Safety and training for blue water cruising on a catamaran
What could be better than going blue-water cruising as a family in catamaran, accompanied by your loved ones? But before embarking all these people dear to you to cross the oceans, are you certain you have the ability? How do you prepare for it? Which courses should you attend? A little overview, before the big departure in catamaran...
Get first-aid training so you can react correctly, notably in the case of:
Before taking the decision to leave, and often even until the end of their voyage, most skippers taking their family to the other side of the world ask themselves if they have the ability, and if they are not taking foolhardy risks. And let’s be clear about this, those people who don’t ask themselves questions about safety when ocean cruising shouldn’t really be afloat...
Risk is inherent in a voyage. It’s a fact. But the experience of the magazine’s readers shows that dramatic accidents are extremely rare and almost always the result of a succession of unforeseeable events, and poor reactions by the crew. Hence the importance of leaving with a well-prepared catamaran and a well-trained crew.
Training yourself and training the catamaran crew
The good news is that here at the magazine, we have lost count of the number of families who had never sailed before, but set off on (and returned from) an Atlantic, Mediterranean or West Indian circuit with no problems, and thoroughly enjoyed their voyage. There is no need to have started sailing as a youngster and to have served your time in Optimists or Hobie 16s, or to have won prizes in the most prestigious ocean races, to be able to envisage taking your family to the other side of the ocean. The important thing, even if you are starting from zero, is to get suitable training, and also to train your crew. Because if there is only one person aboard capable of handling the catamaran, the slightest problem can have serious consequences.
This is why most cruising schools insist on training the whole crew, including the children. Thus everyone is capable of reacting in the different critical situations which can arise, such as the start of a fire, a (wo)man overboard, or quite simply to let the skipper rest after a hard night, if it’s just a question of taking in a reef or anchoring when you arrive in the bay of your dreams... The idea here is to allow everyone to be independent, and as a minimum, to be able to recover a man overboard, furl and hoist the sails, anchor, plot a course and of course, call for help. And the only way to get a grasp of your subject is to practice! So before embarking the family for a voyage lasting several months, you and the rest of your crew must sail very regularly. The best idea is to buy a small catamaran – a sport catamaran would do the job perfectly – which will serve for training and putting into practice the lessons learnt on your courses. That should be enough to occupy your weekends and holidays in the year before your departure! Sailing on a sport catamaran is particularly useful, as you will learn the most, and in the best way possible, about using and understanding you future cruiser. How do you manage the daggerboards, if your future catamaran is equipped with them? And is it best to have a spinnaker or a gennaker? All the literature in the world will never replace your experience aboard a catamaran, when it comes to making informed choices. And to gain experience, you must go sailing.
There are several possibilities for training yourself to sail a cruising catamaran. Firstly, you can call on the services of a genuine cruising school, equipped with catamarans. Ideally, you should choose one where you will be sailing on a catamaran similar to the one in your dreams. This will allow you to validate your choice, and to get your bearings more easily. There are then several possible options, from a weekend course to a full week, with several other trainees, or with the catamaran to yourselves, and even, why not, for a transat... The aim is, depending on your starting level, to get you to the wonderful, much-envied status of ‘skipper’, and thus independence... Note that most sailing schools divide their courses into three levels, from ‘introduction’ to ‘ocean sailing’.
Another solution: you have already bought your catamaran, and now you have to get to know it. Whatever your sailing experience, setting off in a catamaran you are not familiar with is no picnic. You are therefore strongly advised to call on a professional skipper, who will be able to help you get the measure of your new catamaran, and will accompany you for as long as it takes for you to be perfectly comfortable with the catamaran and its equipment. From experience, crews leaving from Europe with a skipper generally abandon him or her in the Canaries, certain that they have become independent, and with a good knowledge of their subject.
Finally, there is the most frequent case of people who have already sailed quite a lot in monohulls, but want to reassure themselves and validate their choice of changing to a catamaran. In this case, the simplest solution is to charter with a skipper, asking the charter company specifically for a skipper who is a good teacher, capable of teaching you all you need to know.
It’s simple, effective, and will allow you to combine something useful (learning) with something pleasant (the holidays). What more could you ask for?
Preparing safety aboard catamaran
Zero risk does not exist; this is a fact. You would therefore be totally irresponsible, and thus a very poor skipper, if you didn’t imagine critical situations aboard your catamaran.
