Does buddy boating make better boaters? No

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Buddy boating is no substitute for seamanship

Buddy boating is no substitute for seamanship

Four mornings straight they caucused at Steve’s Place, a local cruisers’ hangout. I dubbed them the “Gang of Four” — a forgotten phrase from Chinese politics — because they represented four sailboats southbound on the “Thorny Path” from Florida to the islands of the Lesser Antilles. The Thorny Path is so-called because it goes against the trade winds, against the current, against the waves, and has long stretches with little shelter. Two

Read the other story in this package: Does buddy boating make better boaters? Yes

weeks later, the even more unwieldy “Gang of Eight” called its own committee meetings, this time at a table for 16.

The men and mates of Four, and later Eight, gathered under the pub’s palm frond roof to dissect each day’s Caribbean weather report from Chris Parker and strategies for transiting the north coast of the Dominican Republic set forth in Bruce Van Sant’s book, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward.”

Should we leave on Thursday or Friday? In the morning or at 11 at night? Should we plan on stopping at Samana or Rio San Juan? Or should we go one shot all the way to Puerto Rico? Should we check in with each other hourly or every three hours? Should we synchronize watch schedules for consistency? Should the faster vessels slow down so the fleet can stay together, or should each boat travel at its own speed with the resulting dispersal? Consult, consult, consult.

The notion of the sailor as rugged individual seems quaint in today’s era of “buddy boating.” I would guess that half of all U.S. boats go to the islands grouped together in yammering cliques. Like sheep, they flock for safety and a sense of community but because they are not sheep, these are achieved at a cost, if at all.

The rest of us enjoy buddy boats for their entertainment value, as they bumble in and out of the anchorages, engage in small-group politics and, when things go awry, recriminate over the VHF. Otherwise nice people astounding us with the dumb things they do and say — an age-old recipe for laughter.

Fleet movements are a challenge even when conducted by navies. Warship captains are superbly talented individuals with the most brilliant among them often leading the fleet. The ships are manned by tough, trained sailors under strict discipline. Fleet maneuvers are planned, practiced, rehearsed and practiced again. Regulations are developed based on decades, even centuries, of experience, “written in blood.”

If a cruiser gang, for example, had one expert seaman to lead them, that wouldn’t be too, too bad. When Capt. Hornblower says tack, we tack; when he signals reef, we reef. Aye, aye, captain! Unfortunately, buddy boat fleets are governed collectively. If the smartest sailor in the group has a high-pitched voice, leadership defaults oh so gradually to the most assertive, though the latter’s bluff and bluster may conceal an ugly truth: He’s as dumb as a box of rocks.

Capt. Boxrocks, whose bearing sustained his career as a pilot for a major airline, accrues even more power if he happens to be the only gang member to subscribe to Chris Parker’s weather service, thus giving him a direct line to the Almighty in the eyes of the others. (God help the group whose own Boxrocks speaks with an accent from Britain or its recent dominions, a trait which confers total maritime infallibility on even the most inept of actors.)

Boxrocks, it turns out, has a mighty hankering for Puerto Rico because an old airline buddy is arriving there Sunday, so his agenda is to up-anchor Thursday to reach Boqueron when his friend’s plane hits the tarmac. Guileless and without malice, Boxrocks nevertheless begins spinning the weather forecast for a Thursday departure.

Some in the group begin to get a bad feeling; to them later sounds better, but they are silenced by their sense of camaraderie and Boxrocks’ obviously superior knowledge. As importantly, the wives simply adore old Mrs. Boxrocks, who has demonstrated a miraculous ability to transform Starkist, Ritz crackers and a can of three-bean salad into a Tuscan feast.

Boxrocks is real, trust me. But I’ve invented his role in the gangs of Four or Eight as a hypothetical. I wasn’t invited to their meetings, so I don’t know why Four and Eight did what they did, but I can recall the unhappy results. Both left after dark. Fine so far; it’s a technique recommended by Van Sant to take advantage of favorable night winds close to the coast. Van Sant, of course, never recommended leaving in 6-foot seas, but that is what they did.

As the first boat from the Gang of Four rounded the first headland, a female voice came over the VHF to report conditions to the three buddies astern. Her voice etched with discomfort, she reported 27 knots on the nose, with a boat speed of 4 knots. “Twenty-seven knots?” Woe is us! Betrayed by the weatherman. Should we go back to the harbor? No. Going back was not an option.

They can’t go back because it’s dark. LuperonHarbor has a straightforward entrance to anyone using sailing directions available from Van Sant, Wavey Line Charts or other public sources. Despite a fairly simple entrance and electronic navigation equipment surpassing anything available to the U.S. Navy through the end of the Vietnam War, both gangs had radioed for a guide to lead them into the harbor when they arrived. That’s the kind of decision committees make. So never having entered using their own observations and intellect during daylight, a nighttime retreat was out of the question.

