Loose objects can endanger both crew and yacht in rough weather. Checking your boat is secure before sea sailing should be a regular habit, says Andy du Port
We’ve all been there: we are sea sailing, the boat heels, something down below leaps out of its stowage and thumps to the deck.
It happened to us very recently when a cutlery drawer’s catch had not quite engaged.
Amazingly it landed the right way up – unlike a drawer in a previous boat many years ago which did the same trick.
That time, it was my bits-and-pieces drawer and the cabin sole was awash with screws, nuts, bolts, and assorted rigging parts.
It took my patient wife Kate ages to clear up while I got the boat back under control.
Many large ships have experienced shifting cargo, and in most cases order has been restored without drama. In severe cases ships have capsized and lives have been lost.
In a yacht, a few loose items flying about may not put the boat or her crew in much danger, but what if something finds its way under the floorboards and blocks the bilge pump?
Or if the stew which is bubbling on the stove ends up on the sole making things dangerously slippery, or worse, causing a serious burn?
As demonstrated in the learnings from the 1979 Fastnet disaster, in very heavy weather or a knockdown, objects flying around the cabin can smash windows, damage critical systems or cause serious injury.
The bottom line is that inadequate preparations before you sail offshore can have nasty consequences.
Making sure that everything is in its place and well secured is just one of the checks which need to be carried out before setting sail but there are plenty of others.
Overlook them, and one day you will regret it: drawers can fly open, and liferafts can jump ship (or, in my case, dinghies can go AWOL, but that’s another story).
I will take you on a quick ‘tour’ of my boat, a Hallberg-Rassy 34, as I check that all is ready before setting off for a day’s sea sailing.
Not everything will be applicable to your boat, nor will you need to conduct such a thorough inspection every time you set sail.
An article such as this cannot hope to cover every aspect of preparing for sea; you know your own boat and can probably spot something out of place without thinking, but what follows might help you avoid an unpleasant mess or, at worst, a catastrophe.
It might also identify modifications you need to make to ensure a locker closes properly or the binoculars can’t go flying.
As usual with sailing, there is no substitute for common sense, experience and a healthy respect for the elements.
There is a check-off list at the end.
Sea sailing: Securing below decks
Try to allocate a specific stowage for everything, and get rid of accumulated junk which serves no good purpose.
Starting in the forecabin, we’ll work our way aft:
A tidy cabin is half way to success. We sleep forward, so this is where the bedding and most of our clothes are stored.
Duvets (or sleeping bags) and pillows will usually stay put, even in quite lively weather. Similarly, clothes on the bunks are unlikely to move.
The only access to the bilge in the forecabin is for the log and echo sounder transducer, so if the deck is clear, there is not much to worry about.
While here, we could take the opportunity to check for leaks, raise the log and give it a clean. I know some skippers who check the log every time before they get underway.
Personally, I leave it until there seems to be a problem, or once every week or so, whichever is earlier.
Before moving aft, are all the lockers and cupboards properly closed, and is the fore hatch firmly shut?
The saloon tends to be a magnet for bits and pieces, so a good tidy up will pay dividends.
The fluxgate compass, which provides heading data for the instruments and autopilot, is in a locker immediately aft of the mast support, and there is a notice warning of the dangers of magnetic material in or near that locker.
It’s important to check. We avoid leaving laptops, tablets, cameras and other boat electronics in the immediate area.
Anything on the table will almost certainly jump off at some time, so needs putting away.
In the table there is a bottle stowage, so we use cloths or kitchen towel to prevent irritating rattles.
Are all the lockers closed and secure, and are the holdbacks in place for the bookshelves?
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In one of our lockers we stow the wine glasses. They are held, upside down, by ‘drawer organisers’ which are designed to keep your socks and other small items in order at home; they are ideal for the glasses on board.
There are two fire extinguishers in the saloon, one under the table and one on the side of the chart table. In passing, we’ll see if they are in date and fully charged (they both have pressure gauges).
Shoes on the deck? They are an obvious trip hazard and need to be put away. Looking up, is the hatch secured?
Also check any other opening windows or ports. An access hatch to the deep part of the bilge is in the saloon under the table.
It contains two bilge pump strum boxes, one electric, one manual.
Check for water – there shouldn’t be any – and be particularly aware of things which could find their way into the bilge and cause blockages.
