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Entering an unfamiliar bay - decision time

'To enter or not to enter - that is the question'    .

You thought it would be a day trip, but there have been unforecast contrary winds all day and they are building. The crew is exhausted, and, as skipper you have decided there's a need to do something different. It'll be getting dark soon. There's a deep gulf ahead, an unfamiliar one, but it promises rest and a good night's sleep. You checked and you have charts. Should you go in? Here consider the options:

You can go into this unfamiliar anchorage, risky because of the unknowns that might be there, or you can head to sea, into deep water, hove to if necessary, or just potter along, leaving just one person on watch for the night. Except for the watch keeping, the crew will be fresher in the morning, and ready to persevere to the destination.

First, take a little time to make the decision and, perhaps, depending on the crew, discuss it with them. DON'T do anything hasty:

The arguments for entering/ not entering the anchorage might include:
1. The lure of a 'good night's sleep'. This is often so compelling that the risks are not thoroughly assessed.
2. The tidal situation. If there is a channel, check the tides and make sure you can enter on a slack or rising tide.
3. The visibility. Foggy conditions should be a significant deterrent.
4. The clarity of the water. If the water is clear, a crew on the bow will be excellent help on entry as the water becomes calm.
5. Sunshine on the water. If the promised anchorage is to the west, even with someone on the bow and clear water, visibility below the surface may be compromised.
6. Even with a westerly entrance, depending on the shape of the bay, it may be possible to enter without the sunlight directly in front.
7. Heading out to sea into clear water is never as attractive as the lure of a good sleep, but often it is by far the safest option. Consider it carefully.

After considering all these issues, you have decided to 'go for it' and enter the unfamiliar anchorage. Here are a few tips to make the entry safer:

1. Keep your main or, depending on the wind, other sail, ready. Do NOT put your sails away. Consider what might happen if the engine fails just as you are entering.
2. Have your electronic handheld sounder at the ready to test the depths.
3. Get out the old-fashioned leadline - just in case the electronic one fails.
4. Don't, under any circumstances, depend on your electronic charting system. (It will certainly help if you have determined the offsets and adjusted the system accordingly.) This is one time when looking out the window is essential.
5. However, do set your electronic charting system to mark the waypoints of your line of entry every few metres. This will allow safe exit in any conditions either during the night or first thing in the early morning when the light on the water is flat. This is your fool-proof escape plan - to escape precisely in the same way that you entered.
6. Let the anchor settle for at least an hour before allowing exhausted crew to go to bed. If it won't set in this unknown seabed, you may have to depart again.
7. Set your anchor alarm, and set an anchor watch for the night.

However, there's many a long-experienced cruising sailor who would rather go to sea any time, even in a storm, than risk the unknowns of close quartered manoeuvring. Further, at night many find going to sea the preferred option no matter the conditions.

It's always the skipper's call.

by Nancy Knudsen


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9:22 PM Sun 13 Jul 2014GMT

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