Offshore safety interviewMar 26, 2015
A thoroughly methodical approach to safety
Darold, Dante and Jennifer Massaro aboard their Pacific Seacraft 40 Benevento while transiting the Panama Canal.
Darold Massaro photos
The Massaro family is on a two-year cruise that began in San Francisco aboard their Pacific Seacraft Voyager 40, Benevento. They left in late September 2013 and, as of January 2015, have logged almost 13,000 nautical miles. In addition to sailing the coast of California, they have sailed the Pacific Coast of Mexico, Central America and transited the Panama Canal. They’ve cruised the San Blas Islands, Greater Antilles and Bahamas in the Caribbean, continued up the U.S. Atlantic Coast including some passages on the Intracoastal Waterway and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, stopping in the Azores. They are currently cruising in the Mediterranean. Follow their adventures at EaseTheMain.com.
Jennifer is on a leave of absence as a communications expert at Cisco, and Darold is a partner at the social media firm Connected Social Media, which he continues to run from his home office, Benevento.
Darold has been sailing since he can remember, first with his grandfather and uncles on a Rhodes 19 in New York’s Hudson River. He began dinghy sailing on his own at age 10 on Vasona Lake in California, and Onset Bay during summer vacations to Cape Cod. He has also sailed with his father since boyhood in their Cal 39 on San Francisco Bay.
He and Jennifer bought their first boat in 2004 — Ka Ching, a Catalina 25. For several years the Massaros enjoyed sailing the Monterey Bay and in 2007, they bought Benevento. The Massaros spent the next five years outfitting her for cruising.
Jennifer began learning to sail when she met Darold at UC San Diego. She beefed up her practical knowledge by taking sailing lessons through Pacific Yachting and Sailing in Santa Cruz in 2000. She is the first mate of Benevento, as well as head of the galley, and in charge of home-schooling their son, Dante.
Dante began messing about in boats at 6 months old when his parents bought their Catalina 25. He learned “port” and “starboard” before “left” and “right,” and he turned 11 years old while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Dante is in the fifth grade and plans to be a naval architect when he grows up.
Benevento off Liberty Island in New York Harbor.
OV: How do you approach the subject of safety?
D&JM: We try to be as methodical as possible when it comes to safety, and in general our philosophy is to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, yet all the while doing everything we can to avoid that worst-case scenario. We take an “always learning” approach to guard against complacency. We are constantly learning and adapting, and what we have shared here is by no means the best or only way to approach this important subject; this is what has worked for us, and we will continue to modify as we learn from others and our future experiences.
Personal safety: The obvious advice is to always wear a life jacket. The reality is that this isn’t always done, like when you are cruising in the tropics in mild conditions in your swimsuit. However, we are mindful of the sailing conditions and alter our personal safety precautions as necessary. If the wind and seas pick up or the water is cold, we’ll don our life jackets. As heeling increases, we clip in at the cockpit or when on deck. We have jacklines permanently running the length of our boat. By the way, if you leave your jacklines permanently deployed, make sure to periodically check for sun deterioration and test them accordingly.
In heavier conditions, we each keep a rigging knife on us — knives are also stationed at the helm and mast. We each wear a PLB and an MOB alarm. The MOB is triggered either manually or when our distance from the boat exceeds about 40 feet. At night, regardless of the conditions, we take all the precautions just mentioned.
Finally, we try not to overreact to situations. We have learned to take a moment to think before we react. I’ve made a difficult situation worse by overreacting to it. And we move slowly around the boat to minimize those bangs and cuts. Something I need to get better at, but my wife has already mastered it.
Piloting safety: We begin with a shove-off procedure detailed on a laminated card kept in the cockpit. Then we adjust our approach depending on the type of cruising we are doing: rivers, shallow water/reefs, bays, coastal or offshore. We rely on all the same skills and equipment but prioritize them differently depending on the type of water we will be in. In rivers and shallow water, we closely watch our depth sounder, currents and tides, underwater hazards, bridges and traffic, whereas when we are coastal and offshore, we are more focused on weather, wind, fetch and swells. We watch for traffic and hazards too, but this becomes less significant as you move offshore (assuming you aren’t in a shipping channel).
