Safety at sea is a major concern for anyone who travels coastlines or oceans under power or sail, and the prudent voyager plans carefully before leaving the docks and keeps an eye to the weather once under way.
But Ralph Naranjo, head of the sailing center at the Naval Academy, said this week that over the past few years El Nino and La Nina have altered standard weather patterns, and offshore racers and cruisers should be aware of the changes and adapt.
"Weather patterns have had a strong tropical component, and can be expected to be stronger than ever this tropical season," Naranjo said. "So better weather information makes a lot of sense for those people planning coastal or transoceanic trips."
On Saturday and Sunday, the annual Safety at Sea Seminar will focus on weather and how to interpret its signals and avoid its dangers.
Instructors will analyze the disastrous Sydney-Hobart race off Australia in December and use it as a teaching tool.
The 115-boat fleet in the Sydney-Hobart race was swept by an unexpectedly vicious storm that sank two vessels, forced the abandonment of five others and killed six sailors.
It was the worst yachting disaster since the 1979 Fastnet Race off England, during which 15 sailors died when another unexpectedly strong storm passed over the fleet.
After the Fastnet, racing organizations made major changes in structural and safety requirements for racing yachts and crews. Investigations into the Sydney-Hobart race are expected to bring about further improvements.
"The reality of Sydney-Hobart is not a thing alien to the North Atlantic," said Naranjo. "We just have not yet had a major race coincide with extreme conditions, and the operative word is `yet'."
In the meantime, Naranjo said, the best thing a passagemaker or racer can do is to prepare carefully and be vigilant.
Traditionally, passagemakers have consulted long-term weather charts to pick the best time for a trip by gathering information on prevailing winds and strengths and expected sea conditions for different times of the year.
"Sailors looking at normal pilot charts are not getting the best advice in these nontypical years," said Naranjo, who will discuss risk management for offshore and coastal passages at the seminar. "You need to know what the seasonal difference is for this particular year so you can track tropical storms.
"This idea of a fine-weather window is a myth."
The seminars, Naranjo said, will teach all aspects of gathering weather information and routing appropriately.
Other sessions will deal with safety equipment, hulls and rigging, medical emergencies and crew preparation and selection.
As increasing numbers of people reach retirement age, Naranjo said, more and more will decide to go cruising under power or sail, and whether it's a month-long jaunt to New England or a dream voyage to Europe, proper selection of boat and crew is essential.
"Especially in the sailing community, folks who have pondered the perfect sailboat throughout their careers have retired with significant amounts of cash and have bought the right boat, which often also is a large boat, which means large forces to deal with," Naranjo said.
"And while there are all sorts of energy saving and safety gadgets and gizmos out there, when it comes down to it, a fit and agile crew is what it is all about."
One of the early findings after the Sydney-Hobart race, Naranjo said, is that there was a poor mix of skills on many boats, and experienced crew were forced to deal with overpowered boats and overmatched crew members in extreme conditions.
"It sounds rather simplistic, but what we have is people who go shopping for safety rather than learn the basic procedures that will ensure safe passage," he said.
The seminar, which will be held at the Naval Academy and will deal with situations for both power and sail, is open to the public. Organizers said several hundred tickets ($60 per day) usually are available at the door.
Skippers building crews for the Annapolis-Newport race later this spring can meet entry requirements by having crews attend the seminar.
The seminar is sponsored by Cruising World magazine, West Marine, the Marine Trades Association of Maryland and the Naval Academy Sailing Squadron. For more information, call 410-293-5600.
Pub Date: 3/25/99