Nice topic, nice post Chris Gee. For the most part, even very bad (chronically bad) sailors aren't killing too many people. So it's less critical than bad pilots, or even bad motor vehicle operators, which we encounter every day. Ask the bonehead who tried to pass me last week on an icy summit, on the right, as the right lane was ending (signs quite clear). Nearly killed himself, his passenger, and the kid in the car seat. Fundamental lack of judgment. Hey idjit -- there's a reason
I'm in this lane!
I sadly suspect certain people are not suitable for skippering, or even crewing, a sailboat. I am beginning to suspect my girlfriend is one of these. She's a very smart woman and not panicky, but when things go all hairy she reliably takes the wrong action. Granted this is all new to her, but there's much to be read from instincts, and I don't like what I've seen.
What it comes down to is mindfulness
. That means paying attention to what's happening around you and to what you are doing. I think people vary in their ability to focus and to process. An example: this same GF will put logs in the woodstove -- too many, and badly arrayed, then close the door and not notice they don't catch.
She goes back to reading or making lunch. I explain you can't let them smolder, we'll all die of CO poisoning. I'll show her how to rake coals, how to re-start a stove, but damn if she doesn't do it again. It's a failure to determine what's important and to give one's attention to those matters.
I guess mindfulness exists independent of training or experience, though these can help hone it. It consists of 1) paying attention to what you are doing right now, and what is happening nearby; 2) applying past experiences to the present situation; and 3) projecting present conditions into the future, anticipating what may become important a few seconds or a few hours down the road. These traits are fundamental to good drivers, among others.
For instance, I've taught dozens of people to rock climb. Some pick it up very fast; they remember how anchors are set, the proper belay signals, tie-in knots, and rappelling technique. If they do something wrong, they realize why it was bad and aren't apt to repeat the error. You'll find them anticipating events, racking gear in ascending order of size or likely first need, and pointing out dodgy-looking weather. When they belay, they pay attention and provide slack or tension without me having to shout; they seem able to keep one eye on surroundings without compromising what they are doing right now
Other students, not so good. They forget procedures, they are insensible to real risk while balking at safe practices, they let go of the brake hand while rummaging for a Power Bar, they can't keep their shoes tied. Many are very smart, excellent human beings. I gently suggest, after a few goes, that 1000 ft of vertical granite is not, perhaps, an ideal metier for people who have difficulty focusing, or who lack a certain practical turn of mind. You can't make too many bad choices up there before one kills you.
You need to create a self that's always looking over your shoulder, questioning what you are doing and chiding you for mistakes. It's a form of conscience, a sailing conscience. You can't allow it to paralyze you, or to take the fun away, but it's important to cultivate. I think some boaters, drivers, climbers, lack that little voice in their ear -- and you can tell it from a mile away. Best to give them lots of room. A beginning sailor with that voice will get better fast; a long-time sailor without it is a menace forever.