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How to prepare, assess safety and minimize risk as crew? | Sailing across the Atlantic

How to prepare, assess safety and minimize risk as crew before sailing an ocean?

Even in this era of satellite phones, safety and rescue technology, and communication systems, the nearest help can still be hundreds of miles away when sailing across an ocean. What can happen on an ocean crossing? A lot! You can get sick, fall overboard, hit something, lose the rig, have a fire, get water in the boat, rip the sails, break a leg, or in the worst-case scenario, sink. Airplanes crash. Cars crash. So do boats. To be blunt, shit happens. The Atlantic has no reefs or rocks in the middle, so the risk factor of hitting something is extremely low. Still, you could hit another boat, a whale or a floating container. These are rare scenarios, but it could happen. You need to rely on yourself. That’s why it’s so important that the boat is as safe and as prepared as it can be. And so are you as Atlantic sailing crew! To be ready to expect the unexpected, careful investigation and preparation is essential. 

How can you minimise risk and negative consequences as a crew member? What to be alert for as ocean sailing crew? What to consider for safety sailing gear for crew? What can you do as crew to prepare?

Here is an offshore sailing safety checklist for crew

Check the state of the boat

Your life depends on the condition of the boat. Check (or have someone to check) the hull, rig, sails, pumps, engine, and sails. Have new installations been tested? Are there spares and kit for repairs? Is there enough carrying capacity for fuel and water and back up water? 

Check safety equipment on board

Make sure that the boat you hop on has the essential and preferably recommended (serviced) sailing safety gear and measures, like communication technology (VHF, Satellite phone), radar, radar reflector, foghorn, a liferaft, man over board equipment flares, fire fighting equipment, EPIRB, a manual bildgepump, a bucket, extra lines, a storm sail, storm anchor, spares, spares, and spares. (Find explanations and checklists in Ocean Nomad).

Check and prepare personal sailing safety gear

What to bear in mind in terms of sailing safety gear for crew? Be sure that you as crew have a life jacket and safety line. An ocean- worthy life jacket is different from the one they have for you on the ferry or below your airplane seat. Captains often provide these but certainly not always. Be sure there is one for you on board. The most comfortable one will be one that is your own. Consider investing in one yourself. You will wear it for dozens of hours during the ocean crossing. They come in all sorts and sizes. Life jackets are graded by flotation capacity. A 150N (N stands for Newton and refers to how buoyant they are) jacket is the minimum recommended standard for offshore sailing. Life jackets should at least have a light, reflector and spray hood. Also, harnesses should be on board, so you will able to clip yourself. Life jackets carry gas cylinders to inflate them (check if they are serviced). If you are planning to fly with a life jacket, contact the airline in advance to receive approval to carry one.

Reduce risk especially if you’re planning to join sailing regattas and races and get yourself a pair of gloves. Fingers don’t like to be caught in winches. 

A pocket knife/ yacht knife can be a useful item in the safety sailing gear kit for rigging, fixing, cutting, measuring, chopping. Boats have tools too; it’s not a must. But who knows, it may save your life in an emergency! If you pack a knife, pack one with a blade that can cut a rope. 

Be water proof. You can have all sorts of weather: from freezing cold and wet to tropical heat. Most likely you will have some chilly days and squalls. The northern route requires more warm clothes than the southern route, and wet weather gear is a must. The answer: bring layers! You’ll thank yourself for having a good waterproof jacket and for having a dry set of clothes. It would be more comfortable to have foul weather sailors’ jacket and pants, but you don’t need advanced sailing gear just for the crossing. 

Find an offshore sailing gear checklist in book Ocean Nomad. Here I wrote a blog with a summer sailing packing list from which you could take away some tips too.


