Transat - Breakages and risk mitigation
The day of our departure from Mindelo was not the day this adventure started.
This adventure has been in the making for years now, pretty much since we bought The Dream and moved on board.
It all started with a dream (no pun intended), an idea, one that would in our opinion require time, preparation, effort, sacrifice, investment, breakages, tears and joy.
When we set about on this passage we knew that this was not just yet another long passage. This was a challenging route driven by three moments (the northern hemisphere trade winds, the doldrums and the southern hemisphere trade winds), each with its own sets of challenges and risks.
We knew this wasn’t going to be easy or necessarily pleasant.
We knew the likelihood of breakages was high, but all that mattered was preparation and risk mitigation. The problems that could arise could also be divided into three topics: fatigue, failure, and forecast.
FATIGUE (wear and tear), was the top-ranking challenge, be it crew fatigue or equipment fatigue. Chances were, this was going to be the origin of most problems.
Repeated use of equipment in harsh conditions is almost granted to lead to equipment failure. It’s not by mere chance that every year the different rallies that cross the Atlantic report problems with standing rigging, running rigging, steering and electrical. And I think there is a lot to learn or to become aware of from reading through those reports.
A lot of the boats that join these rallies don’t usually make long passages that expose the hidden gremlins that even a hard sailing season doesn’t necessarily shows. And by a mere conversation with owners and crew, we seem to realise a great number are quite a marina dependent in case of bad weather and onboard living-related systems.
We had hopes that our experience in the last 5/6 years with multiple days offshore passages and living at anchor even in big blows would have already exposed us to the gremlins (including under-stress teamwork), so it was just a matter of having backup systems and understanding the risks to each system and what could be done to reduce those risks.
A tired crew makes judgment mistakes and poor choices. Reacts slowly and might miss the first signs of trouble.
This is one of those things that rises a lot of debate from sleeping patterns to watch schedules and extra crew requirements.
Again, we had hoped that our experience had taught us what works for us, our limits and capabilities without illusions. We know I can go to sleep easily at any time of the day while John struggles a bit with sleeping while underway and the strange schedules, so we have been through the years to try and find a balance that suits us.
The topic of the extra crew is a hot one. Because introducing extra people in a “well-balanced team", in close quarters for a prolonged time can be a recipe for trouble and make things more difficult than need to be. However, the right crew can also be the key to success.
A fine act of balancing personality, experience and attitude.
We had decided we didn’t have access in our circle of the necessary people and with availability to our needs. Plus we wanted to prove to ourselves we could do this just the two of us, even if it meant it would be more challenging.
With this in mind, there was only one road for us to take. We needed to have an extremely conservative approach to this passage, even if it meant not taking full advantage of the sailing capabilities of our boat and taking longer than needed to arrive at our destination.
This passage was not a sprint it was a marathon, a challenge of endurance for us and the boat.
As a form of risk mitigation, we decided to try and sail mostly with the Jib only. And if using the mainsail at all to keep it on 1 reef to reduce the sail area.
This would be of utmost importance as it reduced immediately the risk to the boom, the boom gooseneck and standing rigging. It would also help make sail handling easier when tired and sleep deprived, as well as during squalls, stronger winds and bigger sea states.
We had expected the first third of the passage to be mostly with an AWA (Apparent Wind Angle) between 120-160 degrees port which would suit this decision. It would be more efficient for us to sail with our Jib using a whisker pole anyway, and we could sacrifice some of our beam reach capabilities, even though it cost some speed.
With the sail plan decided, mitigating the fatigue on so many fronts already the other potentially “victim” system was the steering. On this front, we had hoped we had prepared well enough in terms of backups.
One of our first upgrades way back in 2017 had been installing a Hydrovane wind pilot, this item alone should serve multiple needs like reducing power consumption on passage, it is a pilot that can replace the autopilot altogether, by having its own rudder it could provide steerage in case of a lost rudder. John had made amazing homework on this finding that this is an item insurance companies like to see on Bluewater sailboats, especially in double-handed crews and together with all that research he had done he had found several cases where people had successfully used the wind pilot while motoring by using a secondary autopilot like a tiller pilot (cheaper than installing another autopilot) with the advantage of with one purchase covering steerage under engine power for the wind vane but also for the emergency tiller in case of failure of the steering cabling!
We had used the Hydrovane the first two years after moving on board but being in the Mediterranean we had stopped using it due to the erratic winds, heavy boat traffic and pure laziness.
But now in the Atlantic, we were rediscovering its advantages.
Despite all the mitigation and the cares, it would be the steerage that would be the “weak” link on our passage, even though just before departure we serviced the chains and gears with new grease and tightened all components.
The fatigue dished us out two “playing cards” in the form of Sargassum seaweed patches that started accumulating on our keel, rudder, sail drive and wind pilot vane.
We started having problems with the wind pilot steerage on day 3, it just wouldn’t steer to the wind angle we wanted, and it would start wandering erratically, so at first, we blamed it on our exhaustion and the lack of skills in trimming it. After all, we had had a rough start and other problems already. What we didn’t realise immediately due to tiredness was that the culprit was not our newfound lack of skills but the beautiful and annoying Sargassum seaweed accumulating in huge balls around the wind pilot rudder. We didn’t think the same would be happening to our keel, rudder and sail drive and not even our ridiculous loss of speed alerted us to the real problem.
There goes the poor judgment of a tired mind at sea.
