The foundations of good seamanship


In the 18th and 19th centuries, sailors who lived long, unscathed lives were thought to be blessed with luck. With good historical accuracy, Patrick O’Brian in his Aubrey/Maturin series of books has his characters follow his hero — the lucky Jack Aubrey — from ship to ship, partly because Jack seems to be imbued with this quality. Sailors today are not so superstitious; they know that good seamanship is often the source of much good luck.

Some might say we’ve transferred our superstition onto various pieces of equipment. With AIS, weather routing, chart plotters, SSB radio skeds, satellite communications, EPIRBs, watermakers, and generators to keep it all running, we can all be lucky. Right?

All this gear is nice to have, and it certainly can make voyaging safer. Approaching the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal in the graveyard watch would have been much more manageable if my husband Seth and I had AIS at the time. Three years later, the two of us made a pleasantly storm-free passage from Reunion Island to South Africa because we were receiving good weather forecasts over our HF SSB. Three years after that, we were able to dodge (at once) four truly terrifying thunderstorms off the New Jersey coast because our radar/chartplotter gave us such accurate information. But simply having this equipment doesn’t make you lucky.

There is, of course, real luck: the rogue wave — several times larger than any of the surrounding waves — that pitch-poled Tzu Hang off Cape Horn in 1957 was simply bad luck for pioneering voyagers Miles and Beryl Smeeton. But there’s another kind of luck, the kind that allowed the Smeetons and John Guzzwell (who was aboard for the voyage) to make their way successfully to port in Chile afterwards. That kind of luck is called seamanship.

Seamanship encompasses a variety of qualities and practices that together make a safe, well-run ship. The most basic foundations for it are a strong work ethic, good judgment, and the certainty that there’s always more to learn.

Work ethic: Voyaging is a lot of work, from maintaining your vessel in seaworthy shape to keeping your crew fed and rested offshore. Laziness in any form — ignoring that leaking chain plate or putting off that sail change — can quickly escalate into bigger problems that are harder to solve. On the other hand, keeping up your work ethic, even when it seems hardest, can turn a disaster into success. Tzu Hang not only lost her masts and rudder, but also was close to sinking. Beryl, despite a crushed vertebra resulting from the pitch-pole, was first to start baling and save the yacht. John Guzzwell meticulously scarfed several pieces of scrap wood together to make a jury mast and steering oar strong enough to sail the 46-foot ketch another 1,500 miles to Coronel, Chile. Guzzwell and the Smeetons showed a remarkable degree of resilience and hard work, and their story illustrates the importance of those attributes. Miles Smeeton’s book recounting all this, Once is Enough, is a veritable study in seamanship. Right from the beginning of her Southern Ocean voyage Tzu Hang is an orderly, seaman-like yacht.

Good judgment: This is a more complicated skill, and a harder one to define. Judgment is the making of clear, correct decisions, even under stressful circumstances. It’s the ability to evaluate risk coolly without regard to ego. But to do so requires practice and experience to draw upon. Unfortunately there’s a catch-22 in this: if judgment is needed for safety at sea, but judgment is gained by experience at sea, how do you gain that experience safely? One option is to go offshore first with a veteran sailor. With the best of them you’ll learn a lot. But bear in mind that just because someone has many miles under his keel, it doesn’t necessarily give him good judgment. As one of my alpine reference books, The Mountaineering Handbook, puts it, “In the absence of catastrophic evidence to the contrary, experience takes on the appearance of wisdom, even when it only means making the same mistakes over and over.”

Further, there’s a world of psychological difference between crewing for someone and being master of a boat yourself. Whatever you may have learned as crew, you’ll have 10 times more to learn the moment you take command. So the tough fact is that the practice and experience necessary to develop really good judgment can only be obtained by trying it yourself and learning from your mistakes. That’s when you hope you have luck on your side! Neither Seth nor I had very honed judgment when we began our circumnavigation as cocky college kids (Seth was 24 and I was 20), although we did have some basic common sense. We didn’t let our bravado get in the way, for example, when it was clear we ought to use the Intracoastal Waterway to avoid a storm raging off Cape Hatteras. Despite our cocky facades, we both knew we had everything to learn, and we were trying, eagerly, to learn some of it. By the time we reached the Bahamas, we knew that ill-suited crewmembers not only make an unhappy ship but potentially an unsafe one. By the time we left Panama, we could fix almost anything on our boat and were even fairly adept at preemptive maintenance. By the South Pacific we were vastly more humble than when we’d started and we had an even better idea of how much more there still was to learn.

The wise know how little they know: For, besides practice and experience, good judgment comes about from a humble outlook on the world. Arrogance, like laziness, can lead to disaster. The certainty that you’re always right — that you know all there is to know — leads to a complacency even worse than laziness. You’ve crossed the Gulf Stream hundreds of times and never bothered to carry a drogue on board, why should this time be any different? Scopolamine has worked for every seasick crewmember before, why should you pay attention to this woman saying she’s hypersensitive to it?

This kind of thinking makes a sailor blind to problems until they are catastrophes. Then you have to manage a crisis, something your complacency has not fitted you to do. Far better to be questioning and learning always, no matter how many miles you’ve sailed, how many meridians you’ve crossed, or how many races you’ve won. Staying careful and vigilant at all times, especially about your own actions, is just as essential to good seamanship as hard work.

On top of these three fundamental qualities — hard work, judgment and humility — seamanship also means constant practice of on-the-water skills. Can you navigate on your own, or is your spatial orientation gone the moment your chartplotter turns north-up instead of head-up? Can you handle your yacht under sail in close quarters, or do you rely solely on the engine? Do you know how much room to give to other boats when you anchor? Have you ever practiced a man overboard drill? All these skills, and many more, are important to practice, and to practice correctly. To quote The Mountaineering Handbook again, “In most cases, just about any technique will let you muddle through [but] you’ll sacrifice your safety margin”.

Lastly, good seamanship entails making sure your crew are just as adept at all of this as you are. It’s bad practice for only one person to know the boat intimately; everyone must be able to perform the man overboard drills, navigate, maneuver the yacht, anchor properly, bleed the engine, service a stuck winch, and make a splint for a broken arm, for example, among the myriad other skills needed aboard a voyaging vessel. The crew must also know the emergency procedures and when it would be appropriate to implement them. You don’t want your crew thinking a mayday is necessary when a pan-pan would do, or even when your own resourcefulness could fix the problem. Good communication, and the good understanding that comes with it, is crucial for a well-run, orderly and safe vessel no matter where your voyage takes you.

While people like Miles and Beryl Smeeton were quite exceptional, there is no reason why all voyagers cannot try to emulate their resourcefulness, resilience, humility, and competence on our own boats. The Smeetons’ conviction that a “ship that is out only for adventure and sport has no right to expect help” (from Once is Enough) may not be shared by many people, but we would all do well to improve our chances of helping ourselves, not by simply loading our boats with gear, but by employing the less tangible elements of good seamanship whenever we set off over the horizon.

Tzu Hang’s story: Miles Smeeton, Once is Enough. International Marine/McGraw Hill: Camden, Maine, 2003. And Miles Clark, High Endeavours. Greystone Books: Vancouver, 1991, pages 291-310.

Quotations from The Mountaineering Handbook: Craig Connally, The Mountaineering Handbook. Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw Hill: Camden, Maine, 2005, page 3.

Quotation from Once is Enough: Miles Smeeton, Once is Enough. International Marine/McGraw Hill: Camden, Maine, 2003, page 193.

By Ocean Navigator