For those racing from Newport to Bermuda or joining a return-trip crew, this article explains the value of a pre-race safety at sea seminar and provides a road map for making best use of the opportunity to train the whole crew. By Sheila McCurdy
The Bermuda Race is a Big Deal. It’s a test of sailors competing in a hostile environment. Every boat has checklists and crew assignments to ensure that every aspect of going to sea will not impede getting the best performance out of the boat. For top-notch crews, the race requires days of intense preparations before the start and then pushing hard to the finish.
The pressure is off for the return trip. Speed is not the goal. A smaller cadre looks for a holiday and a happy offshore experience under cruising rig. As much as I love racing hard to Bermuda (17 times and counting), I also love the return trip (close to a dozen). It feels like the cool-down lap after the months of preparations. I am happy to choose a good weather window, shorten sail for comfort, use the engine to make miles in light spots, and help a less-experienced crew become better sailors as we become good friends.
Complacency. What could go wrong?
It’s too easy to assume all will go well. The 635-mile passage home, to Newport, is as long as the race, a week earlier. Even with a favorable forecast, local squalls can knock down the unwary. The route crosses the Gulf Stream, where difficult conditions can require hours of skilled helmsmanship. Things can and do happen on the return. Here are three incidents that come to mind easily for me:
- Several years ago a delivery skipper on a returning yacht went overboard and drowned. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket, and the crew didn’t know how to pick him up or call for help over the radio. We were nearby and might have been able to assist.
- A cold front swept across the Stream in 2012, with heavy squalls and steep seas that caused injuries and damaged returning boats. One boat lost her steering. A cruise ship came to her assistance, and two seasick crew members (who had not taken proper medication) insisted they be taken off. The rest of the crew joined them. Two weeks later, the boat was recovered (in good shape) by an expensive salvage tug.
- During the return to Newport in 2014 aboard our boat, Selkie, we were running before a good breeze at night when the watch heard something banging around forward. It turned out that the headstay (with the rolled-up jib) disconnected from the stem fitting and threatened the spreaders. The crew quickly jury-rigged halyards to support the mast, and repaired the problem in daylight with spare parts (including a backup clevis pin).
Training: Assignments for Each Crew
If even a well-prepared boat can be counted on to provide surprises, the question is this: “Can the crew respond properly?” Making the return trip as trouble-free and pleasant as possible is the responsibility of all aboard—especially the skipper. As the sea has taught us over and over, a successful passage takes planning, skill, and organization. The skipper needs to be certain each watch can cover all bases: looking out for the boat, steering, deck work, boat systems, navigation, crew welfare, medical issues, and emergency response.
Within the crew there should be a primary person and assistant assigned for each area according to individual experience, skill, and inclination. With a small crew, each sailor may have several assignments. These and many other concerns are addressed at each US Sailing-sanctioned Safety at Sea Seminar, which delivery crew should be asked to attend.
Safety training and offshore experience are obvious considerations, but so are crew compatibility and on-board practice that familiarizes the crew with the boat and equipment. Crew members can be assigned to lead a review of each of the topics of Safety at Sea Seminars. The skipper should prepare or assign boat-specific, written emergency procedures for flooding, dismasting, steering loss, fire-fighting, and abandon ship for all the crew to read and walk through together. Some skippers laminate these procedures and post them in the cabin (often in the head) for periodic review, along with schematic drawings showing the locations of the bilge pumps, fuel shutoff, life raft, grab bag, medical kit, storm sails, and other crucial equipment.
Other topics for briefings include watch routines, meals, first aid, shortening sail, going aloft, and using the engine, radio, and electronics. Reinforce the briefings with posted watch bills, labels on critical switches and valves, and diagrams of the boat with the locations of through-hull fittings, fire extinguishers, safety equipment, and damage control tools. Meanwhile, sailors should make sure their life jackets and safety harnesses fit properly. Before leaving Bermuda waters, the crew should talk through or (better) practice man-overboard rescues, tying in reefs, steering with the emergency tiller, changing sails, lighting the stove, and other important skills.
Upon departure, the skipper and the sailors assigned as watch leaders should set the example by reviewing and talking through all procedures. Each watch should contribute to the ship’s log entries of the vessel’s position and weather conditions at regular intervals, as well as maintenance, rate of use of fuel and water, damage, and anything unusual. For the convenience of all, offer a way to contain and charge handhelds, satphones, and personal electronics without interfering with the nav station.
