Cruising legend Jimmy Cornell compares his latest world cruising survey results with findings he first published in PBO 40 years ago…
Without doubt, safety has been the biggest improvement to long-distance cruising over the last 50 years. This is my own experience, as well as something highlighted in my surveys. There is, however, an important distinction between personal safety and that of the boat.
In the Suva survey of 1979, when I spent two months interviewing cruising boats passing through Fiji, neither the participants nor I had any serious concerns about their own safety simply because there was no reason to worry, certainly not in that peaceful part of the world.
But we were all extremely worried about the grave risks involved in depending on celestial navigation as our sole means of position fixing. While techniques had improved, fundamentally it had little changed since Captain Cook’s days.
Remembering the sleepless nights and constant worry about the safety of my family still makes me shudder. I honestly doubt anyone used to satellite navigation can comprehend the utter fear felt by sailors of my generation when sailing blindly through areas of known dangers.
Having recalled all this I pulled out my treasured Admiralty chart 783 of the Pacific Ocean, published with corrections in 1966, but based on the original engraving of 1875. Depicted on it in faint pencil marks is our own route through the southern part of the Tuamotu Archipelago in May 1977.
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‘During the past four years I have sailed through some of the major crossroads of the cruising world: Rhodes, Gibraltar,…
In the mid-seventies I sailed a small boat from the UK to Tahiti, crossing the Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific. My…
Having reached the Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal in late 1976, rather than take the traditional route to the Marquesas via the Galapagos Islands, we agreed to make a detour to Peru.
This was at the request of our children, Doina and Ivan, who wanted to visit the home country of their favourite hero: Paddington Bear. And why not? After all, this is the true beauty of sailing; going out of my way to explore an interesting destination has been my wont throughout my eventful and tortuous life.
From Peru we took the rarely travelled route to French Polynesia via Easter Island and Pitcairn. After a restful month spent at Mangareva, in the Gambier Islands, we were bound for Tahiti.
In those days France was conducting nuclear tests on the Mururoa and Tangataufa atolls, and we had to obtain permission from the French authorities to sail that route.
When the response came, I was shocked to see that it prescribed a north-about route that had to clear the prohibited area around the testing sites by 50 miles, which would put us on a direct course for several hazards: first Maria, an uninhabited islet, then Tureia and Vanavana, two unlit atolls among a cluster of similar obstructions in this notorious area aptly called by Captain Cook the Dangerous Archipelago.
With Maria being at a distance of about 90 miles, we left Mangareva late in the day and by the following morning saw Maria peeping over the horizon.
A quick sun sight showed that in the night we had gained about 20 miles on my estimated position, having been pushed along by a swift north-west-setting current. With 150 miles from there to Tureia, and then 40 more miles to Vanavana, my navigation had to be spot on to avoid running into the former in the dark.
Throughout the day I kept taking sights and by nightfall I reckoned to have some 100 miles of open water ahead of us. This gave us a safety margin of about 70 miles after allowing for a possible 2.5 knot current.
My main concern was that, pushed by a strong current, it was a distance we could easily cover in the 12 hours of darkness. But we had no choice. Throughout the night, the overcast sky made it impossible to take any sights, so I tried to slow down by reducing sail, but in the 20 to 25 knot south-east wind it didn’t seem to make much difference.
I spent the most gut-wrenching night of my entire life, peering blindly ahead into the darkness and listening out for the boom of the swell breaking on a windward reef. Just as dawn started lightening the eastern horizon, I glimpsed straight ahead of us, at less than half a mile distance, the tell-tale white line of breaking water. Tureia!
I disengaged the self-steering gear, altered course to port, and steered Aventura at a safe distance off the southern edge of the atoll. In the half-light it looked much smaller than I had expected, but I thought that it might be an optical illusion.
It was only a couple of hours later, when the sun was high enough to take a sight, that I managed to work out our approximate position… and realised with an almighty shock that the atoll we had just passed had been in fact Vanavana, and that the much stronger than expected current had pushed us much further west than I had allowed for.
