An interview with Allyson Madsen and Jens P. Jeager

Voyagers Allyson Madsen and Jens P. Jeager decided to go ocean voyaging while on their first date; they were anchored at Mexico’s Coronados Islands, about 40 miles south of San Diego, at the time. After 10 years of saving, they had enough to partially retire and buy Indigo, a 1982 Whitby 42-foot ketch designed by Ted Brewer, hull no. 191.

Jens had a head start on voyaging experience, navigation and seamanship as a former submarine officer in the U.S. Navy, while Allyson took sailing classes, and they both went through the Yachtmaster courses while living in London. At that time, Allyson was working for BP (British Petroleum) in mergers and acquisitions and earlier in corporate communications, while Jens was doing computer programming, designing a real-time global stock market ticker for PC Quote. While working, they spent every vacation chartering sailboats from Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Güllück in Turkey, with a few crossings of the English Channel in between.

They began their voyage aboard Indigo in March of 1993, sailing across the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida, and were immediately blasted by a major storm while anchored in the Dry Tortugas. Next stop was a boatyard to replace their mizzenmast and rebuild the few inches scoured off their keel while hard aground on a sandbar during the storm.

They started again in February of 1994, sailing south through the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean, then west along the Venezuelan coast and through the Panama Canal in 1995. Their slow zigzag across the South Pacific has taken them north to the equator twice and south to New Zealand twice, visiting the island countries in between. They followed the rhythm of the cyclone seasons and sailed some 30,000 miles, navigating through the islands of French Polynesia, the Northern Cooks, both Samoas, most of Fiji, Tonga and Wallis Island.

On their northern excursions, they visited the Line Islands of Christmas and Palmyra and later stayed for four months in the sheltered lagoon of Kanton Island in Kiribati. While in New Zealand, they undertook a major refit of Indigo, including a complete overhaul of all safety gear. They are now getting ready for the voyage north to New Caledonia and Vanuatu in June. Thereafter, they will study the charts to choose their next cyclone-free destination.

OV: What is your general attitude toward safety while voyaging? For example, do you regularly rig jacklines at night? Do you regularly wear safety harnesses at night? In bad weather?

AMandJJ: As we prepare for any ocean voyage, lurking always in the shadows of our minds is the awful possibility of going down at sea. That thought has simplified our priorities to two basic ideas: keep the boat afloat and stay onboard. Exactly how we do that is where things get more complicated. We’re believers of an old adage coined by British statesman Edmund Burke, who wrote, “early and provident fear is the mother of safety.” Early fear is no problem for most of us planning a voyage. Identifying what is provident, what is the right equipment and what are the most appropriate skills and knowledge necessary to keep us safe is the hard part.

We are not high latitude sailors and our boat is not designed for extreme weather conditions. Nevertheless, weather planning is an essential safety tool for us and as a result, our encounters with severe weather have been relatively few. Before any voyage that is longer than a day or two, or outside our ability to have reasonable confidence in the weather forecast, we take a few extra precautions.

For example, we fully rig our sea anchor, ready for rapid deployment, before setting sail. We have used it once, when we were 120 miles south of Tonga and a low formed just to the west of us. As it passed overhead, the winds built and settled in at about 45 knots from the north, the direction we were headed. So we deployed the sea anchor without too much drama and drifted about five miles to leeward in 24 hours. It was a rolly ride, but for us it was less stressful than worrying about the pressure of each blast of wind on our reefed mainsail while heaving to.

We also carry a drogue and keep the lines ready to tie off at the stern. We have never used it, although we came close while running under bare poles in a prolonged squall in the intertropical convergence zone. If it had persisted for more than a few hours, we might have used the drogue.

For every passage, we rig jack lines made of webbing. With only two of us sailing the boat, we try not to risk falling overboard. We always wear safety harnesses at night when we go on deck. If the weather is at all rough, we wear them continuously, even while sitting in the cockpit. The harnesses have individual strobe lights attached, and when the weather is very rough, we wear our automatically inflatable life vests as well.

