Monday, February 19, 2018

Managing heavy weather at sea

Yesterday, we addressed a conference of about 100 cruisers at the Irish Sailing Cruising Conference. In 2008, on a crossing of the north Atlantic, we encountered six gales and managed to avoid one strong storm. What we learned then, we were here to share about our experience with storm management. The conference was summarized overall in Afloat magazine.

Here's our overview of our talk:
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Managing Offshore Storms

by Alex and Daria Blackwell

In 2008, Alex and Daria Blackwell left their jobs, loaded up their boat and sailed across the Atlantic. They cruised Maine and Nova Scotia in Aleria, their Bowman 57 cutter rigged ketch, before heading out to sea.  Alex, a master mariner and Daria, a licensed captain, had never crossed an ocean before but had been sailing for many years, including weeklong coastal passages, and did a great deal of preparation in advance.
But 2008 was an unusual year. Not only did the markets collapse around the world while they were out at sea, the North Atlantic had more heavy weather that year than would typically be expected. In the three weeks it took them to sail across from Halifax to Westport, they experienced six gales and managed to avoid one strong storm with potentially life threatening conditions. They gained a good deal of experience on that crossing and have since crossed the Atlantic twice more as well as having sailed to Scotland and Spain and along the west coast of Ireland many times, never again seeing the type of weather the North Atlantic had served up that year.
Since they survived, they were at the Irish Sailing Cruising Conference to share what they had learned.
Daria first gave a general overview of how to think about the factors that affect weather in the Atlantic. The ocean, being a conveyor belt for water, has currents circulating around it. The Gulf Stream brings warm water up the coast of the US that mixes with the cold Labrador current which brings cold water and ice down from the Arctic. That continues to Ireland as the North Atlantic Drift and then completes the loop with the Canary Current and North Equatorial current.
Above the Atlantic sits the Azores High, a stable bubble of airmass. Lows swoop down from North America and cyclones swoop up from tropical regions where they form to circle around the Azores High. Of course Hurricane Ophelia this year formed off the coast of Africa and headed directly North to Ireland reminding us that climate change is making weather events less predictable and more extreme.  The trade winds also circulate around this high pressure system creating the trade routes that, together with the currents, enable ocean crossings.
Despite being an oversimplification, understanding weather patterns during passage planning is essential. Many resources, like Passage Weather, are available today to assist with planning a passage in advance. After departure, however, other tactics are necessary.
It helps to develop a “weather eye” and keeping a log is important if something untoward happens but is also vital to forcing awareness of changing conditions. Timely response to changing conditions can mean the difference between safety and comfort or survival management.
The Blackwells worked with the legendary Herb Hilgenberg, now retired, who provided weather routing via SSB radio while they were underway. Herb helped them interpret the forecasts for their region and provided suggestions for the best routes to take advantage of the conditions and avoid undesirable ones. It pays to enlist the help of shore-based experts to help interpret the weather files, called GRIBS, one can download via SAT phone and SSB radio. There are many services available.
When a weather window opened up, the Blackwells left Nova Scotia under thick fog in about 15 knots of breeze. The fog persisted along the entire coast of Newfoundland, which they never saw, until they crossed the Labrador Current. Until then, they had sailed under full sail. Afterwards, the wind started to build.
They have several rules they go by:
1.      Stay on the boat – that means never leaving the companionway to go on deck without being tethered to the boat. Sailing short-handed means that if someone goes overboard, the likelihood of recovery would be slim.
2.      The time to reef is when you first think about it. Often people make the mistake of waiting until conditions deteriorate when it becomes dangerous.
3.      Prepare in advance. Lack of preparation is an underlying factor in disaster.

When the squalls started, they followed their direction and speed on radar, but always made preparations in advance. Wind can go from 5 knots to 30 knots in seconds, and being caught unaware can result in a knockdown.

