Sea Savvy: The art of turning around

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Sure it takes guts to sail the world, but only the truly brave admit they should never have left the dock

Sure it takes guts to sail the world, but only the truly brave admit they should never have left the dock

Every time I pick up a boating magazine I read about someone bravely setting out on a great voyage. Nautical books are full of sagas about people conquering distant seas. I’ve read about people setting out for the South Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Arctic and the Antarctic. There are even the heroes who sail around the world.

But I seldom see stories about the heroism of the rest of us. We, the ones who set out for somewhere and then turn around — right after we leave. With all of the “great seaperson” awards given out at boat shows and by yacht clubs, you’d think that there would be one for us, because it takes incredible bravery to do this. First you have to admit that you were wrong when you said, “It’s OK to leave.” And if that isn’t enough, you have to admit that your wife was right in the first place.

But it gets much worse. By the inherent nature of the act, you’re usually doing this close to home, or at least close to people you know. There’s no time to think up excuses for your stupidity. The great seamen who go to far seas don’t have all their friends and neighbors standing there on the dock to see them screw up, and they’ve got plenty of time to come up with something in the way of an explanation when they do. So there’s a unique and special bravery involved with turning around right after you set out.

This masterstroke of seamanship doesn’t merely require bravery; it also takes skill. First comes the skill of denial. Just out of the inlet, I say, “Oh, it’s just a tidal rip. It’ll be better once we get offshore.” Then I say, “Well, it’ll even out into swells when we get to the continental drop off.” Then, “Well, it’s too late now. It’s a long way back to the end of the jetties.” But by then it isn’t just a matter of turning back. This is where the real bravery and skill sets in. Once I realize how wrong I am and how much worse it’s going to get, I’ve still got to hold course awhile so that I can figure out how to turn around without capsizing.

Turning around at this point isn’t just a matter of hard over on the wheel. Instead, it’s a matter of hanging on to the wheel for dear life, wondering which way I’d rather die. I’ve read the seamanship books, but they don’t help me much. Conventional wisdom requires that you continue heading into the seas and wait for that famous “lull” in the breaking waves before you turn around. But hanging out and looking for that lull feels like stopping to look for a “walk” sign after you’ve stepped out onto the interstate during rush hour. I suppose the idea is based on the theory that there’s something better about falling off mountains head first instead of falling off mountains sideways. But after I’ve fallen off the mountain bow first a couple of times, it doesn’t seem to make much difference anymore.

While looking for those famous lulls I try to follow the advice in the books and count the waves to take advantage of the equally famous cycles of seven. But I usually lose track around three, because my count is interrupted by my voice saying, “Oh s---, here comes another one.” After trying to find the lull in the waves, the experts say one should carefully “plan” one’s turning maneuver before “executing same.” This is advice I take very seriously. It’s important to know which way you’re going to turn in seas like this. That’s the only way to know which side to use when you throw up.

While I’m sitting out there, trying to watch for lulls, counting waves and figuring which way I want to swing the wheel, I try to remember what the yacht design books say about stability curves and righting moments. They’ve got this stuff pretty well figured out, which is no small comfort. It’s great to be looking up at breaking waves and know that someone has scientifically predicted exactly when you’re going to turn over.

The problem is that deep down inside I realize that they haven’t figured about my boat. They’re always talking about normally loaded boats. We carry most of what we own on Chez Nous because we live aboard. By the time we’re loaded and ready to go, the stability issue is best calculated by that well-known Triple F theory: which way will she tip the farthest, firstest and fastest.

I think design gurus should pay less attention to stability curves and more attention to tidal wave curves. Tidal waves are the best way to describe what happens to all of that stuff in my boat when I turn around. Before I turn, everything is sliding fore and aft. I’ve heard some experts say that the fore-and-aft cascade is the most serious of all because the stuff has farther to go in each direction.

Actually, we prefer the fore-and-aft tidal wave on our boat. Designers must be pretty smart folks because they figured this one out years ago when they came up with the idea of pointed bows. When the waves get big enough and all of that mass of junk rushes forward it gets compressed so tightly by the inward slope of the hull that it jams up in the bow and stays put. Very seldom does it come sliding back when the bow heaves up. When you’re walking about below decks you only have to jump out of the way once. You hope.

