Having crossed the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Oceans on various sailing vessels as part of a delivery crew, this is a question I get asked many times, but is sailing in the ocean really dangerous?
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Is Sailing In The Ocean Dangerous?
Sailing is classified as an extreme sport, and just like any extreme sport, there are risks.
Sailing in the ocean can be dangerous; however, sailors can mitigate these risks with proper experience and a cool head.
The U.S. Coast Guard recently released its 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics Report, revealing 767 boating fatalities nationwide in 2020. However, according to Statista.com, the number of participants in recreational sailing in the US in 2019 was just under 4 million (3.62m).
Considering that sailing forms a small minority in recreational boating, the number of fatalities is minimal.
Still, any death can be seen as a tragedy, so the best practice is to know the basic rules, know your boat and have the utmost respect for the sea.
How Many Experiences Do You Need To Sail The Oceans?
We all have to start somewhere, and some people have successfully sailed oceans with very little or next to no experience at all!
On my first crossing in the Atlantic, the only experience I had was sailing in the bay and a Competent Crew Certificate under my belt. While everything possible went wrong on that trip, from bad weather to steering failure, plus an engine fire on-board, I had nothing to compare it with and guessed all the problems were part of a normal ocean crossing!
Perhaps, if I’d had more experience, I would have an ‘abandoned ship’ at first sight of landfall instead of pursuing my dream and finishing the trip and going on to do many more.
However, there are a high amount of accidents on boats. These are generally caused by the person in charge not knowing or not following the basic boating rules and guidelines. Safety at sea should always be the number 1 priority.
While I had minimal experience on my first crossing, I still had the basics. Plus, the captain of the boat was very experienced.
So, if you are new to ocean sailing, it is recommended that you attend some boat safety courses so that you are familiar with things like right of way, navigation, weather forecasts, and how to use your safety equipment.
In some countries, a sailing qualification is compulsory to operate in their waters. So, it is always best to check what, and if a qualification is needed within your own country or state, plus in any countries, you are planning to visit.
If you decide to do a sailing course, your local Sailing Association should recommend the right course for you.
Are The Pacific And The Atlantic Oceans Equally Dangerous To Sail?
Any ocean can be dangerous to sail, including the Indian Ocean.
The myth that one ocean or the other is more dangerous to sail is just that, a myth. So we can say yes, the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans are equally dangerous to sail.
Each ocean, whether it be the Atlantic or the Pacific have their correct season to sail. Plus, as each ocean is so big, the right season differs from North to South.
For example, the North Atlantic in winter (October – March) is really not a place you want to be on a sailboat due to the severity of the winter storms.
This is the perfect time to cross from Africa or the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, as the summer months (typically June to November) bring hurricanes.
The same can be said for planning your route. Often, traveling from East to West is a much easier journey as you can pick up the warm tradewinds and have that perfect crossing that every sailor dreams about.
Crossing from West to East often means sailing in higher latitudes to pick up westerly winds.
This helps avoid beating or sailing against the easterly tradewinds, but you may encounter more serious bad weather.
Good planning for sailing oceans means everything.
How Do You Prepare Yourself To Sail The Oceans?
Preparing yourself to sail the oceans is an excellent question and one with the same but different answers.
Everyone will tell you to be prepared, but how everyone prepares is different.
Personally, I like to prepare by having different checklists; one for the boat, one for the provisioning, and one for myself:
The Boat Checklist
preparing your boat for ocean sailing is the most important task and may take a few months or even a few years.
The boat checklist should include everything from your mast and rigging, the engine below the waterline, including the rudder, steering system, and through-hull fittings. Don’t forget your batteries, charging system, electronics, safety gear, and a substantial first aid kit.
Plus, don’t forget to carry spare parts for everything, as you can be damn sure that the one spare part you need is the one part you don’t carry.
This should include food, water, fuel, and gas (for cooking), enough for a few days more than the planned trip.
A crossing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean takes approximately 3 weeks. However, sailing is not an exact science, and this passage can take anywhere between 20 – 28 days, depending on the wind and weather.
So always take more food, water, fuel, and gas than you need.
For personal gear, every crew member should have essentials like a good set of foul weather gear, a warm mid-layer, and thermal underwear.
In addition, every crew member should have a warm hat, a sunshade hat or cap, a good pair of offshore shoes, a good pair of sailing boots, socks, plenty of sunscreens, toiletries, and any personal medication.
Each crew member should also have a head torch and lots and lots of spare batteries.
Plus, what are you going to do on the boat if you are on a long passage? Make sure you take notebooks, pens, music, and plenty of books!
Do People Take Specific Sailing Courses Before Entering The Oceans?
Many people are sailing oceans or even around the world without ever having attended a specific sailing course.
However, it is mandatory to have someone on board who carries a Ship Radio License to operate the sailboat’s VHF radio legally.
Other recommended courses include a Day Skipper Course, a Yachtmaster Course, the First Aid at Sea course, and a Basic Mechanics course to deal with any diesel engine problems that may arise. However, you won’t learn to sail by just doing specific sailing courses.
The best way to learn is to combine courses and your own do-it-yourself hands-on approach to practice what you learn in the classroom.
What Are The Primary Dangers Of Sailing The Oceans?
While sailing oceans can be an incredible experience, there are some dangers to take into consideration:
- Bad weather/storms/squalls
- Big waves
- Lightning strikes
- Man overboard
- Being hit by the boom during an accidental gybe
- Losing your mast
- Hitting something (i.e., a whale or a shipping container)
- Piracy in certain waters
- Collisions with other boats or shipping traffic
Some of the above can be avoided with good seamanship, keeping a good watch (especially at night), and being prepared.
However, some things like bad weather, lightning strikes, and other acts of God cannot, but being prepared and knowing your boat inside and out will help you deal with most situations.
How Big A Sailboat Do You Need To Sail The Oceans?
If you’re looking for a quick answer to this question, the World Cruising Club, which hosts the Atlantic Rally For Cruisers (ARC) every year in November (from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean), requires a minimum length of 27 feet for sailboats to join this organized ocean crossing.
Twenty years ago, the average size of a family cruising sailboat was around 30 – 36 feet. Nowadays, most sailboats used for ocean crossings tend to be bigger than this, and it’s not unusual to see couples sailing boats in the 40 – 50 feet range.
For more information about sailboat sizes, you can read our article about How Big A Sailboat You Need To Cross The Atlantic Ocean.
While sailing oceans can be extremely rewarding, it’s good to consider the dangers and be prepared.
Statistically, sailing oceans is safer than driving a car.
If you have the necessary experience and keep a calm head, you will enjoy many hours and nautical miles on the water.