Offshore safety interview

Apr 13, 2012

Safe ocean voyaging aboard a small vessel

Nick and Jenny at Puerto Williams, Chile.

Nick and Jenny at Puerto Williams, Chile.

Nick & Jenny Coghlan

Nick Coghlan started sailing as a schoolboy in open Wineglass dinghies on Britain’s North Sea coast in winter, putting him off sailing for nearly 20 years. But when he and his wife Jenny moved to British Columbia, Canada, in 1981, they realized that the best way to explore their new home was by boat. They took a one-week “Cruise and Learn” course, then bought their first boat: an Albin Vega 27 called Tarka the Otter. After a jaunt around Vancouver Island, they took a passage on a friend’s yacht from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, to see how they liked offshore sailing. The answer was “a lot,” and in September 1985 they embarked on what would become a four-year circumnavigation of the world, via the Cape of Good Hope and Panama, aboard Tarka.

Finances cut their trip short. In order to travel and get paid for it, Nick joined the Canadian Foreign Service; diplomatic postings took him to Mexico, Colombia and Sudan. Here Nick and Jenny were able to sail again: in ancient steel-made Khartoum One Designs, which they raced on the Blue Nile as the muezzins called the rest of the city to prayer, and taking care not to capsize lest the crocodiles express interest. Posted onwards to South Africa, with a view of Table Bay from their apartment, they could no longer resist the call of the sea. In 2003, they bought another 27-foot cruiser:
Bosun Bird, a rugged full-keeled Vancouver 27. Nick’s duties as Canada’s Consul General in Cape Town were not overly pressing, so it did not take them too long to fit up the boat for an offshore cruise and to choose a destination: Patagonia.

Nick and Jenny’s voyage across the South Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, then south to the Beagle Channel, where they spent a winter at the tiny naval base of Puerto Williams, is recounted in Nick’s recently published
Winter in Fireland: a Patagonian Sailing Adventure. From the Chilean mainland they sailed via Robinson Crusoe Island to Easter Island, rejoining the Pacific Milk Run at the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia. They sailed to Tonga and on to New Zealand. Then it was Vanuatu, Guam and Japan, reaching Kyushu in April 2011, just after the Fukushima catastrophe. They have been greatly enjoying the fabulous hospitality of the Japanese, wending their way east to Osaka through radiation-free Seto Inland Sea. Their travels are recounted at

Nick and Jenny Coghlan’s Vancouver 27, Bosun Bird off Tanna Island, Vanuatu.

Nick & Jenny Coghlan

OV: How do you approach the subject of safety? Has your experience sailing offshore affected your thinking on safety?

N&JC: I have a suspicion that age, not just experience, makes you more cautious: it’s not just on account of their physical fitness and strength that young men make the best front-line soldiers. But certainly, the various mistakes we have made when cruising, plus those we have observed in others, have caused us to place ever more emphasis on safety in both the planning and execution of our offshore passages. Especially salutary have been the deaths of several friends at sea.

Our first principle is that we depart on a passage only when we determine that we are ready and that the conditions are good. This sounds obvious, but it means in practice that we do not announce in advance our departure date, let alone an estimated arrival date; we make no commitments to meet people at given destinations and/or at given times; and we do not sail in company. Many landlubbing friends and relatives have difficulty with this approach, and some fellow sailors also find us to be standoffish or antisocial when we are deliberately vague in responding to their invitations to “buddy boat,” the fact is, that by accepting constraints of this kind you surrender your control over your own safety.
A second principle we have observed is not to cruise in areas subject to extreme weather (e.g. cyclones) without realistic and practical “escape” plans. This approach slowed our progress through the gale-prone waters of Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean channels in such a way that it took us four months to sail the 1,200 miles from Puerto Williams, on the Beagle Channel at 55 degrees south, to Puerto Montt. When in doubt we stayed on the hook in one of the hundreds of tiny but secure nooks that characterize this route, as long as 13 days in one instance.

At sea, we observe a number of homemade rules. The first is that when either one of us thinks it may be time to reduce sail — however inconvenient — we do so without discussion. The second is that one of us is always in the cockpit on watch; in heavy rain they may be on the companionway steps and in the shelter of the dodger, but they must be scanning the horizon 360 degrees. A third rule is that we always wear harnesses and tethers when not inside the cabin, with a rigging knife in a small pouch on the harness; we do everything possible to minimize moves to the foredeck and, when doing so, clip on to jack-lines before leaving the cockpit. Our working assumption is that if you go overboard you are almost certainly done for.

Notwithstanding this, at night we wear old-fashioned life jackets, with a strobe light and whistle: if one of us should go over at night, recovery in the dark would surely take so long that enhanced flotation is a must.

