What would it take to get ready and prepared to sail away for a life afloat? ARC organiser Jeremy Wyatt guides us with his advice
Getting ready to live the dream can be daunting. For anyone embarking on a bluewater adventure, especially if it is the first time they have set off for an extended period of offshore cruising, the months and weeks preceding departure can be stressful. There is a never-ending list of jobs, while you balance work and family life, and the clock seems to speed up as departure day approaches.
Having been involved with the ARC rally as an organiser for over 20 years, I know that getting boat preparation right is essential to enjoying your time away and being able to relax. To help with the blizzard of tasks and to bring some order and focus into the crucial pre-departure preparation time, it helps to break your efforts down into smaller segments.
We have compiled an ARC bluewater checklist, drawn together from our collective years of experience of the rally team, and this knowledge will hopefully help give some focus to your tasks and tame the beast that is your boat jobs list.
Rule number one is ‘set a date to leave’. Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline. Having a date to leave will instantly make your adventure more real. You may not have left work yet, but this is the project you’ve contemplated for years. Writing a date on your calendar makes it a definite plan, and by telling family and friends you’re leaving on a specific day there is less room for slippage.
Rule number two is ‘learn to love lists’. You will have them for all sorts of things, and no doubt devise your own system and method for them. By planning and segmenting these you can stay focussed and on track with your chosen timeline. The advice that follows is given in the context of a six-month countdown. It assumes a level of previous experience, and I’m going to look at key areas of preparation for your boat and your crew, and organising your own life.
Even if yours is a newer boat, you should inspect all through-hull fittings and make a sketch plan of their location as this will help you brief new crew members later. Change any fittings that are corroded or won’t move easily and remember to add wooden bungs, suitable for the size of the potential hole, tied close by the fitting.
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While you’re in the bilges and lockers, give everything a good clean and take the opportunity to empty and sort lockers. Catalogue your boat spares, record model and serial numbers of key systems and make a stowage plan – number your lockers and try to group things logically when stowing them.
Your evening job, meanwhile, is to read all the user manuals for the major boat systems. If you want to save space, you can either download from the manufacturer’s website or make your own digital copies. Store these in a logically named location and keep a back-up on a USB drive.
Pay particular attention to the recommended lists of spares and consumables. Also don’t forget about the connections – pipes, hose clamps and pumps. Do you know what types of pumps you have for bilge and fresh water? These can be critical items offshore, so should be priority spares.
Steering is often the most overlooked part of the boat system – until it goes wrong. Your steering system will be working very hard as, with any ocean passage, you cover more miles in a few weeks than you might normally sail in a couple of seasons. Your boat will also be heavier, laden with fuel, water, food and cruising gear.
Do you know what type of steering system you have? Make sure the spares and tools you carry are suitable. Start by taking a look in the steering compartment and investigate for signs of wear, frayed cables, loose mounts, and dribbles of oil; these are warning signs of potential steering failure. This is one of the most frequent major problems we see on ARC boats, but you can reduce the risk by regular checks, and by planning for it to fail.
Autopilot rams exert a lot of force, so check for loose bolts and dust building up below the ram, as this can be a sign of wear. Depending on the age of the unit you may want to change the ram. All the major manufacturers have great support information on their websites.
Oh, and did I mention to read the manual? It’s much easier to do this in a comfortable armchair at home than in the middle of the Bay of Biscay!
For older boats, it may be worthwhile dropping the rudder to inspect the bearings if there is any play in the system. Clean the compartment before finishing your inspection as this makes it easier to spot signs of wear in the future. For cable-steered boats, you should either have a spare cable or a suitable length of Dyneema line to use in an emergency; this trick has got many ARC boats sailing again mid-ocean.
Now, before you cross steering off your list, pull out your emergency tiller and check how to fit it; you may find that it doesn’t fit at all or that the tiller arm is still in the loft of your previous house!
Check and double-check
A full rig inspection is essential and best not to think of this as an expense, but more as an insurance. A good rigger will be happy to share their knowledge with you so treat it as a learning opportunity. Down the way it will be you going up your mast before each ocean passage so it’s wise to gain the knowledge when you can.
