You don't need to learn every lesson the hard way

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By chance, I recently opened a notebook containing some thoughts and scribblings I made more than five years ago as I was researching a column. This is what I wrote, in part: “One of the most important safety decisions you may make this season is whether to leave your slip or anchorage or to stay put and let a bit of weather pass, the fog lift or to do a bit of maintenance that is overdue.”

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What struck me immediately was how those words could have been written today about the Bounty, although Superstorm Sandy was anything but a “bit of weather.” But you get the idea — the decision not to embark is the crux of it.

Beyond that, there are few similarities between the Bounty and the story I wrote on the Cosco Busan, a 901-foot container ship that sideswiped the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in dense fog in 2007, spilling about 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. The pilot was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison as part of an agreement in which he pleaded guilty to negligence in the collision and spill.

The ill-fated pilot would have been far wiser had he followed the judgment of the six other pilots of large commercial vessels who chose to remain in the bay, given that one literally couldn’t see the bow from the bridge.

But this pilot had more problems than just fog. He had trouble with the electronic chart system, including deciphering what some of the chart symbols represented. He had difficulty interpreting radar information. He didn’t request a single fix or verification of his position despite the lack of visibility, telling investigators that piloting the ship was like “driving your car out of a driveway.”

Hitting the Bay Bridge isn’t exactly like backing into a garbage can with your car. Hubris? Perhaps. No matter how many years we’ve spent knocking around boats, it’s better to stay humble than to think we’ve seen and done it all. Confidence is a good thing; overconfidence has a way of biting you in the backside, especially when it colors your ability to accurately assess risk and make prudent decisions.

One of the most important things you need to switch on every time you step aboard a boat is the mind-set called situational awareness. That phrase describes being acutely in tune with everything taking place on and around your boat — a small change in engine noise, a new vibration or smell, a shift in wind direction, the boat feeling a little sluggish. It’s spotting trouble before it happens, preventing small glitches from becoming large problems.

Keeping a good watch is one of the first rules of good seamanship, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. It’s important to remember that looking is not necessarily seeing, any more than hearing is listening. It turns out that you can look right at something on the water and not “see” it. Fatigue and other stressors, such as heat, noise, glare and vibration, can seriously affect how well and how quickly you identify objects.

The solution? Look around. Scan the water and really concentrate on seeing, not just looking.

It would be foolish to assume that every vessel you encounter is paying close attention to your position and heading or that the skipper has a good understanding of the Rules of the Road. We all know better. Be prepared to take evasive action. Remember, it’s everyone’s obligation to do whatever is necessary to avoid a collision.

Modern electronics are powerful tools, but don’t be a skipper who keeps his head so buried in a screen that he misses the forest for the trees. Again, look up and look around. Situational awareness means having those proverbial eyes in the back of your head.

Seamanship also means really understanding your boat — its strengths and limitations and idiosyncrasies, the workings of various equipment and systems. A solid, well-built boat, even a small one, in the hands of an experienced skipper can make its way through some pretty nasty conditions. But there are limits to what you should reasonably ask your boat to do.

And you should clearly recognize when you’re pushing a marginal forecast, where any change that results in more wind or seas is going to put you in harm’s way. Build in a margin of error so that a busted forecast doesn’t leave you with a dry mouth and white knuckles.

There’s plenty to be said about learning through experience, but when it comes to boats, you simply don’t want to learn every lesson the hard way.

"She had sailed for many years, usually alone except for a dog, which had become so sea-minded that if she allowed the boat to become too close to the wind it would put its shoulder to the tiller and push until the boat once more came back on wind." - Charles Violet

February 2013 issue