The Pros and Cons of Turning Back

The decision to abandon a voyage can be caused by seamanship or safety issues—or is it a situation that can be handled?
Fatty Goodlander holding an Edson pump
Proper preparation is key to any successful offshore passage. This Edson pump is an example of equipment that’s great to have in an emergency. Carolyn Goodlander

There are times when turning back while ocean sailing is the best choice, but those times are, hopefully, few and far between. I’ve turned back twice in the past four circumnavigations, and the figure seems about right for a well-prepared vessel attempting to cross an ocean during the correct weather pattern. 

However, turning back often isn’t about the boat or its prep. It’s about the soul of its skipper. 

There are good reasons to return to port: taking on ­water, for example, and ­having no way to remove ­water from your boat, or breaking a piece of your standing rigging, or having your self-steering gear fail. But do note that the first two reasons are strength and safety issues, while the third is a matter of basic seamanship.

If a couple is so fatigued by steering during their entire watch that they can’t eat, sleep or poop properly, they can quickly turn into numbskulls. Trust me on this. I’ve turned into a numbskull many times and almost made stupid decisions that cost our lives. Fatigue offshore is real, and it must be guarded against at all times. 

Take the story of one cruising couple I know. Back in 2000, they turned back to the Galapagos Islands with just 2,700 miles left to go to Fatu Hiva in French Polynesia. Only a fool would sail that vast distance with a Hurst transmission that was acting up, right? 

Perhaps.

Their boat was a typical 40-foot overloaded cruising vessel. Its boot top had been raised three times and needed a fourth. It had two heavy anchors forward and (because of the depth of Polynesian harbors versus Caribbean ones) 250 feet of brand-new 10 mm chain. 

Now, Galapagos is famous for its westbound currents. This particular year, the trade winds were piping up. The couple knew that their boat wasn’t a fast racer, but it always nobly completed the course. Then again, this was before the couple put the “tower of power” aft with the wind/gen, solar cells and radar. And added tankage for water and fuel. Oh, and doubled the amperage of the main battery bank. Plus, all the cruising supplies.

Thus, the two-day sleigh ride downwind and down-­current turned into a six-day slog to windward against wind and current, with the couple seasick and the hatches dogged tight in the tropics. 

Part of the problem was that their reefing system worked well off the wind, but it didn’t allow the mainsail to have enough foot tension in heavy airs upwind. They were dragging a balloon-shaped sail when they needed a flat one. 

But, hey, safety first, right? 

Alas, the Galapagos isn’t a great destination to have major mechanical work done on your boat. The couple were still in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, a few months later when all their cruising buddies were in Tahiti, partying their guts out at the (oh, what butt-shaking!) Heiva festival. The anchorage in Santa Cruz was rolly. The local officials smiled nicely as they put out their hands. The harbormaster shrugged and suggested that the couple sail to mainland Ecuador to get the work done, only 650 miles to windward. 

Eventually, the couple was so frustrated that they sailed directly to Tahiti without an engine, slapped in a new, preordered transmission, and then dashed for Nuku’alofa, Tonga, to catch the weather window down to New Zealand. There, for a ­combination of reasons, they sold the boat. 

Did they make the right choice turning back? I don’t know. What I do know is that 200 miles downwind ain’t 200 miles upwind in most overweight cruising vessels. When I later asked them how they enjoyed the Pacific, they asked: “Which part? The rushing part or the twiddling-our-thumbs part?” 

I can’t help but wonder if they would have felt differently if they’d just said, “Well, we don’t really need anything that Joshua Slocum didn’t have” and kept going. We’ll never know. 

About five years ago, other friends of ours left Maine on a 56-foot gold-plater bound for England but turned back after five days. Their hull was watertight, rig up, keel down, and the CD player still worked. But still, they turned back. 

Why? Their brand-new radar didn’t work, nor did their super-duper sophisticated watermaker or a couple of other new electronics. Water had, somehow, worked its way into the wiring that the shipyard had just installed. Oh, and there was a ­problem with the new lithium batteries—something about the system monitor. 

Luckily, the untouched starting battery still worked, but the most discouraging problem was a low-tech one. Their 8-year-old hatches, while totally watertight in ­vertical rain, leaked badly as the boat twisted in the boarding seas. The forepeak was awash. Even the skipper’s bunk was soggy. 

Now, because they’d left early in the season and had nearly unlimited funds, you’d think they’d have returned to the dock and hired an experienced marine electrician to sort things out. They didn’t. Instead, they returned to the dock and booked themselves into a coastal resort—never to mention their desire to go trans-Atlantic again, not that year or the next. 

Which is fine; they either got scared or didn’t enjoy it. And soon, some lucky sea gypsy might get a nice boat at an affordable price. But imagine if they had pulled into Bermuda and had a wonderful, exciting time while they casually dealt with their issues in between snorkeling trips to the reef. And then hopped to the Azores and, ultimately, wintered in the Mediterranean. 