We strive to always be vigilant on watch. We periodically review the Rules of the Road, and assume the other boats do not — defensive boating, just like defensive driving. I’ll often quiz my wife and son as we approach other boats or navigational obstacles. “If that boat does this,” or “if the current around that rock is such and we drift,” how should we respond? We find by walking through the various scenarios we can imagine, it helps us better respond without overreacting to real events. This includes even responding to those scenarios we didn’t think of because we have been practicing our critical thinking skills. Finally, we try not to over-rely on our chartplotter, that is, not watch it like a TV and neglect to pay attention to our surroundings. “Keep your head out of the cockpit,” we remind ourselves often.
While on night watch we stick to a schedule. We’ve experimented over the years and have found that three on/three off works best for us. We keep a 20-minute timer in the cockpit, just in case the person on watch accidentally dozes off, and we set our AIS and radar alarms. We both wear VHF radios, even if we’re the one asleep down below — just in case we need to communicate with each other, or the on-watch person falls overboard. It is unlikely to happen if we are clipped in, but it is a worst-case scenario to be ready for.
Preventive maintenance safety: We try to be meticulous about maintenance because we believe that small problems can often cascade into larger problems, sometimes even life-threatening ones. There is always something that is going to go awry on a boat, and it always seems to happen at the worst possible time. By being methodical about our maintenance, we are trying to stack the odds in our favor. We maintain a detailed maintenance schedule and keep a log of all maintenance, repairs and improvements. Before shoving off we walk the deck to survey the boat, check the rigging, etc. On passages, we regularly monitor for chafe or anything else that might look out of place. There is always something that needs to be minded.
Before leaving on one passage, we found a 316-grade stainless steel cotter pin (securing the headstay clevis pin) that was completely rusted after a long wet passage. Apparently this 6-month-old pin was not 316-grade! This is a good example of a small problem that could have cascaded into catastrophe. After any hard passage, I go up into the rigging to do an inspection. I haven’t found anything wrong yet, but it gives us peace of mind to know things are in good order for when it starts blowing.
OV: Has your experience sailing offshore affected your thinking on safety?
D&JM: Not really, we have always been vigilant about safety. What has changed, and we say this with great humility and enormous respect for the sea, is that it is not as dangerous as we feared it might be. We feel there is less to worry about offshore than when coastal sailing or inland sailing. When offshore, the weather is more consistent without the influences of land, and there are fewer things to hit and they are easy to avoid. For my wife this was a big relief as her perception of offshore sailing was influenced by movies. It didn’t help that her non-sailing friends would riddle her with questions, like whether she was afraid of dying in a storm. Over the years I’ve read countless books on rough-weather sailing and talked to those more experienced to get a sense of what to expect. Over and over again, the message was the same. Survival storm conditions are very seldom encountered, if at all, and much can be done to avoid those situations.
Dante on the bow of Benevento enjoying a dolphin sighting off the coast of Mexico.
OV: What planning have you done for possible medical emergencies? Did you receive any medical training before you began voyaging?
D&JM: Jennifer took two weekend-long courses in wilderness medicine, along with first aid and CPR. I’m also trained in first aid and CPR. We visited a travel doctor to receive supplemental vaccinations for illnesses such as yellow fever. We also had prescriptions for various medical ailments filled in case we needed them but didn’t have access to a doctor, including antibiotics and pain medication. We purchased a medical kit, Marine Medical Kit 3000 from Adventure Medical Kits, and supplemented it with additional over-the-counter medicines and commonly used medical equipment such as extra bandages. We also have smaller medical kits in the dinghy and in our backpacks for when we go ashore.
