What can we learn from skippers who, between them, have sailed well over two million ocean miles? Elaine Bunting reports
“The more I practice, the luckier I get,” the golfer Gary Player used to joke. This old saw became famous because it rang so true. The more you do something, the better you get, and the easier it is.
It’s the same with ocean sailing. Whenever I have sailed in, or covered, round the world rallies I’ve seen this in practice. Passage times tend to get quicker as crews progress through the Pacific and onwards. Yet when I talk to skippers and crews, they frequently say they became choosier about when they set spinnakers, and recounted easier crossings with fewer breakages. Why?
It was clear that repeated ocean passages had refined their decision-making. Over time, they were better able to determine the right point to make or reduce sail, and sailed shorter distances. At the same time, they became more adept at interpreting weather, and crew manoeuvres were slicker.
With fewer mistakes and a clearer pattern of sailing, they needed to invest less time in making choices, especially when tired. Consequently, those were probably also better decisions.
So I began to wonder if this learning curve continued beyond first-time round-the-worlders, and if there could be principles that the super-experienced could teach us. In the process of getting better at anything, we usually let go of the least beneficial tasks. What might those be? What should we be doing more of, and what less of?
I asked some of our most experienced columnists and contributors, sailors I have met again and again as they crossed oceans in their yachts. I consulted Skip Novak, who has been a high latitudes pioneer over 30 years, is one of the foremost exponents of self-sufficiency and presented our Storm Sailing video series. Of his total sailing miles, he says: “I stopped counting decades ago, but I think I totalled 400,000 at some point.”
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Dan and Em Bower, meanwhile, have each sailed over 300,000 miles in various yachts, and created our Bluewater Sailing Techniques video series. Since 2008, they have owned the 51ft Skyelark of London, offering ‘pay to play’ opportunities on ocean and adventure cruises for up to six guests. They have fine-tuned their preparations in a way that applies directly to the average yacht.
I also turned to German sailors Christophe von Reibnitz and Manfred Kerstan, who have sailed countless Atlantic crossings. What they all had to tell us has some interesting common threads…
Know your boat
Assuming that you have already chosen your perfect boat for ocean cruising, the next step is getting to know your boat inside-out. This is the million milers’ No 1 counsel. If you want to be confident of heading off problems, or staying on top of them, you want to know every centimetre of how your boat works.
If you’ re buying a new yacht, you have the advantage of being able to see how it’s put together and should insist on getting a complete owner’s manual with as-built drawings, plumbing and wiring diagrams, and equipment lists and serial numbers.
If it’s an existing yacht, time spent making your own manual with the same information will pay itself back when you are ordering spares or arranging for repairs. For Skip Novak, in-depth knowledge of your boat is the starting point for the self-sufficiency required to explore off the beaten track.
“Know your systems back to front: engine; drivetrain; plumbing (position of seacocks); electrical. Ask yourself if you can fault find those systems to keep the show on the road. If the systems are beyond your capabilities, simplify them or go to a training course,” he advises.
That’s no less true even in warmer waters, with facilities at either end of a passage. On the usual tradewinds circumnavigation route, most of the passages are over 2,000 miles so you could be doing the equivalent of an Atlantic crossing every few months.
You have to “know your boat and the systems,” agrees Dan Bower. He, like Skip Novak, emphasises the need to keep things relatively simple. We just can’t stress this enough: plan as if you know everything will fail at some inconvenient point (because it probably will).
“Decide what you can live without and factor in redundancy for what you can’t. And make sure you are able to handle everything if the power assistance fails,” say Dan and Em Bower. “It’s important to feel comfortable whatever the situation so learn the basics of fault diagnosis, jury repairs and maintenance or assign someone that responsibility.”
Jack of all trades
Next up on the priority list is tools and spares – the nuts and bolts of it, literally. “This goes beyond a box of spanners and screwdrivers – it must be really comprehensive,” advises Skip Novak.
Your kit should, he says, include specialist tools for the engine (“changing injectors and an injection pump comes to mind”) and items for make-do-and-mend jobs. “Do you have cutting, drilling and grinding capabilities? Can you tap a hole, chase a thread?” If you can’t, you need to learn these skills before you go.
