Friday, February 10, 2012

Risk Assessment for Offshore Passagemaking

Risk Assessment for Offshore Passagemaking
Steve D'Antonio
All photos copyright Steve D'Antonio
Part IIn part one of this two part series I'll discuss the means by which you can assess and minimize risk when cruising.
Cruising affords an uncommonly satisfying way of reaching hidden gems, like this vista in The Faroe Islands.

Cruising and Risk AssessmentAs one might expect, I'm given the opportunity to cruise aboard a variety of vessels making passages in various parts of the world, from icebreakers in Antarctica and naval vessels in the North Atlantic to recreational trawlers and sailing vessels in British Columbia and the Virgin Islands.
Before I take advantage of such an opportunity, however, I carefully assess the likelihood of how "successful" the passage will be.  The definition of "success", by the way, varies with the opportunity.  I ask myself a series of questions, starting with, 'what do I hope to get out of making this passage?'  In the vast majority of cases, the first answer is, 'enjoyment', I love to cruise, particularly to far-off locales, the more remote and the higher the latitude the better (more on that in a moment).This is followed by my desire to stay fresh in my trade with regular sea time, then broadening my experience as there's simply no substitute for doing what you write about or advise others on, and finally in gathering editorial and photographic material.
Even a 30-foot vessel can safely make blue water, offshore passages. The preparation of the vessel and crew, however, are paramount in minimizing risk.

I'm often asked at lecture events, "why did you take that 30-foot, single screw trawler to Bermuda anyway, wasn't it risky?", referring to a passage I made back in 2002 (I authored an article detailing the preparations that were made for the passage in Nov/Dec PassageMaker Magazine). The short answer is, I did it because it was an adventure I wanted to undertake and I believed it could be done while minimizing risk.  Indeed, there was risk; however, risk is part of cruising and it increases exponentially every time you cast off your lines.  In this case, and in many other passages I've made, I assessed the risk factor and minimized it to the extent I could, and then got underway.

The highest priority was the vessel.  While she was diminutive, with the modifications that were made to her she was well found.  I made absolutely certain she was seaworthy, reliable and safe and that we had the necessary tools, spares, communication and safety gear aboard.  The next priority was the crew, making certain we were prepared mentally and physically and capable of dealing with any manner of failure we could have anticipated.  Finally, close attention was paid to weather, sea conditions and the forecast.  With those steps, the riskiness of this passage was substantially reduced, and it was completed successfully.
Out-of-the-way destinations require a greater measure of self reliance. Failures or issues often must be resolved with the tools and knowledge aboard. The balancing act is to minimize the possibility of problems while still going cruising.

Is the Vessel and the Crew up to the Passage?
I'm cautious about accepting invitations to cruise aboard vessels owned by others, particularly if I'm making a high latitude passage where conditions are likely to be tumultuous and help not close at hand.  In 2010 I accepted such an invitation, and made such a passage, from Scotland to Iceland via the Faroe Islands, aboard Tony Fleming's own Fleming 65, Venture II (I shared details about this passage in the Jul/Aug 2011 PassageMaker)

Because I was intimately familiar with the vessel's design and the manufacturer's workmanship and reputation, as well as Tony's and his crew's experience, I was comfortable signing up for this voyage.  We did encounter stretches of extremely unsettled weather, beating mercilessly into head seas north of the Faroes, for an interminable twelve hours.  While lying in my amidships berth, airborne much of the time, literally, I distinctly recall thinking, 'I wonder if the hull to deck joint is glassed and through bolted' (I later determined the answer was, thankfully, 'yes'). I also thought, multiple times, 'we have to reach the bottom of this trough eventually', as each fall to the bottom felt truly endless.  While on watch in the pilot house, I had to sit Indian style in the helmsman's chair and lock my knees under the arm rests to prevent myself from being ejected.  With each passing head sea we summated, Venture II felt as if she were being driven off a cliff.
When the going gets rough, the last thing you want to worry about is equipment failures or systems malfunctions.  Even with the best weather forecasting, you may occasionally find yourself in a situation where you must simply hunker down and wait out the storm.  These short, steep eight foot seas, encountered between the Faroe Westman Islands, pounded this vessel and her crew mercilessly for over twelve hours.  For this and other reasons, the vessel must be well found and her systems rugged and reliable.

