Rules to Sail By
Sailors are fond of rules, although it is also true that some rules are simply mnemonic memory devices. Red right returning is a good example, at least in North America. Others might provide advice: Red sky at night, sailor’s delight comes to mind. But some phrases are rules that are inviolate: Always wear a harness at night is one.
I’ve developed my own set of rules that, though they may be somewhat philosophical, are helpful to me when I’m sailing. For example, on our boat, Rule Number One is: If it doesn’t feel like it will be fun, let’s not do it. It is true that there will be days on the water that fall short of pure rapture. But that’s why you have to look at the bigger picture.
Crossing the Gulf Stream, for example, isn’t always going to be a pleasant experience and you should always try to pick your weather. But if you want to cruise in the Exumas, the boat is going to have to make the crossing. And the fun rule should never keep you from a challenging experience. Sailing in heavy air, for example, is the only way you can expand your knowledge and experience.
However, there are some things that I simply won’t do if I can avoid it. For example, if the day is hot and there’s no wind I won’t go out just to drift around aimlessly. I also try to avoid motoring when there is a 25–knot breeze on the nose, because it makes a root canal seem like fun. In short, if fun is your only goal you must pick your sailing days with care.
Another rule nearly most sailors know, but many ignore, is to avoid sailing on a schedule. A commitment to get underway on a certain calendar date can put crews in uncomfortable or even dangerous conditions. I once left a safe anchorage with gale-force winds blowing on the nose in order to get back to my office and job by a certain time. I spent hours pounding into a vicious chop and made my guests very unhappy in the process. Even though it was an interesting experience, it wasn’t pleasant and I promised myself I would never do it again. Planning a cruise is fine, but the plan should be flexible with plenty of lay days and well thought out alternate destinations.
There is an important corollary to this rule, though it is not as well known: When the wind says go, you’ve got to go! I learned this from experienced cruising sailors who sailed with us on our first cruise to the Bahamas and my wife and I have lived by it ever since. This doesn’t mean that someone arriving in Tahiti for the first time has to leave the next day because the wind is favorable; obviously that’s silly. But there will be times when you should leave earlier than planned. If you are ready to sail and the forecast says that tomorrow you will have fair winds from the right direction, don’t wait two more days so you can catch the Saturday night potluck with friends. If you are ready and the weather is right, that’s the time to go.
We’ve always followed this rule when we are cruising and have never regretted it, but it does call for self-discipline. When conditions are bad it’s easy to delay your departure. It’s much harder to pass up a social event and it is easy to rationalize the decision to stay by saying, “What’s the difference if we wait a couple of more days?”
Because my wife and I are co-skippers, when we disagree on a course of action we follow the most prudent alternative. For example, if one of us wants to reduce sail and the other does not, we reduce sail. If we can’t agree on what course of action is the most prudent—a rare occurrence— we reach a consensus decision that makes everyone comfortable.
Another good rule is to always sail within the capabilities of the crew. I will never ask a crewmember to do something they aren’t comfortable doing or, more important, something I’m not sure they can do. For example, if I know the crew has limited experience with a spinnaker, I won’t ask them to set the chute for the first time if there is too much wind. Although there is nothing wrong with a challenge, it should never create unnecessary risk.
Another favorite rule of mine is always listen to your instincts. The human brain is like a computer, constantly taking in data and storing and processing it on a subconscious level. A “hunch” is the result of a subconscious analysis made by your cerebral computer. On a practical level, if you get into a situation where your gut or your head is telling you something is wrong, there’s a very good chance that it is—even though you can’t consciously say what may be. I’m not talking about the nervous anticipation some people feel before they get underway on a cruise. That’s normal. Rather it’s the feeling something is just not right. If you have a hunch like this, either work it out or revert to another basic rule: If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
Once we were escorting a small sailboat that had lost its motor. The wind was very light and progress was slow, but it looked like we would make port before dark. Then, for some reason, I became concerned about the weather. There wasn’t anything major, just a strange cloud pattern overhead and some irregular wind shifts on the water. NOAA weather radio was telling everyone that all was well, but my wife and I talked about it and we agreed to follow our instincts. That meant taking the most prudent course of action.
We called the other boat on the radio and told them that we were going to tow them into port. Once they were safely tied astern we headed for port under power at the best speed possible. By the time we reached the harbor entrance the wind was still light but the waves were starting to get really big. Later we learned that NOAA had missed an extratropical disturbance with hurricane-force winds 75 miles to the southwest. We had a feeling, we acted on it, and we were right.
I don’t like following a hunch when I am piloting, but I have done it on occasion. Some years ago we were entering a harbor in the Exumas we hadn’t visited for several years. I was navigating by GPS in the Bahamas for the first time. Because I knew several large construction projects had been completed since our last visit, I expected the harbor approach to look different. Using the GPS waypoint marked in the newest cruising guide, I made a turn and started into the channel. But then something didn’t look right, and I immediately began circling in place while I tried to figure out what was going on. After checking my navigator’s notes and the chart, I saw that the waypoint’s coordinates in the guidebook had a typo and that had us heading for a shoal. This reminded me of another important rule: Always use multiple sources of navigation information.
Finally, some sailors are so concerned about what other sailors think of them that it affects their decision-making. I see this occasionally in pre-race skippers’ meetings. If the forecast is for heavy weather, I have rarely seen anyone publicly disagree with the idea of going out. However, if there’s a secret ballot, as one or two race committees I’m familiar with have done, a large number will vote to stay in.
Which leads me to another favorite rule: A cruising sailor doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone. If someone thinks I’m a wimp, that’s his or her problem, not mine. We always enjoy meeting other boats at an anchorage, but we always try to make the passage by ourselves. Doing so lets us decide, without pressure from others, what is safe for us, what is not, and when we ought to leave or stay. It’s all part of that basic idea, our fundamental rule, which is that sailing should be fun.