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Offshore Safety: Circumnavigators plan and practice for safety

Apr 27, 2018
The Griswolds’ Whitby 42, Kite, in Thailand.

The Griswolds’ Whitby 42, Kite, in Thailand.

Jack and Zdenka Griswold have been sailing together for more than 20 years. Jack learned to sail at age 8 in Quissett Harbor, Cape Cod, on Beetle Cats. When he was 11, he and his younger brother raced a Flying Junior on a lake in New York. Over the years, the boats got a little bigger — but not by much. They included a 22-foot Pearson Ensign, on which Jack cruised much of Long Island Sound.

Zdenka, originally from landlocked Prague, grew up there, in Vienna and in Tokyo. Mostly, though, she lived in New York City where she and Jack met while working for a nonprofit agency helping refugees. She took sailing lessons on New York’s City Island in the mid-90s. Together, Jack and Zdenka bought
Cera, a 1981 Island Packet 26, a shoal draft centerboarder, and sailed her in Long Island Sound and New England on weekends and vacations.

Cera was followed by Kite, a Whitby 42, which took them on an extended yearlong cruise to the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick’s Saint John River and south to the Bahamas. In those pre-chartplotter days, without the benefit of reliable local weather forecasting, they learned to navigate and plan carefully while exploring the then-remote Ragged Island Chain, the Bight of Acklins and other Out Islands. They chartered and sailed with friends in the Caribbean, and Jack crewed on a friend’s J/42 to and from the Caribbean via Bermuda. Plotting a long-term cruise, they took celestial navigation and weather prediction courses, got a USCG six-pack license, and Zdenka became a ham radio operator.

In 2007, Jack and Zdenka bought a Valiant 42, which they also named
Kite, left their jobs in New York City and moved to Portland, Maine. They sailed Kite south to the Bahamas twice, and in September 2009 they set out on what turned out to be a seven-year, double-handed, westabout circumnavigation. Their route took them to the Eastern Caribbean, Colombia and the San Blas Islands, through the Panama Canal to the Galapagos, and across the South Pacific. They spent a cyclone season in New Zealand, and then sailed up to Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Australia, where they spent the next cyclone season. The following year took them through Indonesia, Singapore and Southeast Asia. In 2014, they left Indonesia and sailed across the Indian Ocean to South Africa via the islands of Cocos Keeling, Rodrigues, Mauritius and Reunion. They departed Cape Town in March 2015 for Trinidad, spending a few weeks at St. Helena and Ascension islands along the way. During the winter of 2015-16 they cruised the eastern Caribbean and Bahamas, slowly making their way home.

On June 23, 2016, they arrived home in Portland, Maine. At the Portland Yacht Services dinghy dock, they looked at each other and said, “What next?” While they’re still processing that one, they spent the summer of 2017 cruising Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Zdenka and Jack Griswold in Panama’s San Blas Islands.

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

J&ZG: This is a subject we spend much time thinking about while hoping we never have to put our preparations to the actual test. We have, to date, not faced a life-threatening emergency at sea, though we have dealt with our share of breakdowns, rough weather, seasickness and uncharted waters. As we accumulate more sea miles, we worry less but prepare more.

First, preparation: We plan our passages carefully, studying weather patterns, prevailing currents, traffic routes and obstacles such as shallow reefs or isolated islands. Every once in a while, one hears of a boat that was wrecked on a reef or, in a horrific accident a few years ago in the South Pacific, ran into an island in the dark with loss of all hands. Zoom in on the chartplotter! And be sure to identify on your charts all potential dangers in offshore waters ahead of time — they won’t be marked or lit, and on a moonless night they will be invisible. Once you’re out there, take advantage of good weather forecasting if available, and study the weather grib files. This will enable you to prepare for adverse weather even if you can’t avoid it.

Second, equipment: The availability of safety products is ever improving, which is great, but it can be overwhelming to sift through. We’re probably dinosaurs already, but during our 2009 to 2016 circumnavigation, we carried two EPIRBs, a personal locator beacon (PLB), a life raft, satphone and an SSB with Pactor modem. This provided us with the ability to contact the outside world in an emergency and provide our location, communicate with other boats or emergency radio stations, and have a chance at surviving a catastrophic loss of our boat. We pre-programmed emergency numbers into our satphone. Families on shore could reach us by means of onboard email, which we checked daily. At times, we also provided them with contact information for an SSB net or another boat on the same passage as an alternative. We display a list of all through-hulls at the nav station and check seacocks regularly. We have multiple bilge pumps, manual and electric, and two loud alarms in the bilge: one that goes off every time the bilge pump runs (which can make the off-watch crew cranky!) and one for high water.

Third, practice: We probably don’t do as much of this as we should, but it’s important to conduct emergency drills. We were much better at this years ago when Jack had a beloved straw hat that kept flying off his head and we’d have to do a “man overboard” to retrieve it! But it’s important to think through the procedures in an actual emergency, whether it be a collision, flooding, fire or a person overboard. Sign up for one of the many Safety at Sea seminars available around the country, such as those offered by the Cruising Club of America.

Taking on fuel at St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

OV: What planning have you done for possible medical emergencies? Did you receive any medical training before you began voyaging?

J&ZG: We have a book — two, actually — that explain how to amputate a limb, take out an appendix and all sorts of other procedures. That would certainly be interesting! Seriously though, in addition to good first aid books and the indispensable Merck Manual, we have put together a fairly extensive medical kit that includes a range of antibiotics. These came in handy several times, including once when Jack was attacked and bitten by a dog in Fiji. Several years before we left, we took a first aid course. This has been the extent of our medical training. A good source for medical preparation is found on the CCA’s Safety at Sea website.

We never had to deal with a real medical emergency at sea, knock on wood. If we did need to call for medical advice or help offshore, we have international distress frequencies, amateur radio mobile nets and other regional nets pre-programmed in the SSB, and regional emergency numbers pre-programmed in the satphone. We’ve also been amazed by the number of doctors, nurses and dentists in the cruising community willing to help, many of them by radio. This is not an offshore story, but we were once on a friend’s boat when his hand got caught in his electric windlass; Jack rushed him to a neighboring boat with an orthopedic surgeon/nurse couple on board who performed immediate “emergency surgery” on the main salon table, and a couple of hours later he was on the mend. Super fast, excellent care, and gratis to boot!

Fortunately, during the seven years of our circumnavigation we never had major problems, just things like skin infections and swimmer’s ear. For these, and for annual skin cancer checks, we went to doctors in Colombia, New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and Trinidad. Although we had U.S. health insurance, we paid for the medical care we received out of pocket. A big eye-opener for us was just how good the medical system is in most parts of the world: competent and professional, easily accessible and all at a fraction of U.S. cost.

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

J&ZG: We have a Winslow six-person Super-Light Standard Offshore life raft in a soft valise. We paid to have it vacuum-packed, and it lives comfortably in our port cockpit lazarette.

Kite in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand.

By the time we got to South Africa, five years into our circumnavigation, seven since we bought the life raft and well past its three-year due date, we decided that we had better get it serviced. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anyone in South Africa who handled Winslow life rafts so it wasn’t until we were back in Portland that we finally had it serviced for the first time, 10 years after we had bought it. Interestingly, the technician who did the job said it was in perfect, like-new condition because of the vacuum packing. Without any question, if you have that option, pay to have your raft vacuum-packed.

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

J&ZG: We actually have two ditch bags, both dry bags of the sort that kayakers use. In one we keep emergency flares, water and a fleece blanket. We used to keep the water in the plastic containers it came in, but the boat’s motion over a period of months would wear holes in the bottles and the water would leak out. Now, we use aluminum camping/hiking water bottles. We also carry on board four five-gallon jugs of emergency water in case our watermaker fails. If we had to ditch, we would take as many of these as we had time for.

Our second ditch bag is a little more eclectic. It includes the following:

  • EPIRB
  • GPS
  • Hand-held VHF
  • Folding solar panel sufficient to charge/run the phone, VHF and GPS
  • Battery-operated laser flare, strobe, two flashlights, plus extra batteries
  • Satphone in Pelican case
  • Pens, pencils and notebook
  • Mirror, whistle and duct tape
  • Two space blankets, sunglasses, gloves and hats
  • Fast-drying thermal underwear (tops/bottoms), rain ponchos and socks
  • Stugeron (for seasickness), aspirin, sunscreen, first aid cream, anti-bacterial wipes and bandages
  • Knife, fish hooks, lures and fishing line
  • Paper towels, sponge, 100 feet of 3/16 line, and compass
  • Energy bars and cough drops
  • Cup, bowl (which can double as a bailer), spoon (for all those fish we’ll catch)

Crossing the Indian Ocean, towing a water generator.

OV: Do you have survival suits?

J&ZG: No. Partly this is because most of our cruising, until recently, was in the tropics.

OV: Do you have an EPIRB, PLB or a tracking device like a SPOT or InReach?

J&ZG: Yes. We have two ACR EPIRBs and one McMurdo SmartFind AIS personal locator beacon (PLB). The PLB is worn by the person on watch. One EPIRB lives in the ditch bag, the other in a readily accessible locker. They are Category II, manually activated units. We don’t really see the utility on a cruising boat of a Category I, which releases automatically from a bracket equipped with a hydrostatic release, but only when submerged somewhere between three and 13 feet. These are meant to be mounted outside where they are exposed to the elements and possibly subject to false activation by a wave. Also, if we are treading water or in a life raft, we want the unit with us and not floating off somewhere.

OV: Do you have an AIS unit on board?

J&ZG: Absolutely, and we consider it to be one of our indispensable pieces of equipment. Ours is a Vesper, made in New Zealand. While it wasn’t much use in Indonesian waters, teeming day and night with local fishing boats, on ocean passages it was hugely helpful. It’s always amazing to us how we can be in an empty patch of ocean, hundreds of miles from anywhere, yet whenever a ship appears on the horizon it inevitably is on a collision course with us. AIS, particularly at night, adds to safety exponentially. One big asset is that it makes it possible to call other vessels by name. Containership Titan is infinitely more likely to respond to a “Titan, this is the sailing vessel Kite” call on the VHF than “This is the sailing vessel Kite calling the ship at xxx north, xxx west, on a course of …” etc.

In Singapore, all vessels transiting the country’s waters are required to have an AIS transceiver. We wonder if this will be the wave of the future. The CCA home page includes a link to an excellent, practical hands-on article on AIS and AIS installation.

The Griswolds at Cook’s Lookout on Lizard Island in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

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

J&ZG: At sea, we pretty much completely rely on getting weather forecasts by single sideband radio through Airmail. Airmail, a free email service available to amateur radio operators, has an extensive menu of worldwide weather information, available on request. We most often use grib files, often twice daily depending on the weather patterns. We find the gribs to be quite accurate in forecasting weather two to three days out. For non-hams, the same information can be obtained through the reasonably priced SailMail network. Some cruisers in fact subscribe to both to maximize their chances of good propagation, since the two services use different stations and frequencies.

Airmail has a serviceable grib viewer. However, we installed the OCENS GRIB Explorer and find that much more useful. It’s an excellent, nicely designed and easily readable product.

While we never did this, we knew several boats that relied on friends on shore with fast Internet connections to gather weather data and then email them brief synopses. This seems like a good resource if the friend is willing and has some meteorological skills. We would still, in addition, want to do our own analysis.

OV: Do you use a weather routing service?

J&ZG: For the first part of our circumnavigation, from Colombia across the South Pacific to Tonga, we did not use a weather router. Then, in Tonga, we entered the realm of the legendary Kiwi meteorologist Bob McDavitt. The passage to and from New Zealand can be tricky because nasty weather systems tend to come through every few days from the Southern Ocean, and it can take longer than that to make the passage. We contacted Bob and, at a very reasonable cost, he provided us with a routing forecast. We used him again to time the start of our passage from New Zealand to Fiji, and when we had to find the least punishing window to buck the trade winds from Port Vila in Vanuatu to Noumea in New Caledonia. We liked working with him and thought he did a great job. When we set out to cross the Indian Ocean, we used Commanders’ Weather, based out of Nashua, N.H.

In the South Atlantic, we were walking around the RAF Base on Ascension Island and popped into the British Met Office. We were looking for the best route across the ITCZ, where one can encounter violent squalls and fluky winds, and conditions along the customary routes looked awful. This turned out to be a great experience, and the unorthodox routing we came up with — due north to about 4° N latitude, then change course for Trinidad — worked out perfectly! It’s not a paid service, but if you find yourself on Ascension, give the meteorologists at the RAF Met Office a visit — you’ll be glad you did.

Flying a spinnaker while off Caledonia.

We found routing services most helpful at the start of a passage in choosing a weather window. Generally, we would do our own analysis and then request a professional report. Once underway, we would rely just on the grib files we received. There was one exception.

About halfway into the 2,000-mile passage from the Cocos Keeling Islands to Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean, we noticed some ominous weather coming up on the gribs. We decided to ask Commanders’ to update their original forecast. “Probably we should adjust [our original forecast] of ‘decent trade winds,’” they began. We would see gale-force winds and confused seas, with waves to “top out at 20 feet Fri afternoon and night, but with the peak waves possibly reaching 30 feet,” with us “right in the middle of the band.” Winds were forecast at 30 to 40 knots with gusts into the 50s.

This certainly got our attention. One point of view might be that sometimes it’s just better not to know! However, we found the update useful to prepare ourselves and the boat. In the event, Kite handled the conditions well and we had a fast passage to Rodrigues.

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

J&ZG: We are currently replacing our 11-year old Raymarine E80 chartplotter and radar with a Garmin 7610 chartplotter and 24-inch Fantom radar. Otherwise, we feel pretty good about the array of safety gear we have accumulated and installed over the years, particularly in advance of and during our circumnavigation.

This interview does have us thinking, however, about purchasing survival suits since we plan on doing some North Atlantic passagemaking. If nothing else, just buying them should ensure that we never have to use them, right?

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