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7 critical elements of the seaman's art

What exactly is seamanship? It encompasses the seaman’s art, which is to say everything involved in the operation of a vessel. Technically this includes marlinspike seamanship — tying knots and splicing lines, stowing cargo for sea, rigging heavy-weather lifelines, and so on. But here I’ll focus on the operational elements of seamanship — what the skipper needs to know and what equipment should be on board and ready for use to safely operate the boat.

Situational awareness is critical to safe navigation.

The skipper’s required skill level depends on the boat, where it will be operated and under what conditions, and the number of people aboard. One 14-year-old might safely take the family’s 13-foot Whaler out for a spin, but another can’t be trusted with a rowboat. Whether that Whaler has a 9.8- or 40-hp Mercury for power makes a big difference in the amount of trouble a kid can get into, and this point is really the crux of seamanship: looking at all of the potential hazards and making sure the boat operator is up to handling the responsibilities that can be expected of him or her under the circumstances.

The quality of the skipper is, in fact, a big determinant in the seaworthiness of a vessel. A skipper who accumulates a lot of experience and knowledge, is mature and has good judgment and is neither rash nor overly cautious will make a given vessel more seaworthy. In other words, the boat will be better able to safely carry on and not capsize or sink if commanded by a highly experienced captain.

Safety is the name of the game when you’re out on a boat. The safety of your passengers should always be top of mind, even in seemingly benign circumstances, such as when laying on the hook off a sandy beach. In addition to being safety-conscious, which is attitudinal and includes operating the boat with some healthy, omnipresent, low-level degree of apprehension and humility, the boat should provide a safe platform by design, with high railings topside, good nonskid underfoot, plenty of grab rails to hang onto, toe kicks in the cockpit, and so on.

Let’s have a look at some of the elements of seamanship.

 1. Boat handling

To learn how to handle your boat around the dock, head out where you have a few acres of clear maneuvering room, throw a life ring or PFD into the water and maneuver around it. This is a great way to learn about your boat’s pivot point, the focal point about which the boat turns. You will find this point changes — it moves forward as speed ahead increases and aft as sternway increases. When you kick the engine ahead with sternway on, the pivot point might initially be behind the boat. When yawing down-sea, the pivot point can be ahead of the boat.

In any event, understanding what happens with a given amount of rudder in various conditions is the first step in becoming a good boat handler. Then head to the marina and practice when there is no one on the boat or on the dock. Docking and undocking in progressively more difficult situations is enough of a challenge without an audience. Make approaches and departures alongside a long dock with plenty of room, then try docking between two boats, with maneuvering room restricted.

Learn to use spring lines to get away from the dock, eventually doing it with an onsetting wind. Practice backing into a slip, picking one with no boats in the adjacent spaces. If you have a bow thruster or joystick, resist using it and you will become a better boat handler. If you have twin engines, leave the rudder amidships and just use the shift levers. If possible, leave the throttles at idle at least until you get the hang of it, which you can usually do with no wind and current and no need to hurry. Turning the wheel and using the throttles adds complexity and can get a novice into trouble quickly — gunning the throttle instead of shifting the engine into gear, for instance — so leave both alone whenever possible. Single-lever controls incorporating throttle and shift are much more foolproof in this regard.

2. Safe navigation

Unobstructed sightlines help you better assess the size, shape and direction of everything around you.

Navigation isn’t simply finding one’s way to a destination; it’s also knowing precisely where you are en route. To navigate safely first of all requires situational awareness, which means you can see and hear what is around you, near and far, that could possibly pose a risk of collision or grounding.

For that reason, it is almost always better to drive from the flybridge in congested waters than from a lower helm station. You can see better and farther when you’re up higher, and the horizon isn’t obstructed in big chunks by the window mullions, canvas and deckhouse structure.

Many boats are terrible in this regard, and some of the worst offenders have no flybridge from which to drive. They’re downright dangerous to operate. If you only have one helm station, take down all canvas that interferes with your sightlines. Pull the saloon curtains all the way back so they don’t block the windows. Turn non-essential lights off at night so your eyes can adapt to the dark. Study the charts or the plotter before getting under way or entering an unfamiliar area.

If you have radar, use it, and know that, other factors notwithstanding, the courts will find you partially at fault in a collision if you have radar on board and it wasn’t being used or wasn’t working. Keep a proper lookout; the need for constant attention — no multitasking — increases with traffic congestion, your boat’s speed, whether it’s day or night or foggy, and so on. Slow down or stop if you are uncertain of your position.

Make sure you know the state of the tides and currents so you don’t run aground or off course. Be sure your horn works and that you know when and how to use it under the Rules of the Road.

The slower your boat, the better its visibility astern should be since you are more likely to be overtaken. (Paradoxically, trawlers are often very restricted in terms of visibility astern from the wheel.) One of the safest boats, situational awareness-wise, is the convertible for the very good reason that you need to be able to see fish and signs of fish in order to catch them. Some of the Italian yachts are among the worst in lower-helm visibility, but there are plenty of boats made right here in the U.S.A. that I would recommend against buying, as well.

3. Watchstanding

On cruises that will take longer than a half-day, set up a formal watch schedule so your boat is always operated by an alert, rested and experienced person who is familiar with the boat and its systems. Make sure you have trained enough of your family and friends to take the wheel and operate safely when you are down below and asleep. You should be on the bridge, or at the wheel, any time the boat enters congested waters or is otherwise put at more immediate risk by the proximity of hazards.

