Passages. Love them or hate them, sometimes they are necessary for getting from Point A to Point B.
Prior to our afternoon departure from the BVIs to St. Martin through the Anegada Passage (aptly nicknamed the OhMyGodAaaah! Passage by sailors who have experienced its stomach-churning turbulence – I puked three times), I was chatting online with a friend from Brooklyn. He asked me, “What happens when you sail at night? How do you sleep?”
These questions made me realize how little I’ve shared about the practical ways we deal with passages. We’re hardly experts, but we’ve experienced these longer-form trips enough times to have nailed down what works for us, and gotten enough questions about it to share here:
What’s the difference between making a passage and just going sailing?
Based on our passages so far, I define passage as being underway (powered by sail, motor, or both) for longer than 12 hours. Since we don’t feel safe coming into a new harbor in the dark, anything longer than twelve hours requires us to make miles after dark, usually timing our arrival near dawn. These trips usually come with big waves and open seas (what sailors call “offshore”). Long sail + rough sail + dark sail = need for more preparation and a different routine than the average day sail requires.
What passages have you made so far and how long have you sailed at a time?
- Hampton, VA to Cape Lookout, NC – 255 nm*, 51 hours
- Cape Lookout, NC to Fernandino Beach, FL – 353 nm, 71 hours
- Miami, FL to Nassau, Bahamas – 156 nm, 27 hours
- Rum Cay, Bahamas to Mayaguana, Bahamas – 139 nm, 27 hours
- Mayaguana, Bahamas to Provo, Turks & Caicos – 64 nm, 16 hours
- Provo, Turks & Caicos to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico – 454 nm, 86 hours
- Saba Rock, BVI to Marigot Bay, St. Martin, 80 nm, 17 hours
* Distances are in nautical miles. 1 nm = 1.15 miles. We travel roughly 4-5 knots (nautical miles per hour).
What matters most on passages and how do you prepare for them?
Follow rules #1, #2, and #3
Rules #1, #2, and #3 are so important that they are all the same: STAY IN THE BOAT. Nothing good can come of falling overboard, so we take every precaution to avoid it. Always.
Wait for weather
This part can be infuriating when we’re ready to get going somewhere; safe passages will not conform to any schedule. More than once, we’ve had to wait as long as two weeks to get a weather window we liked for making a passage, therefore, patience is a vital ingredient for safe sailing.
Tie everything down TIGHTLY
With Rules #1, #2, and #3 in mind, we spend a lot of time before passages (and day sails too – actually, everything I’ve said so far applies to day sailing) making sure that everything on deck is tied down tight to minimize situations where we’d need to leave the cockpit in the first place. We tie the dinghy up with extra straps. Check knots we’ve tied to secure jerry jugs, fenders, and anything else stored on deck. We secure the anchor so it doesn’t come loose and hit the boat or deploy, taking all 235 feet of chain with it (we know two different cruising boats that had anchor mishaps while underway just this year). Prevention is a big part of our safety strategy, and we take it seriously. Even when the forecast calls for calm seas, we prepare as if we’re heading for 20 foot waves. We’ve been taken by surprise enough times to know – be ready for the worst and be happy when it doesn’t come.
Ensure that equipment is in good working order
Fixing broken things is miserable and stressful while underway (I challenge anyone to not get seasick while fixing an engine on a boat in the middle of the ocean). We do everything we can to prevent malfunction before we go on longer trips – we check the engine (actually, this is another we do EVERY time we go sailing), inspect the sails, feel the tension of the rigging (the cables that hold up our masts), jiggle connections, charge backup electronics , stay on top of routine filter/oil changes, and repair things lingering on our to-do list.
Connect humans to the boat
During passages, we wear harnesses and tethers (human leashes) that are clipped onto the boat at all times. We run nylon strips called jack lines forward to the bow so we have something to clip our tethers to if we do need to leave the cockpit. We also wear lifejackets equipped with lights and whistles.
Don’t forget Rule #4
The following is my WORST sailing nightmare: We are on passage. Brian is up in the cockpit on watch after dark, I am asleep in the berth below. The alarm on my phone goes off, indicating it’s time for me to relieve Brian at the helm. I drowsily wiggle into my harness and climb the companionway into the wind and darkness, only to discover that BRIAN IS MISSING.
