Hell or High Water
The Volvo Ocean race—an around-the-world sailing competition that pushes sailor and vessel to the brink—can teach powerboaters a thing or two about staying safe at sea.
When I say there’s something powerboaters can learn from sailors, let me make one thing abundantly clear: I’m not talking about the day sailor hogging the middle of the channel with a trail of exhaust water spurting from his boat’s stern. I’m talking about the men and women competing in perhaps the sport’s most grueling event, the Volvo Ocean Race, a trial of speed that takes 76 sailors to five continents, and through four oceans for an average total of 38,739 miles.
Over the course of those ocean miles, each crew must overcome severe storms and seas that dump sickening levels of water into their open cockpits, forcing them to grip—white knuckled—with scarred and chalky hands to anything within reach. The lightweight boats shudder and shake with each wave they shoulder through. Boats and bodies are pushed to the breaking point—and sometimes beyond.
While enjoying a brief moment of calm during a Newport, Rhode Island, stopover, U.S.-based team Alvimedica sat together and reflected upon the first half of the race they’d just completed and the second half looming on the horizon. Lounging on the second floor of the team headquarters, with a view of a bustling race village below is team general manager and watch captain, Mark Towill, 25. Dressed in a full-zip black team jacket and sandals, sporting a broad build, he more closely resembles a professional baseball player than the Jimmy Buffett lookalike that most people envision when they picture a sailor. Fatigue from life at sea is written on his face, yet when asked what he thinks the most important aspect of staying safe at sea is, he answers without hesitation: “Pre-trip prep.”
“Whether you’re going cruising or gearing up for a race, the most important thing from a safety perspective is preparation. We go through the boat thoroughly at every stop,” explains Towill. “And when we’re on the water we routinely inspect all the systems in order of importance.” For team Alvimedica that means not just sailing gear like the mast and steering systems, but the watermaker and engine (not for propulsion but for battery charging), which are of utmost importance on longer legs.
“Because those are so crucial, we have a very stringent maintenance schedule. We change out the [watermaker] filters every couple days and when changing the filters the whole system gets inspected,” says Towill, who believes it’s prudent for cruising powerboaters to adopt similar schedules for inspecting deck fittings, engine-room hoses, filters, and so on.
What type of man-overboard training does team Alvimedica do?
We talk about MOB prevention at every stop. We have quite a lot of safety equipment aboard but your equipment is only as good as your ability to use it in the right situations. We have two life rafts; we have two Jonbuoys, horse rings, MOB lines, personal Kannad AIS units, which are in my opinion the single most effective thing. What will save you at the end of the day is the boat being able to get back to you, and that’s the job of the AIS. We also have a MOB plan printed out and taped to a bulkhead, which is discussed at every stop, and it’s something we take very seriously. —Mark Towill, Alvimedica Watch Captain
“Having redundancies onboard is absolutely critical. You need to plan for failures. I always have a backup GPS that is up and running. One time, a sail ripped our antenna off so I had to switch to my backup, an easy task since it was already running.”
”Plan for an absolute meltdown. There’s a reason why I carry paper charts, a sextant, and an iPad mini with all of the charts I’m going to need. I also have a small Bluetooth GPS, which runs with a cigarette lighter charger. I’ve faced such meltdowns before when I had to use my iPad. I do manual log entires too, which gives me a DR to work from. As I write in my manual log, that’s when I check my various electronic systems. I also have a checklist next to the nav station of things to check, just like a pilot.” —Will Oxley, Alvimedica Navigator
Another schedule of critical importance that is much more difficult for the Alvimedica crew to achieve, is their sleeping time. Sail changes happen day and night and often require all hands regardless of whether a crew member has just dozed off or not. Nevertheless, though, in the rarely perfect world of offshore racing, the team tries to stick to a regular 4-hour-on-4-hour-off watch schedule.
“Despite the fact that we might be woken up four or five times a night, or not sleep for 12 hours, we try to closely monitor the energy level of the group,” says Towill. “Think of it like a gas tank. Every time you change a sail you’re bleeding the fuel tank. There are times when we need to throttle back in order to give guys proper rest.”
Towill goes on to explain how important it is for not just watch captains, but all skippers to have their fingers on the pulse of their crews.“Especially when doing deliveries where you’re coming and going from unfamiliar places,” he says, “sleep deprivation can significantly impair your decision-making ability. And that comes back to your preparation. Being generally familiar with the area, and the weather there, and having the right charts, making sure your systems are sound. You need to take away all those variables that could become an issue when you’re tired.”
Yet another aspect of the energy equation for both sailors and power boaters is nutrition. Who among us hasn’t been on a trip where conditions got uncomfortable and, rather than risk opening the fridge and unleashing a tsunami of condiments, decided to make do with chips, candy, or other assorted treats and felt sluggish afterwards? The Volvo crew knows this danger all too well, which is one reason why they carry freeze-dried meals aboard for quick, high-nutrient eating.
“When you’re at sea for as long as we are you begin to view food differently. It becomes your fuel. You don’t sit down and eat freeze-dried because you enjoy it,” says Towill with a look of disdain. “It’s fuel, so you shovel it down.”
MREs and freeze-dried meals may be a tasteless and extreme option for a weekend excursion but delivery captains will be the first to tell you that having microwave-ready meals at the ready can make or break a longer cruise. A thermos of coffee or soup is also a smart thing to have at your side.
The lesson here is a simple one. To be a successful at sea, whether you’re trading tacks with another nation’s crew for racing glory, or bringing your boat up the coast with a friend, preparedness is key. Getting adequate rest and nutrition, conducting regular equipment inspections, and knowing what to do when someone falls overboard (see “Overboard!” at right) might never earn you a big corporate sponsorship, but keeping yourself and your crew safe is a victory that is no less rewarding.
By the end of the 40,000 mile journey there can be only one winner, an honor earned by the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team. Team Avlimedica finished fifth. But as we all know, finishing with a healthy crew and sound vessel is a testament to proper preparation.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.