As for spares, it can be difficult to know where to start – a favourite joke of cruisers is that the best thing would be to tow an identical boat behind so you have everything you’re going to need. “You can go bananas on this,” agrees Skip, “but if you keep a good set of engine spares (including a propeller) and rigging spares, and you can’t go wrong.
“The rig has to stay up and the engine has to work, although the latter less so. Remember, it is a sailing boat and you should be able and have the confidence to sail yourself out of trouble and back to some port without an engine.”
All of our experts say that you must give some thought to a plan in the event of a rig loss or rudder loss. From stabilising the mast after stay failure or cutting away safely to creating a jury rig, you ought to have a workable plan and the gear needed to execute.
The same goes for a rudder loss. Your plan might, or might not, be to have an autopilot backed up by wind vane. Or you’ve experimented with an alternative arrangement, such as a drogue. But you don’t want to be among the quite surprising number of crews who end up abandoning and losing their boats because of a rudder failure.
Perhaps because this is a rather frightening subject, some crews have not really thought deeply about what they would do in the event of a major hull breach (other than abandoning). But could you have a high capacity roving pump? Would you be able to patch a hole, and how would you access areas of the hull closed off by furniture?
For more humdrum eventualities you’ll require items such as hardware spares, sailcloth, sewing gear. Skip recommends “diving gear and compressor. You need to be able to change the prop under water, at a minimum, in the middle of nowhere.”
“The list can go on,” he adds, “but if you are covered with the above, you should be able to get from A to B in good fashion and without relying on outside assistance. And that is what world cruising is all about.”
Lastly, when I asked Skip what he considered the most under-rated sailing skill, he was unequivocal: “I would say being able to cobble together solutions to fix things that are not straight swaps of spare parts. This only comes with experience of inventing solutions over time and, of course, knowing how to use the tools to hand.”
And if you’re not too much of a bush mechanic and engineer, how about taking along someone who is?
Set piece manoeuvres
Year after year, I’ve met German sailor Christophe von Reibnitz as he sails his classic yawl Peter von Seestermühe back and forth across the Atlantic with charter guests, then spends the summer in the Baltic. When I ask him how many miles he’s sailed in total, he says he’s lost count but jokes “I have been to the moon, but I’m still coming back!”
He admits that his yacht “is not very typical compared to most of the people reading this” but when thinking of his number one piece of advice says: “That’s an easy one. I think the priority is on personal training and with your crew and your boat.
“People are very good at buying equipment. The [kit] I like most is what I can leave ashore. Everything you don’t have on board can’t break. But it’s really important to train.”
“Train also to get your engine running. You need to know the boat technical wise, know your engine.” He also agrees that if you don’t have lots of mechanical expertise, you should take along someone who has. “If you have the choice, it would make a lot of sense to get the knowledge on the boat you don’t have yourself.”
Steady as she goes
Who doesn’t want to make those long passages faster? We’d all like to be there sooner, but for most boats there comes a point when the extra knot or half a knot just ramps up the loads and stresses on boat and crew, and increases the odds of a breakage.
Quite apart from the inconvenience at the time, breakages and repairs cut into your cruising downtime at the next destination, and will have you cooped up in a hot berth waiting your turn for repairs.
On the other hand, taking it slowly by tucking in a reef overnight and furling away can be desperately slow and crews making slower passages will get more weather (and thus, statistically, a higher probability of it being worse). The trick is knowing where to strike the balance.
Despite all the miles he and his wife Em have sailed, Dan Bower admits: “I don’t think we have really changed the principles of how we tackle ocean sailing, except we probably favour comfort and less boat strain over speed. We learnt early on that it takes longer to fix the boat than the time saved by pushing, and I’d rather be gently crossing an ocean than doing repairs.”
A happy and safe crew
Keeping your crew happy is key to successful cruising. Two skippers who are absolute masters of this are Christophe von Reibnitz and Manfred Kerstan, both of whom own their own yachts but choose to take some charter guests.