If three people are qualified to run the boat, a four-hour-on, eight-hour-off rotation works well. The eight hours off gives everyone plenty of time to sleep soundly for a few hours and also get some work done on a long trip. I’ve also stood six-on, six-off (with two to four hours of sleep a day, which was insanity) for months on end in the Navy when we had fewer qualified watchstanders.

If you find yourself getting sleepy and there is no one qualified to run the boat, you might want to stop and drift or anchor while you take a nap, and instruct others to call you if another boat approaches. If you drop the hook, set an anchor watch to make sure you know if the anchor drags. Many GPS units have an anchoring mode that will sound an alert if the boat strays from a preset position. Make sure you have enough scope out for the conditions, have the right kind of anchor for the bottom, that it is large enough, and that it is properly set and holding.

When hauling the anchor, let the engines do the work, not the windlass, until it has broken free and is up-and-down. The stronger the wind and the closer any perils, the more often you should get up and take a fix, and remember that your neighbor just upwind may be the one with the dragging anchor.

4. Drills and training

Before you head out, brief your passengers on the location of life jackets, how to use them, what to do if you fall overboard when the boat is running, how to use the VHF radio to call for help, and more. Everyone’s skills get stale after a while, so you should practice emergency procedures, especially if you head offshore any distance. The farther out you are, the less readily help is available, so you need to be on your game.

Man overboard drills should be practiced by throwing a life ring over the side when the operator is not expecting it. Go through all-hands drills and the correct responses to a variety of situations — for example, a fire in the engine room, a loose cooling-water hose, an overheating engine and abandon ship.

5. Reading the water

Knowing how to read the water can prevent a damaging grounding.

Knowing what a change in water color, temperature or wave height and gradient mean will help keep you out of trouble. Water changing from blue to brown or light green may mean you’re about to run aground. You can also come up on 6 feet of water that looks not a whit different than it does when there’s 100 feet below the keel. If waves are building in steepness and height without any change in wind velocity, that likely means the water is getting shallower. A warmer water temperature reading on your depth sounder may mean you are in shallower water or you just hit the edge of the Gulf Stream. Some of the worst conditions I have seen were in a large body of shallow water with 4- to 6-foot waves 100 feet apart, and many of them breaking. This is much worse than being offshore in a 20-foot sea.

6. Fire and flooding

Along with a collision, a fire on board and flooding can quickly put your boat and everyone aboard at risk. If the boat has gas engines, the default response is to put on PFDs and get off immediately — hopefully into an intact and inflated life raft. If you have a dinghy, launch it, get everyone in it and get away from the boat.

If you have a fire suppression system (that’s a less litigious term than fire extinguishing) in the engine room or fuel tank space, make sure you shut off the engines, close the fuel supply and return valves, and, if possible, activate the fire suppression system manually if it didn’t do so automatically. Having remote fuel shutoff valves is good.

You should be able to put out a small galley fire with a portable extinguisher. Make sure you know where the extinguisher is and that it is fully charged. Of course, having more extinguishers on board than what’s required by law is always a good idea.

If you feel the boat handling sluggishly or slowing, immediately check the bilges for flooding. Make sure you know all the possible flooding sources, especially the through-hull fittings and seacocks. If you have 1-1/2-inch seacocks, keep a few wooden plugs on hand — along with a hammer to seat them — in case a hose fails. Bilge pumps are puny and inconsequential when it comes to dewatering major flooding, and they will never get ahead of the flooding unless you isolate the source.

An engine-driven pump with a bilge pickup is a big help, but don’t open a path from sea to bilge in the process of lining up the bilge suction and sink the boat. A boat with foam flotation gives you a better chance of survival because the foam adds buoyancy in a damaged condition and can act as a membrane to slow or stop flooding.

Call for help at the first sign of trouble, and report your position and situation before you lose power. Your boat should have a VHF radio with digital selective calling, which automatically transmits your unique identification number and, if connected to your GPS, your position.

7. Over-reliance on electronics

A joystick eases maneuvering near a dock, but skippers should be able to handle their boat without it. The key is to practice.

I am amazed at how much information you can have at your fingertips if you pay enough money for the right equipment. I grew up running boats in the fog on Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts with a depth sounder and a compass, and I’m glad I did. I paid a lot more attention to what was under and around me than, I suspect, many people with all those toys did.

The problem with losing touch with current, wind, wave and smell is that if all that fancy equipment fries, you could be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. When you are alert and paying attention to the real world around you, you get into less trouble. I know you enjoy life more when watching the water instead of a digital representation of it, but like video games, all those gadgets sure are fun in their own way. Make sure to shut off the GPS/plotter occasionally and do a little piloting and dead reckoning with a paper chart, dividers and parallel ruler. Remember double-the-angle-on-the-bow to get distance abeam? I didn’t think so!

This brief overview of seamanship should serve as a reminder and a call to action that there is a lot you need to know — and much preparation — to operate a boat safely. There are plenty of resources online and in bookstores to learn more about these topics. Have fun, stay safe and let me know what I left off this list. The most constructively insightful commentator gets a signed copy of my book!

Eric Sorensen is a consultant to boat- and shipbuilders, boat owners and to the government. He was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” Eric can be contacted through his website,

See related article:

- The ABCs of safe towing

November 2012 issue