Sea & Sky: Offshore Sailing & Long-Haul Flying Similarities
Chris and I recently sailed from Phuket to the Maldives, the first leg on our Indian Ocean crossing. We quickly transitioned from coastal cruising 1500NM during an entire year(100NM at most in a day), to sailing 1500NM offshore, nonstop in one of the worlds most notorious oceans. One night in the Bay of Bengal, I felt waves of nostalgia crash over me. I was reminded that less than a year ago, I was sitting in a 787 cockpit doing something similar…Sitting in a cockpit in the middle of the night, gazing out the window at the sea and sky maintaining outside watch. This time I was at sea level instead of 40,000ft, however, I couldn’t help shake all of the familiar feelings. What was it? Was it scanning the endless dark sky for traffic and weather? Feeling exhausted? Fantasizing about a cold beer at the destination? The list went on and on.
Reflecting on the experiences gained as a pilot and sailor, we discovered firsthand how offshore sailing and long-haul flying are similar. Skills learned from thousands of flight hours in the aviation industry have benefited us many times during this first offshore sailing passage. Some of the similarities included quality maintenance, effects of wind velocity, PIREP/PAULREP, enroute eating, familiar fatigue, and the international CIQ process.
Similarity: Departing on a journey across remote areas makes it even more important that essential equipment is functional. A diversion to a foreign country must only be done in an emergency since there are many logistics involved. Maintenance problems will occur on even the best ships, and it is usually more important how a problem is dealt with than the problem itself.
Chris and I flew for many years at a world-class airline, and became accustomed to crossing oceans in impeccably maintained Boeing aircraft. We always felt safe in the sky, and never were concerned with the quality of the aircraft. We wanted the same feeling at sea, and made safety a priority when we purchased a boat. Amel is famous for building very solid yachts that have high quality components. This made buying an Amel 54 an obvious choice for us. We purchased Skylark 14 months ago, and have been preparing to go offshore by keeping a high maintenance standard and adding some upgrades. We completed tasks such as installing solar panels for redundancy, beefing up our spares and using quality manufacturer recommended parts. There is no address at sea for Amel to ship parts from France, no Volvo Penta mechanics or shops to buy spares, so we had to be fully prepared before we sailed off into the sunset.
Long-haul flying and offshore sailing both require an exceptional level of ship quality, and starting the journey with a functional ship is important to lower the chances of an emergency requiring a diversion when far away from a suitable port. ETOPS, Extended-range Twin-Engine Operational Performance Standards, is used in long-haul aviation and demands certain requirements are met in order to fly further than 60 minutes flying time from the nearest airport suitable for an emergency landing. ETOPS requirements follow strict maintenance guidelines, and many items that could normally be deferred on a shorter flight, must be operational. The approval is specific to the aircraft, and is listed in minutes. For example, ETOPS180, would be for 180minutes/3 hours from a suitable airport. Airplanes have a lot of redundancy to ensure that if one system fails, it is possible to continue safely to the destination or alternate. If you start deferring too many items or certain checks are not completed, the redundancy and quality is lost, which increases risk when there are no airports close by.
The same concept is important in sailing, especially during the Covid Era. The systems on our boat must be thoroughly checked and we have to carry suitable spares for any enroute repairs. We sailed near Sumatra, Nicobars and Sri Lanka, so if there was a catastrophic failure or medical emergency, it would be possible to divert. However, the emergency would have to outweigh whatever consequences there are for diverting enroute to nations that are currently closed to tourists. We planned this route, and departed knowing that we were seaworthy and self-sufficient enough to sail from Phuket to the Maldives without stopping. We would be up to 5 days from a suitable port at a speed of 6 knots if an emergency happened midway. Possibly longer depending on the malfunction.
We departed Phuket on a beautiful morning with all essential items operational. Even with the best maintenance intentions, machines still breakdown from time to time. We were planning to spend more than 10 days at sea, and covering an extensive distance, so we figured at some point we would be dealing with a maintenance issue, but it was a mystery what what would break and when. We learned in aviation, it is usually more important how a problem is dealt with than the problem itself. We planned to the best of our abilities, and kept an open mind to deal with whatever unexpected issues came our way.
Our first maintenance issue popped up about 80NM from Phuket. The wind diminished to nearly nothing, so we started the motor and began to furl in the sail. Unfortunately, our electric genoa furler stopped working halfway through the furl in process. There was no checklist or MOC (maintenance operation control) to confer with, so we troubleshooted ourselves. We reset the furler circuit breaker twice, with no success. The motor sounded like it was running, so Chris opened up the furler, and discovered the furler belt was broken in half. The genoa is our primary downwind sail, and without the ability to furl in and out with the cockpit controls, it would be a huge inconvenience for the next 1470 miles(8-14 days).
