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Dangers


 

If you were fainthearted, you probably wouldnīt even get this far on an Atlantic crossing site, let alone plan on a large ocean voyage in a small boat. Yet being a risk taker requires applying more than average measures of security, in order to survive.

We are known not to hesitate to climb a mountain, take on risky business projects, dangerous expeditions or sail in foul weather. Still, we would never ride a car without strapping on a seatbelt. Especially not the yellow cabs of NY City!

Before every project, we study the dangers and do everything possible to prepare for them. We have back ups and back ups on the back ups. We are risk takers but no dare devils. We want to touch the void - and survive. It is not bold to throw oneself straight out in space with the fingers crossed. It's wise to bring a parachute.

On an Atlantic voyage there are some serious threats. Most can be prepared for; although some will be up to Gods will only.

Boom injuries

There are many stories of poor sailors, alive at one second and dead in the next, killed by an unexpected swing of the boom. A sudden change in the wind, a freak wave, a mistake in the setting of sails or an autopilot error - all could cause the boom to violently swivel over the cockpit in an instant.

At long, monotonous ocean voyages it is good to use a preventor, rigged from the boom end to the bow of the boat. It will keep the boom from unexpected movements. Ideally, lead it through a snatch block on the fore deck and bring it aft to a spare winch. You can then clip it from the safety of the cockpit in an emergency.

Broken mast

Not so unusual. We have several friends that have suffered this hazard. Freak waves, hard winds and other can cause this accident. Luckily all our friends survived. The major danger is getting hit by the mast or thrown overboard. The boat usually keeps afloat.

Prevent this accident by correct rigging and be tied into your lifeline as much as possible. If you have this accident, be prepared to be adrift until rescue, unless there is a major piece of the mast left standing, enabeling you to rig some temporary sail.

There is an ongoing debate whether it is better to mount the mast on top of the deck or to the floor bottom inside the boat. To have the mast rigged on deck means less damage to the deck in case of breakage; a floor-mounted mast on the other hand is said to brake less easily. Our boat came with the mast mounted to the floor - so thatīs simply our standpoint for now.

Tsunamis
(large freak waves)

One friend had a large freak wave, probably caused by an underwater volcano eruption. It hit the boat at night, in perfectly calm seas. The wave first appeared as a strange white beach in the dark distance. Within moments it was over the boat. The boat turned around 360 degrees and came back up with the mast broken. Luckily, this effect of a freak wave is most common only close to a shore - on an open ocean it will just pass under the boat and you wonīt even notice it.

Man over board

This is a terror as finding somebody in the large waves of the Atlantic, when the boat speeds at 7 knots - perhaps at night - is if not entirely impossible, then almost near impossible.

There is only one way to prevent this - clip in to the lifeline! Especially when working main sails, moving around deck or at lonely watches, particularly at night.

Our GPS has a Man Overboard button. The idea is that you push it and it will keep the record of the position where the person was lost and direct you back to it. We have pushed it and it certainly causes an alarming situation - violently signaling TURN BACK and other orders. Luckily, we havenīt had to try it out more than that, but the feature seems like a good idea, providing the button is pushed swiftly enough.

Another good thing is the fluorescent stick commonly used for scuba diving in case of emergency. You keep it in your life-west and brake it in the water. The light might make it easier to find you.

Except if you are a single handler of course, in that case all that remains is a final chat with the sharks.

Some very good sailors refuse to use a lifeline because, they state, it restricts the freedom of sailing itself.

We know of at least one of them getting killed when falling of his boat. He actually even had a crew at the time, but they were not able to find him. Please do use the lifeline.

We had a rule that none of us was to go on deck at night without awaking the other, and to be tied to the lifeline at all single night watches. That rule also considerably improved the sleep of the one with watch off.

Whales

We have heard of boats hitting whales sleeping at the surface, or even getting attacked by whales. It is extremely rare and cannot really be prevented in any way. Our forward-looking sonar gave so many false alarms that we had to turn it off. Or else, it occasionally showed giant mammals under the boat which terrified us - but even when given the information - what were we supposed to do about it?

There are tales around about sailors painting a large eye or other, to a whale hopefully scary, images on the hull.

It has not seemed to work and the practice appears to have been abandoned. If you still decide to try it, you should take into account a possible embarrassment and explanations at times of hauling.

We had whales visiting and playing with our boat. Whilst one of us was delighted by this rare experience, the other was mortified. The whales surfaced suddenly, only about 10 feet away from the boat - and dove under it. We expected a slam and the sound of rushing water and glanced for the life raft. Instead of hitting us from the deep under, the whales resurfaced on the other side of the boat, came back in a large circle, rode a surf and dove under us again. They were 5-6 animals, about 30 feet long, dark blue or gray with white marks.

The entertainment lasted for about 30 minutes. As we had heard that you shouldnīt do anything to irritate the whales, we didnīt even dare to flush the toilets. We watched the animals in horror and awe and finally they disappeared as silently as they had occurred. One revisited once more the next day, but left just after a few minutes.

Floating containers

Again, not much can be done, except having a good life raft and try to keep a close watch. Radar will probably not be able to spot a half-sunken container. In the beginning of the voyage, your eyes will be pinned to the waters, but as time goes by, youīll gradually get more confident and just check once in a while. It is extremely rare, itīs Gods will - so relax.

Freighters and boats

Collisions with boats and freighters are not that uncommon. The watches on boats, especially at night, are usually less than adequate, with the crew often napping away.

It is very hard to judge a distance to another boat at night. You could also get run over from the aft by a large freighter, without it even noticing that you were there.

