"It was all pretty routine. You could see the thing coming." That’s how an experienced sailor friend of mine described the arrival of a front in the early hours of the recent Block Island Race on Long Island Sound. The situation turned out to be not "pretty routine," after all—at least in the typical meaning of that phrase. On board one boat, the 65-foot Blue Yankee
, an unusual, ill-timed combination of factors helped cause a fall overboard by a sailor, who subsequently drowned. (See "When Tragedies Happen at Sea
While I won’t talk here about that accident (which is now being investigated), I do want to consider the phrase "pretty routine" and all that it means when it concerns seamanship. My point is that there’s only one way to make a situation at sea "pretty routine," and that’s to watch it like a hawk.
First, let’s reflect on what the phrase usually doesn’t mean at sea. More often than not, it does not suggest a situation that’s static, stable, or permanent. Neither does it mean predictable, the way, say, a family’s "perfectly routine" behavior around the breakfast table follows the same carefully choreographed steps from week to week. Any period of time at sea contains so many fluid factors that every sailor in it must keep his or her eyes peeled for sudden developments—a rogue wave, a squall, an eddy, or another boat charging out of the fog. So many variables are at play: wind, sun, night, tide, boat, crew, waves, other vessels, and everything else. Any one or more of them can come together in curious ways that make this pastime we love so fascinating.
There’s some irony in the phrase. Perfection is far away; and routine is often chaotic. In England, sailors speak with a laugh about "a regular Fastnet sea," even though the waves near Fastnet Rock are anything but the same size and shape. What makes that sea regular is its constant irregularity.
All this contingency can be something of a letdown to people who like life neat and lock-step orderly. Perhaps they might be happy with a different avocation, for while the notion that something can be fixed in our normal lives may be a comfort, it’s a false one to carry aboard a vessel going to sea. There, instability and accident reign, and our best efforts are applied to being prepared for them.
Take the wind. Any breeze is full of holes. When National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Sienkiewicz said as much at a safety at sea seminar a while ago (his exact words were, "Wind is not a blanket; it is, rather, like a colander"), he was not talking only of tiny lakes. The broad ocean can be just as erratic—even the Southern Ocean. It’s a mistake to believe that, down there, immense seas of equal height and gale winds of equal force advance steadily like solid blocks around the globe. Rather, depressions roll around there every few days "like a series of bowling balls gyrating around the world," according to another meteorologist, Bill Biewenga. Like all deep fronts, they bring heavy winds, but while waiting for a front in the Southern Ocean, sailors usually do what sailors waiting for fronts do everywhere—they drift along in light to moderate air and a flat sea.
Similarly, anybody who has spent much time offshore will testify that a constant worry in the trade winds is not having too much wind but having too little. When John and Nancy Eills of the 53-foot J/160 Echo
recently reported on their circumnavigation at a meeting of the New York station of the Cruising Club of America, they emphasized how important light-air performance is for a crew that wants to limit legs to less than two or three weeks. In two years underway, only once did they experience as much as 40 knots. Although they had a reef tied in often—the J/160 has a huge mainsail—they often flew an asymmetrical spinnaker set in a sock so it could be quickly doused in a squall. John and Nancy pulled this off handsomely even though they are grandparents and hardly candidates for Volvo Ocean Race boats.
For average sailors whose ambitions do not reach to Tahiti or Cape Horn, what this pattern of patternless activity says is, beware of complacency. Whenever you find yourself taking a situation for granted, force yourself to look around. Many accidents occur not in testing conditions, but in easy ones, when we start take things for granted. I’ve learned the hard way that a preventer belongs on a boom in light air because an accidental jibe in 10 knots of wind can crack a skull as easily as a jibe in 30 knots. And, motoring into the Azores in a flat calm, a shipmate of mine was lowering the mizzen on a big ketch when he distractedly left a handle in a reel-halyard winch. These devices (now thankfully rare) work somewhat like a fishing reel. When he threw off the brake, the handle spun madly and broke his wrist and nose.
"Pretty routine," therefore, means expecting everything to be anything but routine—and, for that matter, anything but pretty.
Expecting the Unexpected by Don Casey
Spring Safety Measures by John Rousmaniere
A Nearly Doomed Delivery by John Kretschmer
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