Ignoring the issue was not possible. We had four options:
Fix it - Most desirable.
Use the genoa and manually furl in with the drill and winch drill bit - Possible but not ideal, slow to furl in.
Not use the genoa - Possible but not ideal, very slow boat speed.
Divert back to Phuket - If we returned, we would have to quarantine for 2 weeks and go through many hoops. Cases of Covid were increasing again in Thailand, so this was the least desirable and most pathetic of all options.
Fixing the furler was our best option. We fortunately had three spares on board, and Chris referenced the Amel School manual for instructions on how to complete this procedure. Within 15 minutes, Chris replaced the belt and sealed the box. Once completed, we tested the furler and it worked beautifully! We were thankful to have three spares on board, and that Chris possessed the knowledge to assess and fix the problem. We were lucky to experience this malfunction during calm conditions. It would have been a lot more difficult to furl in and fix, if it was raining, at night or with high winds and waves.
Similarity: Over a long distance, wind velocity greatly effects enroute time. This alters fuel consumption and opportunity cost of destination plans.
Wind is both a friend and an enemy during sailing and flying. During a winter oceanic flight between Japan and Honolulu, wind is a friend assisting in a quick six hour flight time, and an enemy working against us on a long nine hour flight time on the way back. During a sailing passage, wind is a friend when there is a 20kt breeze off our beam helping us fly along, and an enemy when light and variable, causing us to waddle around like a walrus, or when too strong causing rough seas. The cumulative effect of wind velocity is greater over long distances compared to a short flight or costal sail.
Wind is a huge factor for fuel consumption. During the flight planning phase, routes and altitudes are chosen using many factors including wind. It is important to monitor wind during a flight because if headwinds are stronger than forecast, it will lead to less than planned fuel upon arrival and possibly a diversion if the difference is great enough.
When planning a sailing passage, it is also important to consider wind and be mindful of having an appropriate amount. More wind is not always better. In the Bay of Bengal during the month of December, there are still cyclones that develop, and we had to plan our timing to ensure we would not be caught in one. The cyclones bring high wind, thunderstorms and large seas. We also had to be careful about the possibility of having no wind. Sometimes the cyclones suck all the wind from the surrounding areas leaving calm conditions in its trail. You have to start the engine if there is no wind, unless you are happy to drift around at sea. The calm conditions we experienced during this trip were accompanied by large waves, and without forward motion it was very uncomfortable. We chose to start the engine on several occasions to avoid discomfort and make forward progress, but had to be mindful of our fuel reserves. On Skylark we have a 900L fuel tank and burn about 3L/hour at 1300RPM econ cruising speed providing 6kts in calm water, so we had a very generous buffer. If we didn't have rough seas, our range is very close to allow motoring the entire 1500NM on the Amel 54 from Phuket to the Maldives. The downsides of using fuel instead of sailing are fuel cost, engine hour maintenance cost and noise. It's far more romantic sailing than motoring.
Displeasing wind's cause a longer enroute time, effecting the opportunity cost of your destination plans. For example, the opportunity cost of sitting in the aircraft cockpit in strong headwinds or calm winds at sea, is spending time with your family or relaxing at a beautiful anchorage watching the sunset catching squid. Airlines utilize a cost index, which is the time-related cost compared to the fuel-related cost. The higher the cost index, the higher the fuel burn. There is no formal cost index on Skylark, however, based on our resources available and desire to reach the destination we can increase a fictitious cost index and speed up.
On day 7, we received a weather forecast update that predicted the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone) was moving north, and all of the wind in the area would diminish as a consequence. We already spent several days in large waves, thunderstorms, sleep deprived and looking forward to arriving in Maldives. Based on the weather forecast, if we did not increase our speed the remaining winds, we would be stuck in a lull of calm for days. Once plagued by calm conditions, we would likely motor anyways. We had a choice to make. We either started the engine, and increased our speed by motor-sailing in whatever remaining wind was left, or potentially end up in calm winds for days. We used econ motoring RPM, and were able to sail up to 10kts at times with the current assisting, and had wind the entire time. We checked the wind map, and it was good we motored a bit, since we would have been stuck in calm winds. We used more fuel than we would have liked, but we still only burned what a 787 burns in 7 minutes during the entire trip. We ultimately received a cake and lobster for being the first yacht to arrive in Uligan that season, which made us feel even better!
