Offshore Sailing


Alan mid Atlantic

For the last five years I have been skipper and owner of "Ariana" a Classic 55ft cruiser/ racer launched in 1971 and designed by legendary naval architects Sparkman & Stephens and built by the equally legendary Nautor's in Finland.

Ariana - Swan 55

I originally bought her to take part in the 50th anniversary of the first Whitbread round the world race, but decided to take the project in a different direction - more on that in our article on low carbon cargo.

I decided that I would embark on shorter, but nonetheless, challenging offshore sailing adventures.

To be honest I was completely green when I began, despite having completed my RYA offshore exams the previous year, and was filled with trepidation the first time I put together a scratch crew, for my (unbeknown to the crew) first venture offshore, for a brutal New Years Day sail from Vilamoura in Portugal, to the Azores Archipelago, January 2019.

We were greeted with 8 metre seas, and 50kt winds, and although I didn't show it, I was absolutely petrified my first voyage offshore would be my last. I was kicking myself for even thinking that this would be a safe passage, and was wondering how everyone's families would react when they heard the news that Ariana had been lost with all hands.

Needless to say, that didn't happen, and after a pretty terrifying round trip, we all settled into bar to swap stories, and drink quite a few beers, as sailors do!

Roll forward 5 years, and I am now sitting down to reflect on what I have learned. As I was beginning my list, I realised that I have never done anything in my life from which I have built so many skills, most of which were learned after I passed my exams.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and with that in mind, set out to make sure I was the safest sailor I could be, despite not knowing all the dangers I faced.

When you are training, there is always someone else there to take responsibility for you, the boat, and the other crew, but once you are "qualified" you're on your own. You are the one in charge, and if anything happens to the boat, other water users, or the crew, you are responsible! It was a terrifying transition - one minute a happy student, the next an anxious owner.

The first night on board was one of the worst I had ever experienced. Would the boat sink? Would the boat come free from her mooring? What is that sound? What is that smell? I eventually fell into a panicked sleep, and woke up feeling no better. I had a look at the control panel which was all written in Dutch, and tried to work out why there was an alarm going off, but in my head there was another alarm going off. From "Why the hell did you a buy a boat? You're an idiot, you haven't got a clue what you're doing", to " this boat is too big, how am I going to sail it on my own? What do all these ropes do? What happens if I crash into another boat?

Thanks to a couple of excellent people who took a chance on me and have sailed with me since the beginning (Mike Tatham & Carl Hughes), Ariana and I went from strength to strength, and I will be forever grateful to these two fine human beings for helping me develop my offshore skills.

If someone asks you what your skills are, and what you can bring to a job, they are normally limited in scope, but not so with sailing. The following is a short list of skills I have developed running a 55ft classic boat, in open oceans with no assistance close at hand.

  • Meteorology
  • Electrics
  • Leadership
  • Boat Electronics and systems management
  • Crew Management
  • Working at heights in open oceans
  • Troubleshooting
  • Decision Making
  • Weather Routing and fuel planning
  • Carpentry
  • Engine Maintenance and Troubleshooting
  • Dealing with people under stress / panic
  • Training novices in sailing
  • Crew skills development
  • Inventory and spares management
  • Seamanship
  • Traffic management/Rules of the road
  • First Aid at sea / Managing illness aboard
  • Celestial Navigation
  • On passage emergency maintenance
  • Official procedures in foreign ports
  • Hull and rig maintenance
  • Helming in challenging conditions
  • Resource planning and management (food, fuel, water,)
  • Personal Resilience / Coping with fatigue
  • Environmental/waste management
  • plastics minimisation
  • food preservation
  • safety
  • project planning, implementation and monitoring
  • Toilet maintenance!
  • victualling and storage optimisation
  • meal planning and cooking under extreme conditions
  • cooking with solar ovens to minimise energy consumption
  • managing suppliers
  • marketing and advertising campaigns
  • financial management
  • sponsor management
  • energy optimisation using detailed equipment analysis
  • Situational analysis and security
  • personality profiling and matching
  • listening skills

Phew, that was quite a long list, and I'm sure I have left out a lot of other things, but you get the idea. I never knew there was so much to learn!

The RYA course was all about parking the boat and picking up imaginary man overboards, so dealing with 4 out of 8 crew with seasickness, the rudder stock letting in 2 litres of water an hour, broken instruments, power failure, overheating batteries, and a jammed mainsail (one offshore trip 400 miles from the nearest port) definitely tested my nerve, especially trying to remain calm when everyone else was panicking!

After a couple of years I recognised that the weakest link on the boat was not any of the equipment, but the crew, who were, after all, mere humans! Many of them had said they were experienced sailors, but when the **** hit the fan, most of them retreated into their shells, expecting someone else to solve the problem, and displaying very poor seamanship, and very little resilience.

On the land, under pressure at an interview, people will say things like "I work well as part of a team, "I remain calm under pressure", "I have good leadership skills", but if those same people were to go to sea would they realistically be able to apply those words to real world situations? Not many I think.

For those of you who cannot see a link to your lives on the land I urge you to think about what not only learning to sail could teach you but what taking charge of an ocean going sail boat could teach you and how you can apply those skills to your daily life.

I will never look back and I think there is a definite place in the world for an "ocean boot camp". Imagine the skills people could learn!

Alan Mac at the helm of Ariana March 2022