Assess competence on board

To a large extent, the state of the boat is also a reflection of the captain’s personality and capabilities. Do your research on the background of the boat, captain and fellow crew. The people you share the adventure with either make or break the experience. Realise that anyone can buy a boat without experience or license. It is vital that you get along with the people on board, trust in the captain’s abilities, and feel safe. Learn as much as you can about the captain, crew and boat to figure out the state of preparation. Meet up beforehand, fix things together and go for a sail. This will give you an insight into the captain’s personality, values, competencies and problem-solving skills. And it works vice versa of course. Make sure you get a sailing crew safety briefing. Find the checklists in book Ocean Nomad.

Be insured

  1. Be sure that the ship has proper insurance and that you are not financially liable in the event of major damage or even worse, a sunken boat. 
  2. Make sure that you have good travel and liability insurance. I recommend TopSail for sailing crew insurance. For medical travel insurance for nomads SafetyWing can be a good solution. It works with many nationalities and can be obtained on the way. It also covers offshore sailing!

 

Have a backup plan

Sailboats deal with seasons, routes, weather, breakage, and all sorts of variables. By thinking about scenarios in advance makes it easy to peacefully change course and comply with Captains’ calls. Should the trip not go as planned, have a backup plan, including an emergency budget to sustain yourself or to book a flight, should the trip not go as planned. 

Check the drinking water situation

Calculate if there’s enough water on board, and if a backup system is in place (such as a water maker, or two tanks, with one closed). Think about:

    • The number of crew, length of the passage, capacity of the water tank, estimated days of sailing + extra emergency days. Each person needs at least three liters of water for drinking only.
    • Make sure there’s a backup plan for contaminated tank water. If there’s only one water tank, you need to have backup water, just in case the tank gets contaminated or salty.
    • Bring a filter water bottle for yourself so you can filter water at all times.

Develop seamanship skills

Know the bearings. Learn about the passage, seasons, distance, destinations, weather, costs, and tasks involved

Map of Atlantic Crossing Sailing Routes. Originally published in Ocean Nomad – The Complete Atlantic Sailing Crew Guide

Learn the basics of how to use the radio. Note that only those with a VHF certificate or with the assistance of a certificate holder you are allowed to use the radio. It’s not a toy. If there’s one thing you learn about radio, learn how and when to do a Mayday call. 

Learn the essential knowledge regarding the Rules with other vessels. NauticEd has a free course on navigation rules.

Learn how to read the weather, on charts as well as from changing weather patterns when looking around. This can literally be a lifesaver! Being up-to-date on the weather is the most sensible prevention measure you can take to reduce risk. Study the weather patterns on your planned route, and learn how to read grib files, simplified low data weather data charts. Learn about weather patterns and reading

Learn about sea survival, maintenance of safety gear, life rafts, storm sailing, firefighting, search and rescue procedures, seasickness, and communication at sea. If you have the budget for a course, consider obtaining the STCW10 certificate. This is a basic safety certificate where you learn about personal safety and survival, firefighting, first aid/CPR, and personal safety and social responsibility.

Be prepared for first aid

Have someone (or a good book) on board with first aid knowledge.

Make sure there is a well-equipped medical kit on board, including prescription drugs and pain relief.

If no one on board has specific First Aid knowledge, is there a specialist contact you can call with the satellite phone in the event of an emergency?

Prepare for seasickness

Most people, including captains and professional crew, get seasick, some more severely than others. It’s quite normal, especially during the first few days of an ocean passage. How to prepare for seasickness?

  • Have seasickness medicine, ginger candy, biscuits and mineral electrolyte solution as part of your kit. Test seasickness medicine before to see how your body reacts. 
  • The day before:
    • Eat super healthy and light.
    • Be well hydrated. Drink plenty of water. Don’t drink alcohol, coffee or black tea. That dehydrates.
  • A few hours before sailing out:
    • Take seasickness medication.
    • Have your clothes, head torch, sunscreen, water bottle, sickness bag, and all you need for watch and sleeping, ready to grab. You’ll be okay doing watch, and you’ll be fine lying on your back in bed with your eyes closed. It’s just the areas between bed and cockpit that are the challenging zones to navigate when you’re seasick.
  • Have some crackers ready to nibble on.

