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Offshore safety interview

Mar 28, 2013

For a voyaging family, offshore safety goes beyond mere equipment

Nadine Slavinski and Marcus Schweitzer’s Dufour 35, Namani, underway in the Marquesas.

Nadine Slavinski and Marcus Schweitzer’s Dufour 35, Namani, underway in the Marquesas.

Nadine Slavinski photos

In addition to being a liveaboard voyager, Nadine Slavinski is a teacher and the author of the book, Lesson Plans Ahoy!: Hands-on Learning for Sailing Children and Home Schooling Sailors. Her website,, provides many free resources for home schooling sailors. Currently on sabbatical from her position at an international school in Germany, she cruises aboard her 1981 Dufour 35, Namani, with Markus Schweitzer, her husband. Markus worked in management consulting prior to departing on their current cruise.

On their first extended trip aboard
Namani, the couple cruised the Mediterranean, crossed the Atlantic, and spent a season in the Caribbean before sailing on to Maine. Aboard with them was their son, Nicky, then 4 years old. Nicky is now 9 and is home-schooled aboard Namani as they cruise from Maine to Australia. They are currently in New Zealand and looking forward to new Pacific landfalls.

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

Nadine and Nicky in the cockpit offshore.

Nadine Slavinski: Having a young child on board makes us especially safety-conscious. For us, prevention is more important than any single piece of expensive rescue equipment. This starts with a cockpit jack line that we can clip in to before leaving the shelter of the cabin, and extends to deck jack lines and safety netting. We take a conservative approach to every passage. We wait for a favorable forecast and try not to allow ourselves to be driven by a firm schedule. Even if other crews are heading out of port, we may stay behind and wait for a better weather window to avoid trouble. We have learned to turn a deaf ear to well-meaning advice at times and trust our own judgment about what we are comfortable heading out in. On the other hand, having now lived aboard for nearly three years and crossed both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, I am amazed at how infrequently we have encountered truly uncomfortable weather at sea by cruising within safe seasons. (Knock on wood!)

Markus Schweitzer: We think of “safety equipment” in three categories: first, there are the things that should minimize the chances of getting into a distress situation. This includes standard equipment that should be on any boat such as jack lines, suitable storm sails, radar, and most importantly, sound and safe practices and routines on board: I guess you call that “good seamanship.” Secondly, there is the equipment that helps to communicate a distress situation: EPIRB, radio, flares and the like. Third, there are the things that increase your chances of survival in a distress situation: the ability to deal with injuries; to conduct emergency repairs on the boat to keep water out and the vessel under control; and a life raft, grab bag and its contents. The farther you move offshore and away from major shipping routes, the more important the third category becomes. You may be able to get a distress call out, but you will likely be far away from help and cannot expect others to endanger themselves to come to your aid.

Our nightmare scenario has always been hitting a submerged object such as a stray shipping container, resulting in the boat sinking quickly. That has influenced our choice of life raft and the way we have installed it on deck. The other less threatening but equally uncontrollable event would be a lightning strike that fries all electrical equipment on board (including water pumps and hand-held GPS). Hence we need to be confident that we can make a safe landfall in a complete and lasting “power down” scenario.

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

NS: We carry a well-stocked first-aid kit and many prescription medicines (in both children’s and adult doses) from antibiotics to eye medication and malaria treatment. I found our doctors at home very helpful in writing prescriptions and dispensing advice. Similarly, our local pharmacies proved very understanding in providing medicine with the longest possible shelf life. Though my certification has since lapsed, I once held a Red Cross first-aid instructor’s license, so I feel reasonably well-equipped to handle basic first-aid issues. Luckily, we have suffered very few accidents or illnesses. Our only hospital trip was in Saint Lucia when little Nicky, then 4, pushed a small piece of Lego up his nose! The same could have happened at home. Generally, we feel much healthier and even safer at sea than we did in our land lives, when we were often in enclosed spaces full of germs or driving at what now seem to be breakneck speeds.

Markus, Nicky and Nadine with a helpful navigational aid at Suwarrow Atoll in the South Pacific.

