A discussion with Carolyn Grant

She has a quiet confidence, willing to admit she doesn't have all the answers to running boats at sea. Yet Carolyn Grant is an accomplished yacht captain, having sailed around the world on boats of all sizes. She spent several years as a sailing instructor on the Potomac River and on the Chesapeake for J-World and other schools.

She served most recently as captain of a 57-foot Swan (and reported on one of her voyages after the discovery of a derelict yacht in the Atlantic &mdash see Issue 116, Sept./Oct. 2001). She began an extended voyage with a Palmer Johnson/S&S 71-foot cutter out of San Diego before joining the Millennium Odyssey Round the World Rally as a professional crewmember, logging miles on a Waquiez 58, an Amel 50 and, among others, a Morique 65. Her varied experiences aboard numerous yachts — including a 2,400-mile slog aboard an engineless schooner and several trans-oceanic voyages on push-button-style yachts &mdash have suffused in her an appreciation for keeping things simple.

She's now in Princeton, N.J., recovering her land legs, but also sailing her J-22 out of Annapolis, Md., when she can slip away.

OV: When you're sailing offshore — aboard a sound boat with a strong crew — and darkness is falling, what standing orders do you typically have in effect for your crew to follow?

CG: The operative word is "strong" crew. I would have different orders depending on the experience level of the crew. Typically I have a cockpit rule — for inexperienced crew, no one leaves the cockpit at night. With experienced crew, if someone has to go forward, then another person must be on deck. If you leave the cockpit, then you hank on to the jack lines. Before the sun goes down, I like to put a reef in for the night. I like to do log entries every three hours or hourly if conditions are changing. I ask that battery levels be checked periodically. I also want to be woken up to do sail changes. And I want to be woken up if any crewmember has the slightest question about something on the horizon or on radar. I ask that the next watch be up 15 minutes before they are due.

OV: If you&rsquore heading off on an extended passage, say, trans-Atlantic, and you know that your weather reports will be limited, either because of a lack of coverage or a lack of high-tech communications equipment, what routine do you keep at sea for keeping an eye on the weather? What do you consider your most basic equipment for your skills and practices?

CG: My most basic equipment would be a pencil, a log book and a barometer. Tracking existing conditions on a regular basis is the only logical thing to do when the boat does not have high-tech equipment. This allows you to pick up on trends that you might not notice otherwise.

A barometer is the most important instrument for staying within a favorable system or steering away from one. A recording barometer is the best way to track the system; otherwise, consistent log entries will do. Before you leave on an Atlantic crossing it is imperative to know where the Bermuda-Azores (semi-permanent) high-pressure system is located. This will give you a good indication of what you will have for the next four to 10 days, depending on the time of year. Clouds form along the perimeter of a high-pressure system, as opposed to the clear skies and warm surface temperatures in the center of a high. Sailboats wanting to use a high-pressure system to their advantage must look for the "cloud streets" and stay within their borders. Same with the cotton-ball clouds associated with the trade winds.

Consistently logging wind direction and speed can help in figuring out where you are in a given weather system. If the barometer says you are in a low-pressure system and your wind is veering and increasing in velocity, you can plot this and figure out a favorable course. It also helps you notice trends early enough to put a reef in or shake one out. It's so much easier to do this before the sun goes down and while everyone is still awake. For instance, if you notice that the wind has increased by 2 knots in the last hour of your watch and then see that it has increased by 2 knots every hour for the past three hours, that's a significant increase and something you may not have noticed if you hadn't been recording it.

Observing cloud formations is also a reliable way to predict changing conditions. Simple observations can give you a good heads-up of what's to come in the next 24 hours. Cirrocumulus or "mackerel" skies are pretty at sunset and usually mean that you will have fair weather that evening, but they are telling you there will be weather changes in the next 24 hours or so. The wispy cirrus clouds or mares&rsquo tails mean you'll most likely have good winds and weather for the next two days.

Of course, if there is an SSB onboard, you can tune into a net that covers weather in your region. Getting online before you leave port and seeing what NOAA says, and even printing out the most recent weatherfaxes before you leave, is helpful for the first few days. Signing on with a weather tracker is a great way to see what your forecast will be. They have a reputation for being pricey, but they are incredibly accurate. And if all else fails, there are always some good rhymes that will help you out:

Mackerel skies and mares&rsquo tails

Make tall ships carry low sails.

