Preparation for voyaging long distances tends to fall into two categories – adding shiny new equipment is the one we think of most often, however, it’s also important to ensure the vessel itself is intrinsically well prepared for offshore sailing.

Offshore sailing boat

Preparing a boat for an extended passage starts a long time before you start buying shiny additional equipment.

A good place to start is with a fully check of all the elements and systems – rig, engine, electrics and so on. It’s also worth thoroughly checking the vessel’s structure so that any problems can be remedied at an early stage in the process.

General preparation

When heading offshore on a yacht of any size it’s important to take the view that you may encounter heavy weather of a severity that the boat may get knocked down to 90 degrees or beyond. It’s therefore important that any heavy items that could move around and damage the vessel or crew are firmly secured. This includes floorboards, the contents of lockers, batteries, gas bottles, ground tackle, fuel and water tanks, and even provisions stowed in the galley.

Equally, loosing a washboard in heavy weather could spell disaster, so the simple idea of attaching them to the boat with a lanyard makes absolute sense. And the companionway should be capable of being secured from above and below deck.


This companionway appears to meet all the key criteria – although the boat has a walk-though transom, the companionway is no lower than the sidedeck. But is the washboard attached with a lanyard? And when secured closed can the hatch be opened both from deck and from below?

In a similar vein, pipework should be double clipped to skin fittings and a tapered softwood plug of the correct size should be tied to the fitting. This level of detail may sound like overkill, but time is crucial in an emergency situation and if the boat has rolled, the plug could end up literally anywhere. Alternatively, on a less dramatic level, if the boat is filling with water, a softwood plug that’s not tied in place could simply float away.

Similarly bilge pump handles should be secured by a lanyard and at least two pumps should be fitted, one that can be operated from below and a second that can be operated on deck, without opening a locker lid. Knowing where all the safety, emergency and first aid kit is stowed is also important – so a stowage plan should be kept in a clearly visible location.

Skin fittings

Skin Fittings: Pipe work should be double clipped and a softwood plug of the correct size tied to the fitting.

Emergency steering

Beyond checking that the emergency tiller of wheel-steered boat can be fitted easily, emergency steering is something that many owners of cruising yachts are guilty of neglecting. However, the possibility of total rudder loss is something that should be prepared for in advance – racing crews on offshore races, for instance, are required to be aware of alternative methods of steering the yacht in any sea condition in the event of rudder loss and at least one method must have been proven to work on board the yacht. The regulations also require all vessels to carry an emergency tiller, unless it’s a tiller steered boat that’s normally steered by an unbreakable metal tiller.

Since extreme conditions are likely to affect a large number of boats in a racing fleet simultaneously, the racing community has good data about what can go wrong from which we can all learn useful lessons. It’s worth downloading a copy of the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations to see whether your boat would comply.

Bilge pump

Bilge pump: It should be possible to operate the bilge pump with all cockpit seats, hatches and companionways shut.

Reefing systems

A long voyage means there will often only be one person on watch at any given time, so setting the boat up so that as much as the sail handling as possible can be done without assistance will make for a much easier passage. On any well set up boat of up to around 50ft one person – suitably practiced and experienced – should be able to tuck a reef into the mainsail, or shake one out, in no more than 90 seconds.

Single line reefing helps considerably here and can be retrofitted to many booms. Alternatively it’s also possible to lead pennants from the reef cringles on the luff of the sail back to the cockpit. This also has the advantage that there is considerably less friction in the system, although there are more lines to handle. Another option is to have everything – halyard, reefing pennants, topping lift and kicking strap – handled at the mast, in a more traditional arrangement. This has the drawback of losing the security of working in the cockpit, but has the benefit of minimising friction and therefore reducing the physical effort needed.

Storm and heavy weather sails

Heavy weather and storm sails are needed to ensure a boat can make ground upwind in strong and gale force winds if necessary. A deep reef for the mainsail, reducing the luff length by at least 40 per cent is a minimum, and a storm trysail is a worthwhile investment that will virtually eliminate the possibility of mainsail damage in adverse conditions.

Ideally storm jibs should be sized so that their area is not greater than 5 per cent of the height of the foretriangle squared, with luff no longer than 65 per cent of the foretriangle height. Well reefed roller furling headsails don't set efficiently for making ground to windward in strong winds, so a heavy weather jib that can set on a separate inner forestay is also a worthwhile addition.

If you’re planning to sail in the Med don’t be lulled into a false sense of security – you can meet strong winds, reaching mean speeds of 40 knots or more, whether it’s the Mistral in the Golfe du Lyon, the Bora in the Adriatic, the Aegean’s Meltemi, or simply the result of a low pressure system at either end of the season.

Light weather and downwind sails

While it’s vital to be able to ride out heavy weather, you’re much more likely to encounter light winds on passage than a severe gale. When reaching or running in 5-10 knots of breeze a cruising chute or spinnaker makes the difference between drifting at only a couple of knots under mainsail and genoa, or sailing at a sedate but respectable four, five or even six knots. As well as sailing being more fun than motoring, this will also reduce the amount of diesel you need to carry, or reward you with shorter passage times.

The Ocean Cruising Club, organisers of the annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers is also a great source of information: Cruising Club’s World ARC starts from St Lucia and bear in mind that many of these features are designed in as standard on boats built to sail the oceans, such as some of the vessels featured here: Five Classic Cruisers: Sigma, Rustler, Rival, Oyster, Moody or 5 wonderful Westerlys: Centaur, GK24, Discus, Fulmar and Oceanlord.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.