Offshore Safety Interview
Sailing a cruising cat with children aboard, Marc and Angie Johnson use simple rules to reduce the risk
About 20 years ago, Marc and Angie Johnson were newly married and looking for an adventure. They decided to book a “learn to sail” course in the British Virgin Islands. The experience was so wonderful they returned for a second, more advanced course the following year. Soon, they purchased their first sailboat. After having children, they purchased a 26-foot MacGregor and spent weekends on either Lake Champlain or Lake Ontario.
Inspired by the voyaging families at the Annapolis Boat Show, a dream was born to cruise the world. The next 10 years were spent reading sailing magazines, attending boat shows, finding the right boat and saving. Slowly they turned their dream into a reality. They purchased Side-by-Side, a Manta 42 catamaran, in July 2002. For the next four years, the Johnson family enjoyed long summer sailing seasons in Rhode Island Sound and the Elizabeth Islands, developing confidence and sailing skills on their boat.
In 2006, Marc sold his dental practice and Angie resigned her healthcare audit position. Their children, Parker and Sabrina were just starting fourth and second grade, respectively. After many tearful goodbyes, they left their home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and sailed away in September 2006 from Tiverton, R.I.
From September 2006 to September 2010, the Johnsons circumnavigated the Caribbean. From Florida, they traveled to the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgins Islands, the Windward and Leeward islands to Trinidad. The following season was spent in Venezuela, the ABC islands, Columbia and the San Blas Islands of Panama. From Panama, the outer islands of Columbia and Honduras were explored, with a stop in the Rio Dulce of Guatemala for hurricane season. After touring Central America by car for two months, they sailed north to Belize and Mexico. A nighttime dis-masting forced a motor across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida.
After repairs in 2009, they sailed to the Bahamas to finish out the season and returned to the U.S. With Side-by-Side on the hard for unexpected repairs, the Johnsons were homeless in the summer of 2009. They went from sea lovers to land lovers and spent the summer traveling the West Coast in an RV. Returning to Side-by-Side, they sailed 10 days offshore to St. Thomas in the fall of 2009. The 2009 to 2010 year was spent traveling the Leeward Islands, all the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.
The Johnsons have reluctantly returned to land life after four exciting years at sea. After years of Calvert home schooling, Parker and Sabrina are attending middle school with their friends in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The Johnson family can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OV: How do you approach the subject of safety? Has your experience of sailing offshore influenced your thinking on safety?
M&AJ: When you’re sailing as a family with two children, safety at sea is paramount. We learned from others’ past misfortunes and made a point not to do those things. As a result we have some simple rules which in our mind eliminate 90 percent of the risk. No alcohol while underway, never leave the cockpit without a tethered inflatable PFD when alone on watch, never ever go outside the cockpit at night without an inflatable PFD and typically clipped in. Ask the spouse to stand watch if the other is drowsy. A 10-minute timer is used at night so as to not lose track of time when doing 10 minute radar and horizon scans.
Cruising offshore on a cat was like a floating condo and during the day when others were present, we all wandered around the entire boat. Before we actually did it, the thought of being days from land was a little frightening. Now that we have done it, we embrace it. We now feel safer sailing out of sight of land than near it. Many additional dangers and bad decisions arise when the stability of terra firma is within sight.
OV: How do you plan for medical emergencies? What type of medical gear do you carry?
M&AJ: We plan for emergencies by trying to make good decisions and avoiding them. Prevention is always the best medicine. The fact that I’m a dentist was a bonus for us. If I were to collapse, the family was instructed to immediately elevate my feet and tilt my head back to open my airway. This is the simplest and most effective first aid for an unconscious victim to prevent death and brain damage.
We carried a large tackle box containing all of our medical gear. My top five items that are absolute:
1) Skin glue for cuts.
2) 3x antibiotic ointment and good bandages for scrapes. We were always getting cuts and scrapes while voyaging. The ocean is loaded with micro nasties just wanting to infect your wounds if they are not sealed up or protected. Do not ignore cuts and scrapes, they can get very serious very fast.
3) An ER suture-kit-in-a-box. Everything you need to stitch up a wound is included. I have been the surgeon and the patient.
4) Basic supply of antibiotics: Penicillin and Keflex for almost any cruising infection that is getting worse. Also maintain a couple of antibiotic rounds for bladder infections and yeast infections for females.
5) A vial of 2 percent Lidocaine and disposable syringes. Your patient will thank you when you have to poke and prod something that hurts already.
Hydrogen peroxide is great to bubble the crud out of wounds. A 50/50 mix of rubbing alcohol and vinegar is superb for swimmer’s ear. A dollar store is an excellent place to pick up basic medicine and first-aid supplies. Also note that outside the U.S., antibiotics are readily available over-the-counter in most countries. A Divers Alert Network (DAN) membership is highly recommended for a serious emergency. We know a cruiser who still has his fingers thanks to DAN. He was able to fly back to a hand specialist rather than settle for the more “definitive” local care.
