You might have a departure day circled red in the diary and be furiously working through a to-do list to get there. Or maybe you’re considering a bluewater adventure in future, and starting to think through the preparations you need to make. You might even have postponed your big trip, and be considering how to make the most of an extra sailing season at home.
Either way, in between the jobs lists of boat upgrades and household admin and everything else, it can be easy to overlook one area of preparation: yourself. How ready, really, are you? Are there skills or areas of knowledge you and your partner or crew could work on? Would some coaching or additional experience boost your confidence? Now, with a lot of people’s sailing plans in hiatus, could be just the time to learn.
Regardless of whether you followed an RYA/ASA training pathway or similar, or have learnt through time on the water and poring over books and YouTube tutorials, some skills just can’t be practised until you have to do it for real. Anchoring in coral, for example, is a hard situation to replicate. Nevertheless, there are a small number of specialist training providers who offer skills coaching specifically for sailors who are preparing for bluewater and ocean sailing. We asked these hugely experienced training skippers which skills they think are worth focusing on.
BEYOND YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Amanda and John Neal have run Mahina Expeditions for over 30 years, offering onboard teaching courses, as well seminars and their own coaching manuals. This year they’re running 9-12 day ‘Ocean’ courses in the Pacific north-west. The curriculum, which includes training in storm survival techniques, reefing techniques, MOB retrieval practice using a life sling, learning how to make sail repairs and rig inspections, diesel and electrical training, and navigation skills from celestial navigation to sat comms, is a great starting point for anyone wondering where they might have a skills gap.
“Our goal is to have people ready to circumnavigate after 10-12 days with us,” explains John Neal.
For some sailors going on a course like this is about accelerating the learning process, for others it’s about pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. “That’s why a lot of clients join us, because they would much rather go through these kind of testing scenarios with some structure and some backup.”
Pragmatically, doing an offshore training course may help reduce insurance premiums. “There’s so few offshore insurers in the world, and they all know who we are and in many cases send people to us,” explains John Neal.
He adds: “We encourage people to get documentation for everything they learn. Present this to the insurance company because insurers are just working on risk.”
“Your commitment to gaining as much knowledge and experience before setting off will save you time and money, and ensure you have the best chance of realising your goals,” adds Amanda. “Often these plans won’t quite go your way, but this just readies you for the realities of the life at sea.”
“The skill I’m most passionate about teaching, and the one that will give you the biggest bang for your buck, is weather forecasting – interpreting GRIB files, reading synoptic charts and forecasts and anticipating how you and your boat will handle changing weather at sea,” says Andy Schell of 59° North, which offers offshore passages with training opportunities on its Swan 48 and 59 yachts.
“If you master this, there should rarely be surprises offshore. This, combined with boat handling skills – not just basic sail trim, but rather how you reef the sails to eliminate wear and tear (flogging), how you set up a downwind preventer system, how you trim sails to make life easier on your autopilot – will, more than anything else, make passagemaking more pleasant and drama free.
“I’ve found that by learning to anticipate the weather and make adjustments to the boat’s sail plan and course ahead of time – being proactive rather than reactive – I’m much more mentally at-ease at sea and enjoy the passage more. And learning about weather forecasting is something that’s perfectly suited to lockdown times.”
Schell suggests a good exercise is to practice creating your own routes, before getting the computer to calculate an optimal route. “I keep it simple: based on the weather pattern, is this passage going to be rhumbline? Or will it favour one side or other of the rhumbline? Remember too, with offshore cruising weather routing should be optimised for comfort, not speed. Sometimes spending an extra day at sea beam-reaching is preferable to bashing to windward if you can make a slight route or timing adjustment.”
Schell uses LuckGRIB software on an iPad offshore, into which you can input your own boat’s polars. “In ‘cruising mode’ I set our performance at 75-80% of the polars, knowing I can match or exceed these predictions most of the time.”
Jeremy Wyatt, who has seen hundreds of cruisers off on World Cruising Club rallies, agrees that forecasting is a skill to prioritise. “While ocean weather patterns are often more predictable than those in coastal waters, you need to be able to look at the big picture – literally, if you are using GRIBs.
“Weather forecasts for oceans cover large areas and are much less detailed than closer to shore, so you need to understand how the forecasts are produced, their limits and importantly why and where to expect variations.
“There are some excellent ocean weather courses and it is well worth investing in this type of training.”
For learning resources, Jeremy Wyatt and the Neals both recommend the RYA Weather Handbook (G133) by Chris Tibbs.
“If there isn’t a marine weather course in your area, consider signing up for an online course through www. starpath.com,” suggests John Neal. “Also, start studying Windy.com for the area that you’ll be cruising. If you’re heading further afield, Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes provides overview of both regional and specific passage weather patterns.”
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