I believe that this is yet another reason the experts say to sit there waiting for the lull. If you start that turn before the bow compresses your junk, it’s a different world below. Everything slides from port to starboard — again and again, trying to devour you in a writhing mess. Walking about below deck is about as safe as playing jump rope with a 20-foot boa constrictor.

So I look for the patterns. I wait for the lull. I grip the wheel until the skin pops from my knuckles. I listen to determine if I can still hear the engine running over the raging wind. I do whatever I think I’m supposed to do with the running rigging (usually the wrong thing). I yell something stupid like, “hard about!” as if Mel hadn’t figured it out. I bravely and skillfully manhandle the wheel. The boat shoulders the fury of the sea and begins to swing around as she rises over the “lull.” I look ahead to see what’s coming next. Then I see the next wave. Lull? I croak. And then all grows still, as arises from my throat that quiet, peaceful refrain of the sea “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Now, the experts who’ve been there and written about it always say at this point something like “once you’ve regained the safety of the jetty.” It’s like they don’t even want to talk about what really comes next. I’m sitting there gripping the wheel, trying to decide whether I want to look ahead at the white maelstrom surrounding the jetty or look back at the top of Mount Everest getting ready to fall on my boat. From then on it’s all downhill. And uphill. And down again. I fight for survival. I work the throttle, swing the wheel, try to keep the sails full without ripping them out, and contemplate my approaching death. As I do so, my whole life does not pass before my eyes. The thing passing is only a simple question, and it passes through my brain: Why didn’t I listen to my wife this morning?

Even after I’ve survived the turn about and the ride back and “regained the safety of the jetty,” I’ve still got problems. It’s at this stage of the maneuver that I have to thread my way through all the other boats that followed me out of the harbor because they thought I couldn’t possibly be that stupid and must have had at least a clue about what I was doing. It’s at this stage that I have to keep them from realizing how bad it really is, at least until I get a chance to get back to the anchorage and claim a spot to put the hook down before they also come flooding back in.

There are several important steps to take to fool them, at least for a while, into thinking that it’s really OK to go on out. First, it always helps to get the torn sails down before everyone sees them. Sometimes they’ve torn from the first gusts of gale that always hit as soon as our bow clears the jetty. Sometimes they’ve torn from coming about or from the uncontrolled jibes as we run back before the wind. Usually they’ve torn before we even get to the jetty, when I’m trying to pull them up and Mel’s trying to pull them down.

It also helps to cut loose the life raft that I deployed as soon as we tumbled down the first wave. Coming back in with an inflated life raft trailing astern doesn’t give the rest of the departing fleet a very good feeling, and it does very little for my dignity, especially when Mel’s driving and I’m riding in the raft.

Next, I’ve got to figure out what to say to the people still at anchor who had enough sense not to leave. Saving face is important after you almost haven’t saved your boat. I can always lie and say something like, “We forgot the morning’s paper,” but usually the mess on the boat tells other tales. The near catastrophe becomes more obvious when I try to put down the anchor and spend an hour untangling the knots in the chain from its recent heaving around in the forepeak. Finally, when we are securely anchored, we begin to start worrying about our recently departed friends. We hide down below, peeking out the portholes, hoping to see them limping in. But on the really bad days, no one comes back.

On these days, you can cut with a knife the pall of gloom that settles over the harbor. We anxiously listen to the VHF for their calls, hoping against hope that we don’t hear them. Because when we do hear them, they show no mercy. If they’d just keep quiet, things wouldn’t be so bad. Instead, all we can hear until the VHF signals fade over the horizon is the people out there talking to each other and saying things like, “Hey, what a beautiful sail. It settled down a few miles out of the cut. This is perfect. Glad we kept on going. By the way, who was that fool wallowing back in as we left?”


