We had plowed through 6-foot rollers at the mouth of Shinnecock Inlet off Long Island, New York, managed to catapult one of our crew from his berth to the ceiling and back down to the sole, and snaked our way at night through dense commercial traffic around the Ambrose Channel near Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
And this was only day one of our delivery from Essex, Connecticut, to Stuart, Florida.
The two friends joining me for this passage took the challenges in stride. Apart from the occasional, “Whoa! That’s a big one,” or a muffled “Yikes,” the three of us focused on finding our sea legs and rhythm on the Palm Beach 55 (a brand for which I had previously worked).
We each remained withdrawn in our own personal bubbles for 24 hours, until foul weather along with heavy commercial and military traffic at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay required all hands to navigate through what was now a full gale. The 30-knot winds clocked around to our stern—about the only portion of the forecast that delivered as predicted—and thanks to high gusts, the seas grew to a reported 15 feet. The tops of the swells whipped off and dumped onto our windshield, temporarily blinding our line of sight.
“Geez, it’s kind of nasty out there,” one of my friends said between eating scoops of cornflakes. I acknowledged his keen power of observation with a raised eyebrow, and I adjusted the rpm to maintain a sweet spot between the spin and rinse cycles the seas were stirring. I then selected another playlist on the salon stereo.
Why the blasé attitude toward the serious weather, which we later learned caused a boating-related fatality not far from our course? We simply benefited from preparation, preparation and more preparation. I’ve been accused of taking a belt-and-suspenders approach when it comes to passagemaking. I certainly don’t want to suck the fun out of a passage, yet I think the joy of offshore cruising is amplified when you’re ready for any surprises.
My first lesson in navigating bad weather is to avoid it at all costs. I’m no longer blinded by the naiveté of youth, when I welcomed bouncing around in gales as some sort of twisted rite of passage. Not only do I now feel each bounce in every bone and joint of my body for days, but I also know that a pleasant day on the water can unravel rapidly if you and your boat are ill-prepared.
Now, when unexpectedly caught in a gale, as we were, I have confidence that we are as safe as possible. Here are a few of my preparation and running tips gathered over the years and employed on my own Grand Banks 36, or when delivering other vessels.
1. Don’t go offshore without an EPIRB. Period. In addition to a 406 MHz unit, we also have ACR’s Personal Locator Beacons for each crew member, and we keep our registrations updated for each through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
2. You can’t fix what you can’t see, so create a routine of walking around and checking your boat. Is that forward shower door still lashed? Is the safety lanyard holding on the anchor? Any odd leaks coming from a stateroom bulkhead?
3. Today’s advanced marine electronics are a game changer, but keep paper charts on board just in case there is an issue. I also find that the scale of a paper chart makes passage planning easier, and allows a crew member to follow along without lurking over you at the helm.
4. Enter your waypoints into the plotter during a calm time at the slip, before departure. Never think you can do it while going out of an inlet. That first entrance into a rough inlet upon departure is often when initial issues arise. (I was delivering a Fleming 55 and got knocked down in the first five minutes of our cruise by a flying jar of pickles when we forgot to latch the fridge doors. The crew was asking for a course while I was wiping pickle juice from my eyes.) Also, write your route and waypoints in the log, and include proper names for the waypoints versus arbitrary numbers. If you’re not on watch during a transition or you lose the route in the plotter—which happened on the Palm Beach because of some gremlins—you can just go to the paper waypoint list and keep going.
5. Know your boat’s sweet spot before you get into nasty weather. For instance, because of its round underbody design, the Palm Beach 55 likes a little speed even in larger seas. So, a little more speed helps to power through troughs and prevents wallowing around. During this delivery, we maintained an 18-knot average with quartering 8- to 10-footers. When we heard that the forecasted gale would clock the wind behind us with 40-knot gusts and 15-foot seas, we already knew that the boat would laugh at these conditions.
6. Know as much about the area around your course as possible. I always have a Plan B and work that out before my Plan A, and then devise a Plan C. If I haven’t entered a harbor that I might need to enter, I read up on it while in port, not while we might be dealing with other issues at sea.
7. Brief your crew before you leave the dock. Show them the safety gear, communicate your course, and provide as much detail about the boat as possible, including electronics, head operation, watch schedules, the electrical panel, and what to do if anything happens to you. Make a point of doing this before every offshore trip, even if you’ve done it before with the same crew. Recently, I was taking a Grand Banks 42 back to the Caribbean from Florida. When I went to show the crew the new life jackets that I placed in the locker six months prior in the Virgin Islands, they were gone. We were already warming up the engines to depart.