I usually get seasick first day at sea. But I know how to deal with it and remain a competent crew. I prefer seasickness over the side effects of seasickness medication. It makes me a more useful crew member. More on dealing with seasickness at sea in book Ocean Nomad.

Take care of your health and comfort

We can only be our best if we feel our best. As crew you are on board to help everything run smoothly, so better stay healthy onboard. Be and stay fit, so you can deal with any situation that crops up. Besides seasickness, a few of the biggest health risks on board are sunburn, dehydration, food poisoning, insect bites, wounds, contaminated water, and just general well-being. How can you personally prepare to stay on top of your health on an ocean crossing?

  • Be well rested before the crossing. 
  • Rest well when you are not on watch. Is your boat bed rocking-proof? Do you have a lee cloth? If not, make one. You won’t be the first being thrown out of bed.
  • Do you have a specific diet, allergy or medical condition? Prepare for that yourself and inform fellow crew in advance.
  • Any tooth problems? Have it checked before you go! There’s no dentist on the ocean.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle and have it with you to remind yourself to drink enough.
  • Also, include a filter water bottle as part of your kit, so you have clean drinking water at all times and can drink straight from the tank in case the boat doesn’t have a water filtration system (yet!).
  • Start fit and stay fit. See the health kit in Ocean Nomad for more suggestions on what to bring. Also, provisioning makes a huge difference to how you will feel for the weeks at sea.
  • Wear a cap, sunglasses, and mineral-based sunscreen.

About the set sail for the fourth Atlantic Crossing

Be able to communicate

Is there a satellite phone on board? Or another device to send/receive data at sea for weather info and/or emergencies? The most important is that there is a way to check the weather. 

  • Make sure the communication equipment onboard has been tested.
  • Save emergency numbers in the satellite phone and write them down and put them in a visible spot.

Have a Personal GPS. A personal tracking device is a cost-effective possibility that allows text communication, location tracking, and emergency alerts in the unlikely event that you get lost at sea, or anywhere. This may be welcome to have if you’re doing solo watches or plan to explore foreign lands on your own after the sailing adventure. Above all, don’t fall overboard. Ever. I only got one this year and wished I got it from my very first offshore passage. Since last Atlantic crossing with 50 knots of wind and solo watches, I’m not compromising on this safety device. After a serious investigation of personals locator beacons I got myself a Garmin Inreach Mini. Still affordable, as small and light as it can get and with 2-way communication possibilities. 

Know the boat

Learn how the boat works as soon as possible. Walk all the lines. Observe, learn and memorise. Learn how the different systems on board work. Know where all safety equipment is located (Grab bag, flares, life jackets, fire extinguishers, life raft, MOB gear, first aid kit). If something happens to the skipper and/or other capable crew, someone’s got to be able to take over.

Don’t forget to tell mum

Make sure someone knows where you are. Give the home base contact details, such as the satellite phone number, captain’s number, and details of crew members and their family. 

Show your family/friends how to use marinetraffic.com. If the boat you are on has an AIS transponder, you are traceable in the VHF radio zone. Tell them that the boat can disappear from the radar when you’re out of the radio zone (+/– 50 miles from coast). You don’t want them to call Search & Rescue because your boat has disappeared from the map! Mums have done this before and it can turn out to be a costly call.

Nearly all boats making an ocean crossing will have satellite phone and/or SSB radio on board. Both systems can send and receive text and email when you’re out of the coastal radio zone. They are expensive to use, so don’t expect to be able to call home except in an emergency. Family and friends can often send messages to the phone for free though, so that’s cool! 

Some boats may have a tracking device that sends out a GPS signal every hour or so your family and friends can trace you. The Garmin Inreach I have also does that.

Fair winds!

Things will happen. It’s all part of the adventure. Hop on board with an ‘it can be done’ attitude, be inventive, alert and well-prepared, and you can tackle whatever situation comes up.

