Global HitchHiking IV: Crewing Around the World on Sailboats: Safety

This part of the series is about safety considerations when doing Global HitchHiking or crewing around the world on sailboats. Note, there will be a separate article that just covers safety issues and concerns when crewing as a woman. This article is mostly about general boat safety and making sure the boat you choose to sail on is a safe boat for you to go thousands of miles on, if you so choose. It will also cover social safety, or being safe with the skipper and crew you sail with.

Experience and Qualifications of the Skipper

The first thing you have to ask yourself is whether you’ll be comfortable, from a safety perspective, sailing with the skipper who owns the boat you’re looking to crew on. There really are no minimum qualifications for a skipper who buys a boat and starts sailing around the world. Most skippers will want to become proficient sailing their boat since they have invested time and money in it, but there is no guarantee of their proficiency. Just as they will be interested in your experience and qualifications, you should be equally interested in what experience and qualifications they have. Find out how long they have been sailing and where they have sailed. Ask if they have any certifications such as ASA or RYA certifications or perhaps a 6-Pack (US-based) or a Yachtmaster (International). I wrote a little about these qualifications in Part II of this series as something you could consider doing yourself, but it’s equally important for the skipper to have pursued some technical knowledge to sail their boat.

The Boat Itself

The next thing you need to ask the skipper is about the boat itself. Here are a list of things you should be curious about. For you to ask about these things is not only good from a safety perspective, but it will also let the skipper know you are aware of these important safety features and you have knowledge of sailing. Note, all of these items should be covered in a safety briefing once you actually board the boat and before you set sail, but it’s good to know that they are a consideration before deciding to join the boat.

  1. Does the boat have a lifeboat? Is it regularly serviced? Does the boat have any grab bags or emergency bags in case you need to leave the boat in a hurry?
  2. Does the boat have an EPIRB ( Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)? Is the battery okay on it?
  3. How old is the standing rigging of the boat and when is the last time it was serviced? (The standing rigging is what holds up the mast.)
  4. Does the boat have a working engine? What is the horsepower? Is it maintained properly? Have the oil and fuel filters been changed recently? What about the water cooling system filters? Does it have any issues you should be aware of? Does it start without any special requirements? What is the capacity of the fuel tank? Is there a generator in addition to the main engine for generating power? All the questions above are relevant to the generator as well. Does the boat have the appropriate tools for performing maintenance on the boat, such as changing the fuel and oil filters?
  5. Do all the sails work properly? Are there sail patching tools and materials? Does the boat have any spare sails?
  6. Does the boat have an auto-pilot? Does it also have an alternative auto-pilot, such as a wind vane?
  7. Does the boat have hydraulic steering? If so, is the hydraulic steering maintained properly and has it been checked lately for leaks?
  8. Does the boat have an emergency steering system and has it ever been used or at least ensured that it can be used in an emergency? Have they considered alternative emergency steering systems, such as buckets or sea anchors?
  9. How many seacocks does the boat have and how are they closed? Are there bungs for emergency stopping of water coming into the boat?
  10. How is the electrical system working? Are the batteries functioning at full capacity? Is the solar/wind/engine able to keep the batteries topped up so the boat doesn’t have any electrical problems with the navigational instruments and the lights? Are we able to charge our devices without any problems?
  11. Does the boat have spare parts for all the systems on the boat? Electrical, Propane, Engine, Plumbing & Waste, WaterMaker.
  12. How is the bilge and how do the bilge pumps work? Has the boat ever had problems with the bilges not emptying properly?
  13. Does the boat have a water maker? What is the capacity of the water tanks? If no water maker, what are the plans for water? Is there any emergency water (separate bottles in case something goes wrong with the water or water maker)?
  14. Does the boat have propane systems for cooking and other things? Does it have safety shutoff valves?
  15. Does the boat have flares? Are they current or expired?
  16. How big is the anchor? Is there a backup anchor? Stern anchor? How much chain and rode are on the main anchor?
  17. Does the boat have a drogue or sea anchor?
  18. Navigation: Is there a GPS? Is there a backup GPS? Is there a Chart Plotter? Backup Chart Plotter (iPad with Navigation software, for example)? Are there paper charts? Compass? Sextant?
  19. Does the VHF Radio work properly? Is there a Single Side Band Radio?
  20. Is there a satellite system? Is there a satellite phone? Does it provide internet access?
  21. Are there fire extinguishers? How many and locations? Fire blanket?
  22. Are there life jackets? Do you need to have your own life jacket? Safety harnesses and jacklines?
  23. Are there any first aid kits?
  24. Does the boat have a dinghy and dinghy motor?

