One foot on the ground
I have sailed since I was a child. One of my early memories is racing in the UK national GP14 championship in Poole Harbour, crewing for my father. As the starting gun shot, about 50 boats headed in one direction and my father and I sailed in another. "Dad, everyone is going that way why are we going this way?" "Son, look over on the horizon and see the white tips of the waves. We’re going to pick that wind up ahead of the pack”. We did and we were first past the buoy, leading the nationals. It was a moment that had a strong influence on my life. You don’t need to follow the pack. Look a little further ahead and scan the horizon for opportunities.
Sometimes the wind is just too far ahead to catch. Judging the environment around you and the resources you have to harness it is key. Move too soon or too fast and you’ll run out of steam. Wait too long and you miss the boat. In our fast moving world, timing is everything and understanding the speed of change is key.
Seamanship tests you constantly both mentally and physically. There are so many things to consider. The wind, the tide, the leeway, your provisions (food & drink) your resources (fuel, power, water), the experience and capabilities of your crew, the trim of the sail, the charts (maps), the variance and deviation of your compasses, sheets (ropes) and knots, sun and shade, the engine and prop, the keel and rudder, reefs and rocks, fenders and buoys, fishing nets, anchorage points and moorings, VHF, GPS, rights of way, winches and anchors, harnesses and life jackets, tacking and jibbing.
There is something to learn from every move. Every mile you sail and every time you moor there is something unique in the mix of the things above. Sometimes you can just go with the flow, but even then you need to stay alert.
The captain is first and foremost responsible for the safety (lives) of his crew. Someone could fall overboard in an instant. In just 20 knots and a small swell, a rescue is a very challenging feat, in cold water every second counts. It’s a big responsibility. The captain also has responsibility for the enjoyment of the trip and making sure that the crew doesn’t push themselves beyond their limits, at least not too often. He needs his crew to be horizon scanning and constantly thinking about every move, reflecting on what has happened before. He needs to make sure everyone is in the right part of the boat at the right moment and that communication is clear even when the noise of the wind and waves drowns a shout across 40 ft of boat. He needs to make sure the crew don’t burn or dehydrate. At times, he needs to make bold decisions fast. Tack too soon and you’ll hit the rocks, too late and it’s the reef, don’t kill the engine the instant a rope disappears under the boat and the boat may be disabled. Don’t compensate enough for the leeway in poor visibility and you’ll miss the island you were heading for.
The captain must account for and be respectful for the egos of others and their reading of the situation, they may have a better view. But he’s responsible for the lives of the crew and by stepping aboard the boat, the crew are placing themselves under his leadership and must accept his decisions after they have given their view. That’s a big deal for the crew too. Working together under what is ultimately a dictatorship once the boat sails in our world of collaboration, empowerment and democracy is a mental challenge. Trust is essential. Lose trust on board and the only thing to do is to head for the harbour.
Captaincy (leadership) requires a blend of acute sensitivity of everything going on, the experience and judgement to make the right call at the right moment, and the appropriate communication and authority to make sure all onboard follow the command. It’s also a humbling experience.
During our sail to Barbuda and back around Antigua, Bill, Miranda and I lived in a space smaller than most Surrey kitchens, for over 150 hours with just 7 hours on land. Most nights we hardly slept for fear of slipping our anchor in the wind. We suffered sea sickness, at times it was a little scary, we had to boil our water, our vulnerabilities were exposed, we were isolated from the outside world, we tested each other physically and mentally, we exhausted ourselves.
But we avoided mutiny, we laughed lots (really important), we BBQ’d lobster under the stars, we saw some of the most beautiful wildlife, we swam with turtles, we moored off five star resorts and we sang along to old favourites. We had a truly unique adventure that no tailored holiday package can offer or could accept responsibility for.
Take The First Step
Bare boat sailing is incredible in so many ways and in so many dimensions. If you like the idea and haven’t done it before, I can only hope to inspire you to take the first step. Book a flotilla holiday in the Mediterranean, do a short course before setting out and then be prepared to scan the horizon, learn from every move and step up to the challenge of being part of a crew or taking the captaincy.