While a well-prepared boat is a vital prerequisite for long distance cruising here’s a selection of items that will make the voyage safer, more comfortable and more fun.
1. Self steering
Unless you're sailing with an unusually large crew an efficient self steering system is vital.
Traditionally this meant a wind vane system, and that remains the best choice for boats that are fitted out for rugged simplicity and reliability. Those with a higher level of sophistication and plenty of battery charging capacity are now as likely, and in some cases more likely, to opt for an electric pilot.
In either case don't be tempted to skimp on the specification - doing so will give you a slower and less comfortable ride, as well as increasing the likelihood of breakages. It's worth noting that even the best self-steering systems struggle with an unbalanced sail plan – so it's important to make sure sails are well trimmed and are reefed as necessary to suit the wind conditions. For more detail on working out which system suits you best, see: How to pick the right self steering gear.
2. Drogue or sea anchor
Although the science of weather forecasting – particularly medium term forecasts of 3-10 days – is constantly improving, it remains difficult to predict wind speeds with the accuracy needed for planning long voyages. A particular problem is that relatively small changes in the atmosphere can result in a difference of up to 10 knots of wind speed. In addition, when low pressure dominates the weather outlook, the situation must be regarded as fluid and subject to change.
This means that on any long passage you have to be prepared to meet severe conditions. While many boats will happily heave to, or lie ahull, in 35 to 40 knots of wind, there are speeds beyond which neither of these strategies is viable. In such severe conditions it is also preferable to have crew below deck, with the hatches battened down, so that no one is vulnerable to being swept off the deck in the event of a knockdown. In these conditions lying to a sea anchor off the bow, or towing a drogue from the stern, will enable the boat to look after itself, while also significantly reducing the risk of capsize.
3. Ample water supplies
There are few things more luxurious than not having to worry about water consumption while under way. While there are many people who understandably love their watermakers, big water tanks and a careful attitude to wastage can save the hassle and expense. In particular electric water pumps tend to be very wasteful – fitting manual foot pumps as the primary means of pumping fresh water at sea will dramatically reduce consumption. Equally a saltwater tap in the galley, again with a manual pump, will save on freshwater when you are well offshore.
4. Upgraded battery charging
With many boats running numerous electrical devices, keeping the batteries topped up on a long passage can be a challenge. However there are many options that mean there should be no need to rely on the engine for this.
In the past wind generators were the mainstay for the power needs of many long-term cruisers and still have their fans today. They do, however, also have a number of drawbacks – when sailing downwind, for instance, the reduction in the apparent wind speed means their output is quite low.
The cost of solar panels has fallen rapidly over the past decade and they are increasingly becoming the primary means of charging on many boats. On passage this can be supplemented by further inputs from a towed generator, or from the type of hydro-generator that’s increasingly common to see on long distance racing yachts.
5. Shade and ventilation
The importance of decent shade must never be under estimated, particularly if you plan on sailing in the tropics or in the Mediterranean summer.
The answer is to fit a bimini, especially if you plan on sailing with a large crew and therefore need the entire cockpit to be shaded. It's worth adding mesh windows in the top so that you can see to trim the sails. It's also worth specifying a design that is easy to fold up – you'll be glad of being able to reduce windage when anchored in a gale.
A wind scoop – or even two – is invaluable in creating a cooling breeze below deck on hot days, and is great to keep the air moving in sleeping cabins on sticky nights. Although they work best when swinging free at anchor, they can also be used in a marina or when moored stern-to a quay Mediterranean style.
6. Tools and spares
Long distance cruising inevitably means a large degree of self sufficiency and getting involved in a lot of maintenance.
A comprehensive and well-organised tool kit and supply of spares is therefore essential, both for routine maintenance and to deal with unexpected breakages and failures. It’s also worth carrying the manuals and parts diagrams for all the items you carry on board, from winches to fridges.
For essential equipment, such as the engine it’s worth carrying at least three sets of key spares such as filters, drive belts and water pump impellers. This means that when an item is used from the boat’s stores there’s no need to change your itinerary in order to replace it.
7. Heavy duty ground tackle, lines and fenders
When you reach your destination – or intermediate ports – you’ll need to tie up or anchor safely, often in a more exposed situation than in your home waters. Three anchors is generally considered to be the minimum for a long-distance voyaging boat, with the smallest two being the size recommended for the boat and the largest a size or two bigger. Plenty of rode is equally important, with at least 75m on the bower anchor. You can read more on anchoring here: Anchors: a new Generation – Bugel, Manson, Supreme, Rocna, Spade.
If mooring alongside, you won’t always find neatly manicured wooden pontoons to lie against. A good supply of over-sized fenders minimises the chances of sustaining damage lying against a rough concrete wall in harbours that experience swell or surge. Equally, plenty of heavy mooring lines help to give peace of mind.
8. Safety and emergency equipment
These are the items that you will hope never to need, but will be really glad to have if you do encounter problems. These include a liferaft, distress flares, an EPRIB and personal locator beacons, bolt cutters or other heavy-duty means of severing standing rigging in the event of mast failure, a decent first aid kit and so on.
On the face of it, this list may sound quite similar to items already carried for local sailing, however items of a higher specification are likely to be required. For instance the liferaft should be of an offshore specification and it's worth considering adding hydrostatic releases for the raft and the EPIRB, so that they are deployed automatically in the event of the boat sinking.
Once out of range of mobile phone signals and VHF radio, if you want voice or text communication you'll need either a satellite phone or SSB long-range radio. Opinions vary as to which is the most useful, but generally boats cruising European and Mediterranean waters find relatively little use for SSB. In contrast, those crossing the Atlantic and cruising the Caribbean will find plenty of others using SSB, for social arrangements, weather, email and more.
To my mind this is perhaps the most important element of all – a determined and resourceful crew, that’s not pressured by deadlines, can take in their stride many of the unexpected problems that can all too easily turn into a disaster.
When things start to go wrong it's very easy to get totally consumed in solving that problem, while losing sight of the wider perspective. The most relaxed skippers often have a plan B (and in some cases even plan C) to cover what they anticipate being the most likely problems they might encounter at any point.
At the same time, it's also worth considering what the worst-case scenario is – looked at rationally often this won't be anything like as bad as it first appears. In many cases boats have been abandoned when the damage or failures they had sustained were, in reality, more of an inconvenience that might double the length of time needed to reach port, rather than creating an outright emergency.
For more inspiration, boats and ideas for long distance cruising, see: How to prepare a yacht for offshore sailing, or Choosing the right family cruising boat.