I’ve gone to sea in various vessels: tiny and humongous, powered and unpowered. I’ve cruised the entire Bahamian Exuma chain in a 17-foot kayak with a sailing rig, and I’ve transited oceans on oil tankers. After all these sea miles, my mantra is this: A superior seaman uses superior skills to avoid superior circumstances.
In the case of the humble kayak, our young, two-person crew—my husband and I—outfitted ourselves with PFDs and flares; two paddles that we endeavored to keep stowed; 10 gallons of fresh water; a small tent; a resealable bag containing The Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas, a paper chart, a notebook and pencils; minimal provisions; and a propane stove to cook whatever we caught every afternoon. Our only luxury items (besides toilet paper) were a bottle of rum and powdered Gatorade for a daily, well-deserved sundowner. Electronics? This was in the pre-satellite days. We splurged on a 6-watt, handheld VHF radio, which got us weather reports if we carried it to the highest point of a cay and held it over our heads.
The superior skills part of my mantra back then meant watching and waiting to match the abilities of a 17-foot sailing kayak against the winter easterly wind and the currents rushing between cays. Wind against tide can stack up a mean chop; that was no place for us. There is an Exuma cut called Wide Opening, where a massive amount of water flows between the half-mile-deep sound and the unforgiving, shallow banks. Crossing a cut like that is a cinch with a motor, but we checked and double-checked before crossing only on a flood tide, onto the banks. We warily avoided wind against tide and the danger of getting swept offshore. We only got underway when a reasonable breeze could be counted on. Some days, we chose to hike onshore or fish instead of making miles, if conditions weren’t favorable. We avoided the superior circumstances that threatened our tiny vessel.
We also sailed an engineless, L. Francis Herreshoff 28-foot Rozinante for more than a decade. We enjoyed day-sailing her, but we also adored cruising her. Like a Constantin Brancusi sculpture, that boat’s beauty was in her simplicity. She carried a 16-foot sweep oar as her only propulsion, so she was not a boat for anyone in a hurry. She taught us that being in port for a planned dinner engagement was not always compatible with making the best seamanship decisions. She taught us things that modern man, with all his horsepower and gadgetry, has perhaps forgotten. She had no electronics, no engine, no systems or even through-hull fittings. We learned to rely on our guts and instincts, to hone our understanding of the tides and currents, to contemplate the natural world around us, and to trust the integrity of the boat. Superior skills kept us out of harm’s way most of the time.
I say most of the time because Mother Nature doesn’t always play fair, no matter how diligently you try to plan and outsmart her. Acceptance is key. When things start going wrong, you need to reframe the scenario, analyze the state of affairs and call up those skills.
We were reminded of this lesson toward the end of our always-late-for-dinner career in the little engineless ketch. We made a bad decision because we wanted to rendezvous with friends at Buzzards Bay off Massachusetts. Although she sailed like a demon, we both knew this boat was no match for the fierce currents traversing through Woods Hole. We laid out the chart, studied our courses compared to the wind direction, and triple-checked the currents. We made an educated decision to go through close to slack water, which coincided with the best reliable mid-afternoon breeze. We waited. We got the breeze we needed, and as we waited for it to build, we rigged the anchor for immediate deployment if needed.
We left Vineyard Sound confident in the breeze, but midway, it suddenly and inexplicably quit. Flat-calm quit. The slightest following current nudged us along, and we hoped the breeze would pick back up again.
It did not. We felt creepy stress knots developing in our guts as the current picked up. We quickly rigged a towline on the bow, and eagerly waved to the lobstermen passing by. One came alongside and—in the practiced, sardonic tone perfected by fishermen when speaking to yachtsmen—asked us, “Are you sure this is the way that you want to come through here?”
We ate crow and passed him our towline. He dropped us at the other side, and we thanked him profusely. We did arrive in time for dinner, and anchored smartly under sail. Happy ending aside, this anecdote is about being smart enough to know when you’ve made a dumb decision, a superior skill indeed.
I haven’t sailed on ships in 20 years. No matter the size or horsepower, though, big ships have their own superior circumstances to deal with, including avoiding weather and big seas. If there’s a hard north wind in the Gulf Stream, for instance, opposing wind and currents can stack up monstrous seas. The south-flowing Agulhas Current off the southeast coast of Africa—the main shipping route between the Mideast and Europe—is twice as strong, and 50-foot seas have been known to damage ships in strong opposing winds. Winter low-pressure areas off Japan have 3,000 miles to develop meaningful seas before they reach the Pacific Northwest. In these cases, even the largest ships will always plan accordingly, using superior seamanship to avoid superior weather.
I now cruise in a husky motorsailer with thick planking. Tall rig. Big engine. I’m old enough to recognize the value of both. I embrace the reality that I’m a small speck in a powerful ocean. I’m mindful of the hubris that massive horsepower and sophisticated gadgets bring to our boating lifestyle, because in the end, no amount of horsepower or gadgetry can compensate for superior seamanship skills.
Sometimes, being smart is the best tactic. The most useful seamanship skill can be as simple as waiting for the tide to change or avoiding bad weather—not a bad mantra for life in general.
This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue.