Tom and Nancy Zydler interview: Skills most needed for offshore sailing

Nancy and Tom Zydler have been sailing together since 1974, both on their own boat and on large yachts as captain and crew. Tom graduated from a Merchant Marine college in Poland, and he holds a Coast Guard 500-ton master all-oceans license, while Nancy has a 100-ton Coast Guard masters license. Before coming to live in the United States, Tom worked on Polish and German commercial ships as second mate. As a skipper, he raced offshore and cruised to Greenland, Iceland and beyond, including a trip around Cape Horn in a 45-foot wooden yawl.

Together Tom and Nancy have crossed the Atlantic five times, cruised the waters of Ireland and Scotland, going as far north as the Faeroe Islands. On the west side of the Atlantic, they sailed up to Labrador, south to Brazil and explored the western Caribbean in several voyages. Their careers alternated between sailing their own yawl and other people’s boats when finances demanded. After producing cruising guides to Panama and Georgia and exploring the Canadian Maritimes in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, they recently went back to work on an 89-foot aluminum S&S-designed ketch involved in charter — summers in Maine, winters in the Caribbean.

OV: What do you think are the paramount skills required by the voyager? What are the top five areas of knowledge?

T&NZ: First of all, prospective ocean voyagers should acquire offshore experience under experienced hands — nothing but nothing will hone one’s seagoing skills better then an extended ocean passage in a variety of conditions. Sailing under tutelage will introduce neophytes to this strange water world out of sight of land without causing them to develop a fear of the unknown.

Important skills: A. Watch-keeping. Maintaining a lookout for ships, changes of weather, plotting fixes on charts, maintaining a logbook. Sooner or later, a watch-keeper will have to stay alert beyond normal watch hours when bad conditions demand hand steering, so ocean voyagers should train themselves to get enough sleep in good conditions to be rested when some urgent task develops.

B. Practice personal safety. Use a harness, but also drill for man-overboard situations both under sail and power. Managing seasickness falls under this heading, so start a voyage on Dramamine or a similar drug in order to avoid getting sick and disoriented at the start of a voyage.

C. Learn how to reef efficiently and quickly. Study how much sail your boat needs and when. The graphs supplied by a boatbuilder do not take into account the state of the seas.

D. Know how to tie knots other than the basic bowline. We have found this skill wanting in many sailors. Learn how to cleat a line properly — otherwise, a loaded rope will jam and may cause accidents. After hiring crew, even with voyaging experience, we have found more people know how to tie a bowline than properly cleat a line. Learn a stop knot so as to attach a relief line onto a loaded rope jammed on a winch, windlass or cleat. Learn to connect a messenger line to the end of halyard that needs replacement.

E. Learn how to rig a spinnaker pole or poles safely for downwind sailing. Learn how to prevent the main boom from smashing across when steering downwind in large seas.

F. Develop a system of going aloft at sea before a need for it occurs.

OV: In this age of GPS and electronic charts, how important are navigation skills? What should voyagers know about navigation?

T&NZ: Despite GPS and chart plotters, the traditional navigational skills remain vital for safe voyaging. Today a navigator armed with several backup GPS units, some powered by something other than the ship’s battery, will survive without practicing celestial navigation. Still, a course in celestial navigation is the best way to learn the important skills of plotting positions, transferring position lines, and finding courses and distances on Mercator charts. Even with GPS, a navigator must plot the fixes regularly. A navigator must understand the variation and deviation errors of magnetic compasses and know how to work out magnetic and true courses.

OV: As full-time voyagers, do you find yourselves regularly acquiring new skills? Or do you find that you learn little that is new after a certain point?

T&NZ: We constantly learn new skills while sailing from one ocean to another. Different latitudes throw different sets of conditions at voyaging sailors, and they must adapt promptly or suffer. Reading weather patterns and responding to sea patterns complicated by ocean currents will differ from area to area. Dealing with the reduced visibility off Maine or Nova Scotia differs from coping with the dense haze caused by Sahara sands blowing in the trade winds through the Cape Verde Islands — an ocean sailor must learn to respond to these different types of variables.

OV: Based on your voyaging experience, do you think the skills of other voyagers (i.e., anchoring, navigation, boat handling) you’ve met recently are better or worse than those of voyagers in the past?

T&NZ: We have noticed a general improvement in boat-handling and anchoring techniques among committed ocean sailors — definitely a result of the boating press faithfully publishing expert features on seamanship.

OV: Do you find that modern voyaging boats are more complex than most voyagers realize when they start out, or are most voyagers in tune with their gear and equipment?

T&NZ: The size and complexity of the modern voyaging boats have increased, and obviously most new sailors have little idea of the complications involved in keeping everything functioning. Much of the equipment that’s supposed to make for safer sailing by keeping sailors off the deck can fail at any time, and we rarely see any simple backups for such events. Sails made from super-light modern materials should not have any place on voyaging yachts — they do not last. Masts built for saving weight remain very dependent on every piece of a web of rigging, while all the furling gear hung on them just adds undesirable weight in all the wrong places.

Other equipment aimed at making the boat feel like a home float also needs constant upkeep, and vast numbers of voyagers rush from one service port to another instead of enjoying sailing and developing some sense of discovering new places. For example, one of the most built-up places in the Caribbean, St. Maarten, with its polluted Simpson Lagoon, is filled with hundreds of yachts, from 40-footers to mega-yachts, because of the available repair facilities. Those voyagers in simpler boats often sail farther afield and find uncrowded seas and anchorages.

OV: Have you taken any training courses or seminars to improve your skills? Do you plan to take any?

T&NZ: As it happens, we often take classes required to keep our professional mariner licenses in tune with the requirements of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, of which the United States is a signatory nation. The subjects covered range from firefighting and first aid to radar operation and ship bridge management. All are useful skills to know when voyaging.

By Ocean Navigator