Saturday, March 5, 2011

Preparing for an Offshore Race, Introduction

Preparing for an offshore race can be a daunting challenge, with hundreds of tasks involving boat preparation, crew training, sail selection, last minute haulouts, and so forth. For most of the world's sailboat races, the document that determines what gear you must carry is the ISAF Offshore Special Regulations Governing Offshore Racing for Monohulls & Multihulls, frequently referred to as the Special Regs. The National Governing Organization for sailing in the U.S., U.S. Sailing, adds prescriptions (modifications) to the ISAF version of the Special Regulations.

While you can buy the booklet containing the Special Regs from US Sailing for about $25.00, it’s now possible to download either the complete book or an extract directly from the US Sailing website. Select “Offshore”, then “Safety at Sea”, then “ISAF Special Regulations.” An extract is a portion of the Special Regs that contains only the information that pertains to your race. In the case of the Pacific Cup or Transpac, it’s a Category 1 race for monohulls, one of the ten extracts listed on the site. The extract is a PDF document which can be saved or printed.

Oh, if only it was that simple! The challenge is that well-meaning race organizers, safety at sea committees, and board members are reluctant to leave the ISAF or US Sailing version of the Special Regs intact. Inevitably, the Notice of Race will contain a list of modifications to the Special Regs that adapt them for the special conditions present in the race you are entering. Common modifications include:
1.                  Minimum water requirements
2.                  Height of lifelines
3.                  Number and type of flares (pyrotechnics)
4.                  Carriage of a SSB, Inmarsat C, or Iridium phone
5.                  Inboard engine requirement
6.                  Amount of fuel to be carried
7.                  Etc., etc.
Many of the changes to the Special Regs will be justifiable based on the duration, course, or conditions that are likely to be experienced during the race, and some are based on personal biases. Regardless of the origin, you need to abide by the modified Special Regs, so make sure that you are aware of the changes present in the Notice of Race and the subsequent Amendments.

Generally, the person responsible for preparing a race boat and passing the Category 1 inspection will be the boat owner, owner's representative or a boat captain. The process of preparing a boat for the inspection can be very time consuming, especially if the boat is either new or has never gone on an extended passage before. Even owners of well-found cruising boats will find that there are construction details and required gear that will not be found on board, and will either have to be bought, borrowed, or rented for the race (and quite possibly the delivery home).

Should I rent (or borrow) the gear?
The cost of buying all of the required gear for a Category 1 race can easily exceed $20,000, and many owners will elect to do a single race every year or possibly two years. It’s challenging to justify the purchase of some of the required items if you’re going to be storing it in your garage for the following 23 months. So what items might make sense to either borrow or rent, and what are the challenges in doing this?

Life Rafts: Safety experts are divided on this one. The argument for renting a life raft is that they are very costly ($3,000 to $6,000), require maintenance every few years, and have a very small chance of ever being put to use. The argument for buying a raft is that there have been documented instances of rental rafts which have been sabotaged at some point in their history, rendering them completely ineffective had they been needed. If you’re tempted to rent a raft, get in contact with your local life raft repacker early in the process (like as soon as you decide to race) and see if s/he rents rafts. If so, make sure that s/he understands the requirements of your race so that you rent a raft that is “legal”.

If you decide to rent a raft from a friend or a guy on Craig’s List, you must have the raft repacked early in the process by a factory-authorized repacker who will then certify the raft for another 1, 2, or 3 years. If, for some reason, the raft fails inspection, you need to have sufficient time to find an alternate solution.
EPIRBs: Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons have to be registered with information about your vessel and how to get in touch with your emergency contacts. Any organization that rents EPIRBs knows this (like BoatU.S.) and will arrange to let NOAA and the Coast Guard know who’s actually in trouble. Therefore, if you’re going to borrow someone else’s EPIRB, it must be re-registered through NOAA while you’re using it. Note that you’ll need the beacon ID and the password for the beacon to change the information online.

INMARSAT and Iridium Phones: While these are incredibly handy devices, it’s hard to justify the purchase for a single race. Make sure you calculate the entire cost of rental, shipment to and from the renter, and the cost of a SIM card for the duration of the race and the return.

The six sections of the Special Regulations
You should read the entire extract that applies to your race (again, generally Category 1 Monohulls), whether or not it actually addresses items that you’ll be responsible for carrying. There’s some really good content in the Fundamentals and Definitions (Section 1) as well as the definitions of what each Category means (Section 2). The “gear”sections are 3-5, with a final section on training (Section 6). Also, read the appendices that apply to your race, especially Appendix C, which describes one method of inspecting a boat for offshore racing.

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