Offshore Sailing Tips

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What do I need to know about sail charts when offshore sailing?

Plotting a Course When Sea Sailing

Maybe you've mastered the art and science of plotting the course of your boat along a coastline. This takes a great amount of skill as you have to maneuver your boat according to rocky areas, the ebb and flow of the tide, and other navigational hazards. But, plotting an offshore boat when sea sailing also requires its own set of skill development. Many people new to ocean sailing want to rely heavily on their GPS Navigation Systems (GPS). But, remember that GPS systems have potential faults that can contribute to you getting lost at sea: they can fail and they do not give you the same road map of the sea that a sailing chart can. Here are some tips and terms you should master when sailing an ocean yacht or other sailboat:

*If the distance between two points is longer than the spread of your dividers, spread them along the edge of the chart in a workable number of miles (or minutes of latitude). If you use five miles to the tip, lay one tip on your starting point while the other rests along a spot five miles down the course. Then 'walk' the dividers along the course at five mile intervals and take the last measurement (which will not be exactly five miles). If you need only a rough estimation, you can use your hands after you have determined the spread between two fingers. Be careful using this technique; when ocean sailing, it is always better to be more than less exact if you can.

*While GPS systems will give you a location where satellites think you are, radar will pinpoint your accuracy completely, including if you are close to other vessels and any misjudged shorelines. These devices are much more expensive than most GPS systems but, if you plan to do sea sailing, you should spend the money. A radar antenna utilizes microwave energy. For each degree of rotation, the antenna sends and receives as much as 30 bits of information about the area. Radar has the ability to measure the relative angle of objects from the boat's head and the distance away.

*Even when you are offshore sailing, it's likely you'll want to come ashore at some point to explore and take a rest. Using a depth sounder or echo sounder can help you approach a lighthouse, marking the way to a harbor. You can use chart depths to intersect a bearing line and give yourself a fix. If you approach a coastline from offshore sailing, set up a bearing on a fixed object--such as the lighthouse--at the same time monitoring your depth. Notice the point at which it crosses a given depth--called a fathom curve. Then use proper depth monitoring techniques to get a bearing and plot the line, get the fix and label it with time.

How do I stop a boat when sea sailing?

Stopping Your Sailboat When Ocean Sailing

Some of the best sailing navigation equipment out there is designed to help you predict possible difficulties when offshore sailing. But, sometimes circumstances occur that forces you to stop your boat at sea without much warning. These circumstances can include high wind, rough seas or a storm. If you do much ocean sailing, sooner or later you're likely to hit a storm so you should be ready for it.

One device that can help is a drogue. This device is towed at the stern of a boat with the intention of slowing, not stopping, its progress. In difficult sea sailing conditions, a drogue can reduce the forward speed of a boat, especially when it is threatening to broach or trip end over end. The lines where a drogue is secured will take a tremendous amount of force if you choose to deploy it, so pay careful attention when installing it. Double-check the manufacturer's guidelines.

Another device you can deploy in such a situation is a sea anchor. This is actually a parachute-like device that will deploy and nearly stop the boat--even head to waves and wind. As such, it is used in more extreme conditions. If you plan to do offshore sailing, you should know how to use a sea anchor. A sea anchor is made of fabric and deployed off the bow. Sea anchors utilize a swivel so they can maneuver without breaking a line.

If you are trained as a day sailor and you want to get experience sea sailing, you should spend a great deal of time with an expert learning and understanding how to use these devices and other techniques designed to help you manage ocean sailing. Be aware that some debate exists in most sailing communities about these devices and procedures. So, you may want to ask more than one expert and compare answers. You may also find more information online or at your local library.

How do I execute a heave-to while sea sailing?

During Ocean Sailing Heave-to to Take a Break

If you are just beginning to master sailing an offshore boat, you've probably heard of a heave-to. This sailing technique allows you to carry a minimum of sail power so the boat can steer itself while you take a break from the rigors of sailing. While you are ocean sailing, you are likely to hit storms and a heave-to is one of the best ways to ride them out, especially if you have a relatively small crew. A heave-to also allows you to rest and take stock of a situation so you can better plan to handle it; it's also a great way to get a break from steering and line-handling, so if you notice that you or your crew need a break, you can execute a heave-to while sea sailing.

When you execute a heave-to, you adjust the sails and rudder in a way allows the boat to crawl sideways. First, trim in the mainsail tight and cleat it. Then, back the jib to the windward side and cleat it. That way you can maintain an equilibrium between the mainsail forcing the wind forward and the jib forcing the boat back. You can then tie the tiller or wheel in the best place to maintain this equilibrium. With the rudder pushed hard to starboard and the jib backed, the boat will actually be in a secure position but will make little headway in a 'scalloping' sail through the water.

Once you master a heave-to you will be surprised how much you use it to enjoy ocean sailing as you can sit back and enjoy the view, grab a bottle of water, or play a round of cards with your crew.

What happens if I accidentally run my offshore sailboat into land?

When a Sailboat Runs Aground

If you are offshore sailing or cruising, your goal is to get away from land. But, even if you have a good plan and plotting chart, your boat can still run ashore. You might misjudge the wind or depth when passing a small island. You might try docking for the evening and calculate wrong. Even though you set out to sail offshore, you should know how to deal with running ashore. Some experts even say that this mistake happens to all sailors at least once. Even the best navigators eventually run into land. As a sailor, the two goals you have when this happens are: get off quickly and minimize damage to your sailboat.

After running ashore, you and your crew should first check for leaks and broken gear. Then, try to determine your location using all methods you can, including depth soundings (with a spinnaker pole or a lead line off the bow, stern or both.) Look at the state of the current wind or waves. How will they affect your recovery? On smaller boats, raising the center board and rudder may set you free. However, you may have to paddle to deeper water where you can lower the board and begin to sail again.

In larger boats with a keel, you can try using the engine if you have one. You will have to power out slowly in reverse. If it doesn't work, abandon this tactic immediately or your may do serious damage. You should be keenly aware of the boat's under-water profile. Send the crew to the opposite of where you are deepest. That might offer enough lift to get free. Putting extra weight on the boom may help tip the boat opposite the stuck position on the shore. You can also try rocking the boat from side to side. If you have a low tide, you must work especially quickly.

How can wind affect my offshore sailing trip?

Offshore Sailing and the Wind

One of the major forces affecting sea sailing is wind. You may think you have a mastery of sailing, but if you don't understand all the different ways that wind affects your offshore sailboat you may find your self lost at sea and wondering why. Here are some tips for watching and managing wind while you are offshore sailing:

  • When air is heated it becomes less dense and rises. As cooler air replaces it, wind is created. While land is heated fast, the sea changes temperature very slowly. By looking at the water surface, you can tell a lot about the presence of wind. While ripples mean that wind is present, don't confuse them with current. Bigger waves may indicate the approach of stronger gusts of wind. Racers have learned to look for dark patches in the water and can therefore predict how that approaching wind will affect a sailboat.
  • To learn more about the wind when offshore sailing, study other boats in the distance. Watch the direction of their heel (tipping in the wind). This can tell you what a wind will be like when it reaches you. Also, watch for changes in that wind. When sea sailing, the wind can change rapidly.
  • Winds caused by fast-changing weather systems are especially important when offshore sailing. Wind blows clockwise around a high-pressure system. It blows counter-clockwise around a low pressure system. When determining the way in which a system will affect your offshore sailboat, imagine your boat moving through it rather than thinking about how it will move past your position.
  • Pay attention to gradient winds as you get closer to shore. These local and geographic influences can upset any wind pattern you have noticed. The closer the lines of equal pressure are together, the stronger the gradient wind will be.

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