As the first gale approached, they had the following choices:
1.      Sail on
2.      Deploy a sea anchor or drogue
3.      Run with the wind
4.      Lie a-hull
5.      Heave to

As every boat is different, the Blackwells had experimented with various methods and determined that heaving to in a storm situation to let the storm pass over more quickly was their best bet on Aleria.  Sailing on in a storm is what racers do. This can cause a lot of stress on rig and crew. As cruisers the Blackwells don’t subscribe to such discomfort.
Deploying a sea anchor puts great stress on deck hardware and can be dangerous to deploy on a pitching deck and difficult to retrieve afterwards. In addition, there is evidence that the stretching and contracting of the rode in these extreme circumstances will cause internal abrasion in the fibres of the rope, potentially leading to catastrophic failure.
Running with the wind under bare poles or storm sails would require hand steering to manage the mountainous seas, and that would be difficult with only two people. The motion of the wave cause the boat to yaw severely from side to side. If the boat tends to surf down the waves it is possible that the bow will become buried in the wave trough which would cause the boat to pitch-pole.
Lying ahull in which all sail is removed and the boat is left to its own defences was deemed most at risk of the vessel broaching and getting swamped in massive seas.
They had experimented with heaving to under benign conditions and decided that this would be their best option.
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Heaving to on many boats is achieved by tacking after reducing sail and not releasing the headsail sheet. The headsail is therefore backed and counteracting the force of the main sail. The helm is lashed or locked to windward. The boat settles down on an angle of about 60 degrees off the wind sailing at about 1-2 knots, slipping sideways, creating a slick upwind and smoothing the seas. When hove to, a degree of stability and calm is achieved that is astounding.
The Blackwells sailed on through the first gale in which wind was in the range of 35 knots gusting over 40. Their boat did well under staysail and mizzen alone. When the wind built to more than 40 knots and the sea state built to 30 feet with cresting waves and foam in the second gale, they opted to heave to. For 36 hours, the gale raged overhead while they read books. After the gale, they released the headsail sheet and then tacked through to get back on course. The key here was to time manoeuvres with the seas. “We noted that waves in this gale were coming in sets of 3 of about 20 feet and the 4th would be an outlier of 30 to 40 feet. So we timed our tack for just after the fourth wave to give us the best chance of not broaching if caught beam on.”
But the gales were unrelenting. They sailed through another and then opted to heave to again. Half way through that gale Daria called out “I can’t take it anymore, let me off at the next stop.” When Alex remarked that they had forgotten to bring cookies along, Daria took to baking peanut butter cookies, it was that calm aboard.
Daria explained that a quote by Donald Hamilton summed it up for her, “Being hove to in a long gale is the most boring way of being terrified I know.” Having a good library aboard made all the difference in the world.
On yet another occasion, heaving to may not have sufficed. Herb advised the Blackwells to turn back and sail west for a day to allow a strong storm to pass their track. With yet another gale approaching Alex being frustrated did not heed the warning and sailed into the worst conditions they had experienced yet, confirming that indeed the weather routers know what they are doing. Aleria hove to for a third time before finally heading into Clew Bay.
The Blackwells explained that heaving to is not just useful in storm situations. Heaving to can also assist with:
·         Reefing or dropping the mainsail
·         Making repairs in less challenging conditions
·         Adding fuel to the tanks
·         Having lunch in more peaceful conditions
·         Rendezvousing with a dingy
·         As a viable MOB manoeuvre

The most important consideration is to practice under benign conditions to determine how your boat responds. Some vessels, like catamarans, heave to best with one sail alone.
Several members of the audience confirmed the effectiveness of heaving to. One experienced sailor told a story of being caught in a storm on a delivery where the owner refused to heave to. He finally relented when conditions became unbearable and now swears that it was the best thing he’s ever learned.
An RNLI lifeboat crew member informed the group that he had just been at a seminar in which the rescue helicopter service now request sailboats to heave to on port tack if a rescue is underway because their equipment is deployed from the starboard door. They have determined that heaving to is the most effective means by which to stabilise the vessel and keep the mast from getting caught up with their gear.
Participants were left thinking about their options and planning their next opportunity to practice heaving to.