Real Life Example of Why I Ask These Questions

The first boat I was on, I really enjoyed the skipper and all the crew. However, it was my first boat and I didn’t really take the safety questions above seriously enough and I didn’t put my foot down when there were shortcomings. The boat had been in the water for 10 years, just sitting, and the skipper was replacing electrical and plumbing and the motor was still being rebuilt when we arrived in November. There was another couple with us, totalling 5, including the skipper and his wife, and the couple ended up leaving after a couple weeks because they didn’t feel the boat was ready to make an ocean crossing. I agreed with them, but we were still in the ICW and it really wasn’t a big deal. I looked at it as a learning experience and I felt like everything would be okay. We had a problem with the alternator. We had to get it replaced. No big deal.

When we got to Miami, we attempted to cross the Gulf Stream to get to the Bahamas and one of the shrounds broke (standard rigging problem) at the chainplate. The bolt that connected the shroud to the chain plate had rusted through. We turned around and headed back to Miami and inspected all of the chain plates and shrounds and all of them had rusted bolts in them. So we replaced them all.

We made a 2nd attempt to the Bahamas a few days after making those repairs, and the weather was rougher than we expected so we turned around and came back to No-Name Harbor in Miami. No sooner than we had anchored, the steering on the boat went out. After further investigation, the hydraulic lines and fittings for the hydraulic steering were leaking, and enough had leaked that the steering stopped working up on the deck. So we spent another week trying to rectify that situation, although we couldn’t get everything resolved because there was a combination of metric and standard pipes and fittings, but we did the best we could. We also bought a large container of hydraulic fluid we could use to top off the hydraulics if we needed to.

Another problem with this boat was the mainsail was torn. So we only had the jib sail and the motor for moving through the water. To be fair, it was an older sail and we tore it trying to get it up one day in Florida. At this point you’re probably thinking, why am I still on this boat. Once again I committed to helping this skipper get the boat to Aruba. And I try to live up to my commitments. And it was mostly a big adventure to me.

Something else about this situation was that the skipper wasn’t looking at sailing this boat ever again once he got it to Aruba. He simply wanted to turn it into a bed and breakfast boat. So he couldn’t justify spending 5–10,000 dollars on a new sail, particularly since he really just wanted to get it to Aruba and that was it. He wasn’t looking to sail it around the Caribbean or anywhere else for that matter.

We made it through the Bahamas and Haiti and then we bought some bad fuel in Haiti that we didn’t realize was bad until we were 1 day out and both the main motor and the generator stopped running. I attempted to change the fuel filter, but didn’t have the appropriate tools, so I was unable to do so. We were stuck. With only the jib sail, and we were heading into the wind, we were really getting nowhere and we didn’t have clean fuel, nor a way to change the fuel filter. So we did the only thing we could at that time, we made a PanPan and asked if there was anybody in the area who could assist us with fuel and a tool to change the fuel filter.

I feel like we didn’t do the due diligence of making sure the fuel was okay or having the appropriate tools on board to try and change the fuel filters. But I think it’s a perfect example of why all of the questions above should be asked, even if they might seem overkill. Don’t make the same mistakes I made by not asking those questions and using the answers to make a safety decision about whether to sail on that boat or not. I’m glad I did sail on this boat. It really brought home how important these questions are, and I’ve never been on another boat with problems like this, so the safety question work and are crucial to your safety.

