Offshore Passage: Schooled

Sail News

Taking the bad with the good is not only all part of passagemaking, but what makes it so special

Pre-cook your meals for the first two days. Reef early. Don’t drink too much the night before departure. Don’t expect to poop until the third day at sea. Don’t sail to a schedule. Some lessons are ubiquitous and obvious (including the pooping one, though it might not be as readily apparent at first). Here are a few more I’ve learned in 15 years of ocean sailing.

THE THREE-DAY RULE

Any passage shorter than five days is too short. Even during the best of passages, it takes three days for my body and mind to adapt to life at sea. Prior to that third day, I don’t have my sea legs yet, I’m not getting deep sleep, and if the passage is any sort of uncomfortable—upwind, wet, cold, you name it—I question my career choices and wish I was on the couch watching a movie. This never fails.

And yet, by the beginning of day three, I remember why I do this. I’m well-rested. Well-fed. I’ve gotten my sea legs, and I feel inspired again to do “optional” things on deck, like get out the sextant, or make hurricane eggs in the galley. I find myself waking up before my watch starts because I’ve gotten enough sleep.

I read more off-watch, instead of just sleep. I get more creative. In fact, as I write this column, I’m about halfway between the Canary Islands and the Azores, and guess what—it’s day three.

“THE MORE YOU KNOW, THE LESS YOU NEED”

If I could distill my philosophy on seamanship into one bite-sized quote, it would be the one above from famed mountaineer and businessman Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. He was talking about climbing, but it doesn’t take much imagination to apply it to sailing.

I’ve always been a sailing minimalist at heart. I’d much rather go on deck daily to reef the mainsail than fix a broken in-mast furler, no matter how rare an event the latter might be. Likewise with creature comforts. While I spend a good part of my year living on the boat, it’s not my home, nor do I want it to be. I think of it as high-class camping and get much more enjoyment of life at sea with that attitude. The more experience I gain, the more I’ve come to take Chouinard’s word to heart.

There is, however, an exception to that rule—watermakers. I love them. To be free from always having to top up the tanks, to have a freshwater rinse every time I go swimming in the ocean, that is 100 percent worth the complexity of installation and the pain in the ass of maintenance.

It takes at least three days to truly acclimatize yourself to life offshore

It takes at least three days to truly acclimatize yourself to life offshore

LOVE THE WEATHER

Weather forecasting is my favorite topic, and I’d argue that understanding a forecast—and its limitations—is the single biggest factor in successful passagemaking.

There is a fundamental difference between weather forecasting and weather routing. Forecasting is simply interpreting information; routing is using that information to create a strategy. Remember that in offshore cruising (as opposed to racing), the best route is not so much the fastest, but the most comfortable. I’ll happily trade 24 hours of beating for 48 hours of reaching.

The lesson with weather forecasting is to constantly remind yourself that a forecast—especially a GRIB forecast—is a mathematical model that’s trying to predict the future. Predicting the future is hard. Beyond three days, most forecasts are firmly in the realm of fantasy and should be treated as such.

As to the debate about which GRIB model is the “best”, they are all amazing in the three to five-day range, and rather than try and qualify which model performs best of all, I find it more useful to simply compare the different models and see how much they diverge and how quickly. Lots of divergence within a short time period tells me there is a great deal of uncertainty in the forecast, that the atmosphere is unstable, and that it would be smart to plan accordingly. Multiple models that all align over a five-day period or more tell me there is more certainty in the forecast and that conditions are more predictable.

NO FEELING IS FINAL

When SAIL editor Adam Cort first asked me to write this “lessons learned” column, he suggested a couple ideas in his brief to me: “These could include takeaways from big things to little things, like simply not letting things get to you when you’re wet, cold and tired, and the boat is wallowing in a nasty sea.”

How nice it would be if I could ever actually succeed in doing so! As it is, I’m an emotional, philosophical guy, a “deep feeler,” as a friend once suggested, and guess what, all those things still get to me.

Instead, I’ve learned to accept all the “feels.”

Ever see the movie Jojo Rabbit? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. In a nutshell, the movie is a sort of absurdest comedy/drama set in Germany during Second World War. Despite some brutally emotional scenes, as a whole, the movie is wonderfully uplifting, and right before the credits an excerpt from Rilke’s Go to the Limits of Your Longing flashes across the screen. It goes like this:

Let everything happen to you:

Beauty and terror.

Just keep going.

No feeling is final.

No matter how long I do this, offshore sailing is still hard. And enlightening. And tiring. And magical. Since the birth of our son, Axel, I now find myself having to go to sea without Mia for the first time in my career, which can also make offshore sailing sad. The beauty in offshore sailing, though, is that it is all these things and more, all at once.

If ever there was a big-picture lesson to be learned about offshore sailing I think this poem is it. I even have a couple of copies of it taped into the logbook of our Swan 59, Icebear, as a reminder. The key is to go with the flow. To enjoy the magical days for what they are. To allow myself to be sad as I lay in my bunk looking at pictures of Mia and Axel. To feel the nervous tension as a storm is approaching and let those nerves push me into action. This and more is all part of sailing. We don’t go to sea for “practical” reasons anymore. We don’t have to. If you want to cross an ocean efficiently, get on an airplane. We go to sea for the emotions we experience there and learning to love that fact has been the greatest lesson of all. 

Andy Schell is a veteran delivery captain and co-owner, with his wife, Mia Karlsson, of the adventure-charter company 59 North, which specializes in providing sail-training and offshore passagemaking opportunities. Visit 59-north.com for more information

Photos courtesy of 59 North

January 2022

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