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offshore safety - page 3

4.3 Yacht preparation & equipment

The factors dictating how far offshore you sail are:

  • Type of boat

  • Weather

  • Equipment

  • Experience or limitations of the skipper and crew

Limitation of the vessel

National and international regulatory design standards often identify the safe operating areas for vessels. The design standards are based on the intended maximum load, crew limit, stability and maximum engine power. The most far-reaching standard is the European Recreational Craft Directive (RCD) which invoke a number of International Standards (ISO). New vessels sold in Europe, except those marked as "sovely intended for racing", have to comply by law with the RCD and must state the category stamped on the builder's plate indicated on a declaration of conformity. 

The RCD category for cruising-pleasure sailboats between 10-24m lenght:


Offshore: Designed for offshore voyages where conditions up to, and including, wind force 8 and significant wave heights up to, and including 4m, may be experienced.  


It is important to understand the basics of yacht stability, since this allows for a greater appreciation of how far a boat may be safely pushed in terms of heel angle. 

  • Breaking waves: No matter how big a regular wave is, it should not capsize a boat. However, a breaking wave commonly has a rise or fall in excess of 70⁰ which can capsize a boat. The most important factor in surviving high waves is at no point being beam-on to the wave. Breaking waves equal to, or greater than the beam of the boat, can cause a knockdown.

  • Free surface effect: A small amount of water swashing around inside a boat can have a dramatic effect on stability. In lively  weather, keep the boat dry ensure hatches are shut and washboards are in place. 


Limitation of the crew

It is the skipper's responsibility to sail within the limitation of the boat and crew. The skipper must assess the ability to the crew and ideally create opportunities to increase the knowledge and confidence of the crew so that they bond together as a team. 

Care and maintenance

Even a new yacht  properly equipped with safety equipment requires work before it is fit to be taken offshore. Regular checks contribute to the safe operation of the yacht and limit the chance of gear failure. Equipment should operate correctly, be fit for purpose, regularly inspected and serviced. 

  • Pipes on thru-hull fittings should be secured with two jubilee clips. Connect softwood plugs to the pipe ready for use in the event of failure. 

thru hull.jpg


  • Rigging requires regular examination. At least quarterly, you should check all the cotter pins in the shackles for your standing rigging. Cotter pins prevent shackles from unwinding. With out them a shackle can unwind in a matter of a few hours of sailing. If this happens, IMMEDIATELY turn the boat so that the loose stay is to the leeward of the boat. e.g. a port shroud line coming loose means to maneuver the boat so that the boat is on a starboard tack. This uses the wind to keep the mast aloft. Many times it was just (with dire consequences) a shackle that came loose. With the wind pressure on the other side of the boat, the shackle can be reattached. Similarly if the forestay comes loose, run the boat downwind. When the rigging is stressed beyond its capacity it is subject to breakage. Should the vessel have rigging problems, including a  broken mast, there are several considerations. It may be necessary to cut or somehow release the damaged piece of equipment, e.g. stays. Gear that is loose can damage the hull and must either be secured or cut loose. Since stays are generally cables, this will require a wire cutter designed for this purpose. Many sailors include these cutters in their regular tool kits.


Wire cutter

  • Check fuel tanks remain clean, since dirt and debris within the tank can be disturbed, which then blocks filters.


  • Carry spare fuel filters and engine spares.

  • Check cooling water strainers, and that water is passing out of the exhaust, when the engine is running.

  • Check and update the charts, if needed. 

  • Check the boat after sailing in strong conditions. Look in lockers and underneath floorboards for cracks, bilge water and dislodged items. The forward sections suffer in head seas. 

Passage planning

  • ​Navigation. Keep a track of your course and a log, or record of your position at regular intervals. If heavy weather is approaching:​

- Write down the weather forecast times and tape to chart area.​

- Mark a position on chart and secure chart to table.

-Decide whether you  will stay at sea or whether it is safer to head for shelter.

  • Pilotage. Your navigation plan may change on route, but the pilotage plan of the harbour you will eventually be going into or the rocky outcrop that you are rounding probably will not. Therefore, before you leave, plan the pilotage. Planning is easier whilst still alongside rather than heeled over at 30⁰ and feeling seasick. 


Obtain a weather forecast before leaving and have the ability to update the forecast at sea. Force 6 winds in a sheltered area have much less impact than at sea, where sea state and breaking waves are larger. Sea state and visibility usually offer much more of a challenge to the sailor than wind speed. 

