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The Mental Game of Seamanship

This article first appeared on SailNet in June of 1999.

Safety while at sea stems from more than mere action, it also involves the proper mindset.

Having spoken at or moderated more than three dozen safety-at-sea seminars around the country over the past 17 years, I have learned that each one brings its own unique sense of discovery. A new speaker brings a different background to the table, a recent accident challenges old assumptions with a new set of conditions, or the setting itself may encourage deep thinking.

All three of those were at play at a seminar a while ago held in the  model room of the New York Yacht Club. While some might think this a strange venue for a serious discussion of disaster at sea, a healthy sense of tradition can straighten one's spine and sharpen one's acuity.

The almost century-old, ornate clubhouse sits in the middle of Manhattan Island on land donated by J. Pierpont Morgan and a mile from the nearest water that doesn't flow from a tap. The famous model room, with its stained-glass skylight three stories up, envelopes the world's largest museum of yacht design, with almost 2,000 half-models and full-rigged models representing boats from the early 19th century to the huge America's Cup sloops to the Optimist and Laser dinghys. A few minutes in this room tends to focus the mind on the verities of seamanship.

The author (left) tests a life raft with fellow panelists Bill Biewenga and Cam Lewis in the New York Yacht Club's model room in Manhattan.
On the panel with me that year were two gifted sailors far more experienced than 99 percent of all sailors. Bill Biewenga has done four Whitbread around-the-world races and tens of thousands of miles in other passages. Cam Lewis has won dinghy championships and broken long-distance speed records, and recently skippered the 105-foot Team Adventure in The Race--a non-stop circumnavigating race staged in huge catamarans. Our audience was filled with people thinking deeply about what to do in wild conditions in all kinds of boats.

The recurring theme that Saturday was the mental attitude that lies behind storm management. Now, storm management should not be thought of as simply coping with the conditions at hand at any moment. It also means adjusting your thinking and your tactics in varying conditions as the blow ages over time. The overriding question, as Cam cogently put it, is this: "What do you know about the storm?"

Storms, like people, mature and age. A new, young storm in its first few hours stirs up the choppy, irregular and often breaking waves of what sailors call a confused sea. A confused sea must not confuse your mind. Your decisions must be considered and careful. The best tactic here usually is the proactive one—meaning that the boat is actively steered—of running before the blow with a capable hand at the helm, and perhaps slowing down by towing a drogue or warps. As the storm matures, the chop fades into long, sweeping rollers. If the wind isn't blowing so hard that these monsters are breaking, the usual option is to choose between the passive tactics of heaving-to or lying to a sea anchor, in each case with the helm lashed.

"An observant sailor with an alert head that is constantly juggling all the options will be a good seaman."

The problem with a passive tactic is that it can stimulate a passive state of mind. For this reason, a meticulous crew can become quite uneasy. "Psychologically, it is very tough to think about giving up control of the boat," said Lewis. But he has done it in big catamarans, staying alert to changing conditions. Whether she or he is an aggressive racer itchy to get going again or a cautious shorthanded cruiser happy to ride out the storm, an observant sailor with an alert head that is constantly juggling all the options will be a good seaman.

This is because changes are always happening on the water. Every "steady" breeze is full of shifty cells of calm and gust, and every "regular" sea contains dozens of small rogue waves (about one wave out of 20, according to oceanographers). If these instabilities come together in the right order, they may trigger a large wave that may lead to other worries. Bill described the correct mental approach this way: "You don't want a cascading set of problems. You want to stay ahead of your problems." Comes a wind shift or a rogue wave of the right dimensions and the sea quickly becomes confused again, and the crew must respond. In other words, there is no single correct storm-sailing tactic.

As veteran mariners know, there's no single correct storm-sailing tactic.

From the audience, Sheila McCurdy Brown spoke up about another intricate detail. The daughter of my first offshore racing watch captain, naval architect Jim McCurdy, she was my skipper in the windy trip by the 35-footer Wisahickon across most of the Atlantic to the Azores. Sheila warned us against a simplistic, fundamentalist belief in the law of proportions—in particular, against installing small bilge pumps in small boats. She pointed out two truths: first, water weighs the same no matter what size bilge it leaks into; and second, smaller boats generally weigh less and have less volume than bigger boats. Therefore, a given amount of water will destabilize a smaller boat faster and more drastically than it will a larger one. All this means that it's even more crucial to quickly evacuate water from a small boat than from a big one. So small boats need powerful pumps with large hoses.

That kind of purposeful, rigorous analysis lay behind an ingenious piece of advice concerning safety harnesses. Each panel member wears a safety harness all the time, because anything can happen. As Cam said, "You never see someone fall overboard when you think they're going to fall overboard." The trick is putting the harness on in a rolling, pitching boat. Bill Biewenga offered this tip: Install little Velcro tabs on the jacket to hold the harness on, even when hanging in the locker. To pull on the harness, all you have to do is pull on the jacket. That idea exemplified the day's message, which was that good seamanship demands purposeful, detailed, and flexible thinking.

The Lighter Side of Seamanship

Moments of sharp thinking often inspire anecdotes about a lesser state of mind. Somebody that afternoon told a story about an inexperienced skipper who decided that he was in trouble and called the Coast Guard.

"What is your position?" inquired the Coastie.

"I'm a senior vice-president at Goldman, Sachs," replied the fellow.

Here was a man who needed a safety seminar, but first he should have brought onto the water the clever mind that had made him so successful ashore.

Suggested Reading:

The Right Moves in the Sydney-Hobart Storm by John Rousmaniere

Safety Essentials by John Rousmaniere

Four Seamanship Lessons from Auckland by John Rousmaniere


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