Ocean Proof - How To Prepare For (Nearly) Anything

Yachting World|March 2020

Ocean Proof - How To Prepare For (Nearly) Anything
In the first of a two-part series on planning for bluewater cruising, vicky ellis looks at how to be prepared for almost anything
Vicky Ellis

Well-prepared boats have dealt with half the battle when it comes to emergencies and challenges at sea. But beyond the boat and equipment, the mindset, experience and knowledge of skipper and crew play a huge part in making a successful outcome from a potential disaster.

So what makes a good bar story out of a bad situation? What problems and challenges are we likely to face on the picture-perfect voyage and what does it take to cope and succeed?

The trick with both planning for and dealing with problems at sea is to prioritize. Incidents such as fi re, fl ooding and man overboard are fortunately rare if they have been considered. It is the problems more likely to occur that also need careful consideration.”.

Below are some of the problems well-prepared boats on a bluewater ocean crossing may encounter, based on incidents reported on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) between 2017 and 2019. Rig, steering and equipment issues are among the most noteworthy.


These can be some of the most challenging issues and often happen without much warning. Downwind sailing in the trades can put huge strains on steering systems, especially during squalls or in acceleration zones, and particularly if a heavily laden yacht rounds up and broaches. The good news is that most of the potential problems can be prevented with checks, regular maintenance and a decent set of spares.

Choose wisely a system that will stand up to the miles, be easy to maintain, replace and check. I have appreciated yachts on which there was good access to steering systems and space to carry out repairs without dangling through a cockpit locker like a lemur. My bluewater choice (OK, wishlist!) would feature a system of solid rods linked through a gearbox although I have done most of my bluewater miles with the traditional cable and quadrant type systems. Sometimes it’s better the devil you know, so long as the system is robust.

A cable steering system spares list would include a big bag of bulldog clamps, spare cables and/or Spectra backup, head torch and prop-up lamp, steering lubricants, double sets of spanners/sockets, and old toothbrushes for cleaning.

Consider whether your overall steering system has sufficient redundancy and how it interacts with your autopilots, which can operate off various parts of the system. A more costly but good arrangement for longdistance or round the world voyaging is to have two separate and switchable linear drive systems to the quadrant so that one can take over immediately if the other fails.

Typically, a handful of boats each year report steering problems during the ARC. This can be quite dramatic. Depending on your autopilot set-up and the failure, the autopilot may be able to keep control of the steering. If not, then you need to use an emergency tiller. While it can be used to steer the boat they’re only intended for short-term use to hold the rudder steady as you carry out repairs, sparing your fingers or worse.

On one occasion while using an emergency tiller to steer mid-ocean, the roll of the boat sent me flying, tiller in hand, across the back of the cockpit. I quickly secured a lanyard to the tiller and would encourage a crew to attach a lanyard in advance.

See the column (right) for some examples of emergency tillers and how they have been adapted.


Collisions with underwater objects can cause serious rudder problems and are more common than being holed. Hitting sizeable flotsam and jetsam is the kind of thing that keeps sailors awake at night but it is actually a relatively rare occurrence — though on my last transatlantic, I encountered a floating fridge freezer.


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March 2020