Offshore Safety

Ruth Gerritse worked as a television producer, director and researcher in the Netherlands. Her partner Mark van’t Woud was a television cameraman and photographer. Both traveled widely for work, and after meeting in 1998 they decided to continue that travel under sail.

They voyage aboard Thalassa II, a 48-foot steel cutter-rigged Suncoast sloop built in 1977 in the Netherlands and once owned by German sailor and writer Bobby Schenk. Departing in 2002, Gerritse and van’t Woud planned a circumnavigation, but not the “Coconut Milk Run.” Instead, they aimed for more challenging waters. After the Canary Islands and the Cape Verdes they made an Atlantic crossing. Brazil was the first South American country where they spent many months. After Brazil followed Uruguay and Argentina.They have explored the Beagle Channel, Cape Horn and the waters of Chilean Patagonia. They left Chile behind in February 2006 and spent a season in the Pacific Ocean, voyaging French Polynesia, Suwarrow, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. They are currently in New Zealand, where they combine waiting for the hurricane season to pass with giving Thalassa II some well-deserved attention.

OV: How do you approach the issue of safety? How has your experience of sailing offshore influenced your thinking on safety?

RG&MVW: Safety is a key word and a major part of every decision we make when it comes to sailing. Safety on board, obviously, with all the equipment that comes with it. But that is not the only part of safe sailing.

We, and especially Mark, also spend many hours studying the weather in the area where we are and in the areas we plan to visit in the near future. What are the weather patterns there? How do systems behave? What can we expect? What is the rhythm of the elements, and is there something that could be considered as such? Having a look at the Internet in the days before you plan to sail is one thing. Making a serious effort to get a grip on the bigger scheme is quite another.

Unfortunately, we meet many sailors who ignore the weather and all the sources that provide information about it for weeks on end. They let the subject go as soon as the anchor digs in, and start taking in weatherfaxes again only days or even hours before their planned departure.

Our experience is that it is worth it to make yourself familiar with the weather as it is in your area. Yes, it takes some effort, but it isn’t that hard and it is all easily available: weatherfaxes (schedules can be found on the Internet), grib files, buoyweather, plus the barometer and the sky all add up to a pile of useful information. By being better informed you can make a more conscious decision about when to leave (or when not to!). We find that this, in general, gives us better weather, more fun, and we feel that it adds a lot to safe sailing.

Especially in Patagonia, this in-depth knowledge of the weather turned out to be extremely useful to us. In the end it made us decide to cruise the Chilean channels in winter time, which is hardly ever done. The story goes that winter is unbearably wet and windy there. But after studying the weather patterns for weeks on end and spending hours reading about it, we disagreed and were convinced that the weather would probably be cold but gentle, with light winds. We left Ushuaia in mid-June and arrived in Puerto Montt in mid-September. It was by far the most wonderful trip we have ever done and eight out of 10 days were sunny and calm.

In spite of all our efforts to be as informed as we can about the conditions, there is still no such thing as a guarantee for only good weather. While on our way from Brazil to Uruguay we once ran into a major storm. We had a 120° knockdown and suffered considerable damage. It was uncomfortable if not horrible. However, we never felt unsafe – not even for a second. The funny thing is that in spite of seeing the ugly side of the ocean that day, the incident only increased our feeling of being safe on board Thalassa II. It righted within seconds, its mast still standing, and we kept sailing.

OV: How do you plan for medical emergencies? Have you had any medical training? What medical problems have you had on previous voyages?

RG&MVW: Before we started our circumnavigation we both joined a medical training in a hospital in Holland. For a full week we were trained to stitch wounds, cast broken bones, use a stapler, treat a shock, perform CPR, etc. After successfully ending this training we were offered the possibility to buy a very extensive medical kit, including all kinds of things that are usually out of bounds for non-medical people. These five crates full of antibiotics, needles, medication and all other kinds of things we hope we will never need have been with us since the day we left. Thankfully we haven’t had any medical emergencies so far.

