Don't shortcut the learning curve
Posted on 31 May 2011
Written by Tom Neale
We were anchored in a beautiful harbor in the Bahamas when a 70-foot sailboat gracefully motored in from the ocean. You couldn't help but notice its size, beauty and obvious quality. The chatter on VHF channels and on the beach was that whoever owned it must not only be very wealthy, but also very knowledgeable. How could you not be with a boat like that?
The next day a gentleman came up to our sailboat, Chez Nous, in his very fine dinghy and sheepishly said he had a question. I noticed that this was the dinghy from that fine yacht we'd all been admiring. I was kind of hoping he was going to ask us to dinner or at least to cocktails. But his question didn't meet those expectations.
"I understand that sometimes you have to add water to your batteries," he said. "I have no idea how to do that. Could you give me some advice - like where do you add it and how much and when?"
It wasn't a "more money than brains" situation. It was another type of scenario, one that we see quite frequently. After years of hard work, people reach a stage, usually ranging from their late 40s to mid-60s, when they finally want to reap some of the reward they deserve. Some go out and buy a big boat, new or used.
Sometimes this is their first boat - or the first boat they've had that's anywhere near the size and complexity of this new boat of their dreams. The result can be far less than they'd hoped for and deserved.
Know what you're getting into
Getting into boating isn't like getting into biking or RVing. Both of those have their learning curves and skill requirements, but both are on land. Boating is, yes, on water. This sounds like a no-brainer, but we're daily surprised at the number of folks who just don't get it.
Some buy-a-boat advertisements make it seem as if going out on the water is like taking a walk in the park. The difference can be of life-or-death magnitude. If not that, it can be significant enough so that every waking moment of your life you're reminded of the saying: The two happiest days of your life are when you buy your boat and when you sell it. It doesn't have to be this way.
If you're thinking about getting into boating or significantly expanding your boating experience to long trips on a larger, complex boat, think first about what it means to be at sea. Unless you've had a lot of experience there, you won't really know because the movies and books, no matter how well done, just don't put you into it.
If you've seen movies such as "The Perfect Storm," you've seen what the sea can do. But you were watching from an armchair and that is hardly reality. And that reality is not for everyone. Even though you might not plan to go into the ocean, the bays, lakes and rivers can have similar issues. It's a very different world out here.
Different world, different skills
To have fun and stay safe, it will be necessary that you develop seamanship skills. This requires practice and experience. A good beginning is to start thinking about the difference between being ashore and on the water. Many are obvious. You can't get out and walk home if something goes wrong. You can't stop the boat and assume it'll stay in the same place. You can't pull off to the side and wait out a storm.
Some are not so obvious. When you turn, the boat will continue moving in the original direction of travel, even as it turns, because of its momentum and the fact that it's traveling in fluid conditions. When heavier-than-air fumes occur, they won't escape to the land underneath the vehicle and dissipate. They'll settle to the bottom of the container holding you and could kill you.
If you're prone to seasickness this can quickly result in exhaustion, impairment of judgment and total disability. Breakdowns are more likely to occur than on shore because of mechanical stresses and the environment. Road maps (charts) are often inaccurate because of changes in the bottom and the movement of buoys.
Various opportunities can help you to gain experience, depending on the level you already have. Although some state licensing courses have a little merit (especially if you want to drive a PWC), they don't teach you seamanship. They might teach you some rules, and these are very important, but seamanship ultimately must be learned over time on boats in the water.
However, you do need to begin ashore. Seamanship schools are a start, but beware of schools that are more into selling products than teaching. Also helpful are thorough training sessions that some manufacturers offer. And if you buy a new boat, insist that someone spend a lot of time teaching you about everything from its maintenance to handling characteristics. Whatever courses you take, don't think that a few days can teach you good seamanship. It's just a start.
After general courses, take more specific ones. For example, a thorough understanding of weather is critical. Today you can receive current, sophisticated weather information while at sea, but the weather can fool even the best providers.
And maritime forecasts, particularly offshore, are very different from what the pretty people on your local nightly news talk about. Weather systems relate to latitude and longitude. Long-term is more important because you may be in the middle of an ocean without opportunity for shelter. And long-term isn't just about whether there will be sunny days or bad hair days. It's about phenomena such as wind force and direction, pressure gradients, wave height and probabilities that can change all that.
