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What I learned on Tahiti Belle

1. Life jackets: Never use a life jacket without crotch straps and, preferably, a spray hood built into the collar. It is also well worth thinking about having a buddy line and two of the combined red flare/orange smoke canisters the lifeboat crews use attached to their life jacket waist straps.

2. Flares: I was fortunate in being rescued in daylight. Had it been night, I would have needed at least six red parachute and four or more red hand-helds.

3. VHF: Keep a waterproof hand-held VHF in your pocket for close-quarter communication, in addition to the main fixed VHF with its longer range. Site the main VHF where you can get to it from the cockpit or use an extension mic and, ideally, have a waterproof speaker in the cockpit so that you can hear beyond the noise of the wind or engine. Ensure that your main GPS is connected to the DSC radio so that when you press the red button your position is transmitted automatically.

4. GPS: Have one fixed GPS and at least one hand-held. You will literally be lost and very difficult to find if one or two of your GPS units goes down and you are unable to communicate with a rescue vessel. Have plenty of spare batteries on hand.

5. EPIRB: In my case, this was the first link in the rescue chain. It automatically told Falmouth Coastguard that I had a problem and where I was so that they could start the rescue sequence. If I were buying another EPIRB I would get one with a built-in GPS. Cost is nearly always a problem for yachtsmen, but it would also be wise to have a hand-held back-up EPIRB (PLB) in the grab bag or foul weather gear pocket.

6. Iridium phone: If I were to voyage again, I would take one. The ability to speak to rescue authorities directly, whether on board your boat or in a life raft, would be very helpful to them and a great relief to family and friends at home.

7. SART (search-and-rescue transponder): The Omega Princess, although knowing my position to within 3 decimal places of a minute, was unable to locate me on their radar, despite having state-of-the-art equipment. In the end, I was sighted visually by the lookouts on the bridge, which was a feat in itself under the conditions. Yachts send out notoriously poor echoes, and in very heavy seas they are likely to be masked further by waves. A SART, which when activated causes a series of dots to appear on the radar screens of all vessels within a 5-mile radius, would have been a helpful addition.

8. Grab bag: It must have built-in buoyancy to ensure it floats. Keep your spare emergency equipment, (PLB, hand-held VHF, spare GPS and batteries, SART, Iridium phone, signal light, flares, food and water, etc.) in it at all times. There could be no time to find and pack these essential items when things rapidly start to go wrong.

9. Life raft: I sailed without one — not a very clever thing to do. I couldn’t afford a current oceangoing model, and all the rental rafts were already booked. I relied on my Avon Redcrest lashed on deck, which would have been adequate for a ship-to-ship transfer but not if Tahiti Belle had sunk under me and I had to “take to the boats.”

10. Knives: Have a rigger’s knife around your waist whenever you are on deck, and keep another tied up by the mast.

11. Storm drogue: Devise a way to keep boat speed manageable. There are several possibilities. The one I chose was a Jordan series drogue. I had 130 drogue cups on board but could not find a supplier of the 100 meters of 18 to 20mm diameter, double-sheathed, nylon-cored warp needed to make the drogue up before I set sail.

See related article: For want of a drogue

This article originally appeared in the August 20090 issue.



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