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Seamanship & safety - Simple rules make a sound seaman

The highest goal you can hope to attain with regard to boating is to be a “seaman.” It means you have developed the skills, knowledge and expertise to handle whatever the sea, Mother Nature and Murphy’s Law can throw at you. Above all, it means using those skills, knowledge and expertise to avoid needing to apply them. It’s a mouthful, but that sums it up. Here’s my take on what it takes to be a seaman.

1. The rules of seamanship: Don’t sink the boat; don’t run her aground; get to where you are going; and return with the same crew you started out with and all in one piece. Take pride in your mastery of seamanship.

2. Attitude: It’s the first ingredient in becoming a seaman. There is a lot to learn and practice in order to develop the skills. You must be willing to put forth the effort. Be self-reliant, and don’t count on someone to bail you out. Boating is a wonderful pastime, but you usually can’t get out and walk if things go bad. Boating is one of the few remaining activities where we can still exercise independence and individual initiative. Don’t put other lives in danger because you were too lazy, ignorant, careless, inconsiderate or just plain dumb to boat safely.

Some years ago, I refused to help deliver a sailboat to Belize because the owner insisted on sailing close to a lee shore (Mexico). He had sailed for more than two decades on Long Island Sound. He essentially mistook one year of the same inshore experience repeated 20 times over for experience on the open sea. On the delivery he was off a lee shore during a hurricane; it cost the life of a friend. He failed to respect the sea, and the sea extracted its due.

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3. Excellence: Excellence is important. Good enough is never good enough. Having said that, I also believe there usually is more than one way to correctly do a job. Learn the basics and practice until you develop competence. And make sure to develop excellence in your crew. For example, teach them the right way to cleat off a line, set an anchor, read the water, tie a sheet bend and so on. They may be family or friends, but they can still put themselves and your boat in harm’s way.

4. Situational awareness: The hallmark of a good seaman, situational awareness is consciously making yourself sensitive to what’s happening on your boat and around it. If you’re aware, you can prepare. No one likes unpleasant surprises. Know what’s going on around you and anticipate what is ahead. Boat defensively. It will save you from traumatic last-minute decisions to keep you out of danger, and your time on the water will be more relaxing (when it should be) and more exhilarating (when you want it to be).

5. Rules of the Road: Knowledge of the Navigation Rules obviously is important. When driving a car, there are traffic rules that must be obeyed for the safety of all. Driving a car is easier than operating a boat because traffic lanes are marked, speeds are posted, and stop signs and traffic lights regulate traffic flow. On land, vehicles have brakes, and when there’s a problem you can pull over to the side, get out and walk. Unless you’re really special, you don’t have that option on the water. The Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS), also referred to informally as the Rules of the Road, regulate water traffic and safety, but are somewhat more subtle and require more judgment and interpretation from the driver. Rules notwithstanding, remember this jingle:

“Below’s the remains of Simon McCray, who died defending his right-of-way. He was right, dead right, of that make no guess, but he is dead nonetheless.”

A good rule, fair or not, is that mass has the right of way (sometimes called the rule of gross tonnage). A ship can’t easily reverse its engines and maintain control; if it does, the results might well be too late. And if a large vessel does turn, its advance still moves it along its original track, despite the change in its orientation. A boat that is too close often won’t be seen from the vessel’s bridge.

I once was at the helm of a 50-ton, single-screw tour boat at the mouth of a busy tidal river; several personal watercraft ran just ahead of the bow in spite of warning signals. We were just maintaining steerage when one of the PWC went down ahead of us. The driver didn’t realize it, but I couldn’t really reverse the engine without losing control. And in the narrow channel, I couldn’t turn. We stopped the engine, but the tour boat continued forward. Fortunately, the PWC driver recovered and was able to get out of the way.

6. Weather: Always know the forecast before leaving the dock. And learn to read and interpret the clouds and surface wind, because the weather reports may not describe the conditions as they develop around you. Combining situational awareness and weather conditions, look for squalls and observe the behavior of boats in the distance.

Learn and practice the “Cross Wind Rule,” which can help you anticipate changes in the weather. It works like this: With the wind at your back, if the clouds are moving from your left to right, the weather will deteriorate. If you observe clouds moving from your right to left, the weather will improve. If the clouds are moving either with or against the wind, the weather will remain the same.

If making this observation on the water, turn about 15 degrees to your right and then observe cloud movement. On land, turn about 30 degrees to your right before making your observations. It’s not perfect, but this prediction should be good for between four and 12 hours. I don’t remember where I first learned the Cross Wind Rule, but you can learn more about it in Alan Watts’ book “Instant Weather Forecasting.”