The readiness to turn tail was a symptom of how quickly morale had collapsed, but conditions weren’t really as bad as they thought. The woman who had reported the wind speed had failed to deduct the speed of the boat from her report. The wind was really blowing about 22 knots. She broadcast the conditions when the boat was close abeam a headland, which creates a funnel effect on the wind; it would soon diminish as her vessel left the headland astern. That means that, in general, winds were pretty close to the 15 knots (and diminishing) that the weatherman had predicted, but you can bet the Gang of Four would be spreading the word about how Parker and Van Sant were frauds. Their own perceived “leaders” would also have lost status.

It apparently had never occurred to any of them to run out in one of their expensive RIBs to actually check conditions outside before leaving the harbor. Had they delayed their departure a few hours or left at dawn, they would have found the conditions they had been led to expect by what turned out to be a reasonably accurate forecast.

When the Gang of Eight left, the rest of us were truly astounded because even the well-sheltered anchorage was a howlin’ that evening with undiminished trade winds. They had been “consulting” with each other continuously over the VHF since sunset. Finally, they weighed anchor and headed out of the harbor. One skipper, who had decided not to follow, unwisely changed his mind again and chugged out after them.

An hour passed. This time the woman on the VHF — one conjures an image of her husband lashed to the helm — radioed back to the harbor, asking in all seriousness: “When are the night winds going to come?” Sitting at the table next to the bar’s VHF, we nearly spilled our beers in laughter. Did she think the katabatic wind was operated by Amtrak? The devil in all of us wanted to reply: “Tonight’s mountain winds are due to arrive at 10:54 p.m. Repeat, 10:54 p.m.”

Meanwhile, an angry undertone ran through the interfleet communications. Eight was not a happy gang, their attitude exacerbated by a radio pest among them. They had to slap him down. Every few minutes Capt. Radio Pest had been calling the boats ahead of him asking what they could see. Had they seen the fish-trap floats yet? To port or starboard? How many were there and what color? Where was each boat in relation to the others? What were conditions like a mile ahead? Ba-blah, ba-blah, blah.

Finally, someone must have hailed him on a discreet digital frequency and asked that he please shut up because he came back on a few minutes later like a beaten dog: “Dutch Uncle, Dutch Uncle (made-up boat name), I understand and respect your views, and I hope we can someday sit down and you can hear and respect my views.” Later he tried another call, and one of the wives scolded him like a child. “Were you not there when we all agreed that we would only be making radio checks every three hours except in case of emergency?”

Afterward I talked about buddy boating with several of the captains in the harbor. Many also had monitored the gangs of Four and Eight and were equally amused by the herd mentality. Some had stories about having been roped into a buddy boat situation by cruisers whose skill levels were so low they became an unwelcome burden. Obviously, like Capt. Radio Pest, some of them had no business being out of hailing distance of TowBoatU.S. Most of the salts had basically the same idea about cruising with friends. It goes like this: “You headed east? Us, too. Boqueron? Good. If you’re still there next week, we may see you.” So much for consultation.

The most obvious problems, they agreed, were the facts that no two boats perform alike and no two crews have identical skills, habits or endurance, but I think it goes beyond that. I think the problem is that collaborative decision making, while a fine thing in a jury, is a recipe for disaster at sea. It would make an excellent subject for further study.

In the case of Four and Eight, they were never in any great danger — this time. As long as none of them pulled a truly boneheaded stunt, their expensive and well-outfitted vessels would compensate for their failures of judgment.

If a professional such as Steve Black were playing the role of Capt. Hornblower to these groups, the results may well have been different. A few years ago I led a group of trawlers on a cruise from Newport, R.I., to Boothbay Harbor, Maine — my home waters. I kept the legs short, and there were no overnight passages; everyone was briefed on alternative ports in the event of inclement weather. The event was sponsored by the boatbuilder, and the boats had the same cruising speeds and handling characteristics. Were it not for the sponsorship, most of the participants would never have ventured so far north, missing out on some of the finest cruising in the U.S.A.

Nordhavn raised the buddy concept to its highest form in its 2004 Nordhavn Atlantic Rally, in which 18 trawler yachts crossed the Atlantic in three legs. Nordhavn screened the applicants and their vessels, planned the voyage down to the smallest detail, employed a weather-router, and staffed the fleet with technicians and even a medical doctor. Who could argue with that?

Honestly, if a bunch of chummy boaters want to steam down the Intracoastal Waterway like a gypsy caravan, who cares? What’s the harm? But when they venture to more challenging waters — where there are no aids to navigation, no Coast Guard and no towing services — they need to learn to rely on themselves or motor back to Florida.

Freelance writer Peter Swanson has cruised extensively from New England to the Caribbean aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41, and lived in the Dominican Republic for two years.