OK, now let’s get serious for a few minutes — well, kind of serious. There are a few things you can do to save yourself all of this trouble, not to mention the embarrassment. First, remember the “fun for all” rule. If it’s not fun for all on board, you’re making a mistake to go out. Obviously this rule is very important for quality of life issues like marital bliss, whether your kids will ever leave their video games again to go boating with you, whether your significant other will ever let you buy another boat, and whether your guests will throw up on your new chart plotter. But it’s also important because, if you’re like me, sometimes it’s a good thing to have a bellwether to curb your unbridled enthusiasm about getting out on the water.

Even though you think the other family members or guests may be wimps or unappreciative of the sea or, more importantly, unappreciative of your obvious seamanship skills, it’s good to get a reality check from those whose observations come from a different perspective — especially if they’re going to be on board with you. It’s even more helpful to get a reality check from a different perspective when the other person says something like, “No way in hell am I going to get in that boat with you unless you keep it tied to the dock.”

If you’re noticing that you can never get anyone to go out with you, if you’re always surviving the savage seas all alone, maybe it’s time to reassess your opinion of your judgment calls. Forget about those books you and I have read about Capt. Hornblower. Forget about the “Victory at Sea” series you used to watch on television (if you’re as old as me). Forget about being macho if you’re a guy or about being tougher than the guys if you’re a girl. Start thinking about ways you and all aboard can have a nice day, safely and comfortably.

Never make a schedule for going somewhere in a boat unless you’re ready to change it. One of the biggest reasons we see people go out when they shouldn’t is that they’ve done something like agreeing to meet someone down the coast. That someone can always take a bus, fly or rent a car. He should be told the facts of life about being on the water so that he won’t get his feelings hurt if you call and say, “Forget it, unless you can come to me.”

Be skeptical about forecasts of little or no wind, especially if you’re going out on open water. I’ve noticed over the years that if forecasters predict high wind they’re usually right; if they predict low wind they’re much more likely to be wrong. One assurance of a proper measure of skepticism is to add the tops and bottoms that the weather people predict. If they say it’s going to blow 5 to 10 knots, figure 15; If they say 10 to 15, figure 25. No, this is hardly a scientific rule, but it might get you into the right frame of mind when you’re trying to figure out what’s really happening out there.

As I discussed in the Sea Savvy column on weather in the April issue, choose carefully your weather sources. It’s been our observation that most television weather segments are woefully inadequate. They concentrate on information that you can get simply by sticking your head out the door and looking around. They’re weak on predictions of what’s going to happen in the future; they’re also weak on explaining weather systems that are affecting you and the dynamics involved. And often, although they may say something like “and for you boaters …” and have a cute moving wave graphic, their boating information isn’t very helpful. Of course, there are notable exceptions to what I’m describing. If television forecasters like these are in your community, tune in and write to the station and say how much you appreciate them.

Remember, weather on the water can be very different from weather on land. For example, it’s often windier on the water because there’s nothing to slow the wind. Also, there’s usually a temperature difference between the air over land and the air over water. This will cause winds that are local to the coast but can nevertheless be very strong. The afternoon “sea breeze” phenomenon is a good example of this. And rain could occur near the shoreline because of those temperature differences, as well as humidity differences, while there is no thought of rain over land. So make sure your weather source is geared to maritime conditions.

NOAA weather on the VHF usually is very helpful, but we’ve found that as we travel up and down the coast even some of these stations can give inadequate information. This spring we were off Florida, heading north offshore. The NOAA VHF weather channels were calling for light southerly wind, picking up briefly to 15 to 20 knots, then diminishing in the next few days but remaining southerly. They mentioned only a 20-percent chance of “showers,” but other than that they were emphasizing clear days and drought warnings. However, even a rudimentary check of weather systems showed a cold front drifting down over the peninsula as a trough and a low-pressure area forming over the Gulf of Mexico and moving along the trough. We decided to ignore the VHF forecasts and headed into Fort Pierce after two good days in the ocean. When we did this the sun was still shining, the air dry and the wind a light southerly. About two hours later we had winds from the northeast at 15 to 20 knots, with rain and squalls. The next night we had a northwest squall with 50 to 60 knots. We kept asking each other, “How could they get it so wrong?”

