What is the most scary thing about sailing?

Sailing can be one of the most serene of pastimes, skimming across the oceans in a light breeze on gentle undulating seas. But offshore cruising can test your physical, mental and emotional limits. So how far do we push our comfort zone when it comes to sailing in more challenging weather conditions? 

Calculating the risk

Pulau Enggano, the southernmost island off west coast Sumatra, lies battered by the swell in all seasons. We were looking at a 180 nautical mile run to this tiny isolated dot alone in the Indian Ocean.

Strong northwesterlies had been pummelling the Mentawais for the last few days, and were predicted to continue. We had been able to avoid them by hiding behind the islands, but now we needed to get a wiggle on if we were to reach Jakarta before our Indonesian visas expired. We weighed up the wind speed, duration and strength and calculated that rather than hindering our progress the conditions might actually help…

When to furl?

Craig Smalley and Jonno Rousseau on YouTube, and Stephen and Luanne Ormsbee, (owners of SV Aurora, an Oyster 435) on Patreon asked how, when and in what order we reduce sail, and if we furl the mizzen in heavy weather.

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Well, the old adage goes something like this: the moment you think about reefing means you should already be doing it! This rings true in our experience, and we’ve been caught out reefing too late in the past. If you want to be forced out of your comfort zone, try leaving all sails up in a squall.

Caught out in a squall off Maldives

Of course the beauty of in-mast furling is that the mizzen can be taken away in seconds, so it’s normally our first sail to reduce, and often the last sail we put away.

The main can be furled in downwind conditions, though we try to avoid this. And as you may have noticed if you’ve seen the video footage, in these unpredictable conditions we can get away with not having it out at all. We may be sailing a knot or so slower, but that mizzen really is Jamie’s favourite sail.

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Other concerns

Astrid on Patreon is planning to become a blue-water cruiser, but is concerned about her stamina, will she get seasick, and will she get along with the crew?

Only experience will answer the question of seasickness. But stamina you can do something about right now. Keep yourself fit, it’ll give you the confidence to handle the unpredictable and difficult situations you may find yourself in.

We have found when we have crew on board (usually family and friends) that the best way to get them to behave is to:

  • give them a tour of the boat,
  • show them how to use the heads,
  • explain that water is not unlimited and show them how to shower,
  • explain that they will be expected to muck in with all chores,
  • and tell them that Jamie’s word is final; if they are asked to do something, they do it without complaining (a rule Liz has yet to learn, haha!)
Heavy weather

Nic Bush wants to know if we have been in a heavy sea where we were having more fun than anxiety, and Keith Oulson on YouTube reminds us of our harrowing Indian Ocean crossing, and asks if our comfort zone has changed over time.

Yes, it has. The more you do, the more you learn, and the more confident you feel. Learning so much over the years has made us better sailors, in that we no longer push the boat to its limits, and we know what works for us. Certainly when we first started: ignorance was bliss!

  • We’d frequently sail with all sails out, hit 10 knots, and do other silly things that potentially put the boat in danger.
  • As we get more experienced, and understand what we are doing to the boat and to ourselves, we have become more conservative.
  • Remember, situations can change at any time. When you’ve been caught out a few times, it’s a reminder to treat the oceans with respect.
  • Because we’re able do deal with situations more efficiently due to experience, our comfort zone has increased.Night passages

In the video you saw Jamie getting tired, and Pete Gasson wants to know about shifts. Do we shorten them or go longer to help the other sleep?  Traditionally we did exactly that. If we felt we could stay awake an extra couple of hours, we’d do so. The problem with this is that you end up getting more tired more quickly so we now stick to a rigid watch system.

Talking of keeping alert, Brian Johnson on Patreon wants to know about night passages: fishing boats, fishing nets and derelict oil platforms

  • Boy can these be troublesome! I suppose one way to look at it is that these obstacles keep you on your toes and occupy those long night hours and help keep you awake!
  • But realistically, they make night passages more challenging.
  • Becoming familiar with local fishing boat activity certainly helps in these situations. E.g. Many cruisers in the Malacca Strait don’t sail at night for these reasons, and there’s a strong argument to stick with day hops, if it’s possible.

“Why would you go out there? Don’t you like Terra Firma? The firmer it is, the less terrified I am, so why do it?”

A few more questions
  1. Danny Basso wants to know if we fight on long passages!??
  2. Captain Mike Hawaii says “I don’t really know of anything that would be outside my comfort zone other than running out of toilet paper.”
  3. Wayne Johnson asks “what’s the highest wind speed you guys have sailed in? What was that like?”?
  4. Sav on Patreon says “Why would you go out there? Don’t you like Terra Firma? The firmer it is, the less terrified I am, so why do it?” And Werner, also Patreon, asks at what stage do you reach the point where you will say…under no circumstances will I continue to push on?

OK, in the order in which they were asked, here are our answers…

  1. No, never on long crossings. Although we do admit to bickering in less serious situations. But that’s healthy in good relationships, isn’t it? ISN”T IT?
  2. Haha! We keep a careful eye on the loo paper situation, but this has become less important since we installed a bum-wash in the heads in the refit. It’s a shower/tap which you can extend…just far enough
  3. The highest winds we’ve had the sails out in would be around 45 knots. Highest winds we’ve seen at anchor are 80 knots and we thank our days that we were at anchor!
  4. We don’t take chances if we can see trouble ahead. We analyse the risk (weather, state of Esper, our health etc) and make a decision. If we’re on a deadline we’ll break it if believe it is too dangerous to leave an anchorage.
    When you’re in an ocean, though, it’s different. You’re already there. So you have to keep regular weather forecasting updates and sail accordingly.

What puts you outside your comfort zone on a boat? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below. 

Peace and fair winds!
Liz, Jamie and Millie xxx


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