Mistakes and their lessons

Posted on 13 October 2008

“Stuff” happens, and we make mistakes. We can learn from them and the mistakes of others. It’s OK to make mistakes; the trick is not to repeat them.

Many years ago, I skippered in an overnight race on Lake Superior. It was pitch-black, and a sudden, violent thunderstorm struck the fleet, with winds increasing from Force 2 to Force 7 or 8. A couple of boats were dismasted, several took knockdowns, and many had sails blown out. We took no damage.

Lesson: We had a rule that watchstanders stood their watches with an AM radio set to its lowest available frequency. The watch was not listening to music, but for static caused by lightning. Static increasing in frequency and intensity alerted us, even though there was no rumble of thunder or sign of lightning. We were proactive and reduced sail to prepare for heavy weather.

On one occasion, I made an almost perfect jackass of myself (nothing is ever truly perfect). We were motorsailing into a new harbor on a hot, virtually windless day. I was half asleep at the tiller when the sea breeze kicked in and caught us overtrimmed, almost knocking us down. I bought into my wife’s panicked call to drop the sails and scandalized the main, which promptly billowed into my face and cut off visibility. Partially blinded, I attempted to make for an open slip. Realizing I couldn’t make it, I sheered off and almost hit several moored boats.

Lessons: 1) Don’t doze or daydream when you have the helm. Stay alert. Had I been alert, I would have noticed the dark cat’s paw in the water heralding the oncoming wind. 2) Remember that on hot days a large body of water will produce a sea breeze. 3) Don’t panic. Take the time to do what must be done correctly, regardless of the circumstances. There’s usually enough time to do something right; there may not be enough time to correct the problem you created. 4) If you’re going to screw up, try and do it when no one is watching.

My wife and I joined a friend and his wife to move their new boat to its permanent berth. We were both competent boaters, and we started out on a clear morning without a care in the world. Within a few minutes, taking a bearing on the outer marker of the harbor we had left, a gray curtain of fog dropped as if a window shade had been drawn. Then we realized we hadn’t checked the compass or the knot meter/log. When we ran aground with the sounder reading 60 feet, we sort of guessed the sounder wasn’t calibrated.

Lessons: 1) Complacency has probably caused more tragedies at sea than anything except for ignorance and stupidity.

2) Always swing a new compass before doing anything else, even though your boat is equipped with a snazzy GPS/chart plotter. 3) Make sure the depth sounder and knot meter/log are calibrated before leaving the dock.

Another friend went to the Bahamas some years ago in a boat equipped with every piece of electronics available — GPS/chart plotter, radar, etc. He relied implicitly on his instruments. Know what we called him? “Aground!” He was always encountering conditions where his draft exceeded the water depth.

Lessons: 1) Occasionally look out the window; don’t rely solely on your electronics.2) Compare your plotter, sounder/sonar and GPS data with the most current paper charts available, which you should always have on board. I call these “sanity checks.”

Trying for the entrance to Whitby Harbour on Lake Ontario in heavy fog, the owner and I ended up wrestling for the helm before I reminded him of our delivery contract — under way, I’m the boss. I was to the right of the red entrance buoy, so it was on my port side. I was steering on the range lights mounted on the breakwater and on a pylon on land. We got in safely.

Lessons: 1) Read the Notices to Mariners, which reported the red buoy was out of position. 2) If there is doubt, go by the land-based aids to navigation; they’re less likely to be out of position. 3) Relax and have fun out there, but exercise situational awareness. The water is not unkind or inherently cruel, but it is unforgiving of errors and mistakes.