Radar is very helpful in this situation, especially when getting closer to landfall at heavily trafficked places. It will warn you with a signal when a distant, large object is approaching. It will also estimate the distance. You can choose the settings for an adequate range for every situation.

Storms, squalls, heavy weather.

It is important to schedule a passage according to the weather patterns of the area. There are frequent hurricanes on the southern Atlantic Ocean passage between July and November. Other regions have similar weather patterns to take into account when choosing timing.

Go when your odds are at their bests. You might still encounter storms and heavy weather, and most certainly sudden squalls. The latter are single, large clouds carrying in them fast winds and rain. At all cases it is crucial to choose the right sail settings. Sail with less sails than necessary when in any doubt, just enough to maintain good steering if in bad weather.

We had heavy winds and some storms on large parts of our passage. Our 37 foot old OīDay, comfortable but wide, coastal cruiser made the crossing subsequently in only 20 days and some hours.

We set the mainsail perhaps 4 times, only to quickly drop it again. In fact, we did the entire passage using mainly only a small jib of the Genoa for steering. Still, we often ran at 9-10 knots. Working only the Genoa was safe and convenient under these circumstances. But it also proved safer in calmer weather, when sudden squalls otherwise required fast action in dropping the sails, often in the middle of the night.

If you fail to drop sails in heavy winds, they might get ripped or blown out with the boat violently out of control in the meantime.

A proper, average steering speed at high winds for a boat depends on the size of the boat. It is around 7-knot speed for Santa Maria at her 37 feet. Around 5 knots for a 27 footer, and 9-10 knots for a 50 footer. Lower the speed by taking in sail.

Waves

The waves on the Atlantic can be huge. Usually, that doesnīt pose a problem to the boat, as she will just ride them. Occasionally, waves come from different directions, hitting the boat violently. Even though the noise is alarming and nerve wrecking, the boat usually hold up well. Ours did.

In a very violent storm, it is better to drop as much sail as possible, steer with the Genoa and hit the waves head on. This meaning going of course and then returning back on course after the storm has passed. Such storms are however almost non-existent at the middle Atlantic as far as we know, providing you have chosen the right time for your crossing.

Lightning

Plastic boats are said to possibly burn if hit by lightning, so some sailors prefer steel or aluminum boats. Some plastic boats have copper wiring built into the hull, attached to a large plate at the keel. This is said to be undesirable, because the lightning could blow away the keel. There are car-battery-starter cables around, to be fastened to the rig in case of lightning.

Santa Maria came with old copper wiring in the hull, not attached to any plate however. At a thunderstorm outside of Venezuela, we un-wrapped our battery cables and clipped them to the rigging, with the ends towed in the water, as the instructions had said. That was pretty easy.

Then we realized that we had also tied the gasoline container to one of the rig’s - now with a lightning cable attached to it! We removed the gasoline and waited for what was next.

The thunder passed well away from us and in the morning we sailed into a quiet anchorage. Except now the sailors present there gazed startled at us from aboard their boats, as poor Santa Maria arrived, carrying 8 battery cables dangling all over her hull. We removed them swiftly and have not used them since.

Fortunately, personal injury is said to be rare at a lightning hitting a boat. Turn on the Autopilot and go below. Do not touch any metals. If hit by a lightning, the damage could be great to electronics. The boat might also need a complete rewiring. You could keep your handheld GPS in the oven. Some physicist said that that could save it, due to Faraday’s cage effect. We donīt know. But we have ours in the oven. Just in case.

We never encountered thunderstorms on our Atlantic crossing.

Sinking

Yes, that could happen. There are some thrilling biographies written by survivors of sinking at the oceans. Usually, it seems that the actual sinking takes quite a long time, several hours and often the boat even keeps afloat even though it seemed to sink. Donīt go for the raft until really sure.

It is really important to have a good life raft. The raft should be geared for off shore cruising. This meaning extra strong bottom, double insulation, blankets and other. There have been alarming reports on rafts flipping over in heavy waves, we donīt know, but it is said that water anchors might help. Rafts have to be serviced within certain time ranges (2-4 years), make sure that it is done properly and by certified people.

Next to the raft, you should have an extra gearbox with additional necessities, such as sun blocker, watermakers, dry foods, a knife, a mirror (for signaling), wound care products and first aid medicals, flashlight, Gebirb, spare batteries, matches, fishing line & hook, a funnel, a compass and other.

Check the expiry dates on everything on a regular schedule.

The raft is thrown over board to inflate. Donīt forget to tie it to the boat beforehand though.
If we sank, we would probably follow this procedure:

  1. Release the raft

  2. Bring the additional box

  3. Collect other necessities to bring, especially water bottles

  4. Wait to enter the raft until really sure that the boat is going to sink

  5. Wait with releasing the flares until other boats well in sight

  6. Call home on the sat phone, release the GEPIRB, mark the log with position

One survivor (Steve Callahan, "Surviving") spent months aboard his raft. The raft started leaking after a while. A shark stalked him, occasionally trying to saw its way through the raft floor. A Gold Mackerel followed him for weeks; they became quite good friends after a while. Steve had 3 water makers with him, all broke down, but he managed to mend them with spare parts  of the others. He wasted all his flares on the first freighter in sight, the freighter never noticing him. Some time later he had a freighter almost on top of him but couldnīt make himself noticed due to his flares all being used up.

Steve drifted all over the Ocean, got himself tangled in Sargasso weed for a while and it all looked pretty bad. Finally though, the locals at some remote islands picked him up. You can survive sinking, just be well prepared beforehand.

 
   


 

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