Williamson Turn — The U-turn perfected
Nothing is more chilling than hearing the scream “man overboard.” So it really pays to know what to do. The Williamson Turn is the best way to get a boat back on a reciprocal course and take it back along its own wake. This is how you do it: Note the course you are currently steering. Turn off the autopilot if in use. Put the helm hard over to starboard and add about 60 degrees to the course. When the compass is on the new heading, put the helm hard over to port. When the yacht has turned through approximately 240 degrees and the compass reads the reciprocal course (i.e. course plus 180 degrees), center the wheel. The yacht will now be motoring back down the original track even if the weather makes it impossible to see the old wake. Reduce speed; the casualty should be somewhere straight ahead. The actual amount of turn on each heading varies from boat to boat and can be ascertained only by practicing beforehand. Practice makes perfect, so practice with a fender to become perfect.
Electrics Fail — Carry backups and spare batteries
Portable VHFs, handheld GPS and even the cell phone in your pocket rely on battery power. Of course, you charged everything before you left the harbor, didn’t you? The problem is, none of us is perfect and sometimes we do forget to plug things in or leave them on when they should be switched off. Flat batteries are annoying ashore but potentially dangerous at sea. Even the humblest flashlight is as useless as a chocolate sun hat if its batteries have no charge. A box containing spare batteries of the most common sizes is an essential item in your spares locker. Make sure younger members of the crew eager to power handheld electronic games have not looted it. Specialized spare batteries should be carried where possible for all electronic equipment. Keep spare chargers aboard for regularly used personal items, such as mobile phones and other handheld devices. Boats without generators should be fitted with low-voltage inverters to trickle-charge these devices when they need it. Do not forget to pack and regularly change out spare batteries in your grab bag.
Fire — Prepare for the worst
I think my worst moment at sea came just a few years ago when I was test-driving a new boat and the fire alarms went off. My first thought was that it must be a false alarm, but this was quickly dispelled by my chief engineer calmly saying, “Engine room temperatures are rising rapidly, Captain.” My own temperature immediately sank to icy cold. I was lucky: I had professional crew on board, we had practiced fire drills regularly, and the fire extinguishing system in the engine room worked perfectly. We got the fire out, and although it reignited once, no one was hurt and we got the yacht safely back to port with the help of a tugboat. Though the damage in the engine room was significant, it could have been far, far worse. I learned the true value of training, great crew and good equipment from that incident. Oh, in case you are wondering, yes, I did have the life rafts ready to go in case it all went pear-shape and we had to abandon ship. All the money in the world is not worth the life or health of one person.
Clothing — Wear the appropriate kit
The clothing that crew wear on a sailboat enables them to go on deck and change sails in stormy weather. They are not the same as those required by the skipper and his friends on a nice enclosed motorboat. But there are still times you will be outside on deck in adverse conditions when under way, and even in the tropics it can be cool at night on passage. You will probably, at least occasionally, be at anchor and need to get ashore in an open tender — not much fun without proper gear when it rains. Shoes that grip wet or dry decks and that are non-marking should be worn to protect feet from injury. Sailing in the tropics is about protection from the sun because the cool feel of the air as the yacht motors can mask the strength of that fiery globe. Skin cancer is no joke, and even high-blockage sunscreen is seldom enough at midday on deck. Special clothes are not a fashion statement but a necessity.
Training — Update your own skills
There is an old ditty by Laurence J. Peter: When in doubt or danger, run in circles, scream and shout. When disaster strikes, most people will be stunned and bewildered. Untrained people often exhibit inappropriate patterns of behavior. In general, we all respond by falling back on well-learned patterns, and this is why the navies of the world practice again and again for emergencies of all kinds. Moreover, those who are trained to expect and to cope with disaster show infinitely greater survival rates over those who are not. Training is not exclusively about surviving worst-case scenarios, but being prepared means taking and retaking firefighting and first aid courses. It never hurts to reread the Rules of the Road occasionally, practice boat handling and keep up to date with the latest equipment. Train your crew; share your skills. Shoreside courses advance your knowledge, and there are plenty of practical courses too. Mostly they are fun, educational and a great way to make new friends with the same interests.
Knots — Know your knots; don’t get tied up
A sailor depends upon the ability to tie a bowline in the dark. It was the first knot I taught our children, and I insist that every crew member demonstrate he can tie this knot. It is not difficult to learn at any age, especially when the lesson is accompanied by the pneumonic “rabbit round the tree and down the hole.” The bowline is the ultimate lifesaving knot and, when tied correctly, can always be undone, yet it never slips. Other essential knots include: the square, or reef, knot to connect two ropes of the same diameter; the figure-eight knot as a stopper to prevent a line from running through a block; and last but not least, the clove hitch for attaching a rope on a fender to a yacht’s handrail. Once you have mastered these essential four, there are just a few others that are useful, such as a round turn and two half hitches and the sheet bend, a useful and better alternative to the reef knot when two ropes are of unequal size or wet.