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

NS: We now carry a Viking RescYou six-man life raft which must be serviced every three years. We chose this model in part because we knew it could be serviced relatively easily in places along our planned cruising route (for example, Tahiti, New Zealand, or Australia). We had a perfectly good BFA life raft before, but decided to replace it with the Viking because the BFA required annual service at considerable cost and inconvenience. We specifically chose a self-righting life raft in order to have one less potential obstacle to clear in this worst-case scenario. The life raft is mounted on the coach roof in a hard case.

MS: Even though we never sail offshore with more than four people aboard, we opted for the six-person life raft despite its greater weight and storage requirements. Nadine was once in a four-person life raft as part of a safety seminar and that positively convinced her it would be too small for three adults and one child for anything beyond 48 hours.

NS: It also pays to carefully examine the contents of your life raft’s survival gear. Most provide only limited quantities of drinking water, for example. This concerned us, especially since we would be heading into the Pacific where even in the best case, rescue operations take place over long distances and therefore long time frames. We had the option to have extra items packed into the life raft; ideally, we would have liked to add a manual (hand pump) watermaker. However, the cost was prohibitive. Instead we settled for an emergency desalinator.
OV: What do you have in your abandon-ship bag?

NS: Our grab bag is a red waterproof bag that is always in reach by the chart table. It contains flares, a hand-held GPS, hand-held VHF, lithium batteries for both those devices, foil blankets, a compass, paper and pencil, fishing gear with knife and small cutting board, energy bars, a hand-crank flashlight, and copies of key documents such as passports. All these items are sealed in individual Ziploc bags. We also have an abandon-ship list above the chart table to remind us to take the EPIRB with us, as well as the satellite phone, the extra water container we keep handy, plus the spear gun if we have time.

Recent additions to our grab bag are several emergency desalinators made by SeaPack at a relatively affordable price. These are one-use, forward osmosis membrane filters that provide an extra (though small) water reserve. The advantage of these filters is price; the disadvantages are the bulk and finite quantity of water produced (one 3.2-pound package produces four liters — a little more than one gallon — of water).

OV: Do you have an EPIRB?

NS: We have an ACR GlobalFix unit mounted near the companionway. Having initially purchased and registered the EPIRB in 2006, we were careful to check that the registration and battery were renewed before we set off on our most recent cruise in 2011.

MS: It is our understanding that due to the relatively high number of false EPIRB alarms, many maritime rescue services will only act on an alarm if they can confirm that the boat in question could plausibly be at the transmitted distress position. For this reason, we make sure that the emergency contact data registered with the EPIRB is up to date. We also keep our contacts abreast of our cruising plans. In addition, we have our contacts spread across multiple time zones, with one contact in North America, one in Germany, and one in New Zealand. Lastly, we exchange EPIRB identification codes with other boats on our route. This is a 15-digit alphanumeric code that is printed on the EPIRB. It is also the code that is actually transmitted by the EPIRB. It is different from the MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) which is a virtual number assigned to the boat against which the EPIRB is registered. By making other boats in our vicinity aware of our EPIRB ID, these boats can also confirm the plausibility of a distress call without having to rely on someone making a cross border database lookup for our MMSI and emergency contacts. They would likely learn of the distress via one of the SSB nets such as the Pacific Seafarer’s Net. We found that news travels very fast and effectively across the various radio nets.

Markus on the bow of Namani while making landfall at the Galápagos.

OV: Do you have an AIS unit? If so, what class unit?

MS: We have a simple stand-alone AIS receiver that gets its signal from a VHF antenna splitter. We found it useful in the North Atlantic, particularly in being able to hail ships by name on the VHF rather than the vague “vessel in approximate position...”

We do not use our AIS as a means to detect ships, however. Instead, we rely on visual watch on deck and radar in restricted visibility. For one thing, we are sure our simple unit can miss targets by alternating reception between A and B channels. In addition, we have encountered very few large commercial vessels in the Pacific once we had left Panama behind. Since we cannot rely on AIS detection for the smaller fishing boats (or larger vessels fishing illegally without transmitting an AIS signal), we use it only as a source of additional information once we notice another vessel via other means. This would probably be different if we were still sailing along the coast of North America where AIS is probably a very useful tool.