To make an even longer story short, we got the fuel and the tool we needed, got the bad fuel out of the tanks, the new fuel into the tanks, the filters changed, and we motor-sailed on to Aruba. After the longest passage I’ve ever been on (not in days, but in stress and strain), we arrived 7 days later, worn out and frazzled. We made it, but there were many times during those 7 days when I wasn’t sure we would. And I learned a lot about asking the right questions before you get on a boat!

Social Safety

Social safety, feeling safe or comfortable with the people you are working with, is also very important. You will be traveling with them for many days, in a small space, where you will most likely be on top of each other half the time, and you’ll get cranky from lack of sleep. You may get tired of eating their food or washing their dishes. So it’s important that you try to make sure that you’ll be comfortable with them.

Spend some time trying to figure out if it’s going to be a good fit for you or not, personality wise, and safety wise. Will your personality fit well with the skipper or other crew members? Does the skipper or crew members have a temper? Is it a dry boat or will there be alcohol consumed on the boat? How do they treat other people? I’m assuming that before jumping on a boat you will take a little bit of time to get to know the people you’ll be sailing with. This isn’t always possible, but sometimes if you don’t take the time to make sure you’re going to get along with the skipper and crew you may find yourself in a situation that you really regret.

This happened to me. I was in Tahiti and was trying to find my next boat. I was kind of in a hurry because the boat I was on had guests coming and I was either going to need to rent a room somewhere or find a boat leaving soon. Hindsight is 20/20, but I wish I had just rented a room for a few weeks or a month and taken my time to find a boat instead of feeling pressure (self applied, by the way) to get on another boat and head out right away. The boat was a beautiful boat and it was well maintained. But I didn’t pay attention to the personality warning signs of the skipper. And because it was just him and me, I really should have paid more attention to how he treated people and his quirks.

For example, I noticed when we were eating at a restaurant, there was a boy playing in the pond next to us being a little unruly and his parents were nowhere to be found. The skipper looked at the boy and told him to f*$k-off! I was shocked, but part of me thought, well, the boy was being unruly. But I should have recognized his temper and impatience then.

I ended up being on board this boat for 3 weeks, from Tahiti to Tonga, and we honestly ended up hating each other before it was done. I don’t say that lightly. I get along with almost everybody I meet. You could ask many people about me and most of them would say that I’m good natured and easy to get along with. But this skipper was cantankerous and mean spirited. He would have a conversation with you, asking you what seemed like genuine questions about you and your history and then he would use them to tear you down and make fun of you.

It got to the point when we arrived in Bora Bora, I immediately jumped off the boat with my flippers and snorkel mask and swam from boat to boat, asking if they needed anybody to crew with them. I ended up sailing on with him to Tonga and he left his boat there to go home to Australia, and I joined another boat with a skipper and crew member, which ended up being one of the best 3 months of my sailing experience. We not only sailed from Tonga to Malaysia together, but my skipper invited me to stay with him for free in his guest room until I found my next boat.

What did I learn from that experience? That it’s just as important to consider social safety and whether or not you get along with the people you will be sailing with or not. It’s as important as determining the physical safety of the boat. You want to make sure you can get along with whomever you’re going to be with, perhaps all alone for weeks on end. And you want to feel safe with them.

I hope you enjoyed this installment of the Global HitchHiking series. If you have any question or suggestions, or if you feel like I missed a safety item above, please don’t hesitate to comment below.

To see the other 4 articles in this series about Global HitchHiking, click on the following links:

To see the entire series on Medium, go here: Global HitchHiking. Remember to sign up to receive updates. WordPress does update my Living Large by Living Little, Facebook page, so you can either like it to get updates, or subscribe by email at the link below, or you can follow me at the following places: Facebook, Tumblr, TwitterInstagram.

4 thoughts on “Global HitchHiking IV: Crewing Around the World on Sailboats: Safety

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