We have international family medical insurance and emergency evacuation insurance. We also have several medical books on board, including a digital and hard copy of the Merck Medical Manual; Doctor on Board by Dr. J Hauert; Where There Is No Doctor by David Werner; First Aid at Sea by Dr. Spike Briggs and Dr. Campbell Mackenzie; Advanced First Aid Afloat by Dr. Peter Eastman and Dr. John Levinson; A Comprehensive Guide to Marine Medicine by Dr. Eric Weiss and Dr. Michael Jacobs; and Dangerous Sea Life by Edwin Iversen and Renate Skinner. Not sure how we ended up with so many medical books, but I’m sure our waterline has suffered as a result. However, if you are in remote areas it is best to be as self-reliant as possible.
OV: What type of life raft do you have? How often do you have it serviced?
D&JM: We have a four-person Revere Elite life raft, serviced every three years. Should we need to deploy it, we have created laminated cards detailing our abandon-ship procedure and emergency call procedure, which are kept at the nav station.
OV: Do you have survival suits?
D&JM: No, we have not purchased survival suits, but they would be nice to have especially if we did more ocean passages or high-latitude sailing. Maybe in the future.
OV: Do you have an EPIRB, PLB or a tracking device like a Spot or InReachSE?
D&JM: Yes. Our EPIRB is a GlobalFix iPro, by ACR. This operates on 406 MHz with GPS. We also have PLBs: SafeLink R10, by Kannad. We don’t have any tracking devices, but our AIS transmits our position, which can be monitored via numerous vessel tracking websites when we are not offshore.
OV: Do you have an AIS unit on board?
D&JM: Yes, our AIS unit sends and receives signals. We find it to be one of the most useful pieces of equipment aboard Benevento. The majority of traffic we have encountered has been commercial ships or cruise ships, and the ability to see the specifics of the traffic around you, versus just a radar blip, is comforting and helps us make better decisions — especially when you are tired and cold at two in the morning!
Benevento arriving at Horta Harbor in the Azores with Mt. Pico in background.
In the past we relied on radar and it was harder to determine if we would be on a collision course. Unlike AIS, with radar you can’t see the name of the ship or any of its specifics, such as how fast it is going and its heading. You can use the MARPA functionality of radar to try to track a vessel, but we’ve found too much variability in the SOG and COG data to be useful. With AIS you can know with a great deal of accuracy the SOG and COG, closest point of approach (CPA) and time to closest point of approach (TCPA). Furthermore, if you are transmitting your position, the other AIS boats should know your position. It is much better than hoping your boat returns a strong enough radar echo to a cargo ship traveling at 22 knots with its radar gain turned down.
Also, in our experience, ships are faster to respond on VHF if you hail them by name. We’ve hailed a number of commercial and cruise ships when our CPA was getting too close, just to ensure they saw us. The majority of the time they have voluntarily offered to alter their course, and have given us a weather report to boot if we asked for it.
OV: What types of weather data do you use when making an offshore passage? How do you gather weather information?
D&JM: It depends where we are cruising. On the web we use NOAA/National Weather Service resources, which cover the Western Hemisphere, including the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the Caribbean. In the Mediterranean we use Euro Meteo and World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Our primary weather apps are Weather4D Pro, PocketGrib (both have worldwide coverage) and Meteo Marine for the Mediterranean.
Pre-shove off: If it is a long passage we will have already consulted pilot charts to identify the safest period for the journey. We’ll begin pulling data several weeks or more in advance to see if we can identify a weather pattern. We’ll make use of the websites above to pull text forecasts, GRIB files and radiofax charts. We also use the mentioned weather apps.
Coastal: We use our cellphone to access the same weather products mentioned above but not via the web. We’ll use a PC application called Airmail to pull text forecasts and GRIB files. To get radiofax charts, including hurricane weather, we use regular email to ping the NOAA weather servers. By emailing a simple code to the weather server, it will return the requested weather product — either a chart or text file. Weather charts will be a small attached image of less than 40 KB. Detailed instruction can be found online at the National Weather Service’s “Worldwide Marine Radiofacsimile Broadcast Schedules.” Appendix B covers FTPMail instructions. Beyond the Western Hemisphere, we use the World Meteorological Organization for radiofaxes. To get a list of broadcast stations, times and weather products, download this information via the Internet before you shove off. Once out at sea you’ll use your SSB to get weather products from WMO.