8. If your boat does not have a manual bilge pump, get one. I’m amazed at the number of new boats being delivered without something that used to be as standard as a steering wheel. On our Grand Banks 36, we have a manual pump accessed from the salon, and an Edson emergency pump that can pump up to 18 gallons per minute. We are able to use the Groco engine intake strainers in case we’re in serious trouble.
9. Change the fuel filters before they need it. And keep those tanks clean. I’ve had more engine issues due to bad fuel sitting in the tanks than any other maintenance issue. As sure as the sun will rise, if there is debris or sludge in the fuel tank, it will cause issues offshore. Before you leave the dock, change your primary and secondary fuel filters. And don’t think that it’s a one-and-done item for the duration of a passage. I make a habit of inspecting my primaries after 24 hours of running, and will often replace them even if they are just marginally dirty. The peace of mind is worth it.
10. Examine every thru-hull before you leave. We also keep a laminated schematic at the helm on our boat that shows the locations of thru-hulls, so everyone is familiar.
11. Go around and tighten hoses, clamps and fasteners before you leave. Doing so is also a way to lay eyes on components throughout the boat. Items can work themselves loose in heavy weather. This is an easy and smart preventive measure.
12. Keep a fuel log to track consumption. This is especially key if your boat does not have sight gauges. (A must-have, in my opinion.) On a recent delivery, the electronic fuel gauge was actually about 140 gallons off, stating that we were empty when we still had fuel in the tank. I plan all passages with a 10-percent reserve, but there are times when you might not be able to make a sound decision if the weather turns foul and you don’t have entirely accurate fuel data.
13. Don’t leave the dock without a roll of Rescue Tape. This self-fusing silicone tape has saved me from big repairs and minor nuisances until I was able to properly address the problems. A leaking hose on a heat exchanger, a pinhole on an exhaust hose—even a small leak on an engine intake hose off the thru-hull were temporarily handled.
14. Clean your bilges, and check the pumps before you depart. I also prefer to have bilge pump indicator lights at the helm so I can see whether the pump is running. A bilge pump cycle counter and an alarm provide insurance to this vital piece of equipment.
15. In heavy weather, drive the boat. I know this tip sounds obvious, but just dialing in the throttles and then placing the boat on autopilot is not always going to yield the safest, easiest and most comfortable ride. This is especially true in confused, breaking seas. Meet those big rollers in the set at the most advantageous angle and speed.
16. If you are on a long graveyard watch, get out of your cozy perch at the helm and move around from time to time, to get another vantage point. You might notice a clogged scupper, a loose anchor tie-down, or even another boat that you would not have seen if you’d stayed in the same seat.
17. Think about the food you can easily serve to keep a crew well-fed during bad weather. You want them rested and hydrated. Top off water bottles, make a thermos of coffee, and cook a meal before the foul weather arrives.
18. Properly stow docklines in a locker, and avoid piling them in the cockpit. I once had a cockpit start to fill with water because scuppers on both sides were clogged with docklines that had worked their way aft from the deck during heavy weather. It could have turned into a real problem.
19. Make sure everyone on board has a flashlight. Better yet, give each crew member a headlamp, too.
20. Have a plan in case someone goes overboard. For our Grand Banks, we bought lightweight ladders to go amidships on either side, instead of using the standard ladder on the swim platform. The amidships setup keeps the overboard crew member safely away from props and rudders, and allows for better maneuverability.
21. Depending upon your anchor setup and how rough your passage may be, keep in mind that your anchor rode can often become a twisted, gnarly pile that won’t deploy when you need it. Checking our anchor locker from the forward stateroom well before we make landfall is part of the passage routine.
22. Remember that not every boat is equipped with AIS. Moreover, certain commercial fishing boats might not have it turned on. At night, you still need to look for lights and identify other vessels.
23. Before night falls, get a flashlight handy, make a good meal, warm the belly and prep for midnight snacks.
24. Batten down everything before you leave, and don’t underestimate how much items will move around at sea—especially within loaded drawers and cabinets. Many boats today have push-in locker latches that look nice, but that can pop open when any pressure is applied. We installed a few barrel bolts on the tool drawers and pantry.
25. Monitor the VHF radio, and don’t hesitate to reach out to nearby traffic if you are uncertain about their intentions. This is especially true for commercial traffic.