All you really need is water, food, a compass, and a (paper) chart of the Atlantic. The rest is a bonus, safety measure, or an extra headache. Equipment can make the ride more comfortable and safe but also more complicated. Every addition costs maintenance and money. Every boat has its problems. Boat works are ongoing. Stuff breaks and has to be repaired all the time, so don’t freak out. This is perfectly normal. And you actually learn most on boats where things break. It just makes it extra important to figure out if the captain and crew are well prepared, competent and positively vibed. If something is nagging inside of you, don’t do it. Follow your instinct. Opportunities come along all the time. 

There will always be a risk. But what’s life without it?

There is a lot more to say about this. That’s why I wrote a book 🙂 Learn more about finding and assessing rides across the Atlantic in Ocean Nomad: the Complete Atlantic Sailing Crew Guide – Catch a Sailboat Ride & Contribute to a healthier ocean. Grab your copy to be well prepared and sure about your ride! 

Download the E-Book here

Or grab a print edition in a bookstore near you, at Bol.com or Amazon.

Do you have more questions? Write in the comments, contact me for a virtual coconut or join me and a bunch of other Ocean Nomads (of which several sailing across the Atlantic) on our next sailing and sustainability adventure sail in Croatia.

Top 10 tips for Sailing Across the Atlantic as Crew

Travelling an Atlantic Crossing on someone else’s sailing boat is not a straightforward endeavour and an adventure to be taken lightly. Finding a boat is one thing, finding the right boat, crew and captain match is what makes all the difference. There are some things to be mindful of. I’ve met too many people that thought to ‘just’ hop on a boat do an Atlantic Crossing. Unsurprisingly many of them did not succeed in having a pleasant experience. On the Atlantic ocean, you live, work, eat, leisure together for weeks. Non-stop. It’s like camping in the wild with a bunch of strangers. Only you can’t walk away… Inform yourself, research and prepare. It’s part of the fun! 

Four times I have now sailed as crew across the Atlantic. Another time I left a boat before setting sail. So many lessons learned. Here are a few.

My ten tips for crew looking to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.

atlantic crossing

  1. Have your WHY clear

Do you want to gain sailing experience? Learn as much as you can? Go from A to B? Just be away from all of it? Or simply chillax on anchor in pretty bays? Search accordingly.

  1. Be Confident or Start small

    Be confident you’re ready for an ocean passage.  You owe it to yourself, captain, and fellow crew. If you’re not sure about the full Atlantic Crossing, start with a trip near shore or a short passage to figure out if an ocean passage is for you.

  2. Know the bearings

To be ready to expect the unexpected, careful investigation and preparation is essential. Learn about the passage, seasons, distance, destinations, weather, costs, and tasks involved. This will help you find a ride at the right time and place. NauticEd is a good place to start learning online. Click here to get two courses for free.

Map of Atlantic Crossing Sailing Routes. Originally published in Ocean Nomad – The Complete Atlantic Sailing Crew Guide

  1. Be flexible with time, place and money

Sailboats deal with seasons, routes, weather, breakage, and all sorts of variables. By thinking about scenarios in advance makes it easy to peacefully change course and comply with Captains’ calls.

  1. Be 100% happy and confident on with whom you’re jumping on board

Research the boat, captain, and crew carefully. The people you share the adventure with either make or break the experience. Realise that anyone can buy a boat without experience or license. Exchange loads of messages, ask questions, and talk to each other on the phone, preferably with video. Meet-up, fix things together and go for a test sail. Don’t let your eagerness to make a trip override your instinct and judgment. Be 100% sure. Find a safety and happiness assessment checklist and questions list in Ocean Nomad.

  1. Always talk to the captain

    When assessing the options and figuring out if a boat is a good match, talk to the captain. Not (only) the owner, another crewmember, relative, manager or passenger. The captain is the decision maker and the one that knows the boat best so you want to know about him/her and his/her plan.

  2. Be clear on intentions, expectations, and agreements.

Know what the captain is expecting from you. What are you expecting from the captain and the Atlantic crossing? It makes it easier for you to prepare, anticipate, and avoid misunderstandings. Talk about budget and agree in advance about which costs are shared.