For production boats with wire rigging, most insurance companies will insist on new wire around every 10-12 years, so budget for that now. You’ll sleep more comfortably on passage if you have confidence in your rig. Ask your rigger’s advice on spares: most can supply emergency rig repair kits, or you can buy online to suit your rig. Typically, we will see 5-10 ARC boats with some form of rig damage on their crossing, so plan for this and keep up your daily checks when sailing.
In your engine bay, take a good look around for loose mounts, dust under belts, signs of oil leaks and corrosion. If you don’t already know how to change the oil and filters, then you’ll need to learn as you will be the boat’s first-line engineer when away cruising.
Need to know how to change the raw water impeller? Yours may need a special tool. Check you have the correct sized sockets for the bolts. Check the drive belt tensions and add belts to your spares list. Get your engine professionally serviced and note the service intervals in your log book or boat management system.
Power management offshore is a leading area of concern for many cruisers and electricity on board is often viewed as a dark-art. Start by calculating consumption in amps and multiply this by the length of time each item is expected to operate. You can then arrive at a total for expected power consumption in a 24-hour period.
Now you need to know your battery capacity – remember you cannot use the full capacity of a battery, so reduce by 35% (so a 210Ah bank would yield 137Ah useable power). Looking at the outputs of your charging devices (you should have more than one way to charge) you can then work out how long you need to charge for each day.
Remember that each time you add equipment to the system it affects your power balance. Also, when offshore you’ll probably use systems for far longer than in your previous cruising – autopilots perhaps 24/7, navigation systems, fridges and freezers… the list goes on.
Generally, we find that most production cruising boats have insufficient battery capacity for true liveaboard cruising so factor in an upgrade as part of your preparations, especially if your batteries are getting to the end of their service life. Money spent in this area before you head offshore is a great investment, and will save endless stress later.
My other top tip is to add some solar panels to your system; you won’t regret the expense. Hydrogenerators and wind-turbines are also popular, but are going to increase your refit budget. Clean your water and fuel tanks and calculate volumes. Check that the gauges work and how accurate they are. During your shakedown or delivery passage make sure you know your true fuel consumption and optimum motoring speed to plan your transocean fuel budget.
Sails fit for the job
When it comes to your sail inventory, start by looking at what you already have and the condition and age of the sails and running rigging. Your local sailmaker will valet sails – clean and inspect, and replace stitching where needed. I recommend adding a third reef to your mainsail if you don’t already have one, and reinforcing stress points to give your mainsail extra life.
Circumnavigators on the World ARC typically get around the world, sailing 30,000 miles, on the same mainsail. However, you’ll probably need to replace the UV strip on your headsail as it degrades with age. In sunny places you may only get two years’ life from it.
When you have your sails back, look at chafe points and add patches. Think about making your reefing system easy to use, especially at night, by marking the reef points in halyards with sewn bands in addition to marking them with black pen. Organise and top-up your sail repair kit and add useful items like soft shackles and extra snatch blocks plus sticky Dacron and spinnaker tape.
Then clean and service winches and replace worn deck gear and control lines. My advice here is to have a good supply of the right sized winch springs with you; they are a few pence each and need to be replaced with each service as that little spring is helping to hold you up when you go aloft!
For ocean sailing you typically need smaller, more manageable headsails, especially if sailing short-handed. Getting a No2 with a high cut improves forward vision and will be a good investment.
Downwind sails are always a discussion point. If you are crossing oceans in a monohull, heading downwind in the tradewinds means it’s useful to have a pole as you’ll spend much more time sailing with white sails than you might anticipate – often as much as two-thirds of the passage on a typical ARC. Check whether your rig is suitable for mounting a pole and consider adding a pole track to the mast for easy stowage; it’s one less trip-hazard on deck.
Ready to go
It can be tempting to add lots of new equipment for your big trip, but I strongly believe that you should focus on the basics first, otherwise time will slip away and you won’t be ready to go. There is a whole seminar about different systems that you may choose, or not, to add to your boat and another on managing your cruising budget.