A long-standing principle is that we do not enter ports or anchorages after dark, unless there are very pressing reasons to do so.

Generally, having grown up in the era of celestial navigation, when it was wise to assume errors of up to five miles in one’s position — this assuming you had seen the sun that day — we are still distrustful of GPS and give invisible hazards almost as wide a berth as we did in those days.

When sighting a ship offshore, we never assume they have seen us. If and when we determine they may be on a converging course, we make every attempt to contact them (AIS is very useful in this regard); we have the rule that the person on watch may wake the off-watch to make radio calls if necessary.

Fire is a particular concern of ours. While in Patagonia we learned of a yacht that suffered a propane explosion and a subsequent fire that burned through their seawater-inlet hoses, sinking the vessel; they lived for two weeks in their life raft (on a beach) before rescue. In a second incident, one quiet morning in Opua (New Zealand) there was a huge “whoomp!” A yacht on the hard had blown up, sending its coach roof 10 meters in the air and its occupant to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. Unusually, we use kerosene (which is not inflammable except under pressure) for both heating and cooking; we also carry three fire extinguishers and a fire blanket.

Prior to entering Patagonian waters, we found it very useful to envisage worst-case scenarios, including rolling over and losing the rigging. This exercise led us to secure our batteries more firmly, positively fasten all lockers and securely stow all loose items. We had a fourth reef installed — this in spite of the scoffing of our sailmaker; we used it. We practiced heaving to (in moderate winds); we used the tactic several times. Recalling the loss of our Navik windvane paddle in mid-Indian ocean and our subsequent jury-rigging of a self-steering system, we reminded ourselves of possible techniques and stocked up on bungee cord.

OV: How do you plan for medical emergencies? Did you receive any medical training before you began voyaging?

N&JC: We do have basic first-aid training, but it is probably quite rusty by now. Our medical kit emphasizes painkillers and antibiotics; we twisted the arm of our general practitioner to obtain painkillers that were stronger than those that would be usually available. We have no injectables, lacking the training for this. Nick gets seasick, so we have a good stock of Stugeron (cinnarizine), the only drug that works for him; it is not available in North America or Australia, but can easily be found in the U.K. We have insurance that allows us sophisticated treatment, plus separate insurance from DAN (Divers Alert Network) that would allow us to claim for an air medevac. It is our understanding that post-operative care is likely the main problem in the event of one needing emergency surgery in a remote location; thus when Nick suffered a hernia in the Solomons, we could have had the surgery performed in Honiara, but even the local doctors advised we fly down to Brisbane, Australia, for the better post-op care.

The well-equipped Bosun Bird under shortened sail, running before a rare easterly in the Strait of Magellan.

Nick & Jenny Coghlan

OV: What type of life raft do you have? How often do you have it serviced?

N&JC: When we left South Africa in 2005 it was with a four-man canister-packed Avon life raft; although this was at least 15 years old, it was certified by competent South African authorities. In New Zealand in 2009 it inflated when tested, but the experts judged that the glue was by now likely very tired and recommended we replace it. We did so, with an Ocean Safety four-man ISO raft, canister packed. We wanted a canister because when we had a valise-packed raft on our previous boat, we realized that in an emergency we would lose precious seconds retrieving it and manhandling it into the cockpit. Our choice was narrowed because we wanted to stow it in the cockpit, where the only space was a relatively small one on the transom, under the tiller; we did not want the raft on the coach roof or near the bows, where it would be exposed, inaccessible in a crisis and likely contribute to top-heaviness. We plan to have it serviced as per the manufacturers’ recommendation: every three years.

OV: What do you have in your abandon-ship bag?

N&JC: Our grab-bag is a red and yellow plastic Poly Bottle. Contents as follows: 1) A selection of flares, including parachutes; some of these are expired; we keep the freshest on hand in the cabin; 2) Spare GPS with regularly-renewed batteries; 3) Handheld VHF with regularly-renewed batteries; 4) EPIRB — this is our old one, whose battery has theoretically expired; 5) Stainless steel signaling mirror; 6) Whistle; 7) Fishing kit; 8) Matches and lighter in waterproof container; 9) (If coastal) Pack of old newspaper for fire-lighting; 10) U.S. dollars in cash; 11) Photocopy of title pages of passports; 12) Pilot chart of the ocean currently being crossed; 13) Flashlight and spare batteries; 14) Plastic mug; 15) Sharp knife; 16) Two tin openers; 17) Sponge; 18) Two aluminum space blankets; 19) Assorted granola bars/energy foods; 20) Assorted tins: condensed milk, tuna, meat paste, fruit; 21) Water sachets recycled from life raft; 22) Seasickness pills; 23) Duct tape; 24) Compass. Pack the bag in such a way that it will float (i.e. leave some space).