7. Water: Learn to read the water. It can indicate shoals, reefs or other obstacles; the presence of strong currents or races; and other potential problem areas you may want to avoid. If you observe an agitated water surface, it usually means something is interrupting the smooth flow of water. It could be a race, where the current is flowing against the direction of the wind. It also could be a sign that there is a hazard beneath the surface — rocks or a bar, for instance.

In rivers, the deep water typically is on the outside of bends. The inside of the bend is usually where the water, its velocity reduced, drops the material it’s been carrying. That’s where the shallows are.

8. Know thyself and thy boat: Honestly consider what your capabilities and limitations are. Recognize gaps in your knowledge and fill them. The U.S. Power Squadrons and Coast Guard Auxiliary offer excellent instruction. Take a course.

Maybe you’re uptight about boat handling in close quarters — coming into or leaving a dock or slip, for example. Get instruction from someone with more experience. If no one is available, teach yourself. Practice, practice, practice — you won’t hurt the boat if you have plenty of fenders. And remember, pilings are your friends. Don’t be afraid to put the boat against them (softly, of course) and push to help in close-quarters maneuvering.

9. Respect the sea: Know how your boat will behave without power or in a steep head or following sea. Know how it will orient itself to wind and sea if left to its own devices. Learn from experience when it’s safe to go fast and when doing so puts you at risk.

It’s also important to be self-reliant.

Sooner or later, everyone gets “caught out” in more weather and rougher seas than they bargained for. Within reason, learn to handle these situations under controlled conditions. Don’t go out in a gale, but consider experimenting in fresh conditions.

Sailors should be able to make some repairs to sails, and running and standing rigging. Powerboaters should at least be able to change fuel filters and make simple repairs on their own. Everyone should know something about their electrical system.

10. Equipment: The purpose of a boat is to keep water on the outside of the hull. Ensure that you have adequate pumps, well-maintained seacocks and wooden bungs to plug the hole if the seacock fails. Remember, operate seacocks periodically or they may not move and keep the bilge clear to prevent pumps from clogging.

11. Piloting and navigation: Prudent seamanship demands that you know where you are on the water and where you’re going. It’s easy to see where you are with today’s GPS/chart plotters, but electronics can fail. Would you be able to relate your position on a chart plotter to your location on the water? Some day you may have to do just that without the aid of electronics. Learn how to pilot a boat using a compass, and how to calculate time and distance — the venerable U.S. Power Squadrons formula “60Dstreet”: 60 x distance = speed x time.

Many boaters are equipping their boats with radar, but they don’t really know how to use it properly or realize their responsibilities under the COLREGS. If you install electronics, learn to use the devices properly. The Power Squadrons and Coast Guard Auxiliary both offer excellent courses on piloting and navigation.

12. Read, study, take advice – but take it for what it’s worth: At one time, I was confused about the tactics to use in heavy weather. I’d read books by many seamen of great repute, but their advice seemed contradictory. I went out in what I thought were controlled conditions to test these theories, and what I found was that the “truths” they imparted resulted from their unique perceptions at the time. What they discovered depended on the configuration and design of their boat and the heavy weather that they were in (what stage in the evolution of the storm, the location of the low relative to their position, etc.).

I’ve been in a few dicey situations since that time and found that the tactics that worked depended on the vagaries of wind, current, waves and where we were in the evolving weather. There were no absolute truths, no “one-size-fits-all” strategies. There was my understanding of the conditions I was in, my familiarity with the boat, and my knowledge and experience. What worked once may well work again, but you also have to be ready to adjust, adapt and alter tactics and plans. Fortunately, I’m still here to write this story.

13. Learn anchoring: You may have all the latest electronics available, but if the engine stops or the sails blow out, having the skill to anchor properly is what will save your bacon when all else fails. And skill alone won’t do it. You need to have on board — in good condition and ready to deploy — proper anchors and sufficient rode to do the job. In my opinion, many of the newer sail- and powerboats aren’t designed or laid out as well as they should be for stowing, setting and retrieving your anchor. Though you may never have to deploy anchors in earnest, being able to do so efficiently is one of the hallmarks of a true seaman.

14. Learn marlinespike seamanship: Learn the few knots that are really useful — bowline, clove hitch, round turn and two half hitches, to name three — and whatever other knots you may want (my recommendation: sheet bend, rolling hitch, sheepshank, surgeon’s knot, highwayman’s cutaway, anchor bend, square knot). Learn where to apply them and how to tie them quickly and correctly. In addition to knowing a few essential knots, every boater should be able to cleat a line and coil it for long and short-term storage. It doesn’t take rocket science, but you’ll take pride in your accomplishment when your boat is “shipshape and in Bristol fashion.”

Good luck and good boating.