Cruising in a group can be great, but beware of ‘fleet mentality’

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Over the centuries mariners have often sailed in fleets. There have been good reasons for this, such as war and pirates. In recent years, many boaters going on trips or cruises have preferred to go in groups rather than solo, even if they’re just going to a marina down the river. There are good reasons for this, and some that aren’t so good.

This group of boats was following the magenta line down the Intracoastal Waterway.

Although there is still a valid concern about hostility from pirates and smugglers, neither are as prevalent as they were centuries ago. In areas where this is still a concern, it is normally helpful to travel in groups of boats. But in some of these areas, hostile activities are “protected” by local governments or quasi-governments. In these situations, even fleets aren’t likely to be helpful. And if we go there we usually go forewarned and at our pleasure, not because a king has ordered us to discover a new land and bring back gold.

There are also questionable areas where we don’t really know if there’s danger but have legitimate concern, and we feel much more comfortable in the company of other boats. Mel and I have had concerns of this nature in days past while going to what should be safe, close destinations, such as some areas of the Bahamas. But aside from the obvious voyages where group travel is clearly beneficial, it seems that our increasing reliance on group boating can sometimes be a little counterproductive.

I’m not talking about yacht club cruises or dock cruises to a harbor “up the river” for the weekend or week. This is usually a bunch of boaters all going to the same place to have some fun and enjoy the camaraderie. And I’m not talking about small, informal groups of friends new and old who have done the ICW or cruised the Bahamas or other areas together and enjoy each other’s company or, simply, buddy boating. What I am talking about are large organized fleet cruises and the fleet mentality that may develop when traveling this way.

I mention “fleet mentality” with good reason. I’ve been out and about on the water since the early 1950s. I’ve noticed more and more pleasure boats out over these years, and this is good. But I’ve also noticed a growing reliance on this group cruising and the benefits one is supposed to get from being part of a fleet. There seems to be more of a feeling that being on the water with a group of fellow boaters is going to make everything OK.

There are obvious benefits — camaraderie and shared skills and help from others. And, yes, there are some pretty good parties. There are also special circumstances. For example, if I were going to Cuba now I’d prefer to be in a well-organized and sponsored fleet. But a false or unrealistic sense of security isn’t helpful.

We’ve noticed more boaters who seem to think, consciously or subconsciously, that if you’re in a fleet there’s less truth to the age-old maxim that the captain has the sole responsibility for his boat and had better know what he’s doing and be prepared. Likewise, there’s less recognition of the rule that those aboard are charged with the responsibility of assisting the captain by following orders or requests to do the things needed for the well-being of boat and passengers. Being with a group does not diminish these responsibilities. And if someone is hooking into a fleet for this reason, even in part, he’d better reconsider.

Sailing in a well-organized fleet can be a wonderful way to tackle long offshore passages, but it’s not a substitute for seamanship skills.

Most of the organized fleet cruises I’ve seen have been out at sea. But lately we’re seeing more organized fleet cruises that simply go down the ICW or around the Florida Keys or a similar area. I’ve helped to lead fleets to and around the Abacos and the British Virgin Islands. Though most skippers were participating for the right reasons, there were some who, as the voyage went on, seemed as if they would be unprepared to be there alone.

If you have doubts that you can cruise by yourself — whether offshore or on shorter cruises — do some introspection. Are you ready for this? For decades people have taken trips on their own or maybe gone buddy boating with a few friends. Why is there now the feeling among some boaters that they need to go in an organized fleet? If the answer is, “because I’m not confident I can do it on my own,” you probably shouldn’t be going in a fleet, either.

Around 25 years ago some good seamen thought it would be a great idea to organize cruisers who wanted to go down to the Caribbean. They came up with some exceptionally helpful opportunities. Fundamental was insisting that the boats be well prepared for what the trip could bring and that the people aboard be trained and prepared for what they might encounter. This included requirements as to boat features, equipment and supplies, and abilities. It also included boat and gear inspections, and safety and other expert advice to ensure compliance. The prep included thorough training sessions.

Arrangements were made for communications and emergency situations. Weather monitoring by well-vetted experts was in place. The costs of this level of weather information might have been too high for many of the individual participants, but the costs were shared by all, and the information was disseminated throughout the fleet. Many cruisers have signed on over the years and had a great trip down.

