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Think Ahead

Chris Fertig - An offshore racer on good seamanship

Being prepared plays a critical role in overall seamanship. Think ahead. Plan. Train. Have patience. Equip with redundancy. These are all simple pieces of advice many old salts preach.

Chris Fertig may not be an old salt, but he has plenty of time on the water. He is a former Coast Guardsman who chased drug runners in the Caribbean, a record-setting oceangoing powerboat racer, an avid recreational spear fisherman and the owner of several small boats. Fertig, 35, is also general manager of Maritime Technical Services at Maersk Line Ltd., which provides U.S. flag transportation, ship management and technical services to government and commercial customers.

Fertig and Tyson Garvin hold the Bermuda Challenge record, making the 780-mile run from New York to the island in 15 hours, 48 minutes with a 39-foot Skater powered by twin 480-hp diesels. He may love to go fast, but Fertig is also a big promoter of safety and good seamanship.

Why is being prepared such a major part of good seamanship?

Preparation is a key enabler of good seamanship and significantly enhances a captain’s ability to safely handle his or her vessel and appropriately respond to contingencies as they arise. Casualties on the water are often a culmination of many small issues that compound into a larger problem. For example, a slowly leaking through-hull increases normal bilge pump usage. Higher-than-normal power draw from the overworked bilge pump drains the boat’s battery, preventing the engine from starting. While these issues are occurring, a thunderstorm develops, kicking up the seas, which start to splash over the transom well and begin accumulating on deck because the scuppers are now underwater. Having thought through potential problems and solutions, and with the right tools, supplies and safety equipment on board and in good condition, a well-prepared captain stands a much better chance of breaking an error chain before it becomes a serious issue.

How important is redundancy on board?

Redundancy is a critically important aspect of boat design and adventure planning, as the consequences of equipment and gear failures in the marine environment can be dire. If the engine in your car fails, you simply coast to the side of the road and wait for a tow truck. A main engine failure several hundred miles offshore in a storm has higher associated risks. By utilizing redundant systems and gear, boaters are able to reduce the risk of potential equipment failures that could leave them stranded and potentially in danger.

What are some of the key pieces of gear or equipment that you believe must have backups?

The level of redundancy on board should be closely tied to the type of boating you enjoy. If your average trip takes you a mile from your dock to the local waterfront restaurant, you may be comfortable without any redundancy of your important boat systems or safety gear. If your average trip entails running 100 miles offshore at night to the canyons to jig for tuna in 50-degree water, you’re going to want a highly redundant craft to ensure an equipment failure won’t turn into a life-threatening situation.

Common redundant systems for offshore boats include multiple batteries, fuel tanks, engines, navigation and communication systems, and bilge pumps. When a major casualty occurs, it can often take out your redundant systems, as well, so how these systems are installed can become an important consideration. For example, having two GPS systems connected to the same common electrical bus doesn’t offer the same amount of security as a single wired GPS unit and a backup handheld.

What are some of the things you keep on board to help you stay prepared?

I have a small ditch bag that I take with me every time I head out on the water, even for a short afternoon cruise around the harbor. Often those spur-of-the-moment trips — the ones you haven’t spent a lot of time preparing for — are the times you run into issues, and having a ditch bag with safety gear and a basic tool kit can really help out.

My normal ditch bag contains the items most people carry, including a GPS EPIRB, handheld VHF radio and GPS, small medical kit, flares, flashlight, dye packets, duct tape, zip ties, a strobe and whistle, foam plugs, rescue and electrical tape, ratchet straps, 50 feet of parachute cord, a knife and some basic hand tools. For offshore trips, I add a second gear bag that includes a handheld watermaker, Delorme two-way satellite trackers/messengers, satellite phone, hand-crank flashlight with USB charger, jumper cables, larger medical kit, mask and snorkel, fiberglass repair kit and spare fuel line, as well as a sea anchor and an offshore life raft.

How did you prepare for long-range adventure trips such as the Bermuda Challenge?

Preparing for a long adventure like the New York to Bermuda race takes many months of planning. Not only do we consider what equipment needs to be redundant from a safety perspective, but we also consider what equipment failures would prevent us from completing the race at our anticipated pace. Breaking a propeller blade during the race was a huge concern, so we made sure that we not only carried two spare props but also spare washers, prop nuts and the tools needed to replace the props while we were in the water, which included a mask and snorkel and custom drive shaft locking tool.

What are some other keys to being prepared?

Everything gets harder once you leave the pier. Taking a few minutes to talk through where your safety gear is stowed and how you will respond to an emergency can make a big difference in responding to an emergency at sea. If your adventures take you far offshore, it’s a good idea to include fire, flooding and abandon ship drills, too.

See related articles:

- Eyes in the back of your head

- Practice, practice, practice

- Don't neglect your seacocks

- Keeping a lookout

November 2014 issue