Chris Tibbs explains that a checklist of required equipment supplied by rallies such as the ARC is only the start for a seamanlike Atlantic passage
Safety is as much a state of mind as it is the equipment we have on board; it does not take us long to identify which is a safely-run yacht on an Atlantic crossing and which is seemingly chaotic.
We are familiar with the slogan ‘useless unless worn’ with regard to lifejackets, but a lifejacket does not make you inherently safe. It does, however, help should you fall over the side, after something else has gone wrong. Modern lifejackets and harnesses are so comfortable it is hard to argue against wearing them, but we should remember that they are a tool of last resort and it is much better not to go over the side in the first place.
It is good seamanship that makes you safe. Look at it a different way – putting a seat belt on in a car does not make you a safe driver, but it will help you survive an accident.
An Atlantic crossing is a big undertaking and, although many yachts do it, this does not make it any the less of an achievement or take away the serious nature of the voyage.
If taking part in the ARC, a race or any rally, you will be issued with a checklist of minimum safety equipment that must be carried. The lists will be similar whatever the event and have grown out of what is prescribed by ISAF special regulations for events of different lengths and distances from help and shelter. Whether you are part of an organised event, or heading off on your own, this list is a good starting point for what is considered necessary and desirable equipment.
It is not complete as new equipment keeps coming onto the market and any committee will take time to react to changes. Moreover, although some new equipment may be very good, it takes a while to become SOLAS approved and until it does it will not replace equipment that is already recognised.
Bear in mind also that it is a minimum equipment list and many yachts will exceed the minimum particularly in areas of man overboard detection and personal AIS alarms, which are becoming quite common.
For the past ten years I have been spending a few weeks each year working for the organisers of the ARC, mainly lecturing, but also working as one of their safety inspectors. Last year I was wearing two hats, being an organiser and a participant, which also got me thinking about safety, not only to comply with the rules, but also what additional equipment I would like on our own boat.
Doing safety checks for the ARC has been quite an eye-opener; some crews feel that a safety check is just a tick list to be passed and will try to argue black is white to avoid having the correct gear. Others will use the knowledge of the inspectors – usually people with a wide range of experience – to gain a better understanding of why certain equipment is required and the best use of it.
Liferafts are an interesting case: regulations are quite clear, but each year we still get boats arriving in the Canaries with an inshore liferaft to cross an ocean because ‘somebody’ (usually the seller) tells them it will comply. It is always a difficult job having to tell a participant that their liferaft is not up to the job and they will have to buy a new one. (See our feature on liferafts here).
Liferafts need to be ISO 9650 for greater than 24 hours or SOLAS, which when you think about it is sensible for ocean crossing away from land and the chance of helicopter rescue. EPIRBs, satphones and trackers have hopefully made those long liferaft survival stories a thing of the past, but it is a big ocean and should you need to take to a liferaft, rescue could well be a few days away. In the Pacific you need to be even more self-sufficient.
The right liferaft
It may come as a surprise – and it did to me – that liferafts rated for less than 24 hours may not carry any water at all and rarely have food. The safety pack is limited and most manufacturers make the safety equipment pack up to greater than 24 hours (the requirement) by adding a grab bag, which should be kept with/close to the liferaft.
I am not a great fan of this so when purchasing a liferaft for our crossing we specified that the full pack had to be within the liferaft; taking to a liferaft is going to be a traumatic experience, and may happen very quickly, without having to remember extra grab bags (see what to keep in your grab bag here).
Most yachts will need at least one grab bag anyway, with EPIRB, boat papers, medicines, money, etc, so to have extra grab bags makes the chance of leaving one behind much greater. If you talk to liferaft manufacturers and suppliers, you should be able to get a liferaft with everything included. It does make them bigger and heavier, but it reduces what you need to remember in an emergency. Ours was supplied by Ocean Safety.
There are other areas that can catch you out – nearly all events call for lifejackets with light, sprayhood, crotch straps and harness and why would you not want them? My biggest surprise though, even when buying a reasonably top of the range lifejacket, was having to buy the light separately and fit it myself – lights also have a fixed battery life and this is often neglected if lifejackets are not serviced properly.
I think that many people (men particularly) have a dislike of crotch straps – the thought probably more than the reality. I was pretty much of the same opinion until a safety brief ahead of a Sydney Hobart race where we were told how much greater our chance of survival was with crotch straps. If not convinced, try a lifejacket in the water without crotch straps and see how quickly it rides up and has you falling out of the bottom.
Lifejackets and harnesses need strong points and jackstays to attach to; it is much easier to keep crew on board than to pluck them out of the water. Webbing jackstays, however, will degrade in the sunlight and it is worth checking and replacing these when necessary.
On our boat we will always take the jackstays off in harbour, putting them back on again before a passage. This reduces their exposure to UV light as well as the dirt and dust of harbours, therefore lengthening their useful life.
