The priority: seamanship
Over the years, we’ve increasingly noticed that people have gotten the idea they can read books and attend seminars and be qualified to take off. Seamanship? They’ll pick that up along the way. It’s as though they think going to sea is like taking a walk in the park. This is a serious mistake. Lack of seamanship contributes more than any other single factor to disastrous cruises and failed dreams. I could tell stories about what we’ve seen for pages and pages. Suffice it to say that you must learn seamanship before you go.
The only way to learn seamanship is from experience. Good boating courses can be very helpful as a start, but only as a start. You must also learn the International and Inland Navigation Rules before you begin. These set out very distinct procedures and instructions for handling many situations at sea. We’re supposed to have a copy aboard, and we should be intimately familiar with those rules.
For example, if you see another vessel at night and aren’t familiar with its light configuration, you may not be able to determine what type of vessel it is, what it’s doing, and where it’s heading. In other words, you may die. This may sound overly dramatic, but consider the people who have lost their lives because the skipper didn’t realize he was looking at a tug pulling a barge and passed closely astern.
Buy a copy of “Chapman’s Piloting.” There also are various aids to learning that are a help. These include the LIGHTrule for vessel light identification and ROADrule for Rules of the Road, both sold by Weems and Plath (www. weems-plath.com). But you should know the rules and light configurations by heart before you go, for those times when you have to react instantly.
But seamanship goes far beyond what you can read and memorize. It includes developing skills and instincts, the ability to handle your boat in many different conditions, and a thorough understanding of weather and water movements and special problems, such as inlets. You can’t get this from reading or going to seminars. It requires experience. Take good seamanship courses — on boats on the water — that last far more than a few hours. Spend as much time as possible on your boat in familiar waters, cruising in various situations. Be safe, don’t take foolish risks, but take the time to gain experience.
Many feel they can pick up seamanship from others along the way. Traveling with groups has benefits. The camaraderie is nice, you make new friends, and there may be some help if needed. But traveling in fleets doesn’t lessen by one iota the absolute need for each skipper to independently know what he’s doing and to exercise prudent seamanship. And the fact that a fleet of boats decides to do something stupid together doesn’t make it any less stupid. Further, there are lots of situations in which the presence of a boat nearby doesn’t make any difference. For example, you’re not going to get much help from other boats in your fleet when a storm at sea is hammering you. This is because they probably will be having as much difficulty as you and will be unable to help.
The word “awesome” is perhaps overused these days, but it’s a good word to describe the merciless, unrelenting and often cruel power of the sea — if you also couple that word with “terrifying.” When it comes to seamanship, each cruiser must be able to handle his boat well, as if he were out there like Christopher Columbus.
We’ve been cruising as liveaboards since 1979. I started back in the 1950s on an 18-foot skiff with a plywood cabin I’d built on the bow. My wife began early in her life, taking long trips with her family. We’re still out here, and we love it. Hopefully one day we’ll see you here.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.