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A Key Approach to Passagemaking

Much is written about physical sailing skills, but attitude is a big part of safe and satisfying offshore sailing as well
Moderation and respect are a big part of successful and enjoyable passagemaking 

Moderation and respect are a big part of successful and enjoyable passagemaking 

How you approach offshore sailing is key to the success of each passage. In addition, some of the most valuable, even crucial attitudes and skills may not be either learned or valued in everyday life on shore and may even fly in the face of talents that are greatly admired and sought after. The following is what I’ve learned over my years of sailing offshore.

After 15 years of coastal cruising, I decided to take my LeComte Northeast 38, Early Riser, on my first offshore passage, a round trip from New York to Bermuda, to see if bluewater sailing was for me. We prepared endlessly, expecting a five- to six-day passage south. The trip did not go as planned. On day one, we bumped our overloaded boat onto a shoal in New York Harbor. After that came a couple of days at sea of near-flat calm.

Then—careful what you wish for—we were chased by a tropical storm that forced us significantly off course. We hove-to until the storm left us behind, ending the now nine-day passage with a boisterous close-reach to our destination.

Like many I have talked with since I was little prepared for how much I would be freaked out by this nerve-wracking journey and all it would stir up in me. Fortunately, the return passage was far more what I’d expected and hoped for.

It was only much later and with some reflection that I began to understand some of the learning, even growing, that began on that first passage. Twelve years of full-time, liveaboard life and numerous other passages have further solidified my thoughts.

Generally, in our everyday lives on land, we learn the skills that best get us through whatever it is we are presented with, picking up techniques from our parents, our genetics, our environment and our culture. The skills we develop are in large measure determined by the challenges we face. We don’t learn to paddle a canoe living in the desert, nor do we learn cooperation and compromise if we face most challenges on our own.

There are many methods for dealing with the challenges we all face in life. Many, including myself, take on challenges with a bit of aggression, total focus and a mindset to complete the challenge as quickly and successfully as possible. This method works quite well in those instances where the end is clearly in sight. In athletics, for example, you are coached to “leave it all on the field.” You climb a mountain all the way to the top. You sweat out term papers, but (usually) hand them in on time. Afterward, there is a period of collapse and then recuperation, with rewards if you succeed, disappointments if you do not.

Offshore sailing, on the other hand, with its long passages, presents a very different set of challenges. This in turn has provided me an opportunity to add to my previous repertoire of skills and include things like patience, rolling with the punches, flexibility, tolerating uncertainty and not knowing when, or even if the goal will be accomplished. These latter skills are of a kind that had little value in the challenges I had heretofore faced. They were rarely if ever, taught to me, and in general, had I occasion to think much about them, I likely would have downplayed or even ridiculed their value. They are, however, invaluable offshore.

When passagemaking, for example, you never want to leave it all on the field. You never want to become totally depleted, either physically or mentally, as this is when errors and accidents occur. You always want to have some reserve resources, both emotional and physical, just as you would never want to deplete your food or water. Fatigue is likely the single most potent factor in errors and accidents. On passage, there is always uncertainty. With the unpredictability of weather (and numerous other variables), it is not an exaggeration to say that still having a reservoir of resources to draw from can mean life instead of death. Until the very end, the end is never in sight.

On our current boat, Alchemy, a Valiant 42, my wife, Ginger, and I sail offshore as a couple, so injuries are an especially large concern. Our guiding rule is that we patiently move at two-thirds speed. It is rare that one needs to rush to do anything, so we don’t. Injury is far more likely when hurried.

The same mindset goes with the boat. We try not to sail Alchemy at greater than 75-80 percent of her capacity. It is in the upper 20 percent, where there is little room for error, that damage and accidents are likely to occur, both to the crew and the boat. This is an approach that keeps us all safe. It also flies in the face of the kind of mindset that is often admired in everyday life, characterized by a “going for it” attitude.

When on passage I make a point of trying to listen closely to both my own and others’ language. Too often “sail talk” is embedded in an adversarial context. I would suggest that an offshore passage is best not seen as a competition. If one sees the goal as conquering the ocean or prevailing over the sea, then disappointment is guaranteed, and loss (at some point) inevitable.

Rather, the goal is to reach your destination safely, and a far more efficient and accurate approach is to think of yourself and the boat as being in a dance with the wind and sea. More important, Mother Nature is the clear leader in this dance. Trying to lead, dominate or overcome is fruitless and likely dangerous. Better to practice the skills of accommodation and respect, aligning your resources with whatever Mother Nature brings you. It is our capacity to work with the wind and the seas that ultimately determines the satisfaction we achieve on the way to reaching our destination.

This approach—you as the follower in this dance—underscores an especially potent emotional element in an offshore passage: much is out of your control. Rather than overcoming obstacles (running a faster mile or conquering a mountain), your challenge is to work with the particular sets of circumstances as they occur: to deal—and deal well—with the unpredictable. Increase in wind = take in a reef. Current against you = tack out of it. Headwinds = hunker down for the long haul. Broken equipment = replace it, repair it or jury rig.

The ideal is to respond and align yourself with the ever-changing reality around you, dealing with the regularly occurring “small” stuff that in aggregate makes for a seaworthy vessel and wise decisions. There is rarely “one” problem. A single problem is usually workable. Problems with a capital “P” are usually the result of a cascade of smaller ones. With this attitude, you will give yourself and your crew the greatest likelihood of a satisfying passage.

Again, the result of the challenges of offshore passagemaking is a unique opportunity to develop skills you might not ever otherwise acquire. Stamina, for example, is certainly vital. However, rather than going all out, one also searches for a level of physical and emotional output that is sustainable without ever reaching total depletion. Balance, moderation and restraint are similarly crucial skills. Respect and accommodation are the order of the day. An ocean passage is a wonderful training ground for such skills, and as they develop, you’ll discover how valuable they are in other parts of your life as well.

99-Ed-Note-AUTHOR-PHOTO---Ginger-and-Dick-Stephenson,-pictured-here-in-Cuttyhunk,-Massachusetts.-300-dpi

In a way, passagemaking is a lot like parenting: you’re introduced to tasks, roles and responsibilities with no immediate end in sight and limited control. Like it or not, in both parenting and offshore passagemaking, you are in it for the duration, or, as some may experience it, for the long haul. The silver lining, if you will, is that one learns (and grows) a great deal on the journey. As Bernard Moitessier might say, the destination pales in comparison. 

Dick Stevenson, a retired clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst and member of the Cruising Club of America (CCA), and his wife Ginger, a former teacher, have made their home aboard their cutter, Alchemy, a Valiant 42, for most of the last 18 years. In 2002 they retired, sold the house and moved aboard full-time after 25 years of cruising along the U.S. East Coast, from Bermuda to Maine, with their three children. In 2006 they crossed the North Atlantic with stops in Bermuda and the Azores, after which they spent several seasons in the Mediterranean, where they were fortunate enough to sail to Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. After that, they voyaged to northern Europe, where they sailed as far east as St. Petersburg, Russia, and above the Arctic Circle in Norway. In 2017 they crossed the North Atlantic via the “Viking Route,” with stops in the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland before fetching up in Newfoundland, Canada. The CCA is North America’s premier offshore cruising and racing organization. It is comprised of more than 1,300 ocean sailors, has 14 stations around the United States, Canada and Bermuda, and together with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club organizes the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. For more on the CCA, visit cruisingclub.org

Photos courtesy of Dick Stevenson

April 2021

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