There was a time when leaving sight of land came with a good chance of never seeing it again. Before the invention of the marine chronometer to determine longitude, going over the horizon was a risky move. Even with accurate charts and a watch, the sea remained deadly; so deadly that the raised platforms known as widow’s walks on New England homes got their name from the sea captains’ wives, who would pace their rooftops, looking seaward for ships that never returned.
Without VHF radios or radar, anyone who sailed offshore was truly on his own. Self-reliance wasn’t a romantic, Emersonian notion; it was a condition. Sailors had only themselves.
I’ve met countless sailors who do their best to hold on to the traditional notion of being on their own out there. They speak of self-reliance as part of the appeal of being far offshore, alone in the world with only their skill and wits to protect them. They speak of it as a decision they made to be independent. When I was working in search and rescue, these sailors were the ones who always called at the last possible minute; but they always called.
These are the guys who often say silly things like, “Never step off until you have to step up.” They were the first ones to send hate mail when I suggested that being alone in a life raft without having made a distress call meant a sailor had screwed up (“The Truth About Survival Training,” August 2019). “What about a lighting strike that causes a fire?” one man complained. “I guess you’ve never heard of anyone hitting a deadhead in the middle of the night,” another offered.
Those who fancy themselves to be like the sailors of yore said I was wrong. Self-reliance, they wanted; blame, not so much. Now, I’m no sailor. While I do love boats and have spent a few years working on them, the bulk of my exposure to modern boating has been through search and rescue. For a long time, I was only on boats that were in distress following a call for help. Perhaps that skews me to one side of this argument, but given that experience, I believe this: The idea that you are self-reliant out there can get you killed, while the idea that everything is your fault is vital to your safety.
We are connected in ways our great-great-grandfathers could never have imagined. Our radios can talk to each other. Our boats have alarms and pumps connected to apps on phones. We do not watch from rooftops for sails on the horizon; we log on to websites for real-time information. We are not alone out there anymore. But, make mistakes at sea, and you will, one way or another, invite people ashore to join you in your “self-reliant” adventure.
We must never lose the sense of absolute personal responsibility for our own safety. There are rare situations where lightning strikes and submerged containers cause unforeseeable situations, but they are no reason to abandon modern tools and procedures. We don’t take off our seat belts just because there is only a slim chance that oncoming traffic may swerve into our lane. The answer to the rare disaster we can’t predict in boating is a float plan and communication prior to the mishap.
I think the last great gains to be made in boating safety are in how we think about being on the water. If you still believe in self-reliance, then Godspeed, but keep your VHF radio on, if only so that your loved ones aren’t walking the rooftops, hoping for your return.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.