OV: What type of life raft do you have? How often do you have it serviced? What do you include in your abandon-ship bag?
M&AJ: For our life raft, we opted for the six-person Winslow offshore raft. It fits perfectly just inside the companionway out of the elements and out of sight of opportunistic thieves. Regarding servicing…well, we waited the seven years for the complete recertification. I know the life raft people “recommend” much more frequency. Doing this can take weeks in areas that do not have the repacking inventory in stock and can be outrageously expensive. Because of the CO2 cartridge, you cannot just bring it back as luggage.
In addition to the OEM supplies packed into the raft, we also carried a ditch bag. Our ditch bag and first-aid box sat next to our life raft. Items included: plenty of water, an EPIRB, an assortment of flares in two layers of sealed bags, a collapsible radar reflector, foil suits for hypothermia, a VHF radio, flashlight, a GPS receiver with spare AA batteries, strobe light, whistle, lures and line, pencil and paper (since an account might become a bestseller!), copies of passports, drivers licenses, Coast Guard documentation and credit cards laminated in waterproof sheets, deck of cards and dice, hand activated watermaker, a dozen high-protein power bars, sunscreen, hats, rope, compass, plastic bags, toilet paper, basic first-aid kit, Swiss Army knife, and a Rotary Club song book — morale and all, you know. I would also consider keeping our backup hard drive in the ditch bag.
OV: Do you carry an EPIRB? What type of signaling devices do you have for use in your life raft?
M&AJ: Absolutely, we carry an EPIRB. On our next cruise we will carry a PLB or SPOT. We also carry a mirror, smoke pots, flares, strobe, VHF, and a good-looking wife.
OV: What is your policy on wearing life jackets/harnesses while underway? Do you normally rig jack lines on deck?
M&AJ: In the cockpit, which is very secure in our cat, we rarely wear life jackets underway. If alone, we never step out of the cockpit without an inflatable PFD. With all of our line controls in the cockpit, a huge plus, we only rarely needed to step out of the cockpit. At night, you must be tethered to leave the cockpit. With two or more during the day, we do not wear life jackets on deck when the weather is settled. The cat platform is so stable we have never even been close to having a man-overboard event.
We always have port and starboard jack lines rigged for all passages. We keep a tether clipped to each jack line that we can clip onto the D-ring of our inflatable PFD/harness.
OV: Do you have a man-overboard (MOB) procedure that you use? Do you have any special MOB gear, like a thermal night-vision scope to spot a MOB in the water?
M&AJ: We have experimented using fenders, not the children, with MOB drills and have found that immediately tacking the boat 180 degrees and dropping the sails get us very close to our target. In addition, we mark the MOB on the GPS and assign all hands as spotters with hands pointing to the target. Fortunately we have never had a MOB.
We have a night-vision scope in the ditch bag, we never used it and would not buy one again. I think a MOB pole is a great idea. It’s simple to use and easy to see.
OV: What type of weather information do you use when making an offshore passage? How do you gather weather information?
M&AJ: The longer our passage, the more weather information we would try to gather. If it’s a few-hour hop, I just look out the window. For coastal U.S. trips, we used NOAA on the VHF. Chis Parker’s SSB weather service is excellent for the Caribbean. In addition, there are SSB cruiser nets in all parts of the Caribbean that give briefings on the weather. In addition we download GRIB files and weather forecasts.
Passageweather.com is fantastic for passage planning and is free. You can see animated time-elapsed predictions for sea state, wind direction and speed, precipitation, and even currents for up to seven days (we find it to be quite accurate up to three days). Best of all with a single click you can download them as a temporary screen file for ease of access at sea.
OV: Do you attempt to avoid bad weather at all costs? Do you only make passages in favorable conditions?
M&AJ: The best part of voyaging is making your own schedule. You schedule your departure when the weather is to your liking. On longer passages we would often leave when the weather was still unsettled if we knew the rest of the passage was looking good. This left us the option to turn back, which we never did, if it were worse than we anticipated. Squally weather days were great fishing days. We often did short hops on theses days as we weren’t leaving the boat to do anything else.
One of the things most people fail to realize is how tired and beat up you get being exposed to the weather all the time. Our Manta 42 had three-quarters cockpit enclosure which we absolutely loved. Even in the tropics we often kept our windward side curtains down to provide a quiet, dry, and pleasant cockpit environment. We never felt tired or beat up in all of our passage making.
OV: What types of safety gear do you plan to purchase and why?
M&AJ: Our next cruise will have a send-and-receive AIS system. Everyone that has one loves it. The data they provide to each vessel is important and significantly raises the bar of safety at sea. PLBs or SPOTs have come down in price to where anyone cruising can afford one. These devices are priceless if using one results in someone being rescued.