Knowing when to turn back, or change your end destination, is as much a part of offshore sailing as executing a perfectly planned passage

Whenever I show new sailors how to fill out the logbook I make a point of heading the page ‘Passage towards’, rather than inserting an end destination. It’s an old habit, but it demonstrates from the outset that it is normal to change plans.

Making the decision to turn back is not always straightforward. When the big stuff happens, say injured crew or a dismasting, it’s an obvious choice to make. It’s the situations when we could limp on that challenge our decision-making skills the most.

When faced with slowly worsening weather, a small amount of damage to the boat or a crew who is not 100%, but coping, it can be harder to make the call. The factors affecting our judgement as skippers can be nuanced, and the consequential effects of one small problem are not always easy to predict.

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The closest port of refuge may not be the safest if getting there puts undue stress and strain on boat and crew. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi / Rolex Fastnet Race

Here are some of my tips to help make those decisions:

Draw your red lines

These parameters should be drawn before you set off, and are the situations or conditions under which you would alter your plans. Some of these are fairly straightforward to establish: I will not beat upwind in more than 20 knots; I must make this headland before the tide turns; I must have a minimum of three crew able to stand a watch; we must have visibility of more than one mile when crossing the shipping lanes.

Take a bit of time to consider why you’ve set these limits for this passage, this crew and this location/time of year. If you fully understand your reasoning it’ll make the decision to turn back easier. These lines define the conditions under which you’d not set off in the first place, so should also stand true for what happens while you’re out there.

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Overall objectives

Think hard about what it is that you’re aiming to achieve on any given passage and try to weigh up as rationally as possible the cost of continuing. We’re normally driven to carry on due to time restrictions and the often inevitable costs associated with not making a destination at a given time.

It is sometimes difficult to balance these tangible costs against the risk of what could happen, but there is sometimes a middle ground to be found – changing your destination does not necessarily mean aborting a trip.

Dropping an anchor in a sheltered bay to wait until the front has passed could be an option, or making a pit stop at a port along the way to let an unwell or time restricted crewmember jump off may be a better decision, rather than bashing on to suit their time frame.

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Even minor injuries can impact the rest of the crew’s workload if one member is incapacitated. Photo: Yann Riou / Dongfeng Race Team

Remember your crew

As the skipper of any vessel your responsibility is not only to the boat but also to ensure the crew stay safe and well. Managing needs and expectations can be difficult and crew will inevitably influence your decision of whether to press on in worsening conditions as well as when to turn back.

Understanding how your crew feel will make your decision to turn back easier for them to understand. If setting off into a marginal forecast make sure they understand your red lines and that there’s a chance you might not make your planned destination. Don’t let confident crewmembers talk you into doing anything that doesn’t feel right, and consider the impact a bad experience might have on those with fewer miles under their belts.

By involving crew in the monitoring and reporting of weather conditions, course progress and any damage to the boat, you’re automatically including them in your decision making and building support for making the right call. Once you’ve made the decision to turn around ensure that you manage people’s expectations. The trip to a port of refuge may still be a long one, just on a safer or more comfortable point of sail.

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How’s your crew? Fatigue and seasickness will impact on how you carry out manoeuvres. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Adjust your timelines

If the boat is damaged or you are down a crewmember through injury or illness, make sure you readjust your timelines to allow for a slower passage, more challenging manoeuvres and the remaining crew being more tired. A subtle difference in speed or performance can mean the difference between making a tidal gate, missing a weather system or getting over a tidal bar.

Damage early in a passage, such as ripping a spinnaker, could decrease your daily mileage by over 50 miles, so even though there is no immediate need to turn back, make sure you understand the implications further down the track.

If using routing software to plan, adjust polars to reflect the loss of a sail or a diminished speed, and study the impact this will have. This can be done quickly by using a percentage of your original polars.

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Determined to carry on? Even major failures can be worked around if conditions are favourable. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Monitor damage

If you’ve damaged the boat but decided to carry on to your final destination, ensure you incorporate regular inspections of the damage into your sailing routine and establish ways of gauging whether it is stable or worsening. In the case of cracks or splits in sails or deck, hardware, using a permanent marker to outline the area of the damage will allow you to quickly see if a crack is growing.

In the case of a leak use a bucket, bailer and sponge rather than the bilge pump to completely dry the leaking area, then go back at regular intervals and repeat, measuring how much water you are removing each time.

Think about how a worsening sea state may affect damage, or how changing your point of sail may help to bring leaking areas out of the water or reduce the load. If you’re worried and have communications ashore then call someone who can give you good advice.

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Is your fuel gauge accurate? If you need to divert, how many miles can you motor? Photo: moodboard / Alamy

Widen the area of refuge

Just knowing there are suitable places to divert to along your route takes a lot of stress out of making the decision to change your plans. Don’t forget you can also research alternative destinations en route, if you don’t have sat coms then alter course to get close enough to the coast for GSM coverage and get Googling.

Use your network ashore to help make decisions, other people can take the strain by researching ports and can get on the phone on your behalf and report back.

Don’t just focus on the ports along your route – sometimes the safest place to go is not the closest. Think about what you need from your end destination, does it have the right facilities – a travel lift, a sailmaker? Does it have 24-hour access? What will the sea and wind conditions be like on approach? Is it better for the boat and crew to sail downwind or on one particular tack?

First published in the December 2020 issue of Yachting World.