During the day, the weather conditions determine whether or not we wear our harnesses. And in nice weather, when we need to shake a reef or reel in a fish or take pictures of passing dolphins, we are usually both awake and on deck and don’t wear harnesses.

As part of our recent refit, we have rigged all of the foredeck sail-handling lines back to our center cockpit, reducing the need to go on deck. We’ve also built a solid dodger with a canvas bimini and side curtains that completely enclose the cockpit giving us excellent protection from the weather.

The refit also included adding a furling system to our staysail. When we bought the boat, we added the inner forestay and staysail, and our sail maker scoffed at the tiny handkerchief sail that he fitted. But we have used it often, almost always in rough weather. Because the sail was hanked on, we were rigging and raising it in increasingly strong winds, generally with waves barreling over the bow. The new Profurl system on the staysail matches the one on our headsail and gives us control of both sails from the cockpit.

In addition, we have installed an in-the-boom Leisure Furl mainsail furler, with all the lines led to an electric winch in the cockpit. We haven’t tested it yet in heavy weather, so the jury is still out on that investment. Our mizzen sail is still raised and lowered at the mast, which is just aft of the cockpit and is relatively sheltered.

For onboard safety equipment, we have used the Offshore Racing Council’s Category One safety requirements as a guide. While we don’t follow them to the letter, we have incorporated many of the rules, as well as meeting all of the Coast Guard requirements. We now carry a Category One flare kit with a full complement of rockets, hand-held flares and smoke for the boat, and we added a smaller collection for the dinghy since we use it for coastal fishing.

We’ve replaced our sun-degraded horseshoe buoy and pole with a new set and added a strobe light. We added a hard box container for our Lifesling to protect it from the sun. And we replaced our aging lifelines with new wire that has a plastic sleeve rather than a coating, enabling us to inspect it regularly.

We carry a 406 EPIRB, a four-person Avon life raft and an abandon-ship bag, whose contents change regularly, but it always contains our survival blanket/bags, seasickness remedies, fishing gear, knives, a flashlight, a canvas bucket, various types of food, medications and sunscreen, and a copy of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a big, thick book about the old west, a place that is warm, dry and far from the sea.

OV: Do you have a plan for flooding emergencies? For fire emergencies?

AMandJJ: We have an Indigo Safety Information sheet that we use to help guests onboard understand what to do in an emergency. Creating the sheet helped us to focus on the main steps to take to combat both fires and floods.

With a fire, our first objective is to cut off the fuel and ignition source and then to smother the flames. This would mean shutting off the engine in an engine room fire, the generator, batteries or breakers in an electrical fire, and the solenoid and tanks in an LPG fire. We currently have six dry-chemical fire extinguishers onboard. There are four 3-lb extinguishers in the fore and aft cabins and the cockpit and two 10-lb extinguishers, one near the galley and the other just outside the engine room. In addition, we have a fire blanket in a drawer near the galley.

To stop a flood, we once again tackle the source and try to stop the ingress of water. After that it’s bail, bail, bail. We have plugs located near the seacocks, which are all bronze, and by the transducers, which are mostly plastic. There are two electric bilge pumps onboard, the largest one capable of removing 3,700 gallons per hour. There is a hand-operated bilge pump that can be worked from the cockpit, and we have plenty of buckets for bailing.

OV: What size/type of life raft do you have? How often do you have it inspected/repacked?

AMandJJ: When we bought Indigo, it was equipped with an Avon four-person life raft. We maintain it with opportunistic inspections, which are roughly annual, depending on the availability of a reliable, certified inspection agency. With email, I was able to confirm with Avon that the inspector we are using in New Zealand has a solid reputation and history of servicing Avon life rafts.

