Retired surgeon cuts a path to Arctic voyaging

During his career as a surgeon in Boston, Dr. Ned Cabot managed to fit in time for sailing but wasn’t able to clear the space for extended voyaging. After he retired from surgical practice in 2000, he devoted time to voyaging aboard his J46 Cielita.

Having grown up cruising on the coast of Maine, Cabot started to sail farther afield during his years in graduate school, when he skippered the family’s old wooden yawl from Maine to Newfoundland and circumnavigated Newfoundland on a subsequent voyage. Years later, Cabot again circumnavigated Newfoundland in his own boat and explored parts of Labrador. After several more cruises in the Canadian Maritimes, he decided to have a new boat built for a voyage to northern Labrador and Greenland in 2003.

While Cielita was based on a standard J46, Cabot added several modifications, including 800 lbs of fiberglass reinforcement to the hull as a precaution against ice. He also elected to make the main bulkhead essentially watertight and installed a high-volume bilge pump in the forward compartment as precautions against hull rupture. Cielita was launched by TPI in Warren, R.I., in 2002.

Cabot currently serves as the chairman of the board of trustees of the Sea Education Association, based in Woods Hole, Mass. He is also a member of the Cruising Club of America.

ON: What are the most important skills voyagers can acquire before they go voyaging?

NC: There is no substitute for experience. I grew up in a sailing family. I was taught the fundamentals of sailing at a very early age, and I spent several weeks every summer cruising on the coast of Maine with my family in our Alden-designed 49-foot wooden yawl. Given command of this vessel by the age of 18, I sailed it (and subsequent editions) in Maine and Canadian waters for a number of years, before acquiring my own boat. As a kid, I learned dead reckoning from my father and from finding my way in the thick fogs of Maine and Nova Scotia before the days of radar, loran or GPS. I learned celestial navigation from a high school course; and as for electronic navigation, I was mainly self-taught.

Although much can be learned from the myriad books and articles on sailing and navigation, the real art and practice of boat handling and passagemaking can only be learned by experience. Before heading offshore (Tania Aebi excepted), the would-be passagemaker would be well advised to spend time at sea on well-found boats sailed by seasoned voyagers, in addition to time spent in command on numerous coastal cruises.

ON: Have you taken any training courses to prepare for offshore passagemaking?

NC: There are many fine sail training courses, and I would encourage any inexperienced voyager contemplating an offshore passage to consider signing up for one. The only course I’ve taken besides celestial navigation was a Safety at Sea seminar co-sponsored by the Cruising Club of America and the U.S. Coast Guard. It was excellent, and I would highly recommend a similar course to those who may not be aware of the many safety issues confronting the mariner and the many devices available today for preventing loss of life at sea.

ON: What is the most useful skill you picked up or improved on as you voyaged?

NC: I think one of the most important aspects of a successful sailing voyage is the preparation and planning that precede departure. Here again, experience makes a huge difference. The attention to detail that goes into equipping your vessel and planning your voyage is critical. It’s also great fun. I spend months beforehand dreaming about all the things I need to do. I make countless lists of items to acquire, books to read, charts to study and people to talk to.

If there is one thing I have learned to pay far more attention to as a result of passagemaking it’s the safety of those aboard. The need to educate oneself and one’s crew on the subject of personal safety and the safe handling of the boat cannot be over emphasized.

ON: What do you think are the best sources of information about voyaging for those who are considering undertaking an offshore passage?

NC: Perhaps one should start with Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World or Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth Circles the World. I read as many abandon-ship accounts as possible. Dougal Robertson’s Survive the Savage Sea and Steven Callahan’s Adrift are worthy examples of this genre. Also, I would recommend John Rousmaniere’s Fastnet, Force 10 for some tips on what not to do.

On a more practical level, the voyager should consider Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes. Certainly an atlas of pilot charts for the ocean and months in question is worth studying. There is also a vast amount of information accessible via the Internet. For example, the CCA website at has several useful and extensive papers that are worth downloading and studying, including “Offshore Communications and Electronics,” Cruising European Waters,” and “Helicopter Rescue Preparation.”

ON: What skills do you most look for in a potential crewmember?

NC: Picking crew can be a tricky business. It goes without saying that the most useful crewmember has a lot of experience. And having aboard a crewmember who is intimately familiar with your boat is a tremendous benefit.

Perhaps one of the most important and overlooked aspects of picking a crew for an extended voyage is the ability to get along with one another. The compatibility of my crew is something I give a good deal of thought to.

ON: How do you provision a boat for a voyage? Any tips?

NC: First of all, I consider “provisioning” to mean more than just food and beverages. The prudent offshore sailor has to consider fuel and water as essential provisions — and be prepared to deal with the possibility of running out of both. On my boat, diesel fuel provides electricity, cabin heat, refrigeration and fresh water as well as occasional propulsion. And not to be forgotten is propane for the stove. I have found that it is far easier to find diesel oil in far-away places than it is to get propane tanks filled.

I have the luxury of a deep freezer, so we stock up on a lot of frozen vegetables and fresh meats. We also have a large refrigerator, so we can keep a fair amount of fresh food. I can say there is no such thing as having too much peanut butter on hand! We also carry a large supply of dehydrated foods, which last forever and can be made into remarkably good meals with a little imagination.

By Ocean Navigator