We have, however, had several occasions where our supplies were of use to other people. When on the atoll Suwarrow (Cook Islands, Pacific) a fellow voyager developed a severe case of kidney stones and was suffering extreme pains. One of the other boats had a doctor on board. He instantly diagnosed what was wrong, but couldn’t do anything. It turned out we had the one painkiller on board that could ease the pain and enable our friend to sail to American Samoa (500 nautical miles) for treatment.

OV: What type of life raft do you have? How often do you have it serviced? What do you include in your abandon-ship bag?

RG&MVW: Our life raft is a six-person Walden with an isolated floor. It comes in a hard case and lives on the aft deck, where we have tied it down with straps with buckles that can be quickly released. We have it serviced every two years. The last time was in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in December 2004. The service certificate ran out this December, so before we leave New Zealand, where we are currently waiting out the cyclone season, we will have it serviced again. In our opinion there is no flexibility in matters like this. Sure, it’s cheaper not to have it serviced and take it with you “for just another year or so.” But the one time that we will need it, which will hopefully never come, we don’t want to find out that it would have been better to have it checked after all.

We have two grab bags with identical contents. If we lose one, there’s always the other. In each are a handheld GPS with spare batteries, a handheld VHF with spare batteries, a mirror, cereal bars, burn ointment, medical supplies, seasickness pills, fishing equipment, vitamins, chewing gum, sweets, paper and pencil, a small SAS survival guide, a towel, sunblock, a knife and several flares.

Apart from these two grab bags we also carry a separate container with 10 liters of water and a separate container with more flares. All four containers are stowed close to the exit and are always easy to grab.

OV: Do you own an EPIRB? What type of signaling devices do you plan to use in the life raft?

RG&MVW: An EPIRB is another thing that you spend quite a lot of money on and never hope to use. But yes, we do have one, and we would never want to be without it. As with the raft, it can be a life saver. And what’s a few hundred dollars if your life is depending on it? We religiously check the EPIRB on the first day of every month. Although it still works perfectly we have now reached the printed expiration date of the battery. We have thought quite a bit about whether or not we should have it renewed. Everybody knows (or thinks they know) that these batteries live years beyond their printed date €¦ Right? In the end we have decided not to take the risk: before we leave New Zealand the ACR EPIRB will have a new battery and we will have peace of mind.

OV: What is your policy on wearing life jackets and/or harnesses while underway? Do you normally rig jack lines at night or only in bad weather? What method do you plan to use for recovering a crewmember overboard?

RG&MVW: Being as conscious as we are when it comes to safety I do have to admit that we only wear harnesses in bad weather. During normal conditions we are careful, but are not tied to the boat during daylight. During night watches we do not leave the cockpit unless we really have to. In that case we do wear harnesses and clip ourselves on.

If one of us would have to recover the other we can use the boom, which is rigged with a snap shackle expressly for this purpose and can be released within seconds.

OV: What type of weather information do you use when making an offshore passage? How do you gather the information?

RG&MVW: We always try to get as much information on the weather as we can. The sources we use are grib files, weatherfaxes, Navtex and buoyweather (with a subscription that enables us to get daily updates on our Sailmail). And of course we keep a close eye on the barometer and the conditions around us.

OV: Do you attempt to avoid bad weather at all costs? Do you only make passages in favorable conditions?

RG&MVW: The definition of bad weather is, to a certain limit, a personal thing. We have had several occasions where we entered port and felt like we had just had a wonderful sail, while others made the same trip in the same window and thought it was awful. One’s perception of “bad weather” is partially defined by expectations, skills, boat and conditions. Is 25 knots bad weather? To some it is, to some it isn’t.

We have our own standards, defined by our own set of expectations, skill, boat condition, etc., and we stick to those standards. We will not sail when we know there is nasty weather coming, and we try very hard not to have shore priorities force us to depart when we feel conditions aren’t good enough. If that means waiting for a week, then that’s what we do. Someone once told us “a patient sailor always has good weather.” I think always may be a bit too strong, but it’s certainly true that being in a hurry often gets you entangled in weather that you could have avoided.

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

RG&MVW: We are not planning to buy any additional safety gear. Everything we feel we need is on board our boat already, but safety purchases always get priority. We do plan to have both our life raft and our EPIRB serviced in the near future. 

By Ocean Navigator