Alex is Rear Commodore for Ireland of the Ocean Cruising Club, a Committee member and newsletter editor of the Irish Cruising Club and Committee member of Mayo Sailing Club. Daria is Rear Commodore of the Ocean Cruising Club. Alex and Daria are co-authors of Happy Hooking the Art of Anchoring and Cruising the Wild Atlantic Way.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Ocean Cruising Club Awards

As PR Officer, Web Editor and Rear Commodore of the Ocean Cruising Club, I have the honour of being the one to announce the winners of the annual awards which recognize the extraordinary achievements of people cruising the world's oceans. I've been a member of the Awards Committee and co-Chair for several years so I know how arduous a task it can be to coordinate the awards decision-making process. We have members all over the world taking part, some submitting nominations others taking part in the selections of winners. In any case, it's an extraordinary thing to be part of as we journey into people's lives to see what they've done that merits the attention of the world, and to be blown away by the stories we uncover.

When I first started sailing it used to be that circumnavigating - or even just crossing oceans - was a big deal, something to really aspire to and applaud. Today, every year the list of circumnavigators gets longer and longer, and the list of 'firsts' is getting depleted. It's no longer so outstanding to have circled the world. Now, adventure travel is taking over and vessels are available for expedition charter in the Arctic and Antarctic. The list of boats cris-crossing the Northwest Passage is getting longer each year. So identifying those doing extraordinary things out there is getting more difficult.

This year we have a truly interesting group to applaud. Two women recognized for their exemplary seamanship, an explorer circling the earth and setting records by sail and power for a lifetime, a young adventurer just setting out with remarkably little but a sturdy little ship, and a man who didn't like the navigation tools available so he developed his own and shared them with all of us for free. Each of these sets a very high bar, as they tend to do each year.

What's really nice is that this year's winners represent many corners of the world where OCC members hail from including Germany, the UK, Australia, USA, Canada, Ireland, and South Africa. We have more than 2500 members from 41 countries in the Club. It's a truly international sailing fraternity.

Congratulations to all of you and thank you. I have truly enjoyed delving into your stories.

The OCC Barton Cup: Susanne Huber-Curphey s/v Nehaj
The OCC Lifetime Achievement Award: David Scott Cowper m/v Polar Bound
The OCC Seamanship Award: Lisa Blair s/v Climate Action Now
The OCC Award: David Register m/v Dyad
The OCC Jester Award: Josh Ghyselincks s/v Maistral

OCC Members Only
The OCC Vasey Vase: Andrew and Janice Fennymore-White s/v Destiny
The David Wallis Trophy: Fergus and Katherine Quinlan s/v Pylades
The OCC Qualifier's Mug: Megan Clay s/v Flycatcher of Yar

OCC Port Officers
The OCC Port Officer Service Award: Greta Gustavson and Gary Nagle (USA)
The OCC Port Officer Rally Award: Peter Flutter (UK)
The OCC Port Officer Events Award: Robert Ravensburg (SA)

To learn more, visit  
To learn about the benefits of joining the OCC, click here

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Buying a boat

Many of you are probably scouring the boat shows for that perfect next boat. Whether it's larger for the big adventure or smaller for the downsize, the decision to buy is never an easy one. Until, of course, you fall in love. Then all bets are off. Here's a decision tree that may make it easier. I came across it randomly on the internet and don't know who to credit. I hope it helps.

Good luck!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Diary of an Atlantic crossing

We are shortly giving a talk on heavy weather sailing at the ISA Cruising Conference. I recently came across my diary from our first Atlantic crossing in 2008. I was reminded that the markets collapsed while we were at sea. As all we had was an SSB radio, we didn't really know about anything happening in the world, so it didn't matter. We sailed north from New York to Canada and then set off for Westport, Ireland from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Herb Hilgenberg was our weather router and Matt aboard s/v Ault was the only other sailor in the northern North Atlantic. That it turned out to be Matt Rutherford is a whole other story.