One area in which NOAA VHF forecasts can be very helpful is the regularly updated sea buoy reports. We’ve had many mornings when we were ready to head across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas until we heard that it was blowing northerly at 20 knots or more at Fowey Rocks and Molasses Reef. There’s nothing like current on-scene conditions to alert you to what’s going on. (You can also get buoy reports online from the National Data Buoy Center at Be aware that NOAA broadcasts often also give wind reports that are from shore stations. These may be from airports, Coast Guard stations or other inland areas. Don’t go by these; they’re frequently at least 10 to 15 knots less than the wind on the open water.

Many people contact boats already out on open waters and ask for a wind and sea condition report. If you know someone, you can call the boat on VHF and switch off to a working channel for this. But we often hear skippers make a call similar to the following: This is the (name of vessel) to any vessel off Narragansett Bay for a sea condition report. Switch and answer channel 68 (or any legal working channel). This may or may not be strictly in compliance with FCC rules. It isn’t clear to me, and I’m not about to try to find someone who will commit to a definitive answer. But people frequently make calls like this. Boaters offshore usually are happy to come back with information, and the practice has undoubtedly contributed to the safety of many. The key is to be as brief as possible on the calling channel.

Once you have established contact on a working channel, ask for the size and type of their vessel and the direction they are traveling with reference to the wind and sea. A report from a 150-foot stabilized megayacht may not be at all relevant to your boat (certainly not mine) unless the skipper gives objective observations as to the conditions (and he probably will), rather than a statement such as, “We’re having a great ride.”

If you can’t talk to someone out there, just go look. Often it’s easy to walk across the street or out to the jetty, or drive to the shore and look out to sea. It may take a few minutes, but think of all the aggravation you may save. If you go to the shore and look, keep in mind that waves may seem more benign from that vantage point. First, remember that you’re looking at them from an angle when you’re standing on the beach looking out. Also, remember that the waves you’re seeing off the beach won’t be as up close and in your face as the waves that’ll be pummeling your boat. But once you practice a little, you can do a good job of translating what you’re seeing shoreside into what you’ll be getting if you head out in the boat.

Have a healthy skepticism not only of forecasts of wind strength but also of direction. This can make a huge difference in whether it’ll be good or bad if you go out. Many things can change the forecasted wind direction — weather systems, for example. Sometimes a forecast is based primarily on one system; sometimes it’s based on the interaction of more than one system. Wind direction forecasts based on one high pressure system can change if the center of the high shifts just a little or if the pressure goes up or down more than expected. A multiple-system basis for prediction of wind direction can be even more tenuous and depends on how each system develops, moves and interacts with the other.

If a forecast prediction is based on the sea breeze effect, it’s probably more likely to be reliable in stable weather. This has to do with the higher temperature of the air over land — warmed by the day’s sun — and the lower temperature of the air over the water. The shoreline and the water aren’t going to move. If they do, we’ve got more problems than wind direction to worry about.

Remember also that wind direction, as well as wind strength, can be different near a coast than it is where you may live inland or far offshore. This may be because of the sea breeze effect just mentioned. None of this is to say that all wind predictions are unreliable. Rather, you should consider more than one forecast source and pay close attention to what’s happening to the weather where you are.

Tide is yet another factor to consider before you head out. A strong current running out against an onshore breeze can create a significant wind wave. Some inlets even have dangerous standing waves in these conditions. When the current changes, that same wind may not cause waves that are a problem for you.

Tide also is important with many large bodies of water for much the same reason. On the Chesapeake, for example, wind blowing down the Bay against an adverse tide can make a very uncomfortable sea. A few hours later, when the tidal flow weakens or changes, your comfort level may change much for the better. The height of the tide also may be relevant. For example, a low tide resulting in shallow water over a bar may result in rougher conditions than you’d encounter in deeper water over the same spot.


The oddity is that I know all these things. I’ve known them for a very long time. Yet I still sometimes go out when I shouldn’t, then have to turn around and struggle to get back in, with emotions ranging from embarrassment to desperation. The philosophers may call it “optimism.” The psychiatrists may call it “invalid reality checking.” Mel, my wife, calls it something else, which, true to the stoic disposition of heroes of the sea, I don’t think I’ll share here.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at