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Old 04-04-2004
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John Rousmaniere is on a distinguished road
The Human Factor


Proper seamanship ultimately comes down to sailors and their abilities—not just their tools.
While we hear and think much about equipment—which in a way is a good thing because there’s plenty of magnificent gear available—let’s remember that fancy navigation instruments and complicated electronic systems are there not for themselves but to serve human needs. Seamanship is a human activity. The word’s middle syllable is "man," as in people.

In a book review here a while ago, ("The Water in Between"), I mentioned that a friend who is cruising across the Pacific reports that the talk around the anchorages is all about equipment systems—e-mail, watermakers, gensets, air conditioning, and so on—and not about people and places. My friend (who, I should say, sent the report by e-mail) added an editorial opinion: "Not necessarily great developments." I share his concern. The issue is not whether the new technology is a fine thing, which of course it is, but whether we’re getting obsessed about it to the detriment of other, higher priorities. The focus on sophisticated gear may be distracting sailors from the necessary, sustained, serious reflection on the human issues.

Like many multisyllabic words, "seamanship" might appear to have been invented—by an anthropologist, perhaps—in order to intimidate us. But seamanship actually is pretty simple. It can be broken down into six fundamental problems that engage three essential components. Here are the six fundamentals:

  1. Don't drown.
  2. Don't sink.
  3. Don't run into anybody.
  4. Don't get lost.
  5. Don't be ineffective.
  6. Don’t be unhappy.


Effective seamanship come from content, well-rested and well-organized sailors.
If you think this list is simplistic, I can tell you about Chay Blyth. That great offshore adventurer and I were once together on the panel at a safety-at-sea seminar in England. When someone asked him to identify the most important art of seamanship, he declared: "Be aware of the environment," and that was that.

If seamanship addresses six problems, it (like almost every activity) also has the three components—equipment, skills, and the human factor. Each of the six fundamental problems involves one of these components to some degree. But some fall mainly into one area or another.

"Don't drown" and "Don't sink" (No.s 1 and 2) are equipment-focused. Sailors should wear good safety harnesses and life jackets. The boat’s hull, deck, and hatches must not leak, and if they do, the bilges must be clean so the necessary pumps—manual and electric—won’t clog.

Then we have "Don't run into anybody" and "Don't get lost." These are skill-focused. The rules of the road must be strictly observed, and a sharp lookout must be kept for potentially dangerous situations. Navigation must be cautious and redundant (which means using both GPS and dead reckoning).


Tired sailors are prone to bad judgement, which can result in poor seamanship.
Finally we have problems 5 and 6—"Don't be ineffective" and "Don’t be unhappy." Here’s where the human factor takes precedence over gear and raw skills. Effective, content, well-organized, and well-rested people make fewer mistakes than sloppy, unhappy, disorganized, and exhausted people. This is the realm of teamwork, morale, self-discipline, and strong but sensitive leadership.

Here, too, we have mental alertness and good health. The other day I was on the foredeck of a racing boat at the end of a long day, and I found myself becoming obsessed by a small and not too vital task that distracted me and the rest of the crew from the main job at hand, which was try to sail around a competitor to leeward. He beat us, and only when I got ashore did I realize what I should have known out there, which was how tired I was and how I had allowed my obsession to become a hurdle. Tired brains aren’t too talented at setting priorities and at "being aware of the environment."

"Of the three components of seamanship, the human factor is often the most difficult and crucial."
Of the three components of seamanship, the human factor is often the most difficult and crucial. Here are two statistical proofs of my point. First, the Coast Guard tells us that 80 percent of all boating accidents are caused by human failure, not equipment failure. Second, most authorities on seamanship give high precedence to people problems. For example, while Steve and Linda Dashew’s excellent book on heavy weather, Surviving the Storm, covers technical issues thoroughly, the two longest entries in the book’s index are "Emotional state of crew" and "Physical state of crew," with a total of 81 entries.

People who have had scares on the water don’t need a statistic to tell them about the importance of the human factor. Still, the temptation to treat gear as our salvation is hard to resist. At a boat show, safety seminar, or other gathering of sailors, someone inevitably sidles up to the guest speaker and asks, "What about the new Ultra-XYZ computerized navigation system I've read about? Is it really worth the extra bucks?" The anxiety in the questioner's voice reveals a lack of confidence in herself and her sailing ability.


The author recommends getting some firsthand experience on a small boat—like the Laser here—to make yourself a better seaman.
Here’s my answer: "Take your money and use it to become a better sailor. Go sailing, preferably in a small boat, where your mistakes are obvious. Take the dough and buy a used Laser. And go sailing. It will hone your skills, and it will make you a more self-confident, careful sailor."

These three components—gear, skills, and the human factor—can come together in any boat, but the last always seems to be the one that makes the difference in tough times. Think of New Zealand America’s Cup defender last winter. While Black Magic’s purpose was more narrowly defined than that of a boat going to sea, the basics were the same: the boat and her gear must meet the purpose at hand, the crew must have skills to meet that purpose, and the people must work well together. Black Magic was superb in the first two components, as we know. But what brought everything together for the Kiwis was the human component. If you watched the races as closely as I did, you saw teamwork at its most effective. Three sailors were always talking, exchanging information. Only one person was silent most of the time: the helmsman, who was back there quietly translating that information into bettering performance. Black Magic was a team effort through and through. In fact every crew member—even the guy in the pit—was asked to help design her. There was a seamlessness to this boat and crew.

Occasionally I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of such a team: racing Thistles with Sally Lindsay and Tom Dykstra, winning the Congressional Cup with Dick Deaver, making a 2,000-mile passage from Connecticut to the Azores in a 35-footer with Sheila and Ian McCurdy and Harvey Loomis. May you be so lucky.

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