the genoa while leaving the main out, then slowly bring the boat across the wind, the backwind from the genoa will make the main luff while still providing drive to the boat—and going generally in the right direction. You can reef/unreef as needed, fall off to the desired course, and sheet the genoa back out.

Planning For a Maintenance Budget

Repairs—Another side-effect of running a boat 24 hours a day is that most boats aren’t built with that in mind. In the US, an average boat is used less than 100 hours a year. At sea, you’ll use it that much every four days. In our travels, we never met cruisers who weren’t concerned with equipment breakage and repairs.

Chafe is a common problem on a long passage, and we had chafe on the main halyard at the masthead. After we learned about it, we’d lower the mainsail every few days and cut a foot or two off the end of the main halyard to move the chafe point and raise the sail again and continued to do this until we could get a rigger to correct the masthead problem. It didn’t take long to conclude that eye-splices on halyard shackles, although they look great, aren’t necessary and if you have a chafe problem, you have to cut much more off the end of the halyard if it’s eye-spliced. Now we use bowlines.

Budgeting—Bluewater sailing will be more expensive than leaving your boat at the dock, there is just no way around it. As you use your boat, parts of it wear out and need to be repaired and replaced. You will also use more fuel and other consumables.

Here’s another way to look at it, though: If you have a boat which you sail on the bay and take on cruises for a few weekends a year, you might be actually sailing your boat (hypothetically) 100 hours a year. If your maintenance costs are $10,000 per year for this level of activity, then you are spending $100 per sailing hour. Great news! If you put 2,500 sailing hours on your boat in a single year (15,000 miles), your cost per hour will go down dramatically—to $10 from $100.

Also, your costs will depend on a number of factors including: What is the current condition of your boat? Do you do most of the work yourself? How hard do you sail your boat? How careful are you and your crew and how experienced with this boat?

In general, outside of the US, labor is less expensive (except for a few places like Tahiti and Australia) and boat parts and supplies are more expensive because of the air-freight, duties, agent fees, etc. You can find people to do routine maintenance in many ports wordwide. There are many diesel mechanics who can fix common engine failures—particularly if you have a Yanmar or other widely-used engine. You can also usually find craftsmen to do fiberglass repair and woodwork. You might have more difficulty with electronics and watermakers, for instance. In many third-world countries, you can have mechanical parts custom-made at lower cost than you can import replacements. I had a stainless exhaust elbow custom-made in Mexico for much less than the cost of the Yanmar part (which couldn’t be imported anyway).

Lastly, Choosing Crew

You’ll be in close quarters aboard and crew selection is likely to be the biggest decision you have to make regarding your safety and enjoyment aboard. On a day trip or short coastal cruise, where the captain is fully in charge the whole time, you can work with almost anyone. The bluewater cruise is different:

  • For considerable lengths of time, you’ll be in close-quarters with your crew.
  • You’ll be trusting the operating of your boat to your crew.

Crew may be your spouse, other family members, friends, or strangers recruited from other boats or the internet. But you need:

  • People who can be responsible for the boat.
  • People you can get along with and like to have around.

On any long voyage, you’ll want to choose your crew carefully. In our World Circumnavigation we saw several instances of captains unhappy with their crew, crew unhappy with the boat, crew changing boats, etc. Some of this relates to the close-quarters of a sailing boat and the timing involved. Also, sometimes crew inexperience and/or negligence led to friction.

How Many Crew?—An initial decision is how many people you will want on board. Usually, bluewater watches are hours of inaction interspersed with short bursts of activity. As mentioned previously, on watch, we check up on things every 15 minutes. Even then, everything is often just fine and no correction is needed. Over time, on shorter initial voyages, you’ll learn the watch schedule you’re comfortable with and this will dictate the minimum number of crew you feel you need.

Some captains choose to have a crew of six or more to create a more comfortable watch plan, but it comes at the expense of personal space aboard. The choice is yours.

Experience?—Energetic cheerful crew may be better than outstanding sailing resumes. Either way, new crew need to be educated on exactly how your boat works, your safety and navigation equipment and what is expected of them.

Unique Personalities—Sailing around the world or taking any bluewater passage is not a mainstream activity. People willing to embark on such an adventure are not run-of-the-mill people. Knowing in advance that people are different, it is unrealistic to think they are different only in taking the bluewater passage but “ordinary” in all other respects. People on bluewater passages are individualists and have their own unique ideas, abilities, and habits. On a passage longer than about a week, people’s little habits may begin to wear—particularly for people who are not used to coping with roommates.

Many crew-related issues can be headed off by setting expectations. It is important for the Captain to decide what is needed from crew-members and write it down in advance to share. Do you just need someone to keep watch? Will you need someone to do repairs? Will they be expected to cook, how many meals? What will the menus be like? What will their responsibilities be when you are in port or at anchor or at the dock? What is the alcohol policy?

Set expectations as you see fit. On Celebrate, we had a relatively successful crew experience and the expectations we spelled out for crew joining during our circumnavigation are here.

Celebrate’s happy crew at the Hindu blessing prior to departure from Bali. .

In Conclusion

This four-part article series has covered a variety of bluewater topics. With preparation and forethought, you can make your passages fun adventures and avoid many of the potential mishaps. We've covered the primary differences between a bluewater passage and a coastal cruise or afternoon sail on the bay in these areas:

Your first bluewater passage may still feel like sailing “off the edge of the world” but armed with the knowledge shared from our World Circumnavigation on Celebrate, you can start with more confidence.

Happy Sailing and Enjoy Your Passages!