For thousands of years, sailors have ventured out onto the open oceans. Many have been lost over the millennia.
Many sailors venture into the oceans, sometimes solo or with their families, and are rewarded with unparalleled experiences. So while it is foolish to ignore the risks, they can be addressed to ensure as safe a passage as possible.
But times have changed: now, there is a lot of support and better technology. So, is it still dangerous?
Here’s How Dangerous Sailing in the Ocean is:
Sailing in the ocean can be very dangerous. Adverse weather, uncharted reefs, derelict vessels or other floating hazards, and, in some areas, piracy are all potentially dangerous encounters. Being prepared and experienced minimizes these risks.
How Much Training Do you Need to Sail the Big Oceans?
There is some debate on just how much training you need to sail offshore.
On the one hand, there are several courses from very experienced sailors to train and prepare you for what you will experience and how to handle your boat in ocean conditions.
On the other, there is simply no way to prepare for bluewater conditions until you experience them adequately. This is not to belittle the various courses offered by organizations and individuals but to point out that there is no substitute for hands-on experience.
Of course, the most important skills are the ability to sail your boat. If you do not know how to handle your sailboat, you will not operate it on the high seas.
U.S. Sailing offers several “safety at sea” courses. If you want to get your International Offshore Safety At Sea Certificate, you will need a minimum of two full days off hands-on training through an approved instructor or school.
This does not teach you other valuable skills such as navigation and anchoring. Most schools that teach you the comprehensive skills that you will want to sail in the ocean for extended periods run about 9-12 days of intense on-the-water instruction.
Some are accredited by organizations such as The American Sailing Association or the Royal Yachting Association, but many are private and unconcerned with an “official” certification.
You will need to do your research to decide which route to go here, as these options are legitimate. But if you will be chartering a boat to go offshore, most companies that offer boats for such endeavors do require official certifications. Chartering is unnecessary if you take your boat, though you may find such certifications helpful in dealing with authorities in some ports.
Beyond this training and education, it might be helpful to go on or charter a boat for a short cruise across bluewater, as well.
Either island-hopping in the Caribbean, a Pacific island chain, or a coastal cruise will help your confidence and prepare you for bigger challenges.
What Precautions Should you Take Before Sailing the Oceans?
The most obvious precautions for an offshore trip, beyond your training and knowledge, is the state of your boat and equipment:
Boat & Equipment:
Your boat and your equipment must be in proper shape and repair. The mast and stays need to be inspected for any signs of weakness.
There are many simple tests to assure they are strong, like dye tests that will reveal faults in shrouds. The hull needs to be inspected for any cracks or other flaws. The rudder needs to be examined and assured it is working without any inhibition.
The sails need to be inspected, and any repairs needed should be done before you leave. Having some backup sails, even used, is a good idea if you are away on an extended trip.
Engine, Electronics, & Navigation:
Your engine should be in good repair, as you are bound to rely on it at some point.
All electronics like navigation and lights and the attendant batteries should be inspected, and the mechanical and water systems.
You should have a way to charge your batteries, either from running the engine or solar panels.
Safety Equipment, Food & Water:
Safety equipment such as life jackets, foul weather gear, and an EPIRB (in case of total disaster) should be accounted for.
After all of your equipment has been readied, you must ensure that you are properly supplied. Furthermore, food and water are obvious necessities.
You can supplement your food with fish on your trip if you have the skills and equipment, but it is best to be prepared for long stretches without being able to fish, just in case. You do not want to be caught without any food.
Similarly, having a way to create freshwater may be a good idea. Many offshore sailors who are on extended voyages have desalination units.
What is a Good Route for Beginners?
This is a bit difficult to answer, as it depends on your location in the world and your desired destination.
In general, it is good to keep in mind that the closer you sail to the equator, the more favorable the sailing conditions will be. Specifically, consistent winds that are less prone to growing into a storm.
However, this is just a generalization, as dead air or storms can happen anywhere.
Different Ocean Requirements:
The Atlantic generally features rougher conditions than the Pacific.
The Southern Ocean, though, is one of the roughest places on Earth, with stretches such as the Roaring Forties that no beginner would be likely to survive.
There are also places like the Gulf of Aden, parts of the Indian Ocean, and a few places in the Caribbean like Margarita Island that you should avoid.
If you are going to cross the Atlantic as a beginning ocean sailor, it is best to go from Europe to the Americas, near the equator, as this will allow you to take advantage of the trade winds.
Taking this route will let you make landfall first in the Canary Islands and then later in the Caribbean islands, and then you can take the relatively tame route to Florida from there.
This is a fairly well-traveled route by both commercial ships and pleasure cruisers. Should you experience a maritime disaster, the chances are good that a nearby ship or yacht may be able to render aid.
If you are looking to sail in the Pacific Ocean as a beginner, the best route to take is probably what is known as “The Milk Run.”
This route goes west from the Americas, usually originating around the Panama Canal, though you can technically begin it from most ports in the U.S. and Mexico.
It runs from there to the Galapagos Islands and continues through the Marquesas until Tahiti. This route covers a lot of open ocean, but you will get the advantage of the Southeast Trade winds, which generally blow westward.
Again, this is a popular route, despite its being the most open ocean, and many boaters take it, new and experienced alike. Should you experience major problems, there may be aid not too far over the horizon.
What is the Safest Time of the Year to Sail the Big Oceans?
If you take the route across the Atlantic ocean from Europe to the Caribbean, the best time to sail is between November and February.
The Mid-Atlantic trade winds are steadily blowing from East to West. That time frame is also outside of hurricane season, which poses a significant risk to boaters of any skill level.
Conversely, while the trade winds in the Pacific tend to stabilize later in the year, most sailors making that passage will depart between February and June.
As the distances in the Pacific are greater than the Atlantic, this gives the greatest amount of time to reach your destination(s) before the winter cyclone season makes travel across the Pacific much riskier.
How Do you Prepare for Off-Shore Sailing Trips?
We’ve talked about the physical preparations you need before setting off into the vast ocean. Let’s look at what else you need to do to prepare.
The most obvious is to educate yourself from the experiences of others. There is a ton of information available to you, in both traditional books and the internet.
Hundreds of blogs are written by sailors making long voyages and maintained in real-time to give you plenty of real-world advice. There are also blogs from those who have completed such journeys, documenting their experiences.
The value of these resources cannot be understated. They have learned the hard way; you can benefit by understanding the everyday challenges of ocean passages and the many unexpected situations that can arise that these sailors have lived through.
You must also be aware of dangerous areas, both natural and man-made. As mentioned above, piracy is a threat to pleasure sailors in several world areas, and severe weather like the Southern Ocean or North Atlantic can pose an even greater, more constant danger.
Finally, you should be aware of paperwork to visit certain places.
Not every port will welcome a sailor coming in out of the storm. Many nations require outbound clearance papers to enter their country by boat. For example, these are not generally issued to vessels departing United States waters.
There is no getting around that ocean sailing for a beginner, and even an experienced hand, is a tremendous challenge. It can be extremely dangerous.
But it is also a unique and rewarding event that can be without parallel in your life.
By being prepared and minimizing potential risks, you will succeed. After all, thousands of sailors make passages across the ocean every day!