Ocean Passage Making: Five days in the open ocean with 5 random friends.

A guest blog by Pavel Sokolov

People often ask me what OPM class is all about? What should you be prepared for? Is it hard? Is it worth it? I will attempt to cover some of these questions in this blog post.

It has been roughly a year since I graduated from the program. Some events might be not very accurately reflected in my memory, but I’m sure you will get the big picture. Without further ado let’s set sail!

There are not many opportunities to participate in OPM class. It usually runs couple of times a year and includes 5 people aboard a single boat. In order to qualify, one has to complete and pass a rigorous CPM program and also a course in Celestial Navigation. You should ask yourself why are you doing this? For many people the CPM program is all that you ever need to be a competent sailor and take trips along the coast and charter a boat anywhere in the world. Why bother? For me the answer was simple. I am seriously considering circumnavigation of the globe and there’s a good chance that significant part of it would be solo. Naturally, I was curious as to what would be required to successfully sail the open ocean and I wanted to enhance my sailing skills in the process. It seemed this class would be just perfect. To my surprise, OPM was not really a skill focused class, at least not as much as was CPM. It was, as you might have expected, a practical exercise of Celestial Navigation skills in the same way that CPM is practical exercise of Coastal Navigation. To me this turned out to be more about experience and an opportunity to check if have what it takes to sail the oceans of the world and enjoy the process.

The class puts great emphasis on planning, preparation and decision making process, but I’m running ahead a little bit. Let’s rewind…

Preparation actually started about 6 weeks before the first day of the class sail. I thought that this would be piece of small Caribbean rum cake and that I would have plenty of time. The first glance at Capt. Arnstein’s introductory email to the class quickly convinced me to the contrary – there was plenty of work to do! We were required to read a book about sailing, prepare a pilot plan, landing notes, a voyage plan, and to fully understand a boat system. We also had to prepare a comprehensive vessel upgrade plan for an imaginary circumnavigation. Additionally, we had to do weather observation and modeling exercise.
The pilot plan was easy. The purpose of the exercise is to check if one can pay attention to Coast Pilot and Local Notices to Mariners to create a safe plan. In the end it’s not different compared to what we did in CPM. The weather exercise was focused on demonstration that, no matter what model you use, they are all very approximate and having good judgement beats having good model every step of the way. For me, the two most interesting and enjoyable tasks were landing notes preparation and the boat system upgrade. For landing notes I just followed my normal sailing vacation planning process. This is almost as fun as the actual trip itself. I had to plan to land in Koror. Interestingly enough, this destination was on my bucket list already, so it looks like next sailing trip might be in Palau! For vessel preparation I had to work with the electrical system. I am a techno-geek, so it was rather interesting to ponder various aspects of wind versus solar auxiliary energy, nuances of lightning protection systems, and to update myself on the latest research in battery chemistries. I must admit that these activities may be not necessarily labeled as “fun” in your books. Still, they are a very important part of preparation for a serious voyage. Let’s move on to the voyage itself.

Surprise! There was no voyage for the first day of the class. Ah, maybe, you had expected that. It takes significant effort to prepare the boat and make sure that you can safely depart. Plenty of unnecessary stuff had to be offloaded and couple of new interesting toys needed to be loaded. It takes certain amount of ingenuity to find enough room on board for all the gear and personal belongings. Of particular interest is the Jordan Series Drogue. This quite clever device consists of trail of small flexible cones attached to a long line. Each of these cones adds extra resistance as the line is pulled through the water behind the boat during a storm. There are a couple of interesting exercises to prepare to deploy and retrieve this device.

Added fun of boat preparation included the process of discovering and remediating all acts of sabotage that our instructor diligently carried out while we were not watching.

Subtle sabotage: coil of line to be sucked into the block.

We successfully located loose rigging, missing bolts and blown breakers. The folding table in cockpit almost parted with the decking but Capt. Arnstein insisted that this was not his doing. Hmm, I wonder if he just forgot about it after planting so many traps?

I was at the helm as we were leaving the San Francisco Bay.

We managed to set sail after lunch the second day of the class. The weather was good and the sailing was mostly uneventful. We had reached the Farallones by nightfall. That evening was the “ high light” of the trip. I mean, literally… Capt. Arnstein brought plenty of pyrotechnics ranging from simple shell flares, bright parachute SOLAS rockets, and even smoke grenade! If one is into these types of things, this is not something to be missed! After notifying the US Coast Guard we started the show. To my surprise, many shell flares were duds, probably a good 20% simply didn’t work. Granted, they were expired, but… it makes you think about how many you may really want to have on board your vessel. We learned that SOLAS rockets can be almost a waste if launched at a wrong angle but, otherwise, they are awesome and highly visible for quite some time.

This crew is on fire!

All this excitement with pyrotechnics made me forget about the mild seasickness that was slowly getting worse. By day two of our voyage I was essentially “not in trim” despite using scopolamine patches to try to prevent seasickness. I typically charter sailboats on vacation for maybe a solid month each year for the last 6 to 7 years in various destinations. I’ve seen weather and seas far worse than what we had during our sail and was never seriously ill except for one long diving trip. But, as they say, there would be a day when it hits you. That day of OPM was my day and it hit me like a cargo ship! I can’t tell you for sure what happened during this day. I remember carrying out my duties but the rest of my universe shrunk and mostly revolved around drinking water and, soon thereafter, letting the fishes enjoy it, too.