There are professionals who specialize in giving offshore forecasts, even relative to your specific location and voyage. We use Chris Parker (www.mwxc.com), who bases his forecasts not only on the weather computer models but also from his experiences and on reports acquired from boats and buoys on scene.
Others do the same. But you can't totally default to a forecaster. You must understand the large systems and patterns so that you can better apply the forecast info you receive to your location and situation. Also, you must be able to read the signs around you and figure out what's happening - or is about to happen - to you, right now, on scene, far away from a forecaster back on shore.
Take courses on engine repair and other equipment repair. Even if you plan to hire others to do your work you'll find that there will be times when no one else is around and you must take care of it yourself. When you take those courses, remember that the diesel sitting on a table in the middle of a conference room isn't like a diesel wedged into a hole in a boat. When you have repair technicians aboard, watch and learn from them. Consider hiring good mechanics to spend time with you going over systems and teaching you about them.
Chartering boats similar to what you think you want can give invaluable experience not only with the boat but also with acquiring seamanship skills. Possibly in the long run this will save you money. There are boats that look good but just don't run well or won't be comfortable for you.
Better charter companies offer some level of training before they let you drive off in that boat. Some companies offer training for a week (or more) with a qualified captain aboard. This type of training also begins to build seamanship skills.
Investigate the charter outfit or school thoroughly and make sure the company you choose knows what you want. This might cost more, but it could save big bucks in the future. It can also help to crew for friends who are doing what you want to do and have the patience to help you learn.
Following the leader
Some, in their learning process, rely far too heavily on the mistaken concept that there's safety in numbers and they can just follow the leader. They participate in group cruises ranging from informal club events to ocean voyages that are very thoroughly and carefully planned and have rigorous entrance requirements.
These are good concepts, and one can't overemphasize the value of camaraderie, shared learning experiences and well-organized fleet support. But when the weather really goes to hell in the ocean, you're often on your own. If it's bad enough, even the Coasties can't fly, although the miracles they frequently accomplish are astounding.
And if you suffer a major breakdown far out at sea, particularly in bad weather, and you can't handle it, other boats may not be able to come alongside to put help aboard. And those insidious stealth disablers seasickness and fatigue are your burden alone. It's easy to develop a false sense of security that can lead to disaster. The ultimate responsibility for the boat and crew lies with you.
Practice, practice, practice
Seamanship is an acquired skill that takes time and experience. The following are a few examples of things you can do that might help as you move on from the basics. Once you've gotten your boat, spend a lot of time getting to know the boat. This isn't just about learning its systems, which is very important. It's also about learning how to run the boat.
Learn what she'll do in different circumstances, how she'll react to forces such as wind and waves and what you need to do to control her. What does she do in a following sea? How much will head sea knock back her speed? Where is her pivot point if the wind is anywhere between dead-on and astern? How does she handle in reverse? If she has things such as bow and stern thrusters, stabilizers and joystick control, how does she handle when these are disabled?
The extent to which you've developed seamanship skills already will have a bearing on how much time you spend doing this, but even if you're already a good seaman, it'll be important to spend time getting to know this boat's behavioral characteristics. Take your boat out into open, safe waters without other boats around and in good conditions. Carefully and gradually put 'er through her paces.
See how tightly she turns. If she's a planing boat, learn how long it takes her to get up, what kind of wake she throws while doing it and whether there are any steering issues during the process. For example, some boats totter a bit at certain points as they're getting on plane - something you should have checked out in sea trials.
When she's turning, how far does she continue to move on her original course before she sets off on her new course? Try this at varying speeds. How long does it take her to stop?
Practice maneuvering. Although the best place to do this might be at the dock, don't do that to your neighbors. Look for an area in open water with points of reference that you can pretend are dock pilings and/or other boats.
Some people set markers such as racing buoys or crab pot floats in the water, with weights on the bottom to keep them in place. If you do this, you have a great incentive to learn quickly because if you run over a float line it could foul your prop or rudder. These also are more difficult to see than a boat or a piling, which would be much higher. Whatever your situation, spend a lot of time practicing how to maneuver your boat into a certain spot without hitting nearby artificial (or imaginary) obstructions.
