Heading out into open ocean on another person’s boat can be a great way to get experience and sea miles. The downside is you will not have all the comforts of home at your fingertips. Being prepared and bringing the right personal equipment with you can make the experience more enjoyable for you, your skipper and other crewmates.
Personal flotation devices
An approved self-inflating offshore lifejacket is a must. Bringing your own means you may be more comfortable and, depending on the boat, may be necessary. Check with your skipper if you do not already have your own; don’t assume they will have a spare onboard for you.
Gone are the days when you needed a separate lifejacket and safety harness. If you are purchasing your own offshore lifejacket, be sure to get one with an inbuilt harness and loop for your tether.
Carbon dioxide canisters, for the inflation of the lifejacket, are considered dangerous goods by airlines around the world and you will not be able to simply pack this in your luggage, cargo or hand. Around 50 per cent of airlines have a dangerous goods policy that does allow you to carry your CO2 canisters, with some prior arrangement and preparation. If you are doing an ocean crossing that will require you to either fly in to the departure port, or fly home from the arrival port and you are taking your own offshore lifejacket, you will need to consider your airline’s policy for carrying CO2 canisters.
On my recent passage, I flew with Qantas and Air Vanuatu from Brisbane, Australia to Luganville, Vanuatu via Sydney and Port Vila. Qantas’ CO2 canisters policy is readily available on the Qantas dangerous goods information page (www.qantas.com/travel/airlines/dangerous-goods/global/en#co2-non-flammable-gas-cartridges). They require that you contact its dangerous goods operations centre to obtain an airline approval letter prior to departure. Air Vanuatu did not have stated guidelines on its website, however a quick phone call to the operations department confirmed that they were aligned with Qantas policy and would accept the Qantas airline approval letter.
If you are travelling with an airline that will not allow you to carry the CO2 canisters, it may be possible to arrange with a local marina or chandlery at your departure port to order this item for you, to collect on arrival. Or you may be able to mail this item to be collected by the skipper of your boat prior to your arrival. This will take time, so do not leave it to the last minute.
The use of tethers and jacklines at sea is a basic safety consideration. An appropriate tether has a clip to attach to your harness or lifejacket and clips used to secure to the jacklines. They need to be easily clipped on and off, but not prone to unclipping by themselves.
The length of the tether is also important. Too long and you may be at risk of being dragged through the water in the event of falling overboard. Too short and you will be restricted in movement while working on deck. My own tether has one short and one long option. When working on deck I attach the longer line to the central jacklines. If I need to work closer to the edge of the boat, the bow or the stern, I attach with the short tether in the hope that if I do fall over, my head will remain above the water enough to breath until I can get back on board.
Personal emergency position indicating radio beacons attach to your lifejacket. These are a great idea, however they are a little on the expensive side if you are only planning to do the occasional ocean crossing.
If you did go overboard though and for some reason were not attached to the boat, I am quite sure you would be considering the money well spent as you floated around waiting to be rescued.
Personal insurance for your trip is an essential part of your safety considerations.
While we all like to think nothing will go wrong, the ocean is an unpredictable place. If something serious happens while on passage it could involve an expensive search and rescue or medical evacuation. Insurance can give you peace of mind and cover a range of out of pocket expenses.
Standard travel insurance, generally, will not cover you for sailing in offshore waters. I found two options for offshore passage cover on my recent bluewater crewing experience. Topsail has a ‘Yachtsman’s’ travel insurance policy for a single trip; they also offer multi-trip and annual insurance if offshore crewing will be a regular activity for you. The policy can be purchased online with minimal hassle, up until the day before departure.
The other option for offshore sailing could be insure4less.com.au, however this is not able to be purchased online directly. Its site indicates that you would need to purchase a standard travel policy and then apply for the additional sailing insurance with an approval process. This policy is only available if purchased more than three days prior to departure from Australia.
Depending on your departure port, the amount of time you are expecting to remain in port prior to departure and any stops your intended voyage plans to make along the way, you should consider your travel medicine advice. Any recommended vaccinations or precautions required for the areas you are travelling through will need to be considered prior to departure from Australia.
If you are flying into a port in another country on a one-way ticket, many immigration and customs departments will deny you entry unless you have a letter or other evidence that you are intending to leave by boat. The skipper of your boat should make enquiries in the country of your arrival to determine what evidence will be required by you on arrival. At a minimum, a letter from the skipper of the vessel stating the vessel’s details and intended departure date will be required.