We’d passed Tureia in the dark without seeing it, a discrepancy in my estimation of 40 miles. Another 10 minutes of darkness and we would have been wrecked on Vanavana’s eastern reef!
Looking back at my own mind-set at the time and that of other sailors. I can only describe our willingness to accept such risks as fatalism.
It is indeed a trait of my own character and my attitude that if something is going to happen, it will happen anyway, so rather than worry about what might happen, I have always avoided taking unnecessary risks and been well prepared for any eventuality.
But in those days if you wanted to explore the world you had to be prepared to take risks, and most of us did.
As a result, boat losses were a regular occurrence and even I had a narrow escape soon after the start of our voyage when Aventura ran aground on a reef in the Caicos Islands. We managed to come off with the rising tide, but it taught me a valuable lesson and I have been extremely cautious ever since.
The guessing game
Not knowing where you actually were was the price we had to pay in those days of astronavigation. What is intriguing is that, in spite of the tremendous advances in satellite navigation, some boats still get into trouble and run aground or end up getting lost, as in the bad old days.
The certainty of knowing where you are at any moment can be a fallacy and can have serious consequences, if for whatever reason you are in fact not where you believe you are.
This false sense of security caused by over-reliance on GPS is a phenomenon that I became aware of in the very first ARC in 1986, when one of the boats was wrecked on the fringing reef off the east coast of Barbados.
The following year, a boat in the second ARC ran aground in exactly the same spot. The young delivery crew walked ashore and explained that they had been heading for a waypoint off Bridgetown Harbour on the opposite side of the island.
At the skippers briefing the following year, I strongly advised the captains to make sure that in order to reach their landfall waypoint it was highly recommended to attempt to sail around the island to reach it! That was the last time we had that kind of accident.
In the early 1980s I conducted a survey on boat losses in the South Pacific in an attempt to find out the main causes. Based on those findings I compiled a list of 30 total losses, most of which were due to navigational errors. Sailing to a waypoint, often on autopilot, and not keeping a proper watch, appeared to be the most common cause of those losses.
This fact was borne out by the earlier findings of the Suva survey. By their own admission, 17 skippers accepted that they kept no regular watches. The crew went to sleep on ocean passages and only kept ‘loose’ watches at other times.
This relaxed attitude probably also explains why only 40 boats (65%) had an inflatable liferaft, the remaining 22 skippers claiming to have other arrangements prepared in case of an emergency.
Actually, four of them told me they had no intention of abandoning the boat, 10 planned to use an inflatable dinghy, of which seven were kept inflated on passage, three had them fitted with CO2 bottles for rapid inflation, while six intended to use their hard tender, three of which were fitted with mast and sail.
Watch keeping is another subject that has been investigated in a number of surveys. Once again the ARC provided a valuable insight and I was surprised to find that on just over a quarter of the boats there was no formal watch system.
The following year I asked each captain to complete a questionnaire at the finish of the rally. One of the questions referred to the number of boats or ships they had seen during the Atlantic crossing.
It was in this roundabout way that I found out about the lack of watches for some crews, as one of the captains said: “It is only on boats on which watches are not kept that no ships are sighted, because we see them all the time.”
A similar questionnaire was also used on a round the world rally and one of the captains was very honest when he said: “On my boat we have a very strict watch keeping system, the off-watch crew sleeps in his bunk, the on-watch crew sleeps in the cockpit.”
Keeping in touch
Another aspect which has enormously improved both the safety and enjoyment of long distance cruising, is that of offshore communications. Among the 62 boats in the Suva survey, nearly half (30), mostly the non-American ones, had no radio transceiver (VHF radios not included).
Of the total, 23 had ham radios and their skippers gave high ratings both for reliability and usefulness. In those days, for offshore communications ham radios were the only practical answer, as marine SSB sets were prohibitively expensive both to acquire and use.
In the latest voyage planning survey (2022), all boats had some kind of satellite communication on board.
