Every sailor yearns to voyage beyond the horizon, but most of us have to settle for an annual cruise of a week or two. Make sure your boat is well prepared, and you’ll go far toward guaranteeing that you’ll spend your time trimming sails, chilling out in quiet anchorages, and enjoying early-morning swims rather than visiting the nearest boatyard.
Know your boat “As a rule, every boatowner should know his or her boat from stem to stern,” says Hiro Nakajima, skipper of the Connecticut–based Swan 43, Hiro Maru. “Be familiar with its handling characteristics under sail and power and in light and heavy winds. Since most mishaps occur in rough and windy conditions, prepare for your cruise by sailing on heavy-air days.” This is a good way to determine what “normal” feels like in different wind and sea combinations.
Navigation “I’ve never lost a paper chart to a lightning strike or a power outage,” says Fred Bagley, of Mendon, Vermont, who cruises his Caliber 38 on Lake Huron. “Also, plotters don’t give you the broad overview you get from a paper chart. Making a direct connection between what you see when you look over the bow and what’s on the chart in your hand isn’t an inconsequential part of sailing.”
“Know how to navigate into harbors or channels along your intended cruise,” Nakajima advises. “Familiarize yourself with harbors on your route—including buoyage, lighthouses, range/bearings, facilities (dockage, marinas, fuel/water availability, and the like)—and places where you can duck in out of the weather. Also, make sure that everyone aboard knows how to use and operate all onboard electronics, including the VHF, SSB, radar, and the electronic-navigation system.”
Mechanical and electrical problems Even if you’re up to date on your maintenance, unexpected problems could wreak havoc with your cruising plans, and being able to deal with them yourself can save your vacation. “Know how to perform basic engine maintenance and repair,” says Nakajima. “This should encompass everything from changing a fan belt, replacing the raw-water impeller, changing the fuel filter, and bleeding the fuel-injection system to replacing the alternator and starter motor or adjusting the stuffing box. Also, it’s crucial to know the location, size, and condition of every through-hull fitting on your boat.”
It’s wise to double-check your electrical systems far enough in advance of a cruise to be able to take care of any problems. “Make sure you know how to trace an electrical problem,” says Bagley. “Get familiar with a multimeter, not just to figure out why the galley light stopped working, but to know if there are resistance issues that you can resolve by rewiring things.”
Troubleshooting Before any cruise, take an afternoon and go over all the important systems on your boat. Confirm that your fresh-water pump is in good working order, and carry a spare if you’re unsure of its vintage. Likewise, check that your alternator is properly charging the house batteries and that the charging voltage is correct. If you’ve noticed that the engine-running time needed to top off your batteries is increasing, this could be a sign of trouble. “We have three loose-leaf binders with information on everything installed on our boat, whether by the builder, previous owners, or ourselves,” says Bagley. “We include, and update regularly, phone
numbers and/or Web sites so we can get technical help wherever we are.”
Fire “Perhaps the most sudden and quickly escalating emergency is an on-board fire,” says Gig Harbor, Washington, sailor Kelly Busey. “Knowing how to extinguish various types of fires is imperative. Many boat fire extinguishers are capable of handling fires involving combustibles, fluids, and electrical circuits, but there are other considerations in attacking these problems. ‘Should I open that engine room? What would happen if I simply shut off my battery to address the smoldering fuse panel? And do I really want to use water to drown an alcohol fire?’ Knowledge of the ‘fire triangle’ (removing heat, oxygen, and/or fuel) is a lesson worth learning.”
Mast climbing “We’ve had to climb up to re-reeve halyards a few times, but most trips up the mast are for a check-it-out look before a long cruise,” says Bagley. “Are there any cracks anywhere? Are the sheaves turning smoothly?”
Provisions Few things improve a rain-sodden watch than a piping-hot cup of coffee and a freshly baked chocolate-chip cookie(s). “I always stock enough food and drinks for the planned duration of a cruise, but I don’t allow alcohol while under way,” says George Marks, who sails his J/122 on Long Island Sound. “The crew has to be well fed in order to perform properly. Sailing makes everyone hungry.”
Tool kits and spare bits “You should have a toolbox stocked with the essentials—this includes a hacksaw, wrenches, screwdrivers, and Vise-Grip pliers,” says Nakajima. Before any cruise, think about basic onboard problems and what you’ll need to fix them; then make sure those tools are aboard. It’s sound practice to carry extra standard-size blocks, bolts, screws, shackles, ring-dings, some clevis and cotter pins, and a can of WD40. Also carry oil-absorbing towels, spare fan belts, hose clamps, and some Soft Scrub with bleach to tidy up engine-related disasters.
Safety “I always show the crew where the fire extinguishers, plugs, and seacocks are,” says George Marks. “As for MOB instructions, we appoint a spotter and a PFD thrower, and we review sail-dousing instructions while still at the mooring. At night, all crew on deck must wear PFDs and harnesses attached to jacklines.”
Your responsibilities It’s up to you to establish MOB procedures, review the proper sail/reef combinations for different conditions, and discuss them thoroughly with your crew. “I always appoint an alternate skipper. If I become incapacitated,” says Marks, “someone still needs to run the boat.”
5 Essential Pieces of Equipment
- LED headlamp with spare batteries
Why: LEDs last longer than standard headlamps, and they don’t affect your night vision as much as an incandescent bulb does.
- Duct tape, self-amalgamating tape,
and fast-drying epoxy
Why: As the saying goes, “If you can’t fix it, duct it; if you can’t duct it, chuck it.” With these three items on hand, there’s not much you can’t fix or jury rig.
- Handheld VHF and GPS
Why: A handheld VHF is an important backup to a plugged-in radio. Similarly, a handheld GPS gives you the ability to get a reliable fix should the boat lose power.
- Sail-mending kit
Why: A sailmaker’s palm, some sturdy sail-grade needles, and some nylon thread can save you from a lot of motoring should a sail rip.
- First-aid kit
Why: A well-organized, up-to-date first-aid kit (and the knowledge to use it) is the fastest way to help a crewmember until proper medical help is available.