Shallow water

Shallow water makes the sea well upwards, leading to a steep confused sea state, causing waves to break earlier. 

Safety equipment

The equipment shown is taken from the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations. The amount and type of equipment, whether racing or cruising, will depend on the type of sailing, the sailing area and how far from shore or potential rescue. Self sufficiency is the name of game. 

  • Emergency steering. Carry a spare tiller and practice how it fits and operates. 

  • MOB equipment. Fit horseshoe lifebuoys with a drogue to prevent excessive drift. Retro-reflective tape and lights on lifebuoy and danbuoy aid visibility at night. Ensure throwing lines are always ready. Mark equipment with the vessel's name. 

  • Drains. Check the drains. Ensure cockpit, anchor locker and gas drains are clear.

  • Companionway. Hatch boards should be operable from inside and out, and unable to fall out if the boat is inverted. Boats with a low coaming height should keep the lower washboard in pace. 

  • Liferaft. Requires capacity for all crew. Ensure it can deploy easily.

  • Flares. Ensure they are in date and the crew know where they are stowed, and how and when to operate them.

  • EPIRB. A 406 MHz Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon sends out position and distress alerting when activated. It has worldwide coverage. 

  • Hatches. Keep hatches and windows closed at sea. Apply non-slip to prevent falls.

  • Anchor. Secure the anchor locker lid to prevent the anchor falling out during a knockdown. 

  • Bilge pumps. Check lashings are secure. Consider how they are lowered to aid recovery from the sea. 

  • Jackstays/clipping points. Jackstays (wire or webbing) provide a secure continuous pathway around the deck. Position clipping points near the companionway, cockpit and steering position. 

life line.jpg
  • Cooking stove/heavy items. Ensure heavy items such as batteries and stoves are secured, so they do not come adrift if the boat rolls. 

  • Charts and publications. If using electronic charts, also carry and consult official paper charts. Electronic leisure charts often have significant errors. Pilotage books and a copy of a country's maritime laws are useful additions. 

  • Engine and spares. Check the engine regularly and keep the area clean so that faults can be spotted easily. Carry spares; belts, filters, impellors, fluids and a toolkit. 

  • First-aid kit. Often to carry two kits-one for day-to-day problems-plasters, creams, sickness pills and tapes-together with another more comprehensive kit for emergencies.

  • Fire extinguishers. Placed next to exits to provide a fire-fighting capability to enable evacuation of the boat. A fire blanket is useful for galley fires. Consider how to tackle an engine fire onboard. Smoke detectors in cabins and likely sources of fire will give an early indication of a problem. 

  • Fresh water. Good clean drinking water is essential. Carry spare water in bottles in case of tank puncture. Watermakers are useful on long passages. 

  • Lifejacket and harnesses. Ensure the crew know how to fit and operate them. Crotch straps, lights abd sprayhoods are all essential on lifejakets. Inflatable lifejackets require regular checking and servicing. 

  • Seacocks. Exercise the seacocks regularly to ensure they operate and have not seized. Softwood bungs attached to the seacocks ensure they are handy in the event of seacock failure. 

  • Navigation equipment. Compass, log, echo sounder, plotting instruments, pencils, GPS, what you carry will depend on the intended sailing area. Ensure you have a system and the knowledge to navigate, should the batteries go down or antennae fails. 

  • Marine radio. VHF radio equipment capable of communicating with shore in your intended sailing area. 


Sails may blow out if stressed beyond their limits. This is generally due to mishandling or aging. It is a frequent event in regattas, where sails are challenged to provide greater speed.

Spinnaker sails are often challenging to handle, they get wrapped up in rigging and lines and become difficult to untangle. When this happens in a race, the crew is usually prepared to cope. However, if it happens when cruising and the crew are challenged it may be a problem. If a mainsail that is furled into the mast gets badly torn and cannot be furled you will probably be forced to return for assistance.

In most sail emergencies, head the vessel into the wind; sails can usually be brought under control. When sails become torn or ripped, stitching and patches can be used for repair. Other than just being old, sails usually tear because they came in contact with something sharp. Regular inspection of any areas that may touch the sail is advisable. EG broken strands in the shroud lines or cotter pins in the spreaders.

Radar Reflectors

These are small highly radar signal reflective devices which you attach high up on your shroud lines (side stays). They are usually a small tube with metal pieces packed inside arranged at many different angles. They vastly increase the radar signal visibility of your vessel. These are especially important if your vessel is made of wood or GRP fiberglass which tends to absorb rather than reflect radar signals.

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