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

MS: We basically use three sources for our weather information. First, we try to get synoptic charts (surface analysis and forecast) via radio fax (or the Internet when preparing for a passage on shore). These provide us with a good idea of the “big picture” and relevant meteorological details such as fronts, troughs and convergence zones. Especially before longer passages, we try to follow these charts consistently over one to two weeks to get a feel for the rhythm of weather patterns and how well the forecast matches reality.

Second, we use the output from NOAA’s Global Forecast System (GFS) model via Saildocs’ e-mail service in two forms. One is a moving spot forecast three or four days out with wind and wave data. The other is a longer-term outlook (seven to 10 days) on surface pressure via GRIB files over the same, large area covered by the synoptic charts. This gives us an idea of what the computer model thinks will happen beyond the forecast horizon of the synoptic charts, which is typically 72 hours. We take the GFS data with a grain of salt, given that it is “raw output” from a computer model. Still, it helps us to spot potential issues early on.

Our third source of information comes from satellite images, which we can also receive via radio fax. We find these very useful for getting an idea of the intensity of fronts and convergence zones. The synoptic charts are a “daily must” for us. The GFS data and the satellite images we may only get every few days or when weather developments require more stringent tracking.

OV: Do you use a weather routing service?

MS: We subscribed to Chris Parker’s services twice, when sailing up the U.S. East Coast from the Caribbean in 2008 and again in the fall of 2011 when sailing from the East Coast to Panama via Jamaica. We found his service especially helpful in the latter case because weather windows were very narrow and late-season tropical storms still posed a significant threat.

In the tropical Pacific outside cyclone season, on the other hand, we don’t see the need for a weather router. The passage from Tonga to New Zealand was a bit more challenging again with respect to finding a suitable weather window. We were lucky to get help and sound advice from a veteran cruiser (and amateur weatherman) who had sailed this route many times before. In the end, his advice turned out to be very good and we had a very relaxed passage.

There is always a learning effect from listening to someone with more experience and knowledge, so the need for a weather routing service diminishes somewhat over time. I would still consider some form of experienced outside support whenever there is a risk of a tropical system developing during a passage and/or if very narrow weather windows are a concern. I would want someone with actual sailing experience in the relevant sea area whom I can talk to over SSB rather than simply receiving e-mailed forecasts from sources without first-hand knowledge.

Unless e-mailed forecasts are very detailed and highly customized, I feel you miss a lot by not being able to interact with the weatherman, to ask questions and understand their reasoning. Simply providing the current conditions at our position to the weather router may influence her or his evaluation of the forecast data she/he is looking at. In the end, it’s always your own judgment and your own decision as to what to do with the advice, and that is more difficult the less you understand the rationale behind the advice. Besides, you’re missing out on the learning opportunity.

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

NS: While we have invested in some essential pieces of gear (notably, a life raft, EPIRB, and rarely-used radar), we don’t feel that safety can be purchased and ticked off a to-do list. Our most important safety gear are our eyes, ears, and common sense. For example, we keep a constant lookout on deck. We are always surprised to hear of crews who spend most of their night watch time below decks (some even watching DVDs). We stay clipped on in the cockpit and only pop below to check the chart, get a snack, etc. Of course, we read or listen to music during night watches, but we constantly scan the horizon and feel the wind on our faces rather than simply monitoring the displays of AIS, radar, or any other equipment. This way we feel more in-tune with the conditions around us, rather than cocooning ourselves away from them.

Similarly, we try to avoid trouble by tracking weather carefully. When we can’t avoid a system, at least we can prepare for it. We reef early and switch to our smaller staysail. Finally, we also try to avoid dramatic emergency operations by checking the rigging, steering, and other vital systems before every passage. That way, we lessen the chances of having to leave the safety of the cockpit in rough conditions to repair something that should not have been overlooked in the first place. That said, we know that the sea and our boat will always keep a few surprises in store for us.

With a small boat and limited budget, we feel we get the most effective protection through the simplest systems: things like safety harnesses, equipment checks, and maintaining a good lookout.

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