  1. Pack light and thoughtful

You don’t need much at sea. As a general rule, if you can live without it, leave it at home. Storage space is worth gold on board. If you have already committed to a boat (and are sure about it!) before leaving your home base, ask what’s already on board, so you don’t have to bring it. Less is more; less is more; less is more! Find an ocean packing checklist and considerations in Ocean Nomad.

  1. Provision carefully

Captains usually have their hands full preparing the boat, so it’s likely that as crew you will be part of the provisioning team. A well-fed crew is a happy crew, so properly organise, plan and execute provisions for the boat. Your health and happiness for the next few weeks depends on it. A big part of your contribution (or destruction!) to a healthy ocean starts with the packing and provisioning preparation. I dedicated a full chapter to this in Ocean Nomad.

The veggies provisioned for the Atlantic Crossing. Shop Local.

  1. Make it meaningful

As users of the ocean, it’s our responsibility to become part of the solution, not the problem. When we plan, prepare and make conscious decisions, we can minimise our negative footprint and maximise the benefits for the place we visit and for the planet as a whole. Find out what you can do as crew to contribute to a healthier ocean.

Taking microplastic water samples on the Atlantic Crossing

  1. Bonus tip! Don’t book a return ticket 😉

An Atlantic Crossing goes hardly as planned. Avoid stressing the captain because you have a plane to catch. Above all, chances are you’ll be hooked and you want to keep going. 

At the end it’s common sense, follow your instinct and one big adventure! But being well informed and prepared is key for a happy, safe, and meaningful experience. That’s why I wrote Ocean Nomad, to connect more of you to the ocean, happy, safe and meaningfully! Enjoy & Ahoy!

 


“A highly organized and helpful book with routes, ports, websites, and even some of the bars you should hang-out or go dockwalking to find your ride. Clear thinking and attention to details make Ocean Nomad useful to any captain or crew for an ocean passage. Her passion for conservation and sustainability offers insight into a ‘vagabond’ lifestyle that is also socially responsible.” – YachtingWorld

This content has originally been published in YachtingWorld.

 

Download a copy or colour print version of Ocean Nomad here The Complete Atlantic Crew Guide: Catch a Sailboat Ride & Contribute to a Healthier Ocean.

 All proceeds of Ocean Nomad go into ocean conservation projects.

Have you sailed across the Atlantic? I’d love to hear about your experience! Take part in the big Atlantic Ocean Crew & Captain Survey.

Have you read Ocean Nomad? I would LOVE to hear how the book has helped you to make the dream happen and if it has left you with any questions, let me know so I can incorporate answers for the next edition! Thanks for leaving a review on Amazon, Facebook, Goodreads, or Bol.com

Do you have specific questions for me? Or would you like me to help you decide if it’s a good match or not?
Have a Virtual Coconut with me, come sailing with me, or become a VIPatreon and I’ll support you to the best I can.


The Big Sailing Across the Atlantic Ocean Crew & Captain Survey

Hello Atlantic Ocean Sailors!

Thank you for taking your time to check this out! If you have sailed across the Atlantic as crew (or attempted) or captain, I’d love to hear from you!

I’m updating book Ocean Nomad: The Complete Atlantic Sailing Crew Guide – How to Catch a Ride & Contribute to a Healthier Ocean.

Therefore I’m expanding my research to get a better idea about the current state and recent experiences on crewing, crew finding, the weather, and the environment. More data will help to make the next passagemakers to make their dream happen: informed, safe, and meaningful!

Would you like to help and answer a few questions? Thanks!

You can check the survey below. Or click this link (for easier navigation).

If there are questions you rather not answer or don’t remember, no worries, skip it. If you don’t remember certain details, skip the question. Your answers will stay fully anonymous, unless you indicate otherwise.

THANK YOU for your contribution!

As a thank you for the efforts, you’ll go in the bucket for the chance to win book Ocean Nomad!
Amongst the respondent I’ll give away:
– 5 x Ocean Nomad E-Book
– 1 x Colour Print Copy

Ahoy! Suzanne