Does buddy boating make better boaters? Yes

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Done right, buddy boating can be the best learning experience

Done right, buddy boating can be the best learning experience

Peter Swanson’s piece on Capt. Boxrocks and the buddy boaters gives a good example of sail training as practiced by many Americans. I am sure the writer was concerned for the well-being of the members of this novice group of sailors as they explored the waters of the Caribbean. Their reluctance to go it alone leads them to gather in pods of equally uncertain sailors guided not by experience but group dynamics. Demonstrated confidence on the part of a member carries more weight than any amount of reason or experience.

Read the other story in this package: Does buddy boating make better boaters? No

It isn’t surprising that they are independent thinkers with as many opinions as group members. After all, it was their success at many different pursuits in life that allows them the freedom of time and finances to pursue a new and adventurous part of their lives.

As many baby boomers have reached retirement, their dreams of freedom and adventure have led them to buying the big boat and casting off the dock lines for a chance to experience these dreams. A few sailing lessons and some fair-weather chartering in trade-wind-protected islands have led them to believe they have the skills to take on the oceans of the world. The logic of crawling before you walk has been largely overlooked. Many feel the clock is ticking, and they have put off pursuing their dreams for long enough. The good news is that they are highly intelligent and proven problem solvers. They are quick learners and are generous when it comes to sharing information.

Observing the buddy boaters may feel like getting stuck behind the car with the Student Driver sign, but this is only one stage in their development. As awkward as the process may appear, nearly all of them are managing to learn at a pretty fast pace and are likely to avoid making the same mistakes too many times.

The thing that is missing here is a readily accessible educational system that teaches people the full range of skills they need to become safe offshore sailors. This isn’t to say there aren’t a number of good private programs, such as the Annapolis (Md.) School of Seamanship or BlueWaterSailingSchool in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The difficulty is that they aren’t inexpensive and are fairly small, so they are often booked at the time that someone is seeking the experience.

Here are several suggestions for new passagemakers that may make the process go more smoothly:

• Prepare your boat to meet at least the minimum standards for the kind of sailing you plan to do. A guide is available from US Sailing.

• Recruit the expertise that you lack. There are plenty of experienced offshore sailors who would enjoy a passage when you are ready to head offshore. Make a few trips with an experienced crew or professional captain, and you will accelerate your own learning curve.

• Take your neighbors, buddies from the club, or dock mates only after you have gained some experience — not before.

• Volunteer to crew on a boat with an experienced skipper. It will be that much easier when you take your own boat.

• Use professional weather routing when starting long passages. It isn’t expensive, and it can help you to avoid the big mistakes. Think of these professionals as expert advisors.

As new passagemakers start planning for some bluewater sailing, they would do well to keep in mind these common misconceptions:

• Cruising rallies such as the Caribbean 1500 should be thought of as fun races. They aren’t a substitute for experience or preparedness. They provide shared weather information, establish minimum standards for equipment, and allow you to get to know others who will be cruising the same areas. These events are fertile opportunities for information sharing and problem solving. They provide crew lists, and when boats have had problems the event has ensured that there were other boats in the area to stand by in emergencies. The skipper is always responsible for making the decisions that affect his or her boat and crew.

• It helps to learn about the weather, but being an amateur weather person doesn’t replace expert advice. Listening to weather forecasts all day won’t change the weather you are going to experience. Learning how to sail your boat in all conditions is the only way you will relieve weather angst.

• Taking courses in diesel repair might make you feel better, but there are only a few repairs you are likely to accomplish at sea. Changing impellers, cleaning strainers, changing fuel filters and bleeding engines are most of what you need to be able to do on your own. Knowing how to sail your boat in all conditions is the only thing that will relieve engine angst.

• Buying more doodads and widgets is no substitute for learning how to sail your boat in all conditions. You need very little high-tech equipment to be a passagemaker. Buy things only after you have started sailing and feel a real need for that thing. If you bought everything you were told to, it would be time to repaint your boot stripe — and half the gizmos would never get used. You prepare yourself by sailing, not buying.

• Bite off only what you can chew. Take lots of small steps. Make short passages before you make long ones. Get used to sailing in stronger weather and at night before you set off on a 10-day passage. The rewards of spending time on the ocean are great. Take your time; your comfort level and pleasure will grow with every step.

Steve Black is a longtime shorthanded ocean sailor, former executive director of US Sailing, founder and organizer for 18 years of Cruising Rallies, including the Caribbean 1500, and Offshore Sailing Seminars. For more about rallies and seminars visit www.carib1500.com .