More than half used Iridium GO! and were satisfied with its performance and especially the ability to access the PredictWind forecasts. Among those who wanted instant voice communication capability, the Iridium satphone was preferred as it also allowed for less expensive short text messages to be sent or received.
The days of SSB radios seem to be numbered, as there were only three boats that had this useful, and virtually free means of communications, both for voice and emails. At the other extreme, there were four boats equipped with the more expensive Iridium Certus broadband system, and one with Inmarsat Fleet.
Several skippers commented that they looked forward to the day when the new Starlink system would become both available and affordable. When it becomes fully operational, Starlink is expected to ensure worldwide Internet coverage provided by a vast network of satellites.
Growing kit list
From nothing to virtually everything is how the change from the first to the latest Aventura can be described. When we set off in 1975 we did not even have a VHF radio, although we acquired an SSB radio near the end of our voyage.
Aventura II had Inmarsat C for text and email, VHF and SSB radios. Aventura III had an SSB radio and an Iridium satellite phone for voice and email. Aventura IV had the full range of offshore communications: VHF and SSB transceivers, Iridium Pilot broadband and satphone.
For distant communications SSB radios were very useful in the not so distant past when I often used to make calls home via one of the relay stations. Most of them have been closed down bringing to an end over a century of ship-to-shore communications, initially by telegraph, later by radio.
My own use of the SSB radio went down dramatically once I switched to satellite communications. I still used it to listen to the BBC news, occasionally download synoptic charts or join local cruising nets.
My son, Ivan, who has a degree in computer science, took Aventura IV’s state-of-the-art B&G electronics system in hand and managed to tailor it to my own requirements, making it as user-friendly as possible.
He set up three networks on Aventura IV. The Iridium Pilot provided our satellite communications with two phones (captain and crew had their own lines), and a permanent 128kb/s data link.
Due to bandwidth charges of $7 per MB, Ivan decided to play safe and limit this to only allow connections to our email service provider, and a web service for when we needed to download ice charts, weather maps, and other large files.
This was bridged via a firewall into another wireless router to create a single wifi network for all onboard laptops to connect to. This allowed us to use emails, download weather forecasts, such as GRIB data, and upload the data directly to the chart plotters for display.
The firewall was also configured to continuously capture data from the B&G network, which allowed us to transmit on a regular basis via email automated reports on wind conditions, sea temperature and barometric pressure to the World Meteorological Organisation.
Aventura Zero’s communications were just as advanced. Satcoms were provided by the Iridium Certus system, backed up by an Iridium 9575 satphone. But I no longer had a SSB radio, as I believed that I might not have use for it.
How safe is cruising?
Although compared to the participants in the Suva survey, personal safety appears to be a more serious concern among current sailors; incidents involving cruising yachts are still very low.
An interesting observation reported on the Caribbean Safety and Security Net website, which keeps records of all incidents involving cruising yachts in the entire Caribbean basin from Barbados to Panama, pointed out that after a significant increase of incidents in 2019, 2020 had the lowest level of violent crimes in recent years.
However, its latest annual report shows that after the 2020 low, 2021 saw a return of crimes against yachts in the Caribbean. There were seven incidents described as serious: attempted robbery in Guadeloupe, assault in Mexico, one suspected piracy attack each in Venezuela and Honduras, and three in Nicaragua.
Cases of theft from yachts continue to occur in several parts of the Caribbean, with approximately 50% of the 102 reported incidents concentrated in four countries: Saint-Martin, Martinique, Grenada and Panama.
On a global level, the International Maritime Bureau, a specialised division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), keeps a global record of all violent incidents.
Its latest report listed the lowest number of incidents since 1994, with none involving pleasure craft. Although no incidents were reported in the Gulf of Aden, it warns that the threat of piracy should not be discounted, as the potential risk still exists in the waters off the southern Red Sea, Yemen and Somalia.
As the above examples show, the personal risk to anyone on a long voyage appears to be still very low. This proves the findings of an earlier global cruising survey that sailing the world on your own boat is still the safest way to travel.
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This feature appeared in the March 2023 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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