Next, try maneuvering at a (hopefully) empty dock under varying conditions, including wind and current. Learn what works for your boat and you. It varies. For example, if I want to put Chez Nous into a slip perpendicular to the shore with current running across the slip, I must consider her nearly full keel, her single engine and the fact that she's a displacement hull. I may head straight into the slip from several slips up, precisely timing the point at which the bowsprit crosses my slip's upstream piling and continuing in to a power stop. Or, more likely, I'll have to warp her in around an outside piling, using spring lines. A flat-bottomed, twin-screw boat requires very different tactics.
After learning your boat in ideal conditions, gradually work up to more difficult conditions, including more wind, waves and current. Don't seek out a gale to "get it really good," but gradually work into familiarity with what to do, always remembering that you aren't there yet. And remember, too, that because seamanship is essentially you interfacing with the sea and the weather you never stop learning because there's simply no limit as to the curves these two will send you.
For this reason it's good to cruise close to home at first. You'll be more familiar with where to get help if you need it, more familiar with the issues and you'll be better able to coordinate your trips with the weather you want. We're blessed on this continent with an incredible choice of home cruising areas. Most of us don't need to make long ocean trips if we're not ready. The Florida Keys, Chesapeake Bay, the rivers between those two areas, Long Island Sound and Puget Sound are but a few examples. Each of these has its dangers and special threats, some more than others. But if you live in the area and begin to learn there you're more likely to know about potential problems and be able to learn more safely than by simply taking off to some islands somewhere, as too many people do.
Always remember that the learning and the practicing and all the rest is for all involved, whether that's two partners and/or additional members of the family. Few things lead to fear and discomfort more than not understanding what's going on. Few things lead to enjoyment and appreciation more than being a meaningful part of what's going on and feeling some sense of control. And you never know when someone could get injured at sea, and duplication of knowledge and skill becomes a lifesaver.
Navigation for real
In the mid-1980s we were anchored behind one of the cays in the Exumas. The wind was blowing stink from the northeast, and the seas on the eastern side of the island chain were horrendous. Nevertheless, a large motoryacht had gone outside up island, anxious to get to his destination down island. He soon found that he was having no fun and decided to come into a nearby inlet.
This was before the days of GPS on pleasure boats, but there was Loran. This nifty device was great on and near the continent but sketchy at best so far out. The skipper hadn't been counting islands and noting landmarks on the way down, and thus there was some question as to which inlet he needed to enter.
People on shore, having heard his discussion with other boats on the VHF, saw that he was heading for an inlet blocked by a rocky bar so shallow that you could walk across it at low tide. White water was leaping skyward as waves met the bar, but he said his Loran told him he had the right inlet. He proceeded in, despite better advice from locals ashore.
When he hit the bar the boat spun around in the spume and sea until it was broadside to the breaking waves, which did just that: They broke the large windows in his saloon, racing in and out over plush carpeting and fine furniture. The owner and crew survived, as did the very tough steel boat, thanks to a good salvor. But I doubt that the owner ever made that destination down island. Nor, I assume, did he realize his dreams.
The ability to navigate is an inseparable element of seamanship. Relying on electronics to replace seamanship skills could lead to more problems out here on larger boats than any other single factor. Use whatever quality electronics you can afford, but use them as a supplement. Be able to do well without them.
When we made long passages across the vast, shallow banks of the Bahamas in the days of unreliable Loran and before GPS, we had to follow the compass and allow for sideways push of current. If we got to the other side of the banks in the wrong place, we could end up on the reef because the banks are ringed with coral and rock, and you have to go through in just the right spots to get out into the deep ocean.
There were no reliable current charts because so many factors influenced the currents there. We quickly learned to watch the fan coral and grasses below - you can do that in the clear waters of the Bahamas Banks. They would lean with the current, so we could tell its direction and relative speed.
Going along island chains, we would count the islands and pick out landmarks and line up ranges of trees and rocks so that we knew where we were on the chain. Failure to do this could result in coming into the wrong cut or colliding with a brown bar or reef running out from an island.
Today we punch in our waypoints on our plotter and set the autopilot to "navigate." It's great. We love this technology, and it results in greater accuracy and more safety. But we never stop watching the old signs because you never know when even the best equipment is going to fail or when somebody is going to tweak a satellite signal for security or other purposes.
