People often ask me if I get bored sailing across oceans, but the truth is there is always something to do. Routine is king when it comes to regular maintenance. Here are my top ten daily checks for getting across an ocean in good shape
Stay clean and dry
Keeping immaculate bilges and lockers will not only make your living environment more pleasant but will help identify leaks early. Start with a dry, salt-free bilge (this includes under the engine) and aim to keep it that way. It’s worth wiping out even the tiniest pool of water to see if comes back again. In warmer climates I’ve used trails of crystallised salt to identify a small leak – only possible because the rest of the surface was completely salt-free.
Walk the deck
Take a turn around the deck every day, looking at what is around your feet and pausing by each fitting to give a thorough inspection. Often we are so focussed on the sails and looking towards the horizon that fittings at deck level can get ignored.
Check all the blocks at the base of the mast, looking for signs of damage to sheaves, loose shackle pins or any indication they are being pulled apart through a bad lead. Excessive ‘side to side’ movement in traveller or jib cars could be a sign that the bearings are wearing. Look for any pins, split rings or small items that might have fallen down from the rig and washed into the toe rail.
Make daily engine checks
My daily checks include oil and coolant levels, belt tensions and feeling the bolts on engine mounts and alternator brackets to ensure they have not come loose. I will also watch the engine while it is running. As with bilges, keeping the engine bay immaculately clean and dry should alert you to the first signs of leakage. Record engine hours against fuel levels, especially on longer voyages.
Check battery levels
Monitoring battery levels should be part of any watch rotation, with all crew knowing what voltage the batteries should not drop below. Battery monitors with alarms can help.
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Rotate your food
It’s painful to throw away fresh produce, but with large top-loading fridges it is easy to lose track. Check food stocks on a daily basis, bringing the items which need eating to the top of the pile. If sailing with a larger crew then have a daily notice in the galley listing the food that needs to be eaten. Every couple of days have a deeper look in the cupboards or lockers at how well they are packed and rearrange items to stop cans rolling around or more fragile foodstuffs being crushed.
Manage water carefully
I monitor fresh water levels daily to get an idea of how much is being used and constantly re-evaluate how much will be needed as conditions develop. Start rationing early if you feel it is going to be necessary. Seawater can be used for cooking, taking showers and doing the washing up so fresh water is only for drinking. The earlier you start this strategy the less it will impact the crew. If using a watermaker, run it regularly to keep the tanks always full.
Monitor crew health closely
Crew welfare is as important on an ocean voyage as keeping the boat together. Small problems which go unaddressed can escalate, so a good skipper needs to offer an open ear or delegate this role. Ensure everyone is drinking enough water, make sure skin abrasions are kept clean and dry where possible, and ensure every crew member eats at every meal. Check everyone is following a good hygiene regime, using antibacterial hand gel after going to the toilet and before preparing food.
Though embarrassing to talk about it is also important that everyone feels able to discuss with at least one crew member if they have any problems with their toilet routine. Be alert to signs of low mood or withdrawal, try to stay on top of any confrontational behaviour and ensure everyone feels they have someone to talk to.
Check for signs of chafe
Be on the lookout for chafe at all times to identify what could be changed or repaired. When you walk the deck run your fingers along the guard rails, feeling for any sharp wires or edges. Check sheets and halyards where they go through blocks and ease or raise halyards to check for wear in the clutches.
Look up the rig
On a daily basis I walk to the base of the mast and look up the rig. I look up the side of the mast to check that the backstays are still pulling the head of the mast backwards, and the mid-section of the mast is not excessively panting. I look up the front of the mast to check lateral alignment and look up the back for any issues with batten cars, or damage to the luff of the mainsail.
Check spinnaker halyards are not twisted and are ready for the next hoist – do this just before dark so you know exactly where they are. Use a pair of binoculars to look at the wind instruments and the VHF antenna to identify any movement on their brackets, which might lead to them coming loose.
Don’t forget to floss
When racing I floss the bottom of the boat every other day but check the rudders for weed all of the time. To floss, throw a line under the bow with one person on each end then walk slowly back to the keel pulling the rope to and fro. For cruising this is less important but it is well worth it every now and again.
If your rudder is not visible from the deck then you could use a robust waterproof camera attached to a length of batten or boat hook to have a quick scan under the boat (slow the boat down to get a better picture and minimise the risk of losing the camera).
First published in the December 2019 edition of Yachting World.