We also use our cellular data connection to update the weather app data, and we listen to NOAA weather via VHF where available. For those portions of the coast with no cellular coverage, see the Offshore section below.
Offshore: Here we have no cellular connection so we primarily rely on our SSB radio. Using Airmail and Sailmail we can get text forecasts and GRIBs, but no radiofaxes since the Sailmail servers strip attachments to keep transmission times low, as only one person can use a station at a given time — fair enough, and we’ve found that the text forecasts and GRIB files have been sufficient, along with our barometer and watching the weather. But if we want a radiofax, we’ll use the SSB to tune into a given station and use our PC and a modem to decode the transmission into a weather chart.
For the Western Hemisphere, we use NOAA; for the rest of the world, we use WMO. This is slow and sometimes unreliable, but free. Alternatively, we’ll use our satellite phone to ping the NOAA weather server, in the same manner we do with a cellphone as mentioned above, to get the same radiofaxes. This is fast and convenient, but expensive. We seldom use this method unless the passage is very long or the weather forecast is looking unfavorable.
OV: Do you use a weather routing service?
D&JM: We have relied on our own knowledge for all of our cruising, except for our first ocean crossing. To make our Atlantic Crossing, we decided to use a weather service to help support us across and to have an extra pair of eyes for us. We selected Commanders’ Weather and found their service to fit our needs and be very useful. The team over there is extremely knowledgeable, and we’d recommend them.
For us it was educational to see how their weather predictions were aligning with our interpretation of what to expect, which helped us gain more confidence in our own weather predicting abilities.
Darold and Jennifer in the Strait of Gibraltar as the Massaros take Benevento into the Mediterranean.
OV: What types of safety gear do you plan to purchase and why?
D&JM: We spent a lot of time improving the boat for safety during the five years before we left on our trip. Some ideas came from a nice lookbook called Offshore Sailing: 200 Essential Passagemaking Tips by William Seifert and Daniel Spurr.
Some of the safety improvements we made include:
• We improved our ground tackle. We switched from three-strand nylon rode to all chain: 300 feet of 7/16-inch high test. If you order chain, have the factory put an oversized link on each end so you can use a larger shackle for connecting the anchor, otherwise the shackle is the weak link in the system.
• We also increased our anchor inventory. We already had two 44-pound Danforths and a 45-pound plow, which was the primary anchor. We switched the primary to a 55-pound Spade, and we also have a 70-pound Luke Storm anchor. We have a 600-foot spool of 3/4-inch, three-strand nylon rope so we can increase our scope if anchoring in a storm situation, or tying up in a mangrove river. Extra rope always comes in handy on a boat.
• We added a bilge counter and alarm for the primary bilge pump and added a backup bilge pump with an alarm. Each cycle of the bilge pump is counted, which has been surprisingly useful. We’ve established a baseline for how dry our boat is. There have been several occasions when we’ve noticed an unusually high bilge count while on passage. This effective early warning system alerted us to a loose hose leaking water. We were able to make repairs before the issue became a major problem.
We also purchased a portable Edson 30-gpm manual pump. The boat was already equipped with manual bilge pumps fixed at the nav station and helm.
• We installed smoke and CO2 detectors, and a propane detector in the bilge.
• We have a series drogue and sea anchor aboard, and have done sea trials with both to gain experience. For those interested, there is an excllent resource on the subject, the Drag Device Database by Victor Shane.
• To the main, we added a deep third reef.
For future cruising we would like to get a storm jib and add a second headstay so we can hank on the sail without removing the furled Genoa. This will allow us to sail higher than we could with a furled jib.
We might also get a Trysail. Our deep third reef main is about the same size as a Trysail and weight, but we can’t get a third reefed main as flat as we could a Trysail, so that may be on the purchase list too.