We followed what felt like an easy solution to our wind pilot steerage, we turned the autopilot on. Our concern with the autopilot fatigue had disappeared, we didn’t connect the dots immediately between doing 3-4 knots despite the wind conditions and the huge pressure on the rudder. It didn’t look like we were experiencing immense weather helm, a crucial mistake because we had not even tried to hand steer. Otherwise, it would have been crystal clear as it was when the failure by fatigue happened. So after 2 days of working under pressure to no surprise (although we were extremely surprised) the autopilot overheated and stopped working.
Of course in that moment of stress and slight panic, we understood the problem and saw our huge mistake.
The solution was actually quite simple and a rested mind would have come to it within hours of first experiencing issues with the wind pilot steerage. We needed to ensure the wind pilot rudder was clear of Sargassum seaweed, something easily achievable with a boat hook although a tediously repetitive task.
The failure of the autopilot presented a huge problem despite our success in returning to the wind pilot use. When we reached the doldrums where motoring is pretty much guaranteed we would need a pilot for the engine to avoid a minimum of 2 days and nights of hand steering. That’s where that secondary tiller autopilot would come into play.
John built a simple structure where to mount it and voila , it was almost as if we had never lost the main autopilot. We could even use the tiller pilot under sail in light winds (don’t think these tiller pilots are very suitable for a boat as big as us under sail).
Despite the failure caused by our fatigue that led to equipment fatigue, preparation meant we had a backup plan that worked.
FAILURE (by failure I mean unpredictable failure caused by an outside force) being so unpredictable and with such a range of reasons beyond the obvious wear and tear caused by fatigue is a difficult one to mitigate and prepare for.
There are only so many spare parts one can take.
Besides the usual stock of engine consumables, we focused on having alternatives and options to the main systems or main points of concern.
Communications: have an emergency VHF antenna in case of a lightning strike, or broken mast; two portable VHF radios and satellite communications.
Steerage: Dyneema cable to jury rig steering cable, wind pilot with dedicated rudder, spare/secondary autopilot.
Refrigeration: two fridges, two freezers.
Power generation: engine, solar and a portable generator.
12v system: main battery bank of good size and starter battery of good size capable of running the essential navigation equipment if needed.
240v system: 12v battery bank and portable generator.
Rescue and survival: 2 life rafts, EPIRB, PLB, satellite communications.
Just to point out some of the options we had taken.
We would be stricken by sudden failure on this passage, but to our surprise, it would happen in our first 24h and not after many days at sea.
Just within hours of leaving São Vicente island in the Cape Verde’s our BMS malfunctioned and shut down the inverter. This meant we had no access to 240v although the 12v system seemed to be just fine.
In this case so early in our journey, there were a few questions that we needed to think about:
Was there a risk to life? NO
Was it a deal breaker? NO
Could it be repaired if turning back? Hmm if just a cable replacement probably yes, if it requires a specific part no.
Was it possible or reasonable to go back? NO, would have to beat upwind into 30knot winds and heavy sea.
Was there a backup plan? YES
With these in mind, we decided to keep going.
Not having 240v on board was going to have a big impact on our mood, our emotions and comfort but it wasn’t an essential system.
It meant that if persistent weather and sea state remained it would not be possible to cook, heat up precooked meals or make coffee and tea, but we had prepared enough food to last us for 8 to 11 days depending on our appetite (usually we eat a lot less on passage than usual), and all of it with the exception of one dish was perfectly acceptable to eat at room temperature if needed. It was a huge sacrifice in our comfort no doubt, but doable because it was just the two of us and no crew. With crew, it would mean pre-prepared food would not last us that long.
To be honest we would have never set on this kind of passage without a backup plan. Having changed to electric cooking was no different from before, on board The Dream we use to have 3options: BBQ and standard cooktop (both powered by LPG) and induction (powered by batteries or generator). Having changed to an electric galley simply meant that now only the BBQ runs on LPG, while all the galley equipment runs either from the batteries or from the generator. So it was really just the case of having the right conditions to put up with the generator placed somewhere where it didn’t fume us or forced us to go inside while it was running (while on passage the two of us are 95% of the time in the cockpit).
We truly only had good conditions to run the generator on one day, we could have also run it for half of the days of the passage if we had needed it, but we were prepared for sacrifice and ease of mind (mine, because John would have run it most days probably).
FORECAST, with today's access to satellite communications and weather routing software having a reasonably good idea of what the weather gods have in mind, is no longer a “dark” art of cloud pattern guessing and barometer readings. Although still quite expensive it is no longer prohibitive.
The Dream was equipped with a Clipper Navtex, a cool gizmo that receives weather reports (and all other navigation warnings) at sea without any service or maintenance costs, however recently our device stopped receiving messages and we still haven’t managed to get that sorted. I guess with the newer technologies it’s one of those types of equipment falling into the past.
Having access to satellite-pushed weather forecasts and some use of communications at sea was a top priority for us and there are very few boats embarking on these journeys without one of the few options on the market.
We opted for the IridiumGO via PredictWind and have enjoyed the service reliability and support from their team. The price is not so much… It’s not cheap to run and really we could only afford it for major passages.
In this passage in particular we found that throughout the 10 days (that meant 21 forecast downloads) and few hours it took us to complete this journey that we needed to focus our attention on two models.
The most accurate picture of the weather we were experiencing in real-time required following the PWG model on the tabs for Wind and Gusts and the PWE model on the tabs for the CAPE and rain.
I risk saying this combination of the forecast two models had 95% reliability on 9 days out of the 10 days and few hours of the passage, with that one day where reality was the true average between the same two models.
***In the spirit of sharing our dreams and experiences we have shared this blog post in the NOFOREIGNLAND.COM website sailors community.