The galley is likely to be used at sea, even on quite short passages, so let’s make sure that we start with the work surfaces clear, the sink empty (do the washing up before leaving), and anything on the stove top is firmly held by the pan holders.
Are there any baking trays in the oven? Can they move and is the door locked? Is the stove free to swing on its gimbals?
Although not a regular pre-sailing check, it’s as well to know where the tea, coffee, milk, snacks etc are stowed.
You really don’t want to be searching around for them as the boat bounces about in a lively sea.
In the fridge, is the milk and any other food/drink which you may need readily accessible?
Our fridge is quite small but deep, meaning that getting at something near the bottom usually entails digging out most of the contents to find what you want while standing on your head.
Our chart table has good size fiddles which prevent charts and books from sliding off.
Even so, I’ll put away anything which I don’t need. All instruments – dividers, pencils etc – are in a purpose-made holder.
It is an inviting place to put coffee mugs, sunglasses, cast-off clothing and other loose items. Discourage your crew from doing so!
[Navigator of a frigate: ‘Who’s left their coffee on my chart table?’ When told that it was the visiting Admiral’s, he changed his tune: ‘Who has left a chart on the Admiral’s coffee table?’]
The predominant risk here is flooding. Is the bowl empty and is the inlet valve in the closed position?
Our heads basin doesn’t fill with water when well heeled, but some definitely do.
In most yachts, the checks in here would be much the same as in the fore cabin. However, ours is now a ‘shed’.
The bunk cushions have been taken ashore, and the cabin is now home for bikes, a couple of large fenders, shore power cables and various boxes of spare parts, cleaning gear etc.
It still needs securing for sea sailing.
The hatch to the back of the engine and the heads inlet seacock is in here, so I’ll check that nothing will prevent me getting access if necessary.
The main batteries are under the after bunk.
I know they are well secured in a purpose made vented box with a screw down lid, so I won’t check.
Do you have the same set up?
And that completes our short tour of the boat below decks.
Having owned her for more than 15 years, it doesn’t take long – but we still make time to do it.
In passing, this is a good time to check the engine: oil level, salt water strainer, alternator belt and a general ‘hose down with a torch’ to check for any leaks of fuel, oil or water that may have occurred.
Secure for sea checklist
- Miscellaneous gear: Action: Stowed away and secure
- Bilges: Action: Dry and clean
- Lockers and cupboards: Action: Shut and contents secure
- Hatches/windows: Action: Fully closed and clips on
- Bookshelves: Action: Holdbacks in place
- Saloon table: Action: Clear of loose items
- Fluxgate compass (if fitted): Action: No ferrous or electronic items nearby
- Fire extinguishers: Action: In date, fully charged and secure
- Cabin sole(s): Action: No loose gear – trip hazard
- Galley area: Action: Everything stowed but suitable food/drinks easily available
- Stove: Action: Free to swing, oven door locked n Kettle secure in fiddles
- Fridge: Action: Neatly packed; milk etc on top
- Chart table: Action: Only one chart at a time; Instruments etc in holders
- Heads: Action: Bowl empty
- Seacocks: Action: Shut if risk of flooding when heeled
- Anchor: Action: Needs to be ready to deploy if needed; Fully secure, not able to move
- Cable locker: Action: Cable wedged to prevent rattles; Lid clipped shut
- Standing rigging: Action: Clevis pins; Look up mast
- Running rigging: Action: Check for wear and tear/chafing; Ready for use
- Mainsail: Action: Cover removed; Halyard attached; Reefing lines untangled
- Winches: Action: Spin freely
- Dinghy: Action: Stowed (if not towing)
- Liferaft: Action: Ready for deployment
- Fenders: Action: Prepared for leaving
- Mooring lines: Action: Rigged as slips
- Sprayhood: Action: Lowered
- MOB gear: Action: Ready for deployment
- Light(s): Action: Check working
- Flags: Action: Ensign and burgee
- Engine: Action: Daily checks
- Navigational plan: Action: Drawn up if appropriate
- Electronics/instruments: Action: Turn on and check working correctly
- VHF radio: Action: Turn on and select relevant channels
- Binoculars: Action: Readily to hand and secure
- Emergency kit (PLB, VHF etc): Action: To hand and secure
- Hand-bearing compass: Action: Readily to hand
- Fuel, water and food: Action: Sufficient for trip, plus ample reserve
- Nav lights: Action: Checked if night sailing
- Crew: Action: Briefed and suitably clothed; Seasick pills/sunblock