In Vanuatu an official letter from the immigration department was required with a small fee to be paid. The skipper arranged the letter and e-mailed it to me to print and bring with me. On entry at Port Vila, I showed my passport and the letter and was allowed entry with no issues.
Customs and immigration
It is critical that you have a current passport, with at least six months left to the expiry date. Do the research regarding any visa or entry requirements for the countries you will travel through on your trip. While the skipper of the vessel you are crewing on should normally have this well in hand, it is a wise traveller that checks the details themselves and makes sure they have met all requirements. Being detained in a foreign country because you did not have the correct paperwork is no one’s idea of a good time.
On my recent bluewater voyage, I packed my normal fingerless sailing gloves. I also packed a pair of heavy duty, full-fingered gloves. On this trip, they came in very handy when the anchor winch failed while taking shelter from heavy weather in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at Chesterfield Reefs. We needed to pull the anchor chain up by hand in order to depart the reef once the weather window opened for the final leg into Australia.
With more than 40 metres of chain to pull in, hand over hand, these gloves were a very welcome addition to my pack.
If you need to be on deck at night working on anything, a headtorch will be incredibly useful, leaving you hands-free to concentrate on what you need to do, rather than holding a torch in one hand and the boat in the other. Get one with a red lamp option to save your night vision.
Wet weather gear
Invest in the best wet weather gear you can afford. If it is wet and windy for hours on end, the last thing you need is to be soaked through as well. Good quality, comfortable wet weather gear can make a miserable trip a little more comfortable. To keep that annoying drip from working its way down the back of your neck in wet weather, pack a towel that you have cut in half lengthways and wrap it around your neck to keep warm and dry.
If you’ve ever backpacked, packing for an ocean passage is similar. A fresh singlet-style shirt and underwear for each day, with the same shorts or long pants depending on the temperature. A long sleeve overshirt for a few days in a row worked well for me and took up minimal space.
It is important to have sufficient clothing to be able to change into something warm and dry if you end up soaked through more than once.
The most common piece of advice I received in response to my question to more experienced ocean crossing sailors was to pack extra underwear. Having spent an unscheduled seven days anchored at a reef halfway back to Australia due to developing weather, with limited fresh water, that was good advice! The other excellent recommendation was to take a small length of light rope and half a dozen pegs, so you can string a line and hang your ‘smalls’ in your cabin if you do need to wash while you are on crossing.
Allergies and special diets
Have a conversation with your skipper about any allergies or special dietary considerations well before you go onboard. Agree beforehand on how this will be managed while on passage.
Keep in mind that, depending on the boat’s location, many of the foods commonly available where you live, may not be available if provisioning at your voyage departure destination. Check with the skipper about availability and bring your own foods with you if necessary, to make sure you do not starve at sea; or worse, if you are highly allergic to anything.
Keep in mind you may end up spending longer onboard than planned for a variety of reasons, including weather and issues with immigration. As a rule of thumb, bring sufficient to last for at least twice as long as your intended passage time.
Boiled lollies, hard caramels, mints and crunchy, salty snacks are the go for a long night watch. Bringing out a block of chocolate after a few long days or weeks at sea can make you the most popular crewmember on board.
Bring a range of nutritious personal snack foods as well comfort foods. Depending on conditions you may not feel like eating a full meal, particularly in the first few days or in rough weather. Easy to grab and easy to eat nutritious snacks can keep you going if the going is a bit tough.
Ocean crossings can be exciting, terrifying, busy times. They can also have long stretches of boredom. Bring something to keep you busy in case of boring stretches or weather delays. Books, downloaded podcasts, movies or programs for phone or laptop, a pack of cards or board games can be good boredom fillers.
Remember to check power availability for recharging electronic devices onboard though before you download every episode of Game of Thrones.
A diary or sketch pad is also a great idea and will allow you to capture details of the journey that you can look back on later. On my recent trip, another crew member was an IT developer and brought his laptop with him, allowing him to work on his code when poor weather delayed us for a week.
Most, if not all good skippers will run a dry boat on an ocean crossing. The rule of thumb is unless you are at anchor, you need to be prepared to assist with anything at anytime and drinking while on passage is generally frowned upon.
