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Know-how - the best sailors I've ever known

The best sailors I’ve ever known

This was a tough piece to write. I feel like an actor speaking after receiving an Academy Award. There are so many great sailors that I risk dishonoring those whose names aren’t mentioned here and, sad to say, those who have been forgotten despite their contributions. Instead of calling them the best sailors I’ve known, however, I’m going to call them the best seamen I’ve known, and I’ll mention but a few by name.

1. I don’t know whether he’s still alive or not, but Ivor Slater taught me more about seamanship in a shorter time than anyone I’ve had the privilege of knowing or working with. Ivor did not circumnavigate the globe or explore the Arctic or Antarctic, didn’t round Cape Horn or have adventures that would raise the hair on the back of your neck. When we met, I recognized that he was a consummate seaman. He understood boats, the weather and the sea, and he had the knowledge and skills to perform the myriad tasks and functions that must be part and parcel of prudent seamanship.

Ivor taught me that the essence of seamanship was to develop superior knowledge and skills to avoid situations that would require the exercising of that knowledge and those skills. In other words, his concept of superior seamanship was to be able go where you wanted to go and still stay out of harm’s way. Ivor, by example, demonstrated that I need not rely on an engine when the going gets rough. Sailboats can sail through rough conditions. (In fact, it’s often better not to rely on the engine.) He taught me to sail an anchor out if the engine fails. He inspired me to become a seaman.

2. Another seaman of merit was Bob Smerl, who when we met was first mate of the 98-foot (LOD) tall ship Pilgrim, berthed at Dana Point, Calif. The ship, a converted Baltic schooner, was modified to replicate the ship in Richard Henry Dana’s classic, “Two Years Before the Mast.” Bob was an all-around seaman who had expertise in the art of pilotage (coastal piloting) and navigation (celestial). He also was an expert in marlinspike seamanship, as well as being an excellent boat-handler and teacher to boot.

Pilgrim had no engine, and I remember helping Bob end-for-end the boat at its berth during a yachtsman’s gale blowing onshore using sails, lines and anchor. The ship had no winches, just block and tackle. The only mechanical advantage, other than block and tackle, was the capstan, which was turned by muscle applied to capstan bars shipped in its drum. The maneuver was performed with perhaps eight men and women with nary a bump. I know I’m a pretty competent seaman, but I couldn’t have done what Bob accomplished under those conditions with such finesse. It was awesome.

3. I’m also impressed by Lin and Larry Pardey. We met many years ago, and I’ve always admired their ability to survive in the small, engineless boats they’ve built and sailed. In addition to their seamanship and boatbuilding skills, they are an incredibly self-reliant couple who epitomize the KISS theory (Keep it Simple, Stupid) and make it work. Of all the things they’ve done, the most memorable — and to me, most significant — is turning my wife, Lou (who could get seasick in a bathtub on land), on to Stugeron (cinnarizine) to combat her mal-de-mer. It worked!

4. Eric and Susan Hiscock are two sailors — voyagers, I should say — whom I never had the good fortune to meet but wish I had. They sailed around the world several times on boats named Wanderer, and Eric wrote the encyclopedic classics “Cruising Under Sail” and “Voyaging Under Sail,” as well as several books narrating their voyaging. The reason I include them is, though they sailed around the world several times — sometimes in engineless boats — it seems they never had to perform acts of daring-do. Yes, they encountered gales, but they always managed to route themselves and schedule their passages to avoid the horrendous circumstances that so often are written about. There is no doubt in my mind as to their abilities as seamen. The proof is in their avoiding the circumstances that would place themselves in harm’s way.

5. I know there are many excellent racing sailors, but while they often are superb boat-handlers and certainly artists at making their boats go fast, they don’t necessarily possess all-around seamanship skills. I know this will ruffle a few feathers, but it is my humble opinion.