Will Bruton finds out what coastal cruisers should consider before taking their small yacht on an offshore adventure
Offshore sailing does not have to mean crossing the Atlantic. Whether it is heading across Biscay, voyaging south to the Azores, or heading north to Norway and Iceland, leaving the coast behind can be the adventure of a lifetime for most coastal cruising sailors.
So what size yacht can you safely take offshore, or even across an ocean in? Yachts are getting bigger, both in waterline length and beam, but has something been lost on the never-ending search for more internal volume? And, fundamentally, what is possible in the boat you already own?
Yachting Monthly asked professional delivery skipper Pete Green for his top priorities for taking a boat offshore.
Key factors to consider:
‘I once delivered an Oysterman 22 and thought I’d be happy to cross the Atlantic in it. The characteristics of the yacht are more important to me than size.
Some of the larger new yachts are being designed in such a way that they would be very uncomfortable in large seas. Yacht design has changed and the heavy long keelers of years gone by are now few and far between.
‘A few years ago we delivered a Vancouver 34 from the Caribbean to the UK. Seaworthy and seakindly, she was in her element in open water.
The winds were typically changeable and as the anti-cyclones tracked across, the sea state also became very confused.
The maximum experienced wind on this trip was gusting 35 knots with a sea state of approximately 4-5m. At no point did she feel over-burdened by the conditions and there was no damage or even noticeable wear and tear.
The crew were comfortable, the yacht was dry and stable throughout. She felt like she had been built for it.
‘In comparison, we recently delivered a Beneteau 31 from the UK to the Med. Though perfectly capable of the journey, we had to be much more careful with the conditions we sailed in.’
‘Storage can be a real issue with smaller yachts. They are designed to maximise living space and to that end, stowage space can be compromised.
It’s not a problem if you’re day sailing, but when planning an offshore or ocean passage, you need to think about any additional equipment including storm sails, a sea anchor, additional engine spares and tools, an EPIRB, an offshore liferaft and flares, a satellite phone or SSB radio, extra drinking water, food and extra fuel. The list goes on, but the cockpit lockers do not so you will have to be very selective over what you take and how much spare water or fuel you need.’
‘Consider your energy needs and look into wind generators and solar panels to keep things topped up. Installing a wind vane rather than relying on an autohelm can also help.
‘Plan in advance your storm tactics and make sure everyone on board is as well trained as possible. Most of us are able to sail huge distances without experiencing terrible weather – but you need to be ready and capable of handling it if it catches you out.
In general, a well-maintained small yacht will be able to cope with more than we can so plan well and stay safe.’
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Are you ready to sail offshore?
Choosing the boat
Size: Waterline length is a poor indictor of suitability for bluewater sailing in terms of how well the boat will sail, but spending weeks, perhaps months, on board means it’s important to determine how much space you and your crew actually need.
Comfort vs speed: Fast and light designs can capitalise much better on light airs and run away from approaching foul weather more easily, but if you do get caught, a heavier-built yacht is likely to have a much more comfortable motion in a heavy seastate.
Do you need a different boat? While sailors may aspire to a new bluewater cruiser, most modern yachts are capable of sailing offshore. Learning how your yacht performs in different conditions over time will help you plan a long passage that builds in consideration of what she is capable of.
Equipping the boat
Power: If you’re under sail, you are reliant on your batteries, so calculate the equation of battery capacity, power consumption and generation. How much power do you realistically draw with all your usual systems running?
Add up what everything draws. Then factor in what your solar panels, wind generator or alternator can provide in 24 hours.
Look for ways to reduce consumption before adding capacity or over-complication.
Self steering: Being able to leave the helm is essential on any long passage unless you have at least three crew.
Mechanical systems have proven themselves to be the go-to solution for boats with less battery capacity and, in fact, cope in conditions many electronic autopilots cannot handle.
A day spent tuning self-steering gear and getting used to it before setting off on a bluewater passage will be time very well spent.
Safety equipment: All the usual safety equipment needs to be carried on a small yacht, but stowage is often more of a challenge; ensure you are not tempted to stash more bulky safety equipment where it would be hard to reach in an emergency.
Weight: Extra weight means more to stow, a slower boat and heavier loads on the rig.
Small boat sailors can quickly find their yachts laden with too much and performance will rapidly diminish if overloaded.
Be ruthless on weight and keep heavier kit at the bottom of the boat and along the centerline.
Sailing the boat
Crew: Small boat sailors tend to be restricted in how many crew they can comfortably take with them. Consider carefully how you will manage watch systems and living together aboard.
Even on a small yacht, a team of three can usually rotate through a watch system quite comfortably; more can be a challenge.
Heavy weather strategy: Small boat sailors, particularly those in slower yachts, must consider carefully their heavy weather strategy.
How quickly can you put distance between you and foul weather? What is your setup for riding it out if you do get caught?
Fuel: What is your policy on motoring and how much fuel will you carry? Are you dependent on the engine for battery charging? Does motoring form part of your heavy weather strategy? If so, what will you keep in reserve as an absolute minimum to get ahead of a dangerous front?
Food: Fridge and freezer meals, or tins and pasta? Even the most efficient fridge or freezer will have a significant drain on your battery bank on a small yacht. Can you do without it completely? Some fresh goods last a long time, and fish can provide variety, but you may not want to forgo a halfway steak.
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