Here again, the only solution to acquiring the right reactions consists of putting yourself in the real-life situation. Again, it is essential to follow certain particularly rewarding courses. To assess and understand the risks when cruising, there are numerous courses organized either by rescue services, leisure sailing associations, or even safety equipment distributors (for example, the ISAF survival courses organized by the MCV or the CEPIM in France are worthwhile). You will be reminded of heavy weather maneuvers, the operation of the search and rescue services, prevention of man overboard incidents, as well as how to inflate a liferaft or fire a distress flare. Always useful, because if you have the misfortune to have to do it for real, you certainly won’t have time to read the instructions.
Regarding safety, an original idea consists of playing out in advance the worst things that could happen to you when cruising. All the questions must be asked; there must be no superstitions or taboos concerning safety. Each person’s fears can then be analyzed in the calm and the warmth of the saloon. The answers you come up with, over and above reassuring the crew, will be the tools that if it proves necessary, will certainly allow you to avoid the worst
Finally, don’t worry. You made the right choice when you decided on a catamaran. A US Navy study showed that beyond 15° of heel, the crew loses a part of its abilities exponentially for every degree of heel. Catamarans therefore help to maintain a good level of reactivity, and thus safety. QED!
Your safety at sea rests on a tripod – the catamaran, the crew, and the sea. Deterioration of one of its elements must lead you to call into question the current passage. It is therefore important to know how to maintain your catamaran, to manage your crew, their skills and their health well, and finally to anticipate the development of your environment – weather, current, depth of water, coasts...
The essential courses
When considering ocean cruising, it is unthinkable to imagine going to sea without a good knowledge of the famous tripod on which your safety rests. You must therefore be able to maintain and repair your catamaran, look after your crew, and understand your environment.
Certain engine manufacturers or leisure sailors’ associations offer engine maintenance courses. This is a very useful course to do before you set off, to avoid finding yourself stuck in a lagoon on the other side of the world with a simple breakdown...that you don’t know how to repair. During these courses, you will also receive some useful advice on the spare parts to have aboard, which will avoid you having to wait for a common part in an unpleasant harbor on the other side of the world. Over and above safety, knowing how to maintain and/or repair the comfort elements which have become essential aboard our cruising catamaran – watermaker - plumbing or electrical elements – fridge, etc – will allow you to stay at anchor and enjoy life, rather than desperately searching for the approved repairer in a remote corner of the Pacific.
When cruising the oceans, a small scratch can easily deteriorate if it is not treated correctly immediately. A medical course is therefore strongly advised, and will above all reassure everyone. Essential!
Finally, the last point which is essential to your project’s effective stability is your environment. Meteorology is a subtle art, and you are advised to have a good knowledge of it when ocean cruising. You must be able to understand the weather files received aboard, as well as to interpret them correctly, then know how to analyze them according to your own observations.
As the sea remains a hostile environment which is by its nature unpredictable, you should provide standby systems, as apart from on our own coasts, it will rarely be enough to send a 'mayday' on channel 16 to get out of a critical situation. Redundancy will therefore begin with your own skills! Have a thorough knowledge of all the features of your GPS receiver, but remain aware of its limits. This implies knowing how to carry out coastal navigation using alignments, with the handbearing compass, a string and a chart, as well as being able to read the nautical landscape, maintain dead reckoning, and plot your position using astro-navigation when crossing the oceans. This means following a suitable training course, as placing all your trust in a computer, no matter how recent, is not possible when blue-water cruising...
In this respect, nowadays everyone navigates using digital technology. It is essential to learn about the use of the program, as well as the computer tool. Keep a paper log book, and have a RAID mirror backup, or an automatic backup to an external hard disk of your track, the digital log book and obviously, your digital charts. You will be taught all these ‘tricks’ in all good sailing schools, aboard, or now also on the internet.
Becoming a good Captain
Being a good Captain, capable of sailing fast and far is not enough when blue-water cruising. You must also, and even above all, be able to listen to the needs and wishes of the other members of the family, and give them their real importance. Life aboard a catamaran can be stressful for those who aren’t used to it, and there is no point in adding to this stress. Even – and especially – in an emergency, shouting is prohibited aboard, and the skipper’s calmness, even if it is only a pretense, is essential for everyone’s safety.
Last, but not least, (and I'm talking as a specialist), there’s no point in waiting for a mutiny by the crew to change your plans. Everyone must be able to put forward their point of view, even the youngsters... And decisions must be taken by a vote, so that everyone feels involved in the family adventure.