As we enjoy the summer sailing season, it’s worth taking a minute to be sure some important sailing traditions don’t get overlooked—or even forgotten—in this age of electronic navigation and autopilots. Stuff still happens out on the water, but fortunately, almost everything that does can be minimized or prevented through good seamanship.
First and foremost, whether you are sailing an 80-footer offshore or a 20-footer along the coast, whoever is in charge of the boat must always follow the proper procedures and be able to operate all equipment. If you are making a longer passage and set up a watch schedule, be sure that all watch leaders can also operate the gear and know where the boat’s safety equipment is located. Standing a watch, of course, means just that: no snoozing or sitting down to read a book in the cockpit. I’ve never met anyone who honestly believed they possessed a sixth sense that would alert them to something that was going to happen in the future.
If you are at the helm, don’t leave it unless you absolutely have to. If you must go below to check something and no one else is on deck, make a slow and deliberate 360 degree scan around the horizon before you do so. If possible, ask someone to relieve you on the helm until you return.
When you turn the helm over to a new helmsperson, always speak clearly to the person who is relieving you and tell him or her what course you are steering. Say “steering course 1–2–5,” or whatever it may be, and make sure the person repeats the same course back to you before he or she takes the wheel. Another good procedure is to stick a Post-it on the chart with the course given to the relieving helmsman, and be sure to record the course in the logbook. If you follow this routine, you will eliminate any misunderstandings about what course is to be steered. You’ll never have to hear the helmsman who took over the wheel saying an hour or two later, “Oh, I thought we were supposed to head 225.”
An oncoming watch must also be fully informed about any shipping in the area, the distance and bearing of the land, and any issues with gear or sails. The watch being relieved should stay on deck until all the members of the new watch are present and ready to go to work. If you are planning to make a routine sail change, it makes sense to do so during the change of the watch when more people will be on deck.
The VHF radio should be set on Channel 16, and at least one crewmember other than the skipper should know how to operate it and make a call if necessary.
Some think I’m obsessive-compulsive, but I always check the bilge at least once an hour, pulling up a floorboard or two to take a close look at what is going on. My reason for doing so goes back many years, when I was skippering a 117-foot wooden classic from the British Virgin Islands to Antigua. The boat was old, and we all knew she leaked a bit. Unfortunately, the other watch decided to trust the automatic float pump to maintain the water level in the bilge, which of course meant that the pump chose their watch to fail. It took just a couple of hours for the water level to come dangerously close to that of the main engine’s starter motor. If the water had gone a just little higher before I discovered the problem, we could have been in serious trouble.
When I’m cruising I always take notes in addition to keeping a good logbook. I write down everything that might be relevant or important, no matter what the subject might be. I do so because it’s helpful and also fun to be able to refer back later to read about what happened.
If I’m proceeding under power or motorsailing, I make a point of doing a visual check of the engine at least every hour. Again, some might think this excessive, but if a hose should get loose and isn’t caught, it could cause a lot of problems.
I also look around the deck to check things like the anchor stowage, boat lashings, rig chafe and anything else that might succumb to movement or shaking. I do the same thing belowdecks, listening carefully for any unseen rattling.
While I’m performing these checks, I’m always careful to make sure someone is maintaining a good lookout, no matter whether we are on an afternoon sail or an ocean passage. Scan the horizon regularly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Gosh, he really came up on us quickly.” That’s why you must keep an eye on all the boats around you, and if you see one that will pass close to you, determine who is the stand-on vessel and who must give way. If you are the one who is going to make a course change, do so early and decisively so that the other vessel will understand your intentions.
I monitor my electronic navigation aids regularly, and I never rely on a single readout. Along these same lines, never rely exclusively on radar. Whenever possible, try to use your eyes. Always keep pod widgets, music headphones and other miscellaneous electronic gear away from the compass.
Finally, if you are in doubt about something, never guess. Call someone who has more experience. They don’t mind, and more importantly, they will be able to provide more insight into the situation. The sooner you make the call, the better the result will be.