Similarity: Reporting actual weather conditions to nearby ships helps them anticipate what to expect.
It helps managing a situation when you know what future conditions to expect. In the skies, pilots share actual weather information to other aircraft through a PIREP (pilot report). There are many flights between Tokyo and Honolulu, and pilots often share reports on turbulence. The reports are generally accurate since all conditions are experienced by similar size heavy aircraft on this route. Chris and I have completed a few flights where we were one hour apart and were able to share useful information via the company communication. It is helpful to know about actual turbulence before it happens, so you can turn on the seatbelt sign early to avoid risking passenger injury.
We buddy sailed to Maldives with our friend Paul, who is sailing solo on an Oyster 53 named SV Making Time. We developed PAULREP. Paul report. The first half of the journey we were within 5 miles of each other, and our distance grew as we chose different strategies close to Sri Lanka. Having a similar sized vessel in the ocean nearby us was very valuable. We were in VHF or satellite communication for the entire trip and relayed thunderstorm, current, wind, wave and traffic information to each other frequently. Sometimes the yacht in front had relevant information such as traffic, and other times the yacht who was trailing behind experienced the weather first, since we were traveling westbound and the wind and storms were approaching from the east.
We experienced very dynamic weather on this trip. On day 4, Paul radioed us on VHF in the afternoon, to inform us that Des, an experienced weather router for the Indian Ocean, was predicting big waves caused by north winds and southerly swell that was expected to peak around midnight. At this point, we were enjoying a beautiful sail, and Chris was jinxing us with statements like, “This is great, and how I imagined ocean sailing to be!” As the day progressed, the waves slowly began to build. Skylarks bow would soar up a wave, and suddenly another would lift her stern. We ended up having waves as high as our davits, and estimated they were 3m high with 6 seconds in between.
Paul was 5NM ahead of us, and we called him on VHF as the sun was setting. We asked, “What are your conditions like? How much worse do you think this is going to get?” Nobody knew. We were at the mercy of the sea. There was nowhere to go, and we had to deal with the conditions handed to us in the moment. As the sky became darker and darker, we could not see the waves approaching us. It was almost better when we couldn’t see the waves, since it eliminated the fear associated with anticipation. Skylark and Making Time were built for conditions far worse than this, and we knew our boats could handle it, however, it was exhausting, slow and uncomfortable. The waves would appear to improve, and then suddenly a large set would approach again, slamming our rear. Chris and I tried our best to do two hour rests, but quality sleep was not an option! Paul got even less sleep than us. . The forecast was grim, predicting similar conditions for the following 2 days! We just had to keep on keeping on! After a couple of days, the conditions improved and we had new weather issues to complain about such the wind disappearing. We weren’t in the same boat, but having a friend nearby at sea made a huge difference.
Similarity: Snacks and sashimi
Food is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and important to fuel the body. On long-haul flights and offshore sailing, it is important to eat well, since there is such a long period of time on board that its not possible to eat on land. In the sky, I generally didn’t carry my own food on board, so I was at the mercy of whatever delights were presented to me. Rice crackers were a typical boredom snack, since they were usually within arms reach, and if I was having a blessed day then an ice-cream might also grace my lips. At sea on Skylark, we had about six months worth of provisions available, allowing for snacking and meals to require some decision making. Should I have Thai style nuts, a salt and vinegar chip tasting session or charcuterie platter? Or maybe a quick baby bell? We thankfully never got into the habit of snacking at night, and our snacking was limited to a cheeky mid-morning nibble when we were hungry/tired, and it was not yet “lunch time” hours. Our first annual Salt and Vinegar Chip Tasting session was a highlight, and the Kettle Brand was the clear winner. Incase you were wondering, the ginger was for a palette cleanser. We consumed ginger in between sampling different brands so that we could have a more discerning comparison.
Meals in the sky were often delicious, but contained many preservatives. At sea, we have backup meals with similar amounts of sodium on board for emergency consumption if we cannot buy or catch anything fresh. We have quick dishes such as Thai curries, pasta sauces, and ramen. We generally made fresh meals each day, and strived to use the ingredients that expired the quickest. If you followed our location map, you will have seen every meal we consumed while on passage. We made curries, salads, pastas, omelettes and more. It was difficult cooking in rough conditions, but we activated our sea legs within few days and were able to dance around the galley with ease.