Von Reibnitz insists the primary ingredient for a happy crew is to make them feel – and be – safe. “For a typical Atlantic circuit, take your boat and your crew and sail from the UK around Brittany and back in whatever weather and do all the manoeuvres you have read in the books in protected water, for example an MOB. Do a weekend’s intense training on your own, maybe six hours a day.”
This helps make sure that crews’ expectations and the reality match up. “Make sure everyone who comes knows what to expect. People have read how wonderful it is but when have to live with someone they don’t know in one cabin, it’s different.
“So I [insist] people first do a coastal trip. It’s very tiring on an ocean crossing – people are astonished – and some people are not fit enough, they just want to fulfil a dream. So then it’s a no,” he says.
“I always put a very straight rota for the watch system and cooking. Then you don’t have discussion about cooking and cleaning, and that helps a lot. You also know when it’s not your turn and you can do nothing.”
Von Reibnitz agrees that his communication style has “definitely changed” over the years as he has racked up experience. “I try to be much more relaxed. I take it a bit easier.
“One important point I learned is not to get irritated if people are not happy. I’ve learned to leave it to them. That helped me a lot. I am responsible for a safe boat and good food, but what they are making out of it is for them.”
For Manfred Kerstan who, between running a business in Berlin, has managed over a lifetime to sail “400-500,000 miles and 50 Atlantic crossings”, the absolutely priority is also to sail safely and make crew feel safe. He now sails an Oyster 825, Albatros.
“We have a crew meeting beforehand, where people come to Berlin and learn how I am planning to do it. I tell them we are not racing, we are cruising and I check the people. It’s important that they have met the people they are going to sail with.”
Having sailed his previous 62ft yacht for many years, he feels a yacht over 80ft is too large for him, now in his eighties, and always advises people “don’t get too big a boat”.
“I need four or five people to sail optimally and safely.” He no longer sails with a spinnaker and has reduced the genoa size to minimise the number of sail manoeuvres. That said, it should be noted that when Kerstan does, for example, the ARC rally each year (this year will be his 25th), his crossing times are always good whatever the wind conditions.
This goes to prove that if you can keep daily runs consistent and shape a good route you shouldn’t have to press a boat hard. Kerstan says: “I have enough crew. We always have three people on watch and me on standby. It’s very important always to have a good weather forecast. Have good sails and ropes, and good antifouling and a clean boat.”
The biggest changes in recent years are improved communication and access to data such as weather information, and advances in power generation. Having sufficient power is crucial to the cruising life, but do your research carefully as today there are some excellent fossil-free options with wind, solar and hydro power, as well as smart alternators such as Integrel.
“The main improvements we have felt are making power more effectively through renewable sources,” says Dan Bower, “plus we can save it though more efficient technology such as lighting, instrumentation, refrigeration and watermakers.
“Either way, we no longer need to manage power so carefully and regularly have a surplus, so for us that equates to more autopilot hours, longer showers, and a bigger freezer but without the noise and dependency on the generator.”
These decisions taper into some broader considerations you may like to make about the environmental impact of your cruising. All too often, for example, we see crews bringing on board huge stocks of water in single use plastic bottles without consideration of whether or not there are recycling facilities at the destination.
As sailors, we should be mindful of bringing waste to small islands especially, and what happens to it there. “It doesn’t matter how remote you go, the sad fact is seaborne pollution is increasing and the very things we escape to see, such as coral reefs and marine life, are suffering the impact. We need to take responsibility ourselves and be aware that what goes in the sea makes a difference,” argues Dan Bower.
“Simple choices such as reef safe sunscreen (or use rash vests), eco friendly soaps, shower gel and detergents can make a difference, as can how you buy your provisions, and how you control rubbish on board.”
Bower recommends fitting a galley tap and water purification system to make tank and watermaker water safe and palatable to drink, and he adds: “We now use a SodaStream to turn water into tonic, so that’s a few less cans on board, leaving more stowage for the essentials.”
First published in the November 2019 edition of Yachting World.