When white clouds cover the heavenly way,

No rain will mar your plans that day.

In the morning mountains,

In the evening fountains.

OV: How would you best describe your leadership style? Which leaders &mdash either from literature or history or everyday life &mdash do you try to emulate in your role as captain?

CG: I try to have a conservative and confident leadership style. It is imperative on a boat that someone is the established leader and is in charge. I make rules known from the beginning; that way I don&rsquot appear to be making things up as I go along.

If you are going to be the leader, it is important to be knowledgeable. If you don&rsquot know what you are doing (in certain areas), surround yourself with people who do. For example, I like to have someone aboard who knows more than I do about diesel engines and generators. The explorer Ernest Shackleton stands out in my mind: he was confident, persuasive and, above all, he understood people. He kept a close eye on crew who might bring negativity to the group and worked diplomatically to change their ways. He surrounded himself with some very strong and talented people. I'm reminded of a quote of Sir Raymond Priestly who accompanied Shackleton on the Nimrod expedition: "For scientific leadership, give me [Capt. Robert Falcon] Scott, for swift and efficient travel, give me [Roald] Amundsen. But when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton."

OV: What medical training do you have? Describe a medical situation — either an emergency or a medical concern — that you have experienced. As a professional yacht captain, what&rsquos; your worst medical fear?

CG: I am trained in advanced first aid and CPR. My biggest medical fear is a loss of consciousness of a crewmember. I am a medical safety fanatic. I spend a lot of time outfitting offshore first-aid kits (large duffle bag in a dry locker). If you talk to your doctor and explain that you are going offshore with crewmembers, they will prescribe drugs for just about every ailment you can think of. More than likely, the only things that typically need to be replenished from a first-aid kit once you are on land are the Scopolomine patches and band-aids.

The worst medical situation I was in was when all my crew (save one) was disabled with seasickness. One crewmember in particular, whom I purposely brought because she was a nurse as well as an able-bodied sailor, was so sick that she didn't leave her bunk for three days. She became dehydrated and very weak and slept 18 hours a day. If the trip had been any longer, I would have had a real problem on my hands.

OV: When experiencing heavy-weather conditions, when do you decide to stop your forward progress to your destination?

CG: With the high-tech weather forecasting and availability of weather forecasts onboard these days, you almost always know what is coming and at least have time to prepare for it by dousing sail or changing course to steer around it. But, in the unlikely occasion that you get hit much harder than you thought you were going to, you should consider heading in the direction of better conditions, whether it is toward your destination or not. Sailboat captains (especially delivery captains) are tied to schedules, profits and labor costs that regular voyagers are not. They sometimes press on against their better judgement because they have to meet their deadlines. If you are on a good, solid boat that you think can handle heavy-weather conditions, have the sail inventory to sail safely and experienced crew, then it pays to press on.

If you are experiencing increasing wind conditions and increasing sea state and things start to break, i.e., torn sails, deck hardware, autopilot, then it is very prudent to consider, sooner rather than later, a change in plan. Also, an important factor to consider is whether your crew can handle the conditions, especially if it is a long passage. Experienced offshore sailors may consider most heavy-weather conditions manageable, but especially on big boats, you need to have able crew. Even a simple reef in a mainsail or a headsail change can require double the amount of energy and strength in 40 to 50 knots of wind than in normal conditions. If you don&rsquot have the depth in crew to have a really good person forward and a really good person at the helm, then go to Plan B earlier rather than later. Barking out orders into a 35-knot breeze (or greater) is ineffective. Crewmembers need to know what to do without being told, so that when they do go forward, they don&rsquot need instruction. Also, before it gets too bad, think about whether you feel comfortable getting off watch and going to sleep, knowing your crew can handle it without you. If not, change your plan, because you need sleep too.

The only time I have experienced overwhelming conditions, where I had to stop and heave to, was not so much because of overwhelming weather, but because of an exhausted crew, myself included. Only one crewmember was able to take the helm, the rest were too seasick to get out of their bunks. We had 55-knot winds on the beam and a horrible sea state. We were too tired to continue trading off the helm every hour. We stopped and got some sleep &mdash best decision I ever made.

By Ocean Navigator