Double Olympic gold medallist and double-handed sailor Shirley Robertson shares tips with Andy Rice on planning an offshore season

What’s your goal for the season? Shirley Robertson apologises if her offshore preparation sounds ‘a bit Olympic sailorish’ but says defining your goal is key. “Whether you’re doing round-the-cans racing at the weekend or aiming at a Fastnet or a Round Britain and Ireland Race, you and the rest of the crew need to define a shared goal which you can all commit to.”

The other thing, if you haven’t already begun, is to start the offshore preparation today. Even with the boat out of the water in the yard there’s still plenty you can and should be doing in the pre-season.

Shirley is not one to leave anything to chance. Yachts are incredibly complex machines made up of thousands of components and every one needs checking.

“Go through every part of the boat and make sure you replace any blocks, fittings or ropes that look even remotely suspect. When you invest all that time and money into going offshore, your race result and your safety depend on the reliability of every item on board. The failure of even one component, such as your main halyard shackle, for instance, can be your race gone in a moment unless you’ve got the right spare ready.”

Shirley Robertson aboard ship

Shirley Robertson. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

While the following five tips are aimed specifically at offshore preparation for racing, most of Robertson’s advice is very applicable to any campaign: offshore, coastal, or round-the-cans.

Order key kit

Some bits of equipment are really hard to get hold of right now. Dee [Caffari] and I have been waiting for months for some of our equipment to be delivered. Whether it’s the pandemic, Brexit, or both, there are hold-ups in the supply chain.

Look at the Notice of Race for your big competitions of the year and find out what safety requirements there are, and what equipment you’re going to need. Order it today, or if you can’t find new you might have to get creative with how you source it. Talk to your local boat yard, fellow competitors, Facebook groups and even use eBay.

Walk the course

Taking an early look at the Notice of Race will also start you thinking about the course. What maps and/or routing software do you need? What are the key points on the race course?

Shirley Robertson and Henry Bomby (Swell, SunFast 3300) after finishing the Fastnet in 2nd in both IRC 3 and Two-Handed division.
Photo: Paul Wyeth/RORC

Seek out good information on the course – whether it’s a podcast, website, magazines or Google Earth, talk to people, do whatever you can to visualise it. Sailing with Henry [Bomby] last year in the Fastnet, he was brilliant as he’d done the race before. He had broken the race down into stages. When we got to the Needles, for example, he’d ask: “What are we looking for? What do we think is likely to happen next?

What’s the next course angle?” Now is a great time to start getting your head in the game and think about the details that will be vital in the thick of the action.

Article continue below

Create cheat sheets

As an offshore race progresses you’ll get more and more tired. It gets harder to make clear decisions, which is why you’ll thank yourself if you’ve been building up cheat sheets for different scenarios.

Before you’re about to do a difficult manoeuvre, or whatever you’re about to change on board, a cheat sheet will help you do the right things in the right order, even when you’re tired. Sometimes a cheat sheet can be useful to help you change focus, to make you realise you need to stop thinking about speed for a moment and think about navigation and the bigger picture on the race course.

The other side of planning is practising your ‘what if’ scenarios. What if you break a sail, break the boom, or there’s a man overboard? The ideal is to practise all these scenarios but sometimes there’s just not enough time in a season for that to be realistic. At the very least, when you’re sitting in the pub as a crew, talk through these scenarios so everyone has an idea of what to do.

Season’s first sail

The first time you get back on the water is always exciting, but be realistic about what you want to achieve. The most important thing for your offshore preparation is to build up the job list. The boat might not have sailed for six months, you might have done a bit of maintenance or replaced some gear, maybe some new ropes might not be the right length or need some calibration marks. Use the first sail for a low-stress shakedown. I always have a wet notes book in my pocket, and I’m constantly adding to it. Hopefully over the course of the season the items on that list will get shorter and less important as you tick off the jobs.

Sailing at night

The job list will get even longer when you go for your first night sail. Do this as early as possible in the season because it’ll reveal all kinds of things you hadn’t anticipated. How much light do you want while you’re sailing? Have you got enough pockets in the cockpit for tidying up halyards, sheets, winch handles etc? It can be hard to tell one colour of rope apart from another in the dark, so night sailing will really test your systems and organisation on board.

What kind of food are you going to have ready for a rough night? If you don’t want to risk even boiling water for a freeze-dried meal, consider the new self-heating meals.

If you enjoyed this….

Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.
Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.