The funny part was this map that I drew in my diary. As you can see, I never completed the map but rest assured that we did arrive safely in Ireland some three weeks after departing, but not without plenty of adventure. You can read more here. As a matter of fact, that trip was where we got most of our heavy weather sailing experience. We were in intense fog until approaching the Flemish Cap where we crossed the Labrador Current and the fog lifted. It's also where the gales started. Needless to say, we did not sail the rhumb line. We hove to twice and sailed back west for a day to get out of the way of a strong storm with "life threatening" conditions, per Herb. We couldn't sail NE as we wanted, but had to keep going east until we got a break to go straight north.

We departed Halifax July 23 and arrived at Ross August 16 after 25 days at sea. It was miserable and beautiful, frustrating and terrifying. But, wow, were we alive throughout this adventure, and we lived to tell about it.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas at Sea

In 2009, Alex and I set sail from Ireland in early October heading to the Mediterranean to overwinter. When we got to Portugal, someone told us it was going to be very cold there, so we turned right and went to the Caribbean instead.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Citizen science and sailing

Getting involved in scientific research is a real game changer for many cruisers. Like Alex and me, many people get out there and then find they need more than just floating around from place to place. They need a purpose. As budgets for research in Universities and government agencies get cut, supporting research projects through participation in citizen science is a real boon. Many cruisers end up in remote places where it would be hard to justify sending a research vessel. Having someone already there who can take some measurements or observations and report back via an app when signal is available is making a difference to the collective knowledge base about the earth and oceans.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Technology and sailing

Visibility decreasing as we enter the Bay of Biscay 

Not long ago, when people set sail to cross oceans, they set off with some charts, a sextant, sight reduction tables, pencils, dividers, parallel rules, a compass, a log to measure knots and a clock. If they knew the speed at which they were sailing, and how long they had sailed, they could determine where they were. They would back that up by taking sights on the stars and the sun and calculating their lat and long.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Yacht Sharing - the new trend among young boaters

An article in BoatUS magazine outlined rather nicely why Millennials participate in boating at similar rates to their parents, yet they're far less likely to actually own a boat. They are finding creative ways to get out on the water without breaking the bank. It seems to be the result of a larger societal shift in thinking away from ownership and toward minimalism. This could explain the rapid growth of boat sharing entities. Regardless of the reasons, it poses a challenge for all the clubs vying for a shrinking population of "boat owners." It calls for a change in thinking of who our members can be. If it's boating enthusiasts regardless of ownership, then all we have to do is change where we look for them and add a few basic benefits to the membership offerings.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The danger of slipways

We have been dropping boats into the water from trailers for a lifetime. We have two little boats right now that are forever being taken in and out of the sea. For years, I had a Hobie Cat that I trailered all over the east coast of the US. Typically, the car never came near the water. But in some places, where the slipway was gently sloping and more water was needed, the rear wheels sometimes came very close to or even entered the water. We have never really thought about the risk to the car and driver, until now. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Positive feedback

Today started out with this note from our friends Fred and Chris, who have just bought their dream cruising yacht, a catamaran called Sea Jay. They come from New York but they bought the boat in South Africa, and sailed her first to St. Helena. Not the typical first leg of a cruise. From St. Helena, they sent us this note:

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A death on the ocean

There are no roses on a sailor’s grave,
No lilies on an ocean wave.
The only tribute is the seagulls’ sweeps,
And the teardrops that a sweetheart weeps.
—German song

Another sailor has perished in the Clipper Around the World Ocean Race. Simon Speirs, a crew member on the yacht "Great Britain", was helping to change a sail at the bow of the 70-foot boat when he was knocked over the side in the Indian Ocean. He was clipped in and wearing a life jacket with AIS but somehow got separated from the yacht. He was recovered 36 minutes later but could not be revived. It will be important to learn why his tether did not keep him secured to the boat. Simon was buried at sea. RIP.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The rise of adventure yachting

I suppose it all started with yacht chartering. Being able to fly to the South Pacific and charter a yacht for a couple of weeks was adventurous at some point in time when it was first introduced. If you couldn't sail across oceans, you could at least explore the destinations.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Back to Galicia

Anchored in the Cies

In October, Alex and I had a chance to return to Galicia and go sailing for another week. We'd spent two months there in the Rias Baixas this summer.  The Ryanair flights from Dublin are only twice a week. We flew out on a Thursday morning and were on the boat before noon. It was a foggy, drizzly kind of day and we were wondering what to expect.

