Living and working professionally aboard yachts over many years, one develops a seaman’s eye. Here, professional yacht captain Michael Howorth proves that the truly professional mariner is likely to have acquired a good dose of salty know-how to go with the brine in his blood.
It was Jimmy Buffett who sang of the son of a son of a sailor, and when he did so he could have been singing about me. When I was 13, my father, a salty old seafarer himself, packed me off to a school that taught the trade to budding merchant marine officers. I went to sea in the ’60s. Although this was well after the days of rounding the Horn under sail, I nevertheless learned my trade the hard way — at the hands of mariners through whose veins ran pure blue ocean brine. They taught me a great deal about maritime folklore and about the sea, that frequently cruel mistress we seafarers serve every time we leave the dock.
That is not to say I dismiss modern technology and would rather dump my GPS in exchange for my trusty sextant. Far from it. I fully embrace every conceivable device that makes sure yachting is as much fun now as it ever was. I have, however, in the many years I have served my mistress, learned she can have a twisted sense of humor, and my GPS can fail at precisely the same moment that someone opens the wheelhouse door and a big green one ships in and floods my chart table, rendering my paper chart unreadable pulp.
In short, I have learned to expect the unexpected and be prepared for the worst. I experienced the horror of all horrors when my yacht caught fire miles offshore, and I have lived to tell the tale. Being prepared does not have to be a pain in youknow- where. It’s all a matter of good common sense or — as we call it in yachting — seamanship. Here I have listed a few tips I’ve collected over the years.
Pre-Sea Check — Doors to check manually and cross-check
If you have ever flown in an airplane or piloted your own, you know that before you leave the ground there are mandatory checks to be carried out. While pilots never jump into a plane and just take off, there is a tendency for boaters to assume all is well and nothing has happened since they last used their yacht. Yet seacocks can weep, filling bilges; battery terminals corrode; and propane from the galley stove can fill a void. Left unchecked, these faults can prove fatal or, at best, uncomfortable. Having a printed form in hand may seem excessive, but if that’s what it takes to make sure you inspect the essential equipment prior to departure, including engine oil, fuel, fresh water, cooling water, bilges, radar, GPS and other navigational equipment, then make yourself one. Remember checklists for a long passage will be different from those for short trips. One last thing: Make sure you include a note to check that all hatches and other openings are closed before leaving port: one rogue wave + wet bed = a miserable night of recriminations. Trust me, I know!
Paper Chart Backup — When it hits the fan
All the fancy electronic chart plotters in the world have the same single basic flaw: They have an annoying habit of breaking down just when you need them most. It is never wise to rely solely on anything electronic, and the prudent mariner always has a plan B. Make sure you have at least a large-scale, up-to-date chart of the area you are cruising in and have it out where you can see it. Twenty years or so ago we fitted a chart plotter on our yacht for the first time and have never been to sea since without one. But we have never left the paper charts behind either and still make a point of noting the intended course in pencil before each leg of a voyage. Online almanacs and tide tables are as alluring as chart plotters, not least because they always contain up-to-date information, but computers, and indeed satellite broadband, are also likely to fail when you need them most. There really is no substitute for paper, unless of course you have two of everything, independently wired and independently supplied with information from alternative sources. Do not neglect your paper backup charts or forget to update them regularly; your life may depend upon it.
Knives — Let’s cut to the point
Every seaman should carry a clasp knife. Blunt blades are almost as useless as no knife at all; in fact, they are more dangerous than no knife, because in an emergency when you need it most, it won’t cut the mustard, or the line. Remember also that blunt blades cause more accidents that end up in the emergency room than do the sharpest of knives. When choosing a knife, those fitted with marlinespikes are most useful. Stainless steel looks good and rusts less, but seldom holds its edge as well as tempered steel. Clasp knives must be fitted with a safety locking feature to ensure the blade does not close when in use. Sheath knives are very useful attached at various points on the yacht, rather than on your person. I always attach one close by the deck-stored life raft, to cut it free in an emergency. Add the task of sharpening all knives to your regular maintenance list.
Safety Briefing — And notify those ashore before you go
When was the last time you gave a safety briefing to your own crew? Do they know where the life jackets are? Can they don one quickly in an emergency? Can they make a Mayday call on the VHF? Have they been shown where all the fire extinguishers are situated? Do they all know how to inflate the life raft? Do they know not to get into it until you, the captain, tell them to do so? These are all vital parts of your pre-departure captain’s briefing, which should be given no matter how many times the same crew have sailed with you. They may laugh at you for being a professional fusspot, but they will thank you in an emergency when they all know what to do. Before you leave the dock, make sure that at least one person staying ashore knows your plans, including your ETA at the destination and what to do if you fail to make contact on arrival.