The owner had expected, after all the money and time he’d spent, that every aspect of the cruise would go smoothly. But what he experienced was reality, not expectation. The marine environment is a harsh one for electronics, especially ­untested units that haven’t been through a shakedown. 

Turning back, in my humble experience, is often a worried captain turning his back on the trip and the dream. And we are nothing without our dreams. Of course, I wasn’t there and shouldn’t second-guess those folks who were. All I know is that I’ve crossed many oceans without any of the stuff they lacked, and I was happy to do it. 

Which brings us to the subject of fear. 

Fear is good. It helps keep us alive. And there’s no denying that being on a small boat on a large ocean can be scary. It’s true—we don’t have gills. 

But when it comes to fear offshore, 95 percent of the time, it’s blamed on the boat, yet boats don’t fear. Their skippers do. Their crews do. 

Fear is weird. I always go offshore with a storm trysail. I believe that many sailors bristle at the idea of buying such a wonderful, bulletproof, easy-to-set sail because they don’t want to acknowledge the fact that they might actually end up in weather that requires it.

And fear is contagious. I nip it in the bud whenever possible. Just one too-timid member of the crew can ruin the cruise for all. (I immediately assign jobs to the “we’re all gonna die” crewmember to see if I can make him too tired to stoke the fear in others.) 

Of course, I’m not saying that you should never turn back. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve turned back twice, and issued a mayday once. Am I proud of issuing that mayday? No. Did I do it lightly? No. Would I do it again? Yes. 

We were in heavy weather at night in the lower Caribbean during the 1970s, and the trade winds were howling into the high 20s and low 30s. I could see a freighter’s dim lights to leeward. I checked our main bilge. It was almost dry. We were under jib and jigger (­mizzen). Then we tacked. Within two minutes, our bilge alarm went off. I visually checked, and we had a lot of water in the main bilge. How could that be? I pumped it out, but it took a long time. 

I tasted the water. It was salt, not fresh. The best-case scenario would have been a water tank that burst. I stationed Carolyn forward and myself aft. I then shut off the sucking bilge pump to determine whether the leak was aft or forward. It was neither. And, two minutes later, we had another bilge full of water. 

There was a major point of water ingress in my boat somewhere, and my battery bank was in the engine compartment. 

A strong gust hit us, and we buried the leeward rail. We were held down like that for many minutes. And I could no longer see the freighter. 

Was our only chance of assistance or a radio relay to the US Coast Guard getting farther away with each passing minute? I called mayday. A local captain came back immediately. He was skippering an interisland freighter transiting from Venezuela. I gave him the pertinent information (from a little plastic card I kept by our VHF radio) and then asked him to stand by on Channel 16. He agreed. 

Once our trusty, extra-large submersible bilge pump sucked dry again, I had Carolyn switch it off while I shone a portable spotlight on the pump. It was immediately apparent to me that the pump was back-siphoning—sucking an inch and a half of raw seawater back into our bilge. 

I shut off the bilge pump’s seacock, confirmed that we were no longer sinking, and called back the West Indian fellow standing by on Channel 16 to cancel our emergency message. Actually, we repeatedly canceled it at five-minute intervals just to make sure, and we requested that the freighter (greater antenna height and, thus, greater range) do so as well. 

The truth is that most offshore ­passages that fail do so at the dock, with poor preparation. But most transoceanic voyages have a few surprises that are unfortunate and disconcerting. This is just the reality of cruising offshore. And the farther a person is from an emergency room, the more these surprises stand out in importance. 

If you want everything perfect—and all the conveniences of home—don’t go out there. And if, for some reason, the topic of abandoning ship or turning back comes up while offshore, the skipper should convey confidence and firmly tamp down such chatter. I’m a big, big ­believer in ­democracy ashore but not afloat. Somebody has to call the shots and bear the responsibility for the voyage, and that someone is the captain, not the greenest, most fearful lubber aboard. 

Not sure about this? Then consider the people from the 1979 Fastnet race who got into their life rafts, never to be seen again, while their vessels ultimately survived.

If there’s a semi-legitimate reason (or, more likely, reasons) to turn back, then ask yourself, What’s changed? Is it unneeded creature comforts? Or a real strength and safety issue? Tough out the former; respect the latter. 

And look deep within yourself. Are you fearful? If you are, is that fear warranted? If so, take logical, seamanlike steps to mitigate your circumstance. If not, take internal steps to mitigate your fear. In layman’s terms, chill, dude.

An adventurer should be brutally honest with himself or herself. There is no greater advantage in survival situations. Cowards really do die a thousand deaths. A brave man? Only one. 

Sailing offshore involves a certain amount of risk. It would be silly to deny that. But aboard a well-found vessel in the right ocean at the right time, that risk is acceptable if we don’t allow clips of Jaws to take up residence in our heads. 

Fatty Goodlander and his cottage-cheese stomach have been racing Lasers lately, with Carolyn in the dinghy at the finish line asking: “What happened? Did you get lost?”

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in On Watch are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Cruising World. We welcome feedback and differing points of view, which can be directed to [email protected].