Nevertheless, we trudged up the hill from Punta Lagoa to town with our trusty cart and shopping bags to provision. The Froiz was open and the bakery still had one loaf of fresh bread. Yeah!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

European Congress of Nautical Tourism

Hosted by the Monte Real Club Nautico de Bayona
Baiona, 27-29 October 2017

In attendance on behalf of OCC:
Daria Blackwell, Rear Commodore
Alex Blackwell, Regional Rear Commodore, Ireland

Representatives from 24 yacht clubs and cruising associations from Britain, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Portugal and Spain took part in a 2½ day conference on cruising in Galicia, Spain. Several specialist media representatives also participated. Representatives from ten marina and service organisations were in attendance as were members of the regional tourism and harbour development authorities.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

ex-Hurricane Ophelia batters Ireland

Storm track predicted by NOAA NWS
Hurricane Ophelia, the 15th named storm of 2017 and the 10th consecutive Atlantic hurricane, devastates on the 30th anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987. Ophelia lost tropical storm status as it came ashore in Cork, but retained hurricane force winds. It has caused three known deaths and cut power to 260,000 homes and businesses.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

How will Climate Change affect sailing?

Hurricane Ophelia south of the Azores and heading to Ireland
As sailors, we are acutely attuned to wind, waves, and weather patterns. Our lives depend on it. As long-term sailors, we've been noticing the acceleration of changes in those patterns. I wrote about it first many years ago when sailing on Long Island Sound. I wrote about it again in 2011 after several crossings of the Atlantic.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Visiting the Parque Nacional Illas Atlánticas

Illas de Cies

We left the Finisterre region and sailed back southward toward the Rias Baixas. We had not yet visited the barrier islands but had secured our initial permission document before heading out of Ireland.

In the 1980s, Spain acquired several archipelagos of islands off the Atlantic coast and established a National Park to ‘preserve’ these islands. The Cortegada Archipelago is well inside the Ria de Arousa. The Salvora Archipelago is in the mouth of the Ria de Arousa. The Ons Archipelago protects the Ria de Pontevedra, and the Cíes Archipelago sits across mouth of the Ria de Vigo. These islands form natural barriers against the forces of the Atlantic, protecting the sealife and shores of the Rias Baixas. The archipelagos have waters so turquoise and sands so white that they evoke Caribbean beaches...until you put your foot in the water. Let's just say it's refeshing.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Ria de Corcubion

The ancient town of Corcubion

We had sailed down the Rias Baixas in mostly light northerly breezes. Now it was time to head back north to the Ria de Corcubion, our favourite destination in Spain when we visited in 2008. We wondered if our memories were serving us well. We wondered if anything had changed.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Ria de Vigo and Baiona

Vigo as seen from the Virgin of the Rock
Our last stop with the Irish Cruising club Rally was in the most impressive destination of Baiona (Bayona in Spanish). We were booked into the Monte Real Club de Yates in Bayona (MRCYB). The last time we tried to book in there, we were told it was not possible and were turned away rather gruffly. They begrudgingly let us leave our dinghy tied up on their property for a few hours.

This time was a very different story. We had heard that after the economic downturn, most of the yacht clubs had declining membership numbers and revenue, while having sunk significant monies into infrastructure. To survive, they had been forced to open their clubs to visitors. I must say, they did so with great welcome.  The staff were genuinely nice and accomodating. There were large signs around the place welcoming us and informing members that the Irish were coming! Many of the local members stayed away while we were there. We returned several weeks later with a friend who is a member and saw a whole different scene. The MRCYB members were back in force.