However, some boats have not had a good trip. This is often related to boat gear doing what boat gear does so well: fail at the worst time. If you’re in a fleet out in the ocean and your engine or other critical gear breaks, you can usually get assistance, from a tow to mechanical help, from others in the fleet. But you can’t rely on getting the skill and parts you might need simply by being part of a fleet. A fundamental part of the equation for any trip is affected by the weather, and so often the weather doesn’t do what it is “supposed” to do. I remember being trapped in the BVI as a late killer hurricane that had formed west of us churned and roared on an easterly course. Yes, I said “easterly.” They aren’t supposed to do that, but it happens. I had been helping to lead a fleet around the islands. We listened three times a day to high-seas weather and saw it coming, much to our amazement.

We were able to get our folks out by air because we were just cruising around the BVI, and the boats were chartered. As I was listening to landslides on the roof of the house where I had sheltered (no room on the plane for me) and we were beginning to get drinking water from the pool, I knew that other boats in a Caribbean-bound fleet were at sea, heading that way. They had little opportunity to bail out safely because of their location. This happens when you go to sea; there are no guarantees. Someone said, “Well, they aren’t out there alone.” But in an important way, they were very much alone.

A timed bridge opening can cause tense moments when a large group cruises together.

In a storm on the ocean — and other waters — members of a fleet can seldom help you. They can’t come alongside, even if they are able to, for fear of collisions that can result in the loss of one or both boats, as well as injury and loss of life. They may be able to pick you up if you go into the sea, but snagging a person who has fallen overboard can be difficult, if not impossible, in a storm, as well as dangerous. Most boats are at the mercy of the sea in those conditions.

Equipment can be damaged in storm conditions, and someone from the fleet can get a call out and establish comms for you. And the men and women of the Coast Guard will do everything they can, but if the wind is too high, the distance too great or the sea too wild, there may be nothing they can do until things settle down. And by then it may be too late.

None of this is necessarily the fault of fleet organizers. Maritime history is full of horrific losses of fleets — large and small, steel and wood, sail and power, merchant and military, pleasure and commercial. We can try to diminish the risks of bad weather, but we can never be certain about it. Even the philosophy of “don’t go unless the forecast is perfect” doesn’t always work. Perfect forecasts turn out to be wrong all the time. And the sea can leave us powerless.

In some instances, group cruising can actually cause more problems than it solves, especially if the trip is not well organized. Let’s use the ICW as an example, which usually involves many nights of anchoring out. But a large number of boats coming in for the night may overwhelm an anchorage, especially if there are other boats depending on that area, as there usually are. And seldom can you just send the “overflow” to another anchorage. Often that harbor is the only good one around. Also, if the fleet must go to an unplanned marina because of weather, there may not be room.

Other drawbacks include dealing with the normal “blockages” to ICW traffic — bridges that are unable to open, the firing range at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina going “hot,” dredge operations, a barge grounding on a shoal. If a blockage occurs it can be very difficult to hold in place, particularly if there are no good anchorages nearby and the wind is high and the current fast. The more boats that are blocked, the worse the potential problem.

Fleet mentality usually doesn’t play a role in weekend yacht club getaways.

Consider a typical bridge breakdown. Many of these are over narrow channels with poor-holding bottoms and strong currents. Often they are near the ocean, and high winds blow across or along the channel. If it’s blowing against or across the current, even if your hook is tight in the bottom, you may swing wildly in circles, which can snag you on the side of the channel or push you into other boats. And many of these areas have 6- to 8-foot tides. A few boats can usually deal with this. A large fleet may find it much more difficult because of the number of boats. A well-planned and organized fleet — and you can find these — can ameliorate many of these issues and increase the enjoyment.

If you want to cruise in a fleet and it makes you feel better, that’s great. Go for it. It can be a wonderful and rewarding experience. But we all need to remember two important truths about being on the water. First, each of us must be capable of handling our own boat. Second, the sea can do the same thing to 50 boats that it can to one. It doesn’t care. The number of boats doesn’t do anything to the sea and storms — except provide more fodder for the fish.

Note: Sea Savvy will be going bimonthly in future issues of Soundings, which will give Tom the opportunity to write occasional feature stories.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.