Organisation of daily life at sea

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Just like every year at this time, for certain people, the dream is becoming reality. After having left the north and west European coasts whilst the days were still mild, here you are at the gates of the ocean: crossing the Atlantic starts tomorrow. If you still have a few questions about the organisation of your life aboard during the days to come, (which appear to be the same, but are always different), I hope that this column will allow you to improve your preparation.

Daily life at sea is organised around sailing the boat and renewing the estimated position, steering and lookout watches, noting the daily weather forecast, plotting a position line in the morning or afternoon, and the daily meridian for the celestial navigation position, maintenance (repairing, greasing, etc…) and checking the boat’s safety. Once this aspect has been dealt with, the other activities naturally find their place, in particular fishing and cooking, not forgetting cleaning and washing-up (boat hygiene and cleanliness). This is the opportunity for the boys to lend a hand!  

Turning certain activities into a ritual is reassuring and allows you to bring some stability into surroundings which are by their very nature unstable and unpredictable. As far as I am concerned, on a long passage, dinner is the ritual where all the crew meet. It is often the moment in the day when everyone is wide awake.  

Respecting each person’s private moments is also essential. However, these should remain positive; sulking is a form of ‘private moment’ which is unhealthy and can quickly spoil life aboard.  

For watch organisation, I suggest short watches for shorthanded crews. The colder and/or longer the nights, the more frequent should be the changes. Leaving the Canaries as a crew of seven, including the skipper, for the first days there were two of us on night watches (3h), with a change of helmsman every 20 minutes and the free crew member dozing close to the helmsman. Later, night watches can be solo, if they are short (60 to 90 min). As far as possible, or in a crew of five persons or more, the skipper does not stand watches, so (s)he can be available when required by the crew. And with more than six persons (15 years old or more) aboard, a second person can be taken out of the watch system every three days (for a full night’s sleep – a dream, eh?) which also allows couples to have some private time together.

But why steer a boat which is equipped with an automatic pilot and a generator? First reason: steering keeps the watchkeeper alert. Secondly, as the person on watch is concentrating on sailing the boat, it allows him or her to stay in constant contact with the catamaran’s reaction to the changing sea and wind conditions. Even in the trade winds, these conditions are always changing . It is important for the safety of the boat and its crew that this information is updated permanently by the person on the helm, to keep the skipper informed or to act if necessary (changing the sail area, the course, the watch organisation). Thirdly, steering for a long time and regularly gives each crew member the opportunity to improve their skills at the helm, so that when it becomes essential to steer – pilot failure or weather conditions which are too difficult for the automatic pilot – the skipper can count on his or her crew.
Finally, note that for safety, it is essential that everyone wears an automatic life jacket and attaches themselves with a lifeline!
If you have to switch the automatic pilot on, attach your lifeline to the jackstay, if you haven’t already done so. I leave you to imagine the consequences of falling overboard at night, short-handed, and the emotions when the accident is finally noticed.

Check permanently the boat’s structure and watertightness.
Night watch: two things will help the oncoming watchkeeper wake up properly before taking over his or her watch (see note): making a hot drink for both themselves and the helm and carrying out a safety check by lifting the floor panels and checking the seacocks, the hatches and the portholes. Before returning to his sleeping bag, the off-going helmsman should carry out his safety check on deck (mast, halyards, sheets, bowsprit, etc. should be carefully observed), and if possible will remain available to help quickly, until the next watch change (by dozing close to the helm, in the nacelle or the cockpit). These safety checks are essential. During my first Atlantic crossing, whilst carrying out a safety check, a crew member noticed that the floorboards would soon be afloat, even though we had not hit a whale or a container: after a detailed investigation, we discovered that the flexible wet exhaust hose had split at the swan neck fitting: we were under engine on a calm sea and about to test the boats unsinkability…without knowing!

Change the clock regularly.
After four Atlantic crossings, I have found that correcting the ship’s clock by a quarter of an hour every 3 or 4 degrees of longitude allows midday aboard to be kept the same as that of the sun, which facilitates the watchkeeping rhythm and avoids standing a night watch in the middle of the afternoon!

Get your crew together and make a list of the recipes that each person can cook. Prepare the list of ingredients necessary and the quantities per person according to the length of the cruise and the possibilities of replenishing supplies. Draw up a menu plan at the same time, beginning with the most perishable foods and finishing with the most long-lasting. Include vegetables and fruit (especially citrus fruits) for vitamin C and dairy products for calcium at each meal!
To help your crew get their sea-legs, avoid dishes which are too greasy, spicy or strongly-flavoured for the first few days.
Once the shopping has been done, everything has to be stowed in the boat. Before bringing provisions aboard, get rid of as many boxes and as much packaging as you can; they are cosy little nests for cockroaches, as are the 'bricks' of juice and milk, whose 'ears' are refuges for our undesirable travelling companions…
Draw up a stowage plan taking into account the frequency of your needs, (I stow breakfast ingredients and afternoon snacks in the same, easily accessible, place), as well as the essential weight distribution: the heavy items should go in a central position at the bottom of the hulls, and the ends of the boat should be kept light to reduce pitching. This plan should be fixed in the saloon or on the chart table.

And don't forget : our organism needs 1ml of water to digest 1 calorie, so drink at least 1.5 litres/day.


Safety note:

Most accidents and man overboard incidents happen when a crew member is woken suddenly and goes on deck to help with an emergency manoeuvre. This is why you should wake the on-coming crew a quarter of an hour before the actual watch change.

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