Local knowledge


To the editor: Most everyone who spends time on boats hears about “local knowledge.” As in, “This harbor entrance (or whatever) shouldn’t be attempted without local knowledge.” But in the course of recent travel from Seattle to the Mediterranean in my 36-foot Cape George cutter, it’s been made especially clear that “local knowledge” covers a whole lot more than the placement of rocks and shoals. Think of it as the opposite of “local ignorance,” a potentially deadly but unfortunately widespread phenomena.

One way to get a good grip on the concept of local knowledge in its full breadth is to think about what you may have learned about your home marine environment. If you’ve been boating in the area for a long time, the most important thing, perhaps, is your knowledge about the weather in the context of local conditions — where there are places with strong currents that become dangerous in case of a stiff breeze against the current, or what the sky looks like when it’s going to blow 40 knots instead of 15, or what the typical weather patterns are for each particular month.

As a cruising sailor traveling long distances from home, I’m constantly finding myself in places where my “local ignorance” is appalling. If I swim on that beach, do I need to wear shoes to keep from stepping on a buried ray? If I jump off the boat, how likely am I to get a painful jellyfish sting? Which ATM is most likely to shred my card or charge me an outrageous hidden fee? Which boatyard has competent, honest people in it and which one is a rip-off, or even potentially dangerous because of shoddy work? Another surprising question that has to be asked, “Is that water in the tap on the dock drinkable?” Shockingly, we have run into a few cases — with no warning of any kind — where it was not.

Often the most obvious solution, and maybe the most comfortable especially when language presents a problem, is to talk to other cruisers. That can help with some of the questions, as long as you keep in mind that cruisers’ comments may reflect a single good or bad experience and thus have an element of the random in them.

By far the best solution is to talk to local mariners, people for whom this is home territory. If you speak the local language, you’ll often find fishermen are happy to share their experiences with a friendly — and at least a little humble — stranger. It helps that a smattering of English is becoming increasingly common in the world.

Local knowledge can make arriving in a previously unvisited port easier. 

Syd Stapleton

A good beginning is to learn the basic nautical terms in the language of the country through which you will be traveling. Start with the words for depth, starboard, port, wind, current, shoal, sailboat, motorboat, ship, rocks, traffic, danger, weather, bad weather, tomorrow, safe or safely, dock, harbor and whatever others you can pack into a short list either to memorize or keep handy.

In my case, the next step was to find some good books, particularly on local weather. I’m now at least conversant in the language of Mistrals, Tramontanes, Sciroccos, Levanters, Boras and Meltemis, while still painfully aware of the big gaps in my knowledge of the conditions that create these sometimes-dangerous winds. Of course, there are many useful resources on the Internet, including detailed weather forecasts. We’ve found Noonsite (www.noonsite.com) to be an especially valuable source of information.

But in our crossing of the Atlantic, it turned out (more often than we would have liked) that even the forecasts of “bespoke” weather routers were sometimes just plain wrong, and occasionally very wrong. There’s really no responsible substitute for being able to look at a forecast, then at the sky and your barometer, maybe to think, “Something doesn’t seem right here.” 

In a positive example, “Nene” of Nene’s Marina (and bar) on San Andres gave us a great perspective on traveling close to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua: “Don’t do it unless you absolutely have to.” We had certainly heard stories about issues with piracy along that coast but, like stories about muggings in the New York subways, one story can get a lot of coverage. Getting advice from a local helped put the matter in perspective, and may well have saved us a world of trouble. 

People in marina offices are sometimes knowledgeable, sometimes not, but asking questions is always good. Be prepared to expose your own ignorance and to show respect for locals.

—Syd Stapleton has a 200-ton (U.S.) Master’s license for power and sail, and he and his wife are currently sailing their 36-foot Cape George cutter in the Mediterranean, having just sailed from Seattle to Barcelona, Spain. Their intention is “to sail until we’re sick of it.”

By Ocean Navigator