Much has been said and written about preparing your vessel for an offshore passage, but few think about the importance of having good shoreside support set up before heading out to sea. Almost all offshore racing teams have sophisticated onshore support teams providing them with weather routing, sea conditions and critical equipment data to keep the boat running smoothly. Granted, few cruisers have the same resources available, but all it takes to get a degree of shoreside support is some pre-planning and the right communications equipment.
A land-based support team, for example, can supply weather information, assist with repairs by providing technical data, relay progress information to loved ones and help pass on information in the event of an emergency. For the average cruising sailor, this support is typically provided by family and friends.
A word of warning, though: the folks left back at the dock will most likely not have all the knowledge and experience needed to help. The average landlubber can’t be expected to handle the intricacies of weather forecasting and how to deal with an emergency. Even if your shore support aides are experienced sailors, they are not likely to have all the expertise that may be needed. Should a real emergency arise, friends or relatives may not react well because of worry. This is why it is so important to leave a comprehensive list of contacts and emergency numbers they can draw on.
PICK YOUR BACKUP
The first thing to do is to choose your main contact. He or she should have both the time to gather routine information and the ability to get it to you when needed. This person must be able to keep calm and organized in an emergency and be familiar with any communication methods that might be employed. It is important to have a backup contact with the same skills as your lead person.
Be sure to provide your helpers with lists of emergency contacts and professionals with weather, medical and mechanical skills who could be called on in an emergency.
Once your support team is selected you will need a full contact list for all crew onboard. For couples, make sure the information includes both families. Ask your crew to forward your contact information to their loved ones too.
Next, write a description of your vessel—make, size, hull color, number of masts, canvas colors and so on, along with documentation and/or registration numbers, dinghy type, etc. List all communications equipment, along with call signs, MMSI number and registration numbers for EPIRBs and PLBs.
THE CONTACT LIST
First on the list of contacts would be the Coast Guard and other rescue agencies. Try to provide a list of phone numbers that connect directly to actual humans rather than bots. This pre-research could save valuable time.
Next, try to add a medical professional to your contact list. If your personal doctor is unwilling or unable to help, look for a local physician or EMT who is a sailor—perhaps a member of your local yacht club. Medical emergencies often need to be handled quickly so it’s important to be able to get in touch with the right person without wasting time. Do not forget to have a dentist on the list and, if you have pets aboard, a veterinarian too.
If you are using a private satellite service such as SPOT or InReach, make sure their emergency numbers are up to date and available. These private services cannot do anything but forward information to a government SAR (Search And Rescue) operation. This is why it is important to have the government contact numbers first and foremost. You will also want your shore support to have access to online tracking maps, and tell them how to get latitude and longitude from the tracker.
After that, the next thing to have at the ready is a list of weather sources. Your contact person does not have to be a weather guru, but knowing where to get the right weather information to pass along can be just as important. Often, just relaying a weather forecast will be enough to allow the skipper to make the right decisions. If you subscribe to paid weather services, make sure your support has their information even if you will be receiving information directly from them.
If you know specialists, like marine mechanics, riggers and other boat repair technicians, add them to the contact list. Don’t be afraid to solicit help from boatyard staff or others you might work with while getting ready for your voyage, and ask if they would be willing to be a contact and help in an emergency. You will be surprised at how often these folks will be flattered that you asked. Should you have a failure at sea, experts like these can often give you valuable suggestions and advice for repairs.
Of course, all these contacts will be of little help if you do not have a good method of communication between you and land. There are really only two ways to contact a vessel offshore these days—by satellite or by radio. Radio will consist of cell phone, VHF and SSB. Cell phone and VHF are limited to 10 or 20 miles offshore, while marine SSB will reach across oceans. Likewise, satellite can be worldwide. It is beyond the scope of this article to get into all the communication devices available, but whatever you select, make sure your support team knows how to get in touch with you.
If you are using a satellite phone or data transmitter, make sure your shore support has the ability to add minutes to your account. You don’t want to the phone cut off at a critical time because you’ve used-up all your prepaid minutes.
SSB is a bit trickier, unless your main contact is an amateur radio operator. With this in mind it may be best to find a contact from a local amateur radio club. Club members generally really like to help with things like an offshore passage and can even provide phone patches to land phones. Most radio amateurs are trained to deal with emergencies and can often provide relays should contact become difficult.
Finally, do not forget to have a complete float plan available. Should all contact be lost between the boat and land, an up-to-date plan can help should you be overdue for arrival. A good float plan should also include a thorough description of the vessel along with information about those aboard as well as planned and possible routes to be taken.
You do not need an expensive shoreside support team to stay safe at sea. A few friends and family will do. However, it’s vital that you take the time to teach them what to do and where to find the information they might need to help you. Not only will this keep you and your crew safer, but being able to share your experiences with those left on land can make your trip more interesting and fun.