Three sailors can figure out where they are if they try hard enough. Yours truly is in the blue cap.

By third day of our voyage I recovered and noticed that I almost missed my boat assignments while being preoccupied with my involuntary fish feeding sessions. We had regular short quizzes on rather diverse topics and a more elaborate “captains challenge.” We could use all the books and reference materials to find answers but it didn’t help all that much if you didn’t know were to look for it. Capt. Arnstein was a good sport and gave us hints if we were completely lost. This also happened to be the day I decided to get serious about celestial navigation. Sun shots were somewhat challenging because of dense cloud cover and we took any opportunity to see the sun to practice. You probably know the difference between practice and theory. This old adage fully applies to sextant use on a rocking and pitching sailboat. I thought that I did a pretty darn good job taking measurements and performing computations………only to discover that I had determined our boat position and missed it by 20 miles or so when compared to GPS. Pro tips: a light aluminum sextant is way easier on your hand than bronze; a cheap Davis sextant is adequate for sun shots but a real challenge for the faint stars; Venus and Jupiter shots rule! I repeated the whole exercise the next day taking extra care to discard suspicious measurement and averaging the shots for better accuracy and came within 4 miles of our actual location. This degree of accuracy was declared acceptable.

Ken demonstrates the proper technique of taking a sun sight with the sextant on a moving sailboat.

A couple of other things happened that day. We actually practiced launching and retrieving the Jordan Series Drogue.

Arne preparing JSD for deployment

We also had a lecture on various medical aspects of survival at sea an and interesting discussion on storm management tactics. In general, every day we had a topic for practical or sometimes philosophical discussion. For example, should one carry guns on your boat while circumnavigating? I think the most common theme in these discussions revolved around the simple fact that there are no hard and fast rules and there are many unique circumstances to consider. Ultimately, the skipper is responsible for all decisions and their consequences as well as for well-being and lives of the crew.

During that day, I also had to practice SSB communication with Pacific Seafarers Net. This is excellent opportunity to employ proper lingo and communication protocols with a bunch of friendly people who are sailing vast Pacific Ocean. Please review your phonetic alphabet or you’ll likely embarrass your instructor! While we were at it, we also downloaded the latest GRIB files to look into the immediate applicable weather forecast. It was calling for 40+ knots of NW wind along the coast in next 12-24 hours. At this time we were around 39°N and a good 120 miles offshore. We discussed the pros and cons of “chicken” route (coined by Capt. Arnstein) to avoid the weather and finally decided to move closer to the coast and experience steering challenges in heavy following seas. We also planned to practice dragging a drogue to see how it affects the boat.

It was my turn to be the skipper and also to stand the night watch. Again, maybe I’m not quite a normal person but I actually enjoy this opportunity. The experience is almost meditative, it allows me to connect with my inner self and decompress. The key is to have good gear and to be warm no matter what the weather throws at you. The gear was good but the weather was rapidly
deteriorating, just as forecast. The wind picked up and seas were rolling behind in a somewhat chaotic pattern. Everybody started to prepare for a real ride… but it didn’t happen. The most wind we saw over the next several hours was approximately 30 knots and soon it started to die down. The waves, still high, were more organized and smooth. Patches of fog started to form and soon we were unable to see more than 100 yards in any direction. This is not the time to be caught without radar! You would be surprised how much traffic is happening 100 miles offshore in the middle of the night. It’s definitely reassuring to hear other skipper’s voices confirming that they see you on their radar as their big container ships pass only couple of miles away. The fog started to dissipate a little and Capt. Arnstein pointed out that jib tack shackle was parted and the pin was nowhere to be found. This failure is something that is not immediately noticeable when on a deep broad reach in light wind. Initially, I though that this was another sabotage drill, but unfortunately, this was a real thing! It is likely that we didn’t secure it well after doing our storm jib exercise. I jury rigged the tack with spectra line while everyone was sleeping. In the morning we learned that Mikal came prepared and had a spare. We quickly replaced my temporary fix with permanent one and continued on our way back home.

The rest of our journey was mostly uneventful. We finally arrived at our home port! After 600 miles and 5 days in the ocean, we were all tired and eager to take a shower. One does not even realize how much we truly value simple gifts of civilization until on a voyage like the one we had just completed! After off loading our gear, we quickly disembarked and cleaned the boat.

I think everyone passed. It was really great to sail with friendly crew always ready to help. Capt. Arnstein turned out to be an awesome instructor! One thing that I’m not going to miss, though, is his collection of sailor shanties!!!

We said our goodbyes and I jumped into the car to head home. My wife texted me that BA chart 742 had arrived yesterday! The trip to Seychelles was only 3 weeks away, but this is entirely different story…

OPM Crew is happy to be back at the dock.

Pavel writes……I love nature and exploring the world. I caught the sailing bug 7 years ago in the British Virgin Islands. Since then, I’ve been trying to spend my vacations on a sailboat. This activity goes nicely with my scuba diving hobby. For more than a year I was single handing a Hunter 36 sailboat on the bay. I learned some clever tricks and probably an equal amount of bad habits. After some time I decided that it’s time to unlearn the bad habits and make new friends and so I joined Club Nautique in 2016. Since then I have been taking all the classes club can offer but they ran out of options as I completed all is the courses.

Pictures courtesy of Capt. Arnstein Mustad.

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