However, a golden rule should be to avoid major installations once you reach three months prior to departure. Instead use the time to get familiar with your equipment and debug any new items while you are still in easy reach of support.
For example, if you have fitted a watermaker, my advice is to run it for at least an hour and on different points of sail as you may find out that you can only make water on one gybe. Learn about the effect of the new equipment on your power consumption and battery management.
For those sailing in the ARC, you’ll need some type of long range communications. Do buy from a vendor who will provide technical support and don’t leave it until you get down the track to set up. Each year I see stress levels rise on ARC boats when, two days before setting off across the Atlantic, the satphone arrives with the last crewmember and then it proves difficult to get working, the eBay vendor is not responding to emails and it is now the weekend.
Avoid this stress and test it before you leave home, then use it on your passage south. Time spent getting used to your new gear will pay huge dividends later.
Gear for the Tropics
Keep your hand on your wallet and think about where you want to sail and for how long you plan to be away. There is definitely a cost/benefit calculation for some of these items, which will vary with your specific cruising plan. For example, is your dinghy large enough, as it is going to get plenty of use as you shuttle ashore from the anchorage. Have you thought about how to launch and recover it with just the two of you on board? Maybe it’s time to consider adding davits or a hoist for your outboard motor?
If you’re heading to the Caribbean, prepare for anchoring between coral heads. Swap your warp for chain (we recommend 100m) that fits your windlass. Service your windlass and check you have spares for it, as it will be your best friend in the Caribbean.
A cockpit awning is a good idea, as is increasing ventilation through the boat.
Hatch screens are good for keeping mosquitos at bay in the Tropics. Re-gas your boat refrigeration, too, as it will be working hard and life in the Caribbean is so much more enjoyable if you can keep your beers cold.
Finally, do remember to stay focussed on why you are doing all this preparation. Keep in mind the tropical sunset you have dreamed of watching from the deck of your own boat. You’ll get there and you’ll learn to relax about the last jobs that are still on your list and start enjoying your sailing. Bon voyage!
In some ways, the safety list is an easy one as experts have already written it for you. If you are sailing in the ARC, I recommend you refer to the checklist in the Rally Handbook. Also see the Offshore Special Regulations at: sailing.org
The important point is that you should understand what equipment you have and know how to operate it correctly, as you’ll be briefing your crew before each passage on this topic. Check that equipment is stowed or fitted correctly and that any items that require servicing are in date for the duration of your passage.
Make a safety equipment stowage plan and place a laminated copy where crew can refer to it, perhaps by the navstation or the back of the heads door? Take some time to think through your emergency drills, too. Do you or the crew need a refresher course or new training? The World Sailing Offshore Safety Course is the basic level all cruisers should have and covers sea survival, coping with emergencies and basic first-aid. In the UK the syllabus is offered by most RYA-recognised sea schools.
Countdown to leaving
6 months to go
- Leave work. If you don’t, you probably won’t get through this list!
- Assess all major boat systems: hull, rig, engine and sails
- Power audit
- Plan installation of any new equipment
- Review training requirements
3 months to go
- Run through all installed systems to ensure they work as they should
- Organise spares
- Calculate fuel consumption
- Swing compass, calibrate navigation electronics and autopilot
- Clean all tanks
- Plan medical kit
- Service and upgrade safety equipment
1 month to go
- Take a test sail, include an overnight passage
- Test different sail plans, reefing, try new sails, poles, etc.
- Circulate crew briefing
- Personal planning (property, banking, insurance)
- Plan menu and buy non-perishable food items and dry goods
1 week to go
- Load fresh/frozen food items
- Do final laundry
- Fill fuel and water tanks
- Start checking weather forecasts daily
- Crew safety briefing covering equipment and emergency procedures
About the author
Jeremy Wyatt is a director of sailing rally organisers World Cruising Club, providing advice on boat selection, preparation and training based on 30 years of bluewater experience in the annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers and World ARC. He runs World Cruising’s varied seminar programme and has himself crossed oceans to the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
First published in the July 2020 edition of Yachting World.