In addition to this we also have an always-filled small jerry-jug of fresh water on hand, with a line and fishing float; again, leave some space so that it floats. Further, we have a roll-up fabric (waterproof) bag of extra clothing, most of it fleece. By the companionway we have a plasticized emergency procedure list, that reminds us also to grab the main EPIRB, credit cards/cash, extra water and a knife (to cut the raft loose). Also at hand is a set of bolt cutters, in case we need to cut rigging away.

OV: Do you have an EPIRB?

N&JC: Yes; a McMurdo Smartfind Plus (i.e. it’s a GPIRB). As noted above, when the battery on an EPIRB needs replacing it is almost as cheap to buy a new one, so we have recycled our old EPIRB into the grab bag.

OV: Do you have an AIS unit? Is it receive-only or does it transmit as well?

N&JC: Yes, we installed a Comar AIS-Multi in New Zealand, coupled to our VHF antenna and Standard Horizon CP180i chartplotter. Receive only. We have been very pleased with it. In comparing AIS to radar the obvious disadvantage is that it does not display small targets (under 300 tons, in theory) or land, but it is cheap, consumes very little power and there is no windage or weight up the mast (which is important on a 27-footer). A real boon is that it displays the names of ships and their MMSI numbers, allowing you to interrogate them directly by voice or DSC on your VHF should you feel they are getting too close for comfort. We find the range can be up to 50 miles and have had up to 50 targets displayed at one time (the challenge is then to filter them). Warships often turn their transmit function off as do illegal deep-sea fishing boats.

OV: What types of weather services do you use when making an offshore passage? How do you gather weather info?

N&JC: Prior to passages we carefully consult the relevant pilot chart and our ancient (1973) copy of Ocean Passages for the World, this for a sense of what we can expect.

En route, there is a much greater quantity and quality of weather information available now than there was when we cruised in the 1980s, and the methods of accessing weather information are more varied. Previously the options were voice forecasts via VHF or SSB and possibly a dedicated radiofax receiver. Now there is a plethora of data available on the Internet: the trick is to be able to receive this information when you have no regular access to the Internet on a passage or in regions with no Wi-Fi, mobile broadband or Internet cafes.

We have an Iridium satellite phone hooked up to a laptop. We use an e-mail service provided by Global Marine Networks ( that compresses e-mails and also blocks large messages (which is important as Iridium airtime is not cheap). We find that 500 minutes of airtime is sufficient for one year, at a cost of approximately $600. We use the free Saildocs service ( to subscribe to the weather data we wish to receive as e-mails. Initially we used Saildocs canned weather data (or weather catalogs), but now we use Saildocs to send us the webpages we want via e-mail. Before each passage we research weather sources on the Internet, looking for relevant webpages that are small (generally without graphics) and also for the schedules of voice and fax transmissions via VHF and SSB.

Like most voyagers today, we use GRIB files — in our case from Saildocs. Some complain that GRIBs are not accurate. Generally we find they provide good information for passage planning and during a passage, but you have to accept their limitations: for two to three days out they are acceptable, less so the farther out you go in time. They tend to underestimate actual wind strengths. It must be remembered that GRIB files are derived from a computer model with no day-to-day human intervention; a forecast from NOAA or similar meteorological services is going to be better on account of the human element, but in these instances the graphic file containing the information is typically large; NOAA coverage is not universal.

If one of our access methods fails, we have a back up method. When we have full, land-based access to the Internet we use the same weather information sources as we do at sea, so as to get a feel for them.

Bosun Bird at anchor in Caleta Julia, Beagle Channel, Chile.

Nick & Jenny Coghlan

OV: Do you use a weather routing service?

N&JC: No. With so much information available to a voyager with a modicum of Internet access, why pay someone a continent away to scan the same data and then send you his ideas, with the consequent time delay? On board and on the spot, you are far better equipped than he is to make your own forecast: You can see what is actually happening, you can look at the barometer, the cloud patterns, the swell. And, most importantly, you know your own limitations and those of your boat far better than anyone else; you have a lot more invested than he does.

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

N&JC: We don’t have any major new purchases planned, but pretty much everything on our current “to do” list has a safety dimension: we just had all of our sails looked over by a professional sailmaker; we are reviewing and replacing everything in our grab bag; we are re-sticking the dinghy floor; we are checking our engine spares for the most foreseeable eventualities; we are planning to test the DSC function on our new VHF (not so easy here in Japan where yachties don’t have VHF); we are ensuring we have full chart coverage for the next passage...and so on.

In addition to our longer term list, we also have an immediate pre-departure list, which includes items such as climbing the mast to check on all rigging, testing all lights, testing the EPIRB and so on. It’s a constant challenge when ocean voyaging not to become complacent.

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