Never off watch
When you're on your boat, you're never off watch. This is an aspect of pleasure boating that's vastly different from operating large commercial vessels. Typically a pleasure yacht today has only a couple aboard. They may sometimes take friends along, but it's doubtful that they know much about what's going on.
Things to "watch" are innumerable. Continuously monitoring marine weather forecasts is obviously important. But there's more to it than this. You should have learned how to interpret the clouds when studying weather, and the skill should be used regularly. Local weather conditions can be significantly and dangerously different from conditions described in broad-sweep forecasts, and clouds will help you know what to expect where you are.
Even when things are going well, test yourself as to what you see, what you think it means and what actually happens. Also observe wave action, humidity, wind and barometer. A boat without a barometer and a skipper who knows how to use it belongs in the middle of a desert.
We also watch things on board, such as the engine gauges, religiously. Idiot alarms don't tell you when there is a subtle change in oil pressure, water temp, exhaust temp or other warnings of an unexpected failure. Every one or two hours we're running, I go into the engine room and check around, feeling, listening and smelling. And, of course, I check the bilges, even though we have multiple pumps and alarms. I have an infrared heat gun so I can keep track of the temperature of components such as the alternator, transmission and turbo.
When at sea at night or in poor visibility we never just watch the radar. We regularly step outside with our Steiner 7x50 Commander XP binoculars with compass. The light-gathering capabilities of these can be exceptionally helpful, and we've frequently seen things that weren't clearly depicted on radar, such as a navy warship.
It isn't enough to just be observant. We also need to learn how to interpret what we see, hear, smell and feel. A subtle change in the swell, say, from a small southwesterly to a larger nor'easterly can mean a storm out there. The smell of hot oil in the engine room could mean many problems, most of which are serious. The acrid smell of battery gas could mean a problem with an alternator, voltage regulator, the battery itself, such as a developing short circuit between cells, or it could mean that some user is drawing far too much electricity for some reason.
Gadgets galore better left ashore?
Safely tied alongside a dock in North Carolina, we watched as a brand-new very fancy yacht powered down the ICW in a rising wind. Wisely, the owner wanted a spot to stop for the night and made arrangements with the marina. We watched in awe as he brought his boat to a halt beside the space assigned to him between other yachts along a face dock. He then simply moved his boat sideways, oblivious to the winds and strong current, right up to the dock, where the wind nudged her neatly into place.
The owners of the boats on both sides of his spot breathed a sigh of relief. People gathered and complimented the owner on his skill. "Oh, nothing to it," he humbly replied. "All I have to do is move this joystick, and the boat does the rest."
After a few moments of chatting, the skipper shut down the engines, stepped ashore and walked to the dockmaster's office. Shortly thereafter the wind shifted a bit and started blowing the fine yacht off the dock and back toward the channel as it drifted on the current on a collision course with the boat docked downstream.
The owner had forgotten to tie up. He explained to the other boaters who had seen what was happening and caught the runaway yacht, "This is the first boat I've owned."
Don't overemphasize the relevance of gadgets. When you shop for a car today, all they want to talk about are USB ports, sound systems, touch-screen monitors and warning beeps that tell you when you're missing the road.
Some boat sales are similar, with emphasis on a plethora of electronic gadgets, anti-theft systems, lighting arrangements and so on ad nauseam. Many of these gadgets are very important and will make your life aboard not only better but safer. But if your boat isn't tough and seaworthy these can become useless. This is also the case if you don't have seamanship skills and understand how to run your boat without them. Electronics and "Oh, wow!" gadgets cannot take the place of a good boat and good seamanship.
I'd love to have joystick control. And I love the bow thrusters that I do have, as well as other fancy stuff. But I wouldn't run a boat with all the "gadgets" unless I could also do it the old-fashioned way, with steering wheel and engine thrust. No matter how much some want to make it so, running a boat on the water is not like playing computer games.
* * *
If you have the dream, it's doable. Buying the bigger boat may be the easy part - even easier than you think if you buy an old, used boat and have the time and skills to fix it up. Shortcutting the learning curve can quickly ruin that dream. However, riding that curve can be an exciting and enjoyable part of the journey.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat," and his two-disc DVD, "Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale," at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.