We spent the first half of the trip trolling a fishing line. We have been trying to catch a fish for many months with no success, other than a scrawny needlefish in Ko Lipe. On day 4, Around 4pm in the afternoon, I was having a siesta in the cockpit when Chris yelled “FISH!!!” The clacker was going wild on the fishing rod, indicating something was hooked. We were hoping it was a fish and not a piece of trash. Paul had caught a Covid mask on his rod and we didn’t have confidence it would be anything spectacular. I still jumped up, grabbed the camera, and expedited to the stern in a groggy haze. Chris was reeling in enthusiastically and we both gasped in excitement as we saw a skipjack tuna on the lure! He was a manageable size, and we killed, gutted and filleted our prized catch of the trip.
Since we transited the Sombrero Passage, we had a Mexican themed Sombrero party during the day, and a Taco Tuesday planned for dinner. Originally we were planning to use canned tuna, however, the upgrade to fresh tuna was greatly welcomed! We sliced the tuna in small pieces and marinated it in taco seasoning for several hours. We fried the tuna on the stove and placed it into crisp taco shells with cheese, tomato, jalapeños and cilantro. They were incredible.
The second half we saved for sashimi. Interestingly enough, we learned in Madagascar that freshly caught fish should not be served as sashimi immediately. After being caught , the fish needs to rest for a while, otherwise its muscles are all very tight and it is subsequently very tough. After the tuna fought against Chris on the rod, we rested the fillets overnight in the fridge so it would relax and be more delicious. We enjoyed it the following day for lunch accompanied by ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. These are essential supplies we always have fully stocked on board incase we catch a fish worthy of sashimi. Finally it was put to use.
We have previously enjoyed sashimi in the sky. The sashimi below was from the best business class catering in the world for several years in a row according to Skytrax. The sashimi is always beautifully presented and accompanied with other tasty tidbits.
I am not sure if we would receive a 5-star Seatrax rating for our presentation yet, but we will have the opportunity for more practice when we are in the Maldives and (hopefully) catch many more tuna!
Similarity: Staying awake through the night is very difficult on the body, and proper rest management is essential
Rest management is very important, since it’s difficult to make sound decisions while exhausted. Airlines have rest rules in place so that pilots have the opportunity to be well rested before, after and sometimes during a flight. While offshore cruising as a couple, it takes coordination to ensure quality enroute rest. We embarked on this journey knowing our nightly 8-hour sleep would be effected, but it was a price we were willing to pay for adventure.
Chris and I spent 9 months in Thailand, and our circadian rhythm was rock solid. We were accustomed to a 9pm bedtime, also known as sailors midnight. My first night staying up past real midnight was on this passage, something I had not accomplished since my final flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Tokyo back in March. We were planning an 8-14 day passage, and since we are not robots, had to develop a rest schedule that worked for us. We arranged sequences of 2 hour blocks during evenings when our bodies were experiencing circadian lows. Typically, once the sun went down, usually around 6pm, we would begin this cycle. During the days it was a free for all, and we would coordinate naps as we pleased. Napping during the day never lasted for more than an hour anyways.
The sensation of exhaustion in the middle of the night and focusing on a task reminded us of being back in the airplane, since we spent so many nights on the back side of the clock flying. When the sweetest thing in the world sounds like a comfortable bed, it's important to keep focused. Thunderstorms and wind don’t care if you are tired, and while you are in the moment you must remain alert for threats and control the vessel. Luckily, when conditions are hectic, I find it is easier to stay alert. I never felt tired near Sri Lanka when there were random fishing boats lurking nearby, or at 2am solo in the cockpit with gusts exceeding 25kts and flying down 3m waves. When conditions were easy, it was not very stimulating and the desire to sleep increased. Clear smooth skies or glassy water with the engine purring away and I am desperate for some coffee and a conversation to keep me awake! Unfortunately with our two hour on, two hour off rest schedule, we did not have the time to become caffeinated and get it out of our system before our next nap, so we refrained during the evenings. When daylight broke each morning, I instantly felt a burst of energy from the sun, and it felt acceptable to have a cup of coffee or eat some coffee beans. It may seem laughable to say it is ever 'acceptable' to eat coffee beans, but we needed a quick caffeine hit to power us into the day.
I have slept on many flights as a passenger in different types of airplane"beds", and flight conditions, and boat sleeps and airplane sleeps are comparable in quality. The sleep configurations I have experienced include vertically seated in economy, contorted across 2 seats in economy, somewhat-horizontal across 3 seats in economy, horizontal across 4 seats in economy, semi-horizontal in business class, horizontal in business class, and horizontal in first class. The conditions include smooth, turbulent, day or night. One would expect first class and business class to always provide a superior sleep, but I have found it really depends on how tired you are, and what the conditions are. Vertical/contorted economy sleeps are always terrible, but some of the horizontal economy sleeps have been heavenly, and I was snoozing from climb-out until descent. There have been deep sleeps in premium cabins, however, when the conditions are poor, all bets are off.