If you take prescription medication, ensure you have sufficient quantities onboard in the event of unexpected delays. It’s worthwhile bringing a small personal first aid kit, including common over-the-counter medications for cold or flu, anti-fungal creams, anti-itch creams and a course of broad spectrum antibiotics. Talk to your GP about your planned voyage for the best advice on what to pack to ensure you can take care of yourself while you are offshore. Never assume that the boat will have sufficient first aid and pharmaceutical items on board. If bringing prescription only medication in a first aid kit, make sure it is properly labelled and/or have a letter from your doctor confirming the medication has been authorised for you.
Information for emergencies
No one expects an emergency to happen but, if it does, you will be relying on the people onboard to look after you. Have a conversation with your skipper regarding your personal medical history, regular medication, allergies and any other conditions that a treating medical professional or emergency responder may need to know about you in the event of a serious medical emergency. Likewise, if possible, you should know this information about your skipper and other crew. This knowledge may help to save someone’s life in the event of a medical situation.
An option to providing your personal medical information to your skipper and other crew is to have a letter in a sealed envelope with all relevant information that can be handed to your skipper to be passed onto medical professionals if necessary.
Even if you do not normally get seasick, take effective sea sickness medication with you. They say the ocean moves differently in deep water and even if you never get sick coastal cruising, you may find yourself feeling a bit green in the open ocean.
Different boats have different motion and particularly rough or beam seas can have you, even those that never get seasick on coastal voyages, feeling nauseous. Recently, on my first ocean crossing, I found I was fine all day long, but struggled with sea sickness as soon as it became dark without the horizon to focus on. Thankfully, it got better after the first few days.
It is worth trialling a few different types of medication to find the best option for you.
Earplugs and an eye mask can be super helpful for getting some sleep when you are off watch. Boats underway are noisy places, even with motors off. Cheap foam earplugs from any chemist will deaden a fair bit of noise but still give enough hearing if you are called in an emergency. An eye mask can be invaluable for getting sleep during the daytime.
Showering every day while you are at sea may not be an option depending on the vessel, the water storage capacity and the sea conditions. Some sailors I spoke to recommended packing baby wipes, however these are non-biodegradable and not great for our planet. Get the same effect by packing a stack of face wash clothes for a good old sponge bath as required. A wipe down with freshwater at the end of a long watch will make you feel vaguely human. Washing your face daily with freshwater will also help to avoid skin and eye problems from salt build up.
For the ladies
Dealing with your period while you are on passage can be challenging: rubbish must be stored on board for the duration of the trip; access to showers may not be as regular as you might like.
Even if your period is not due during your planned passage dates, weather delays may mean that you are facing a situation where your period is imminent and you are still days away from arrival. Preparation and planning is key. If you do use pads or tampons, ziplock bags for disposal and storage of used items are excellent for keeping odours to a minimum in confined spaces.
Personally, I would not be without my menstrual cup, this zero waste option is simple to use, takes up almost no space in my luggage, requires less changes during my period and menstrual blood can be emptied and flushed into the head without issue.
A few final words
If you are keen to get out there and experience an ocean crossing as a crew member there are a number of ways to find crew positions. Facebook sailing groups are an outstanding resource for linking you with skippers needing crew. There are a number of websites that link you with boats in need of crew for passages such as findacrew.com; crewseekers.net; sailconnect.com; oceancrewlink.com; sailingnetworks.com; and crewbay.com. Sailing schools may be able to help you find a crew position. A notice on the noticeboard at your local marina advising you are looking for a crew spot may also be effective.
Not all skippers are created equal and there are as many different personalities as there are people on boats, so it is wise to get to know the boat and the skipper you are planning to sail with as well as possible before you hop aboard. Email exchanges, Skype or sat phone calls are all good ways to get a feel for whether or not an opportunity is a good fit for you personally.
Being prepared is the best insurance for a great trip. Understand that, despite the best planning and meteorological information, the weather will do what the weather will do. Sometimes that means unexpected delays in departure or arrival. It can also mean challenging conditions at sea that simply need to be dealt with. Gear and equipment on boats can break and work-arounds are sometimes needed. Similarly, passing through immigration and customs on departure or entry to your destination can bring challenges and delays.
Being well enough prepared to handle these challenges with the proper gear, quality equipment along with the right attitude will make for a memorable trip for all the right reasons. ≈