Safety equipment poorly sited
Although most yachts have reasonable man overboard equipment aboard – dan buoy, horseshoe lifering, etc – it is disappointing that it is often poorly sited and the relevant pieces are not connected together. The horseshoe and dan buoy need to be together – if you were in the water and they are not connected, where would you swim? To the dan buoy that the yacht can see, or to the horseshoe which will keep you afloat?
A little thought will set it up correctly. We also need to decide on a method of getting a person back on board – I am quite a fan of a lifesling where a sling is towed behind the yacht which circles the person in the water, a little like getting the line to a water-skier.
When sailing two-handed I feel that trying to stop the boat alongside a person then helping them on board is too difficult; being able to circle the person should be possible then, by slipping the sling on, they are attached to the boat. A halyard or handy billy from the boom end can then be used to recover them. Crew numbers and how it will be used are important considerations.
5 top tips for safety equipment
Know what you need and check what you are buying complies with event regulations.
Read the instructions as they are not always obvious.
Use the knowledge of the event safety inspectors to understand better how to use the equipment and what it is for.
It is not a test – what is on the list is sensible, and a safety check/inspection can be a time to get things right and hopefully most participants will see this as an opportunity to do so. It also focuses your attention on safety – even if you have all the correct equipment it is a time to make sure it is properly serviced and working correctly.
At the end of the day it is you who is crossing the ocean, not the safety inspector or chandlery that sold you the equipment.
The list of what is checked on any race or rally is fairly comprehensive and the list of requirements is known by competitors well ahead of the event. To get to the Canary Islands yachts will have sailed a long distance through potentially rough conditions and it does not make any sense to leave safety requirements to the last minute and buy equipment when you get there.
There will be bits and pieces to update, but for most crews the roughest weather of the crossing is before the Canary Islands so why wait to equip your yacht?
Equipment requirement makes sense, although there has to be some flexibility between types of yachts as monohull and multihull requirements differ in some aspects – for example lanyards on washboards do not make much sense on a cat with sliding patio doors. The safety gear list is just a starting point and is not an onerous list as most things should already be on board.
Once all the gear is aboard, it is worth remembering that it is not the gear that will keep you safe, it is seamanship, experience and common sense backed up with the correct tools. Have a look also at your boat as boatbuilders do not necessarily cross oceans and many yachts seem only intended for travel from marina to marina.
It is preferable to have multiple water tanks that can be isolated from each other. That way if there is a leak or contamination in one tank, the whole of your supply is not lost. During the last ARC, one yacht had a watermaker failure and salt water was pumped into their only tank. Ample spare water was carried on board in bottles for such an eventuality so it was not a big problem.
Bilge pumps are usually on the small side. There is a rally requirement for a manual outside bilge pump, which not all boats are equipped with. Racing regs usually go further and require two manual bilge pumps. Having seen the pictures from Magritte – the yacht that sank in the last ARC (see the story here) – I think we need to review our own bilge pump capacity.
Taking on water
And on the subject of bilge pumps, we had an interesting occurrence in the ARC. We are usually a very dry boat; with a saildrive rather than a shaft our bilges usually have only a very small amount of water from spray or spillage in the galley. Rolling down the trades we found that we were taking on water.
It became apparent that the bilge pump was the culprit as the rolling forced water back into the bilge through the pump. There is a one-way valve in the strum box, but the water was leaking into the boat through the quick connectors on the pump itself. There is no seacock on the pipe where it goes through the hull as it is normally above the waterline so we need a rethink on this before taking on the Pacific.
One thing I always check is the cooker gimbals as one time on a North Atlantic crossing early in the season we were rolled by a large cross sea. The cooker leapt out of its gimbals and was dangling by the rubber gas pipe, which thankfully held. We got the cooker back in place, but the thought of the damage that could have been done is frightening. Most battery banks are well secured, but additional heavy items are often left free to fly around.
A huge range of yachts cross the Atlantic mostly without any major problems, however there are always stories about when things do go wrong. The sea and the weather seem to have an uncanny way of finding weaknesses that can cascade into a major problem. Carrying adequate safety equipment is your insurance policy – there if you need it, but hopefully you won’t. The greatest safety is good seamanship and shipboard practices.
While the emphasis is on the required equipment, it is easy to forget that the way you run the boat is paramount to everyone’s safety. Accidents will happen, but the way you sail and set up your yacht can help minimise these.
A successful passage is largely owing to the preparation of yacht and crew. Each year I see well prepared yachts sail through their safety inspection and have a fabulous crossing.
Extra safety gear carried on Taistealai
Although not a requirement we added a few extra items:
- LED flares in the grab bag – although these have to be additional to the required pyrotechnics they seem a good idea, particularly if in a rubber raft.
- AIS man overboard beacons.
- Spare steering cables.
- Spare rigging connections.
- A gas solenoid was fitted so the gas can be turned off from inside when not in use. These are not universally accepted as there could be a small risk of mixing electricity and gas.
Chris Tibbs is a meteorologist and weather router, as well as a professional sailor and navigator, forecasting for Olympic teams and the ARC rally. He is currently on his own circumnavigation with his wife, Helen. His series of Weather Briefings can be seen here
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