Enter rule #4: if one of us must leave the cockpit FOR ANY REASON, the other must be notified before it happens, day or night. That way, if one of us is injured or goes overboard, the other is awake to react, making a potential rescue much more likely.
Prep all food in advance
I get seasick on passages. Being below deck (where the galley is) makes it a million times worse. Therefore, I prepare a menu of foods beforehand that are ready-to go and can be eaten cold. I’ll bake a few pizzas and bread, make hummus, cut up veggies and cheese, grill chicken, and have wraps and fillings all prepped and ready in the fridge to be assembled and eaten in the cockpit. I chill gallons of drinking water (running our engine makes tap water hot and icky to drink) and stock a big canvas bag filled with snacks, paper plates (I like to keep the sink tidy on passage), paper towels, barf bags (ew, I know), condiments, ginger chews and emergency Oreos so everything is organized and at arms reach.
Have a realistic plan for comfort
Think about how you will take care of basic needs so you’ll be comfortable on passage. If you have trouble sleeping in your usual sleeping berth while underway, figure out an alternative place to comfortably rest in advance – perhaps by rigging up a lee cloth (basically a big sling that holds you down while you sleep) on the settee (couch) instead. Be sure that you have a way to comfortably access the head (bathroom) and that there are handles for holding on while you pee. And make it a point to maintain a minimum hygiene routine: brush your teeth and wash your face daily, and change your outfit now and then on multi-day passages, a little refresh goes a long way.
Stick to a watch schedule
After some experimentation, we’ve found that a watch schedule of three hours on/three hours off works best for us. I don’t sleep well underway, but I force myself to lie down and close my eyes whenever I’m not on watch (this is also my most effective remedy for seasickness).
What does it mean to be on watch?
Being on watch means that you are the one in charge of the boat. It can feel passive, especially when the motor is running and the auto pilot is doing the steering. I do my best to stay alert and present (no so easy when you’re on the night shifts!). I used to read books, pausing after each page to do a scan of the instruments (iPad navigation, radar screen, auto pilot controls) and the horizon, but lately I’ve been listening to podcasts and books on tape instead, which allow me to keep an eye on things while I listen.
What’s the worst part of being on watch at night?
This one is obvious: not being able to see. On passages we’ve encountered tons of other sailboats, cargo ships and cruise ships after dark. Seeing other boats as lights on the water can be disorienting. We have radar, which is great, but I’d never trust it completely (ours is brand new and stalls out and freezes sometimes) to tell me if I’m about to hit something. Instead, I do frequent scans of the horizon while on night watch. If something is getting too close, I try to get the other boat on VHF to chat about how we’ll proceed. Those moments always make me anxious at night, whereas during the day they’re no biggie.
Also, sleep deprivation makes me crazy.
What is the best thing about making a passage?
Whenever we land in a new country, I always think “holy shit, we sailed our home HERE from New York City!” The feeling of taking your boat long distances and landing in a new places is completely satisfying. Also, when conditions are calm and the stars are out, the bioluminescence glows in your wake, and/or dolphins come alongside for a midnight play session – that’s night sailing at its best.
What is the best passage you’ve made?
So far, all of my favorite passages have been ones when we were accompanied by highly compatible buddy boats crewed by trusted friends (read about them here, here, here, and here). Camaraderie at sea is fun and comforting and we loved having friends just a radio call away for trash talking (usually about the lack of fish we catch), late night banter, weather speculation, and engine repair troubleshooting.
How does being on passage feel?
Weather, waves, wind direction, how healthy you are… all of these factors dictate the passage experience. For the most part, in good conditions I find passages mostly boring. When it’s shitty out there, I find them nauseating and exhausting. Back when I was experimenting with seasickness meds, they also felt mildly hallucinogenic.
How does Nico do on long passages?
To put it delicately, poor Nico loses control of his bodily functions in rough conditions. To spare our cushions and rugs from being puked/peed/pooped on, we pile everything that cannot easily be laundered into the V Berth and lock him out of the aft cabin where we sleep. We make him a nest of towels that are easy to clean after passage. Nico’s experience is not typical – all of the other boat cats we’ve met do extremely well underway.