What to Know and Bring When Sailing Offshore

The final installment in our three-part offshore series covers VHF radios, safety equipment, watch schedules, and personal safety gear.

The big day to cast off the lines and take off into blue water is rapidly approaching. While a review of U.S. Sailing’s Safety Equipment Requirements and a chat with your skipper and fellow crew before a big passage never goes amiss, here are a few additional suggestions for gear and know-how to bring along to help achieve a successful passage offshore.

Arriving in Newport after a rough night. Photo by Shannon Hibberd

Know How To Operate a VHF Radio

Renee Mehl, program director for the U.S. Naval Academy Offshore Sail Training Squadron, stresses the importance of every single crew member knowing how to operate the VHF radio. Should an urgent or emergency message need to be broadcast via VHF, Mehl recommends that the call be made from down below on the ship’s radio. This lessens wind interference and takes advantage of the increased broadcast capabilities that a ship’s radio has over a hand-held VHF. To help lessen stress in the event of a mayday call, Mehl also keeps a script near the ship’s radio of how to make a mayday call and what information to report to the Coast Guard once a response is received.

Know How to Operate the Alphabet Soup of Safety Equipment

Captain Kip Louttit, USCG retired and executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, finds it essential for crew to know their position. In everyday situations this means reading a vessel’s latitude or longitude from the ship’s GPS or charts.

In emergency situations, however, this means knowing how to operate several pieces of safety equipment that automatically broadcast the position of the emergency. For VHF radios equipped with digital selective calling (DSC), the distress call is initiated by activating the DSC distress signal alarm, a two-part procedure. While specifics differ for each radio, the process usually involves lifting the protective cover over the alarm and pushing down the alarm button for three to five seconds. The protective cover and delayed activation of the alarm button prevents accidental distress signals from being made.

Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) alert search and rescue services in the event of an emergency by transmitting a coded message via satellite to the nearest rescue service. PLBs are smaller and can be carried on a person while EPIRBs usually serve a vessel. Either way, both help search and rescue teams locate crews and vessels in distress, so crew members should learn how and when to activate them. 

Added to the mix are Automatic Identification System man-overboard beacons (AIS MOBs) that alert your own and nearby vessels equipped with an AIS plotter of a man overboard emergency. The technology around locator beacons has rapidly evolved in recent years, so for sailors interested in this kind of safety gear, staying abreast of current trends makes sense and may lead to new purchases for the safety equipment arsenal.

Skippers should consider also renting or purchasing a satellite phone or carrying a single side band radio (SSB) for offshore passages. In addition to being a means of communication once the vessel is out of VHF range, both satellite phones and SSBs enable crew to access valuable weather forecasts.

Using the ship's radio below, rather than a hand-held one on deck, reduces wind interference.


Personal Safety Gear to Wear on Watch


  • Mehl wears these items each time she goes on watch.
  • Inflatable PFD with a harness and crotch strap
  • Knife
  • Glow stick to tape to the binnacle should the electronics go out at night
  • Signal mirror with a whistle
  • Louttit likes to add in a waterproof flashlight. Another item often worn on watch is a strobe and/or a locator beacon attached to the PFD.

Louttit also recommends that crew bring appropriate clothing and foul weather gear to protect against hypothermia and heat exhaustion (which are sometimes possible on the same passage). Clothing must fit right, and layering should be taken into account. For example, a fleece needs to fit under a jacket which in turn must fit under a properly-adjusted PFD.

By no means do these recommendations constitute an exhaustive list of how to prepare for an offshore passage. Yet they stood out as advice that Mehl and Louttit independently gave to anyone considering going offshore. And even for those of us not going out on the ocean, it can never hurt to review how we use the VHF, PFDs, or other skills improving our seamanship.

Setting and Keeping a Watch Schedule

As part of a long distance passage, Captain Kip Louttit, USCG Retired, stresses the importance of sticking to a watch schedule. For starters, crew need their rest which an observed watch schedule provides. Second, a watch schedule eases tension among the crew because, by dividing watch hours evenly, it distributes the work burden fairly.

While skippers can organize the watch schedule in a number of ways, Louttit has found the following watch schedule to work well over the years.

Each day is divided into five watch shifts: two six-hour shifts during the day and three four-hour shifts at night. 

Meals are served when the watch changes at 6:00, 12:00, and 18:00. 

If the engine needs to be run for charging the batteries, it is run during the watch changes. 

Since the watch schedule breaks into five shifts per day, the watch automatically dogs itself so that each crew member serves a different time slot the next day. Additionally, if the same crew members relieve each other at each change of the watch, they can develop an effective, efficient way to communicate relevant information to one another. 

The downside to this type of watch schedule is that with everyone changing watch all at once, there are no fresh eyes toward the end of each shift. 

An effective watch schedule ensures that all are rested and that tasks are divided up equally. Photo by Shannon Hibberd

by Tracy Leonard

Find part two of this series here