65. The Risks of Sailing Solo

As a solo sailor, I frequently get asked if it’s not scary out there. All alone in perilous waters. The honest answer is that I’m rarely scared. I think I have prepared Saoirse well for the task at hand. A lot of effort has been spent with an aim to keep her afloat and me onboard. I also have three totally independent electronic navigation systems and I make sure I download weather information twice a day from six different metrological institutes/models. And if I still get it wrong, I have a number of ways to contact rescue services. Even when I am out of radio or cell phone range.

Over time, Saoirse has been equipped with quite an extensive set of tools and spare parts. I should be able to repair or replace a lot of what could go wrong with things like the engine, the sails and the self-steering (at the least the mechanical parts of the autopilot). But it is impossible to carry parts for every eventuality. And some repairs require a professional or taking the boat out of the water. When it comes to equipment failure, my primary concern is probably the autopilot or anything else that has to do with the ability to keep Saoirse on the correct course. Saoirse has a flat bottom and loves to surf. This means that it is virtually impossible to keep her on track in large following seas without the assistance of my trusty autopilot. The only alternative would be to hand steer all the way. Something that I find I can do for a couple of hours without losing concentration and running the risk of either gybing or broaching. I realise that all readers may not be familiar with these terms, but let’s just say that they are situations that you really don’t want to experience when you have large waves from behind.

So apart from anything happening to Saoirse’s steering, what does scare me when I’m alone out there? What does keep me up at night (other than actually making sure that I don’t hit anything). Well, that is actually one thing. I don’t want to hit anything. Things like containers, tree logs, ships and whales could all be disastrous but what scares me the most are fishing nets and fish attracting devices (known as FADs). Getting entangled in any of these could cause serious damage to Saoirse and it could be very dangerous to try to set yourself free. I really don’t want to have to dive under Saoirse with a knife as she is crashing down with every wave. All I can do is to sail as far from land as I can. But I have encountered nets 30 Nm from the Portuguese coast and as far out as 100 Nm outside Morocco. And I understand that unmarked FADs present a constant threat in Asian waters.

Another thing that concerns me is lightning strikes. Thunderstorms may be really beautiful to watch. At a distance. But when your mast is the highest thing around, you really don’t want it close. A direct hit would most certainly kill my electronics and probably also all my electrics as my lithium batteries contain a ton of electronic protection devices. Lightning can obviously also damage the rigging, through-hulls (holes in the bottom of the boat that allows you to pump water in or out) and, worst of all, cause fires. I read somewhere that the frequency of lightning striking a boat in a single year is one in a thousand and that it, for some reason, is twice that for a catamaran. But that is an average around the world, and I am going to Panama soon. A country that is one of the most lightning prone countries in the world. All I can do is to avoid the Panamanian rainy season, monitor the CAPE index (essentially a measure of potential electrical charge in an area) and shove handheld electronics into the oven as it is supposed to act like a Farraday Cage and potentially offer some protection.

People could also offer a threat. At least dangerous or distressed people. I’m thinking of pirates, thieves or even just disgruntled officials that decide to throw the book at you. Red tape is a frustration that circumnavigators are only too familiar with. Not a lot you can do about this either. Other than to keep yourself up to date with incidents that others in the cruising community have encountered and do what you can to avoid these areas. I decided to pass the mainland of St Vincent and St Lucia largely due to recently reported armed robberies.

Finally, I’d like to mention my own health. I really don’t want to get seriously ill or injure myself during a passage. All I can do about this is to ensure I have stuff like antibiotics and painkillers in my medical cabinet and try to move safely around Saoirse.

So I guess that most of my concerns are related to things that I can do very little about. Hitting something in the middle of nowhere, getting struck by lightning, being attacked or injuring yourself are all incidents associated with some form of bad luck. And I’m sure some of these concerns would be the same even if I had a crew with me. But the consequences are likely to get worse when you are on your own. I wish I could tell people that what I do is totally safe and that tons of people have done this. If you hang around similar minded people too long, you can easily get the feeling that lots of people do what I do. But I just read that more people climb Mount Everest every year than circumnavigate on a sailing vessel. Some guy called Dr Linus Wilson claims that 658 people reached the summit of the highest mountain in the world in 2013. In the same year only 330 individuals completed a full lap around the world. I can’t say that I can fact check that statistic and I do think 330 sounds a little low. Either way, climbing a mountain feels like a conquest or a goal. Circumnavigating is not a goal in itself for me. It’s all about the adventure and experiencing new things. But if I ever do get to finish the whole lap, I will no doubt belong to a reasonably exclusive club that predominantly did it on their own…

4 thoughts on “65. The Risks of Sailing Solo

  1. Interesting stat with the catamaran and lightning strikes. Question is is the stat same everywhere? Both at sea and in the marina? In the marina it might make sense as it is is much wider and might then present a much clearer path for the ligtning whilst other sailboats are closer together and might get some shielding? I have noticed that catamarans also often are at the end of the dock (because of their size i guess?) so it lies there alone and exposed? On the ocean though I am not sure what could cause more lightning strikes. I mean a mast is a mast and grounding is grounding. Thanks for the puzzle 🙂 . Let me know if someone can tell you anything more.
    All the best and stay safe.

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    1. Ha ha Sofia. You are great. Forever the engineer you should have been. I think it primarily has to do with the two hulls making it easier two ground a lightning strike. Generally, catamarans have lower masts and should therefore technically be less struck than a monohull. I think the jury is out on this one. But statistics are pretty clear – they get struck more often. I’m not sure if there is a difference when it comes to in a marina or on anchor or while sailing. All the best my friend and make sure you keep that curious mind. Tomas

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  2. dear tomas, i see that you are at the princess diana beach in barbuda which looks amazing. i note that overnight a boat in the Golden globe race has sunk fairly quickly in the indian ocean. skipper was picked up by another competitor. the key seems to be that they had significant protocols in place for such an event and the control centre put an emergency action plan in place. might be no harm to recheck and retest all your safety gear before you take on the pacific. all good in a damp and cold Dublin. looking forward to some pontoon b sunshine in the new year

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    1. Hi there Fergal. Yep. Barbuda is fabulous. Will probably go to Saint Barths from here on Monday. Then probably Saint Martin, BVI and the Dominican Republic to pick up my passport that is waiting for me in Santo Domingo. I can understand why you are looking forward to Lanzarote again. I hear they have snow in Sweden now! Best. Tomas

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