I've been in much less severe conditions and have emerged from my cabin to find the vessel a shambles, broken crockery, cracked windows, appliances adrift and the stench of diesel fuel and, well, you get the idea.  I'm happy to report that the causality list aboard Venture II after that jaunt was insignificant; all of the reading lamp bulb filaments had broken (these were the only non-led lamps aboard, and the bulbs themselves remained intact), one bottle of very good Berserker Scottish bear exploded in the drinks fridge and a wine glass shattered.  Not bad considering the squareness and steepness of the seas.  It was bone jarring, filling rattling and not very fun.  To make matters worse, I suffer from seasickness and tried a new, to me at least, medication, the scopolamine patch.  Not only did it fail to prevent me from feeling awful, that I've grown accustomed to, it made my mouth taste as if I were sucking on an aluminum lollypop and, I couldn't stop sneezing.  Ugh.  Yet, I'd return for this or a similar passage without hesitation.  Why?  Because adventure and cruising are deeply satisfying to me, there's nothing like it in the world and while it has its regrettable moments, whenever I'm not doing it I wish I were.
One thing is for certain, after the storm, there will be a calm. The sea can seem fickle and capricious at times, but oh so beautiful when the mood strikes her.

In the next installment, I'll discuss a recent passage I made in Newfoundland, as well as reviewing key elements for the technical side of successful cruising.
The following photo montage encampasses a small sampling of over two thousand images captured during this month-long passage. Enjoy!

For more information on the services provided by Steve D'Antonio Marine Consulting, Inc. please e mail Steve at
or call 804-776-0981

Risk Assessment for Offshore Passagemaking - Part II
Steve D'Antonio
All photos copyright Steve D'Antonio
Newfoundland Bound
Fair winds, clear skies, and a well-found vessel makes for picture perfect cruising

When I received an invitation to cruise aboard a Nordhavn 68, it had the making for a perfect passage, for me.  I knew the boat and the owner very well; as a consulting client, I worked closely with him during the vessel’s build and commissioning.  When he mentioned he was bound for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, there was little else I needed to know. Both places are high latitude, and I count them among my favorite cruising grounds, particularly the latter.  

However, had I not known the vessel so well, I would have posed a long list of questions before agreeing to make the passage, starting with, how many miles did she have under her keel since commissioning?  All new vessels, especially complex vessels as this one was, have breaking-in periods.  Shakedown cruises are designed to shake out defects, flaws and problems in new and refit vessels, and they should occur in relatively protected water, close to homeport, where skilled help is readily available.  This vessel had several thousand miles, including an offshore passage to Bermuda and over a year under her belt, giving her a clean bill of health for cruising to a remote location.
Cruising to far off locals has a quality all its own, and if isolation and limitless natural beauty is your goal, high latitudes offer it many times over.  Self-sufficiency under these circumstances, however, has a price and the first step is knowledge.

I would also want to know how she was equipped and provisioned.  Because all of my passage making is aboard vessels belonging to others, I always travel with my own PLB (Personal Locator Beacon, a mini-EPIRB) and handheld GPS.  Beyond that, however, I have to be certain the vessel has the right stuff where important gear and equipment are concerned.  Properly installed and thoroughly tested navigation and communication gear, up to date safety equipment including life rafts, PFDs, and flares are, of course vitally important.
M.S. Endeavour traveled to some of the least populated (with the exception of these fur seals) and most remote places on earth, Antarctica and the Arctic among them. Assistance, if available at all, could take weeks to arrive. As a result, this vessel is extremely well-equipped and operated by an exceptionally knowledgeable crew.

