Over the decades, I have had the fortuitous position of helping many sailors prepare to cast their fate to the wind—and readied for a few cruises of my own. Laying the groundwork for offshore sailing always seems to bring many of the same questions dealing with treacherous situations. All of us read articles and books to see what disasters befell those sailors who went before us and invest thousands of hours of work—not to mention thousands of hard-earned dollars—preparing for every possible adversity. With time and reflection, though, I have met the enemy of successful cruising, and as usual, it is us.
The preparation lists are endless, and most new cruisers deal with the process in fits of anxiety. Bad weather is always a popular topic for those sailors getting ready for the first big cruise. Do we need a storm jib, a drogue, a life raft, a WeatherFax, or a weather routing service? Boat breakdowns are the source of another round of questions—what equipment or knowledge do we need to fight fires, broken plumbing, or loss of steering? Another area of concern always seems to be the health of the crew—what should be in the ship's medicine chest, do we need vaccinations, and should we take a CPR course?
In fact, it's probably not possible to ever become a truly self-sufficient cruiser in these days of complex boats. Even to attempt it would be to become the ultimate packrat, stashing the bilge full of spare parts and emergency gear, and filling your brain with endless pieces of skills and information ranging from transmission mechanics to celestial navigation. Not to say that the goal isn't admirable or that preparation isn't necessary—nothing could be farther from my attitude—fires, sinkings, medical emergencies, survival storms, and a host of other horrendous situations can and do occur. But they are often caused by a more universal human error—the cruising schedule.
Our society has come a long way in the past three or four generations. At the turn of the last century, our forefathers were still children of Nature—fishermen, farmers, and hunters. They were close to natural laws and knew better than to dictate to Nature when things were going to occur. Instead, they used every natural sign—whether the length of fuzz on a caterpillar or the phase of the moon—to guide their life's activities. Nomadic tribes moved along with the seasons, the growth of plants, and the migrations of animals. Planting was timed with the season's rainfall and fishermen depended on the tides.
Face it, since then we have become control freaks. If the temperature isn't quite right, we tweak the thermostat, altering our personal surroundings to suit our comfort level. If we are a tad late, a little pressure on the gas pedal takes care of that. In a big storm on land, we close the window and turn on the Weather Channel. We are trained from birth to ignore our natural surroundings—or, if we are uncomfortable with what is, we are encouraged to conquer it, to twist it to our desires, and perhaps patent our cure so that we can become wealthier.
Successful cruising requires an about-face—a return to the knowledge and attitude of our ancestors. Sailors will never bend the forces of wind and wave to their desires; we can only use whatever exists at the moment to our purposes. Those who ignore Nature when cruising always live on the brink of the next disaster.
And so we come to the most common problem faced by cruisers—the schedule. Always self-imposed, every cruising schedule carries the seeds of tribulations lurking beneath its surface.
|"And so we come to the most common problem faced by cruisers—the self-imposed schedule."|
We have been as guilty as anyone. In fact, one memorable event is vividly stamped in my mind. We had our mail forwarded to a Post Office as a general delivery, and we knew that the Postal Service only holds unclaimed packets for 14 days. Weather had delayed us endlessly that summer—we grew impatient. Finally, the day before we feared the mail would be returned, we set out in weather that would have given a Cape Horn veteran pause. As events unfolded, it became obvious this had been a serious mistake—what nineteenth-century sailor in his right mind would risk his life, the life of his crew, and his boat for a parcel of bills and postcards?
In our business and personal lives we are encouraged to plan—plan our taxes, plan our retirement, plan our vacations, and schedule our haircuts. Planning to be in an exact location on a precise date becomes a goal in our twenty-first century minds, and in our ordinary land-based lives, it is a routine, everyday event. We do it without thinking. For cruising, however, the focus on these kinds of appointments makes us oblivious to the necessary reality of cooperating with Nature.
The arrival and departure of guests, dated plans for work and vacation, a scheduled trip to visit others, and appointments with professionals have all proven to be the source of many tall sea stories—some of them fatal. Delivery skippers always have a good supply of disaster tales because they are often forced to maintain a date for a boat show or closing. Sailors on a schedule are sailors in a hurry, and rushing inevitably translates into seaman-like preparations left undone, Nature's signals unheeded, and an overly tired crew—all three of which lead to the dangerous situations that we have prepared so ardently to avoid.
Coastal cruisers are not immune. A recent letter from a gentleman who wanted to go from the Chesapeake to Florida on the Intracoastal Waterway on a precise schedule was a case in point. His heart's desire was to make exactly 30 miles per day, six days a week, leaving on October 1 and arriving in Miami on November 10. My advice—just don't do it. Some days the current and wind will be behind you and you'll make 60 miles. Other days, they will be on your nose and you'd be better off snugged into a nice, little cove. Your schedule will force you to miss towns and museums that you didn't know existed, and you will regret this later. A few days that you scheduled for the 30-mile grind will be occupied with unexpected mechanical failures, a bout of poor health, weather that would frighten Captain Ahab, or a sudden call to family duty. And that day off that you planned so carefully in advance will dawn with ideal weather to go in your chosen direction. No matter how hard you work on your plan, Nature simply won't listen.
My greatest fear for the cruising fraternity (and sorority) centers on the growing popularity of the group cruise. Here, hundreds of boats and crews leave a designated port at a scheduled time. Racers do this all the time, and about every 10 years or so they are overtaken in a large cluster by a fatal storm—witness the Fastnet and the Sydney-Hobart tragedies. In years gone by, cruisers staged themselves for major ocean passages in a large number of departure locations, leaving on individually chosen weather windows for many different destinations, all based on their own decisions, information, and comfort level. The odds that a majority of them could be involved in one single catastrophe was almost nil. With large group cruises, however, it is only a matter of time before the unspeakable happens to our community, even with impeccable planning and intentions on the part of the organizers. In fact, it's already beginning to happen on a small scale to "buddy cruisers," who look to each other for advice rather than to Nature's large picture, as Hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn have forcefully demonstrated in the Caribbean.
Eric and Susan Hiscock made three circumnavigations in boats that would be considered simplistic and under-equipped by today's standards. They claimed that in over three decades of sailing the Earth's waters that they never had a major mechanical breakdown and never saw winds over 35 knots—a truly remarkable feat of quiet seamanship accomplished solely by avoiding bad weather and maintaining a tight ship.
Cruise planning now has an entirely different meaning for us on board Sojourner. Yes, we still plan for the big stuff—the maintenance schedules are rigid, the general seasonal patterns are obeyed, and safety gear is kept completely up to date. But once the boat and gear are ready and it's time to cast off, the schedule belongs to Mother Nature.