What’s the first, absolutely most important item of safety equipment on a boat? The one thing that will save your bacon and turn potentially dangerous conditions into “Well, that was kinda rough – what’s for dinner?” moments?
You won’t find it in the West Marine catalog, nor anywhere online, and it is clearly lacking far more often than it should be in all kinds of vessels, both pleasure and professional.
It’s a well-trained, conservative crew.
And the second most vital thing? A solid, well-found boat.
No one can be absolutely prepared for everything 100% of the time, and nobody, I suspect, can afford to purchase and maintain every single “You’ve gotta have this piece of gear or you are gonna die!” item on the market. In fact, purchasing technology to handle a specific potential emergency is, I believe, setting yourself up for a fall. Vessels that we think of as relatively primitive were successfully rounding Cape Horn long before the EPIRB, emergency raft and satellite communications were around, and while there were definitely losses of life and shipping, there were also many, many successful voyages through the most violent, unforgiving waters in the world. Ask the oldtimers how it was that most ships made it, but only a few didn’t, and you quickly discover a pattern. First, the vessels were well found (ie: They were sound and well fitted out with strong, reliable gear) and second; they had well-trained, experienced crews and commanders who knew how to get the most out of their vessel, and how to manage her to avoid damage.
So how does the crew of Sionna stack up against those Cape Horners of old? Well… ah… see… We’ve got some catching up to do, actually.
Keith (your author) has been sailing along the coast of Maine for seven years now. (That is, if you don’t count prior lives – I have a feeling I may have been one of those Cape Horn guys in a prior incarnation, but I can’t prove it.) I’ve sailed whenever I could on my own or other’s boats, done some racing (on other people’s boats – a great way to learn sail trim, by the way!) and have read every single piece of boat and nautical literature – both fiction and non- that I could lay my hands on. I also have many years of command training and experience, risk assessment and management skills, and mechanical troubleshooting and repair, all due to my prior careers as a professional pilot and aircraft mechanic. Does that make me an “experienced sailor”? Nope – but I think it does make me eminently trainable, particularly on the job.
There’s an old saying in aviation that applies perfectly to boats:
“The successful pilot learns from every resource available, and then applies what she has learned so as to avoid having to use her superior skills.”
Nicki (second in command) has less sailing time than I, having come to it as a result of falling in love with a guy who owned a boat and loved to share his addiction. She’s a quick study, and has a better sense of the vessel and its needs than she sometimes realizes. As is often the case in cruising couples, Nicki is often the crewmember who’s less comfortable pushing the comfort zone and stretching into an experience we’ve not had before – and this raises a really, really important point.
If you’re sailing as a crew, you have to agree to ACT like a crew, and that means that the most conservative voice has veto power.
I’m not talking about arbitrary, heels dug in, angry-tantrum-just-because-I-can-power, but reasoned, “here’s what I’m concerned about” power. If I think the weather is going to clear in an hour, and she thinks it might not, we’re going to wait that extra hour and see, unless there’s a damn good reason that we MUST push forward now. And when Nicki says we should reef the sails, we reef. Period. But then, I also live by the maxim “Reef Early and Often”.
We take a pretty conservative approach to life aboard Sionna, hoping to keep our learning curve ahead of our experience curve, so you’ll note that our ambitious plans for the next year or two involve the ICW, Florida Keys and Bahamas, and not an ocean passage to the Azores and Europe. Would I like to do those trips someday? Yes – if we reach the point where that seems like a reasonable challenge. But we’re not there yet – we may never get there. That’s ok – there’s a whole lot of sailing between here and the Bahamas!