Sail across the Atlantic safely – how to avoid the most common gear failures
Many of the most common yacht equipment failures – the ones that plague the ARC fleet every year – can be avoided.
Does wind matter? It might seem an off-hand remark perhaps when it comes to breakages; of course, when the tradewinds are strong we must expect to break more gear, but do the facts support this statement?
In 2015 the ARC fleet experienced superb tradewinds from day one. Certainly boats on the rhumb line route kept enjoying 25 knot winds all the way across, with only a slight drop off mid-way.
The weather gods were less kind in 2016 with many boats hunting for wind; the logs are full of reports of calm days and ‘all hands to bathe’ photos. Yet, when looking at the reported breakages the numbers of boats with failures are remarkably similar – just 38 per cent of boats reporting no breakages at all on both crossings.
So, the lesson from 2016 is that, while wind matters, ocean sailing in light conditions can also extract a toll of broken gear as the sloppy swell causes endless chafe and unexpected gybes as crews are more relaxed and possibly less attentive than when the wind blows.
It was sails, halyards and spars that suffered the most breakages – over half of the reported failures were on these areas: goosenecks breaking in uncontrolled gybes; pins working loose on blocks and goosenecks; spinnaker pole fittings and mast tracks breaking; halyards parting through chafe.
This highlights the need to pay attention to chafe prevention in boat preparations prior to the crossing, and whilst at sea during the passage. Correctly fitted preventers on the ends of booms; regular inspection of stress-points like the gooseneck and vang fittings. Several mast-tracks were ripped away – ensuring the pole is never at a right-angle to the track can help avoid this.
Pre-departure checks up the mast should help spot blocks that are not turning, and chafe points aloft. Dropping and regularly checking halyards will help. The old adage of “prevention is better than a cure” is especially true of ocean sailing.
Another good piece of advice is to ‘keep it tight’; not allowing the pole to wander, and keep the sheets and guys tight into the jaw of the pole cuts down on chafe. Remember that constant vigilance is required or chafe will sneak up and catch you out.
There is also the knock-on effect of breakages to halyards, furlers and spars; these failures often lead to sail damage as well.
Spinnakers and headsails dropped over the side; battens breaking in gybes or mast sliders ripping from sails. In light winds boats will have full sail up so there is more to damage. The sloppy swell can cause a gybe, or increase the shock load of a sudden ‘stop’ as a boat sails off a wave and into a trough, causing the slatting so damaging to sail and fittings.
Top tips for preparing your boat to sail across the Atlantic
Valeting sails before setting off on your Atlantic adventure is always sensible. A good sailmaker will check over your sails, repairing stitching and reinforcing stress points. Triple-stitching is a good insurance, and do remember that UV light degrades sail cloth and stitches over time.
Make sure you have a well-stocked sail repair kit on board: sticky Dacron, spinnaker tape, sailmaker’s palms and needles with thread. Very heavy sail cloth may require a punch to get the needle through.
Prevention is better than cure, so ensure you reef early and keep a good look out for squalls.
Other areas to pay particular attention to in preparation for ocean sailing are the batteries and charging systems. Whilst a failure here won’t prevent your arrival it will have a big impact on navigation and crew comfort.
Twelve boats, just 4 per cent of the fleet, reported failure with batteries and charging. Typically caused by old batteries, and the demands of 24/7 sailing/living – more lights, more navigation aids, more autopilot and more refrigeration.
Upgrading and renewing batteries; increasing capacity and generation to match the consumption profile and having a good monitoring system are essential for relaxed offshore cruising.
Another area worthy of special mention is steering. Thirteen boats reported problems with steering or rudders, not including autopilots. Of these, problems with cables and bearings were most common.
Regular inspection of the steering is important; look for dust building, a sign of wear, and feel the cable for the first signs of a broken strand in the wire. Having Dyneema line of a suitable length and thickness to match the pullies on your steering system will provide a replacement should a cable fail.
And do check and test that your emergency tiller fits and works. Every ARC boat has to demonstrate emergency steering in Las Palmas prior to the start.
In conclusion it is worth stressing that all of the failures, with the exception of a boat that sank, did not prevent boats from arriving safely in Saint Lucia. They may well have slowed the boats down, or reduced the level of comfort on board, but crews coped without outside assistance.
Steering failures and broken booms were the next most serious problems in 2016, but in each of these situations the hull was intact and the crew safe.
Having a good tool kit and being able to think of onboard solutions, or using alternatives to overcome the difficulty is the best preparation for ocean sailing – and of course, constant vigilance against chafe and other failing equipment to prevent minor damage becoming major.
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