Boat’s Rules: Write, Explain, Post
Clearly written boat rules always help avoid misunderstandings and encourage cooperation regarding watch routines, food preparation, personal safety, gear stowage, and cleanliness in the galley and head. Knowing who has what duties each day evens out the chores, helps morale, and keeps dishes and personal stuff from piling up in the galley or on the chart table (thereby soothing the hackles of the cook or navigator).
The crew’s responsibility includes looking after the health and safety of themselves and others. An incapacitated person puts a hole in the lineup and can be distressing for the crew. Well before casting off, all sailors should alert the skipper or “ship’s doc” to possible health problems. Have each submit a brief, confidential medical history, including current health and medications. Also advise each sailor to try seasickness medication well ahead of coming on board, and note any personal side effects such as drowsiness or anxiety.
Make sure you and your shipmates take meds, drink enough water, stay warm and rested, and strictly observe the boat’s life jacket and harness rules. Seasickness, dehydration, hypothermia, and fatigue all compromise performance, lead to errors and oversights and can become a threat to life. They can cause strapping young men to become wraiths, and voluble leaders to be struck dumb. It can be amusing until you need their help.
Seawater temperature north of the Gulf Stream in June is likely to be in the 60s. Night air temperatures are similar. Add 20 to 30 knots of wind with spray, and the crew will want several warm, dry layers including hats and gloves—the tropics are left far behind!
I like bringing one or two inexperienced sailors on the passage between Bermuda and Newport to encourage adventure, but I make sure I can do without them if they fail to perform. A few years ago I invited two 17-year-old, high school sailors to join us on a delivery. I also had three other experienced women. At the first sign of rough conditions, the fellows curled up miserably in their bunks, and the four middle-aged women did all the work quite happily. When calm returned a day or so later, the boys popped up, ready to eat. Maybe they will take seasickness medication next time.
Seamanship: Assess, Address, Anticipate
Seamanship is usually described as a litany of skills and knowledge of boat handling, navigation, deck work, and systems maintenance. The combined crew should be able to cover all of it. Ideally the boat is in better shape at the end of the trip than the beginning.
I would add that good seamanship should include the ability to assess, address, and anticipate. The best offshore sailors use sight, smell, hearing, and feel to monitor what is going on below, on deck and in the wider environment for whatever may come next. Experience lets the crew member distinguish the significant concerns from normal variations. In a perfect world, every issue would be caught before it becomes a problem or emergency. Let’s snap back to reality—it’s not going to happen that way. Good sailors train themselves by running through “what-ifs” as an exercise on watch:
What if an incoming call alarm sounds from the DSC VHF radio? What if my watch-mate seems uncharacteristically slow to respond? What if I hear a pump cycling? What if the chart plotter fails? What if I smell something pungent and slightly acrid? What if we had to launch the life raft and get the stuff that goes with it? One can mentally practice the first three to five appropriate steps to take in each of these cases and so many more. The steps include activating the response team, establishing on-board and outside communications and utilizing tactical boat handling or changes in procedure.
All passages begin and end with land. Be prepared to abide by local environmental and harbor regulations, as well as immigration, customs and border protection laws. Before heading out, give crews the heads-up on passport and visa requirements for all countries on the itinerary. Research the vessel clearance requirements well before setting out and plan accordingly. Review all the ship’s documents and have official contact information for clearing out of Bermuda and into the U.S., Canada, or farther afield.
A return trip from Bermuda to a U.S. port of four to five days is within a pretty reliable weather window with today’s forecast abilities. (Don’t forget to attend the weather briefing at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.) While most boats head straight home after several days of fun, it’s possible to arrange to leave a boat in Bermuda for an extended period—normally up to 90 days—provided someone is designated to look after her. This may be a better option than forcing a departure into risky weather or short-handed just to meet a deadline.
Sailing at sea is most rewarding. The adventure should be satisfying, not one of confusion, mistakes, oversights, and damage. After sailing over 100,000 miles offshore, my favorite passages have humorous, rather than harrowing, sea stories. It’s a goal worth pursuing for you, your crew-mates, and those waiting for you ashore.
Maybe I’ll see you out there.
Sheila McCurdy has raced to Bermuda 17 times and more often than not made the return trip as well. This article has been updated since it was first published in 2016.