Before we left the United States, we made two additions to the tightly packed life raft canister — a small fishing kit and a PUR Survivor hand-operated watermaker, which we verify are in good condition each time the life raft is inspected. We have seen the life raft inflated, but have not yet watched it being repacked.

The life raft is mounted on the stern deck in a hard canister; our EPIRB is in the cockpit; the flares are in the cockpit locker, and the abandon-ship bag is under the ladder at the aft companionway. Jens is in charge of the life raft, and I’m responsible for the EPIRB, flares and ditch bag.

OV: How extensive is your medical kit? What medical items have you found to be essential for the voyager?

AMandJJ: Our medical kit is probably over-stocked, but we are more comfortable having the extra supplies available than voyaging without them. We bought a prescription drug kit designed for offshore fishermen from Marine Medical International in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in 1993 and update it regularly. There are 20 drugs in the kit, several of which we’ve never used but think are important to have onboard, including the Anakit (injectable epinephrine for extreme allergic reactions), Scopolamine patches and seasickness pills and suppositories, Silvadene cream for burns, treatments for yeast and urinary infections and a decongestant.

More frequently used drugs are the ear drops, needed as a result of diving and snorkeling, eye drops, hydrocortisone cream and Bactroban for bug bites and skin rashes, an antifungal cream, and a general-purpose oral antibiotic and penicillin. For pain, we have a supply of Tylenol with codeine and a single injectable dose of morphine.

We have a motley collection of over-the-counter drugs with instructions in a variety of languages, generally for treating colds and hay fever, plus mild topical antibiotics and the local brand of ibuprofen. We also keep a regular supply of Bonine (from the United States) for my first day on every passage.

Our suture kit includes a disposable laceration kit, a sterile drape, Xylocaine (local anesthetic) and a syringe, various needles, sutures, and several sterile bandages. We admittedly are oversupplied in inflatable splints; we have one for just about every body part imaginable — his and hers braces for broken ribs, knee and ankle braces, and a couple of ace bandages cover most sprains and strains. We have plenty of sterile bandages of all shapes and sizes and tape to attach them.

But our most frequently used items are Betadine (a topical antiseptic) and hydrogen peroxide. These get combined with boiling, salted water to make a soaking solution for cuts, especially from coral. They also combat staph infections. Staph bacteria flourishes in a moist, tropical environment and infections are notoriously difficult to treat. They often leave an ugly scar and in severe cases can lead to amputation and even death.

We deal with cuts by immediately giving them a soak. We make a solution of water boiled with salt and Betadine. We soak the wound in the hot water, just below scalding temperature, for 10 to 15 minutes and then give it a thorough rinse with hydrogen peroxide. Then we apply a powdered topical antibiotic and, depending on the size and location of the cut, bandage it. At the least sign of redness, the treatment is repeated.

We will add another drug to the medical kit this year because of our voyaging plans. We will be sailing through malaria-prone countries. Because different treatments are recommended for different areas, we’ll consult with specialists in New Zealand who are familiar with the most effective prophylactics for the countries we will visit.

OV: What types of safety gear do you plan to purchase next and why?

AMandJJ: We are considering adding an automatic fire extinguisher to the engine room. We have read the statistics that most boat fires start in engine rooms, but we wonder if that reflects commercial vessels and gasoline engines more than diesel-powered sailboats. Nevertheless, in the event of an engine fire, an automatic fire extinguisher could save the boat.

We’re also looking closely at the personal locator beacon (PLB)/EPIRBs that are now on the market in Australia and New Zealand. We understand that these are not yet recognized in the United States, so we would have to register them with a contact in New Zealand.

These units are not much larger than our personal strobe lights and can be clamped onto a safety harness as a PLB or used with a flotation collar, which classifies them as an EPIRB. The units transmit on both 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz, so with an RDF onboard, it is possible to track the EPIRB’s homing signal from the boat.

Since nearly all our voyaging is done with just the two of us onboard, a PLB setup could make all the difference in a successful recovery if one of us went overboard.

By Ocean Navigator