On board Skylark, I was like Goldilocks in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, trying out all of the available beds. The second night, as pictured above, we both had the best sleeps of the trip, and foolishly thought we were acclimatized to offshore sleeping. We quickly began the struggle again the following evening which persisted for the rest of the trip. There was an opportunity cost to every sleeping location, and with so many options, while cranky and exhausted, the pressure was greater. Which bed to choose ultimately depended on the conditions. The Master Cabin was in theory be the best since its the biggest, but was strangely one of the least desirable options. The aft cabin has a large bed, but the autopilot is underneath and is noisy when working hard through the waves. Ear plugs did not block the noise. The cockpit has a pleasant breeze and close to helm, but it became wet when it rained, and when it was rough there was the worry about somehow being tossed over the side into the dark ocean. The side berth is protected from the elements, and has a view of the helm, however, it is very narrow and when the waves slapped against the hull it could be noisy. The saloon was Chris’s favorite, and is best for rolling motion since it lies perpendicular longitudinal axis unlike any of the other beds. The downside was feeling like a couch-surfer and sticking to the leather. My favorite was the forward cabin, since it is very wide for one person and sailing downwind it was quiet. We had about 4 pillows up there and it was heavenly until the person on watch furls in the main sail making lots of noise. I found in rough conditions, similarity to the aircraft, that none of the beds allowed for quality sleep. On the aircraft, all it takes is a few moments with moderate turbulence and the ding of the seatbelt sign, or on the boat a wave hitting at an awkward angle to jolt me awake. Smooth seas and skies make such a difference!
International CIQ Process
Similarity - Being familiar with CIQ departure/arrival procedures during an international voyage is essential.
Most international voyages begin and end with customs, immigration and quarantine. When traveling by airplane, it’s a very streamline process through the airport CIQ area either alone or accompanied by an agent. Different countries require different entry/exit documents, and it is important to be familiar with the procedure. We flew to some countries where we had to bring specific documents with us as pilots, whereas other countries all the documents are handled by the companies agent. Traveling by sailboat requires us to research the specific entry and exit requirements. The procedures have been very dynamic during these Covid times, and it is important to be certain that it is possible to check into a country before exiting another. We were planning on leaving Thailand back in March, however this was ultimately not possible due to the national emergency decree and all the neighboring countries being closed to yachts.
We learned a few months ago that the Maldives was opening to tourists and yachts, and discussed the arrival process with Maldivian agent Assad from Real Seahawks Shipping. We needed to wait for the appropriate season to make the passage from Phuket to Maldives, and decided upon the end of December. Once the trip was confirmed, we emailed all of the requested paperwork and documents prior to our journey, for a smooth entry into the Maldives.
On January 7th, we arrived in the Maldives, and anchored in a beautiful lagoon next to the port island of Uligan. Shortly after our arrival, a speedboat with Assad and officials from Immigration, Customs, Quarantine and Security approached Skylark. After a quick Covid temperature check and screening, they boarded Skylark to complete the formalities. They were extremely friendly and welcoming and the check-in process was completed smoothly.
We were presented with fresh bbq lobster tails and a cake for being the first yacht of the season to arrive in Uligan! Being first has its benefits, and our higher 'cost index' was once again confirmed to be a good idea! It was a very warm welcome and I was thrilled to be back in the Maldives! We posed for a few photographs with the cake and the officials. It was a super warm welcome and a great start to our sailing adventure in the Maldives.
Although I never received cake and lobster while going through any airport CIQ, a less delicious but also exciting thrill of being first, was arriving at the front of the pack into Honolulu on a busy morning. This meant a short line at immigration and quicker arrival to the hotel. This process regularly took up to an hour if you arrived behind a massive line of heavy crews from a Jal B777, Asiana B777, Philippines A340, Korean A330, Jin 777 and a Qantas 747 and there were only two booths open. If you have flown into Honolulu internationally early morning, you will understand the joy of being first.
We often miss our life in the sky, but cherish our current life at sea. Although we are at sea level for now, the experiences gained on this journey will transfer right back to our life in the sky when the time comes.
Now that we are in the Maldives, I am trying to put my seaplane skills to use from ten years ago, as we navigate Skylark through the atolls! We have already found a few beautiful beaches to land the dinghy.