This vessel was well equipped indeed.  In addition to the essentials, she has some goodies as well. Among the most interesting is one that is particularly well suited for high latitude cruising, a retractable Wesmar Sonar.  The first time I used this sonar was in Antarctica. The vessel I cruised aboard had one, enabling her to make her way into poorly charted, rock strewn inlets, bays and channels.  Newfoundland’s rockbound coast was made for sonar of this sort, and we tested it on several occasions.  At one point, while entering an extremely narrow passage in a location called Ireland’s Eye, I privately debated if we should continue.  As if he were reading my mind, the owner said, “This is why I installed the sonar.”  With that, we safely threaded the eye of the needle, of Ireland’s Eye.  The following day, once again with the aid of the sonar, we made our way into and dropped the hook in yet another rocky cove.   After setting the anchor, I looked at the sonar screen and noticed an odd blip and thought perhaps it was a rock or pinnacle.  Only after a moment did I realize that I was looking at the return from the vessel’s own anchor chain.  That served to further reinforce my confidence in the sonar as a superb piece of gear.
Having the ability to confidently "see" what is happening below and ahead of your vessel is a stress-reducer when cruising in unfamiliar, or poorly charted waters. This "searchlight" sonar enables this vessel to enter poorly charted, infrequently visited inlets and bays, which is part of the attraction.  Charts for many remote areas often rely on surveys made by early explorers and whalers, with lead line and sextant.  

In addition to the gear and the vessel, I was also confident in the crew.  The owner had hovered over this project during her build and on several occasions I told him that I believed he likely knew her and her systems, having personally selected nearly all of them, better than the folks who had built her.   That’s high praise and I don’t offer it without careful forethought.  In my experience, few vessel owners know their vessel well enough, and rest assured, you can never know your vessel too well. 
The importance of this, intimacy with your own vessel, cannot be over stated.  Knowing your systems very well is an essential aspect of successful, trouble-free cruising, whether in home waters or afar.  In my experience, far too few vessel owners make the effort to know all the gear aboard their vessel and this lack of familiarity often proves to be a liability.  At the very least, there should be no piece of gear aboard your vessel that you can’t identify.  If any equipment is a mystery, make it your business to determine not only what it does, but you should also understand its maintenance needs and likely failure modes and how to prevent them.
Speaking of service, this vessel also utilizes Wheelhouse Technologies maintenance program ( ).  Wheelhouse guides users through predictive and preventive maintenance procedures for every piece of gear aboard.  Additionally, their SeaKits program can kit-out and replenish a vessel with spare parts and rebuild kits for all of that same equipment.  I’ve written about Wheelhouse Technologies, I believe in its value, and it’s the only product I endorse.  Therefore, when I’m invited to cruise aboard a vessel that has this program and it’s up to date, I immediately have a greater sense of confidence in the vessel’s systems and their reliability.
This vessel maintains a well-organized, interactive electronic systems documentation program as well as a complete set of equipment manuals and vessel systems schematics.  The value of having this information readily accessible, on board, cannot be overestimated. 

Carrying a warehouse-load of spares will be of little value to you if you don’t have the tools to diagnose problems and then replace components that fail.  Folks frequently ask me in lectures, “How do I know what tools to have aboard.”  The short answer is, you know which tools you need by using them as often as possible.  There are tool lists; I’ve written article on this subject and I provide a list to my clients.   If you want to know what you might need to change a serpentine belt on your engine, while dockside change it, and if you want to know what tools you need to replace an impeller, while dockside, replace one.  While you can never have enough tools in my opinion, the vessel I cruised aboard for this Newfoundland passage was extremely well equipped with a wide variety of hand tools and diagnostic equipment, including a multimeter and infra red pyrometer (both should be in every vessel’s tool kit.)
No task is insurmountable provided the correct tools, spares and knowledge are at hand. Having the confidence to say, "I can fix that" and knowing that the equipment and manuals are aboard the vessel should be the goal of the truly self-sufficient cruiser. 

During our passage there were minor failures, as there are during every cruise.  Thanks to the tools and spares we had aboard, as well as the “crew’s” knowledge of the systems, we were able to contend with them quickly and easily.

Do the Math
The size, value or complexity of your vessel is irrelevant.  Before you set out on any passage, whether it’s to one of my favorite high-latitude locales like Iceland or South Georgia, or if it’s simply a weekend cruise, do the math.  Make certain your vessel is seaworthy, reliable and safe, make sure she is fit for the type of conditions you may encounter, and make certain you and your crew are prepared for those conditions and any problems that may arise.  Leave as little to chance as possible and you will have reduced, but not eliminated, the risk.  Then, have fun.
Images from the Newfoundland passage…

For more information on the services provided by Steve D'Antonio Marine Consulting, Inc. please e mail Steve at
or call 804-776-0981

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