Good Seamanship Begins at the Dock

Looking out at the bay and watching the sailboats often leads me to be jealous of the sailors on those boats. Then, because I am a cynical jackass, I find myself wondering if they really are sailors. That is, do they meet my imagined qualification of practicing good seamanship, or are they just an accident waiting to happen.

Defining ‘Good Seamanship’

Seamanship is generally defined as the skill and knowledge pertaining to the operation, navigation, safety, and maintenance of a ship. Going a step further and into “good seamanship” (as “discussed” vigorously among inebriated sailors after a race, rough seas, or an unfortunate incident) usually means that the sailor in question had more than just knowledge and skill about the operation, navigation, safety, and maintenance of a ship. The recipe for that elusive something extra is, I think, one part common sense, two parts forethought, and a large pinch of fear all muddled with a smattering of good luck.

Begone Pesky Romantic Notions

Much has been written about the ocean by poets and novelists. The sea (or ocean, the river, etc.) is often given a mercurial personality like a harsh mistress or vengeful god. The seas are vicious, rivers are angry, the currents tricky, and those pesky rocks people keep hitting have sirens singing to lure you to them. I like those images regardless of how nutty or mean the personification. I am a talker. A persuader. By profession, I advocate, educate, and convince (well, that is the goal), so in my non-professional life, I can usually diffuse situations with reasoning, bargaining, or a healthy slathering of bullsh@t.

The problem, however, is that the sea is not a harsh mistress or hair-triggered alcoholic deity. Worse. Far worse. The sea does not care. The ocean does not know. The river is imperturbable. The rocks simply are.

And, in moments of introspection (as this COVID quarantine has forced upon me) the lack of reason or even awareness in my opponent scares the bejesus out of me.

Good Seamanship- Step 1- Control Thyself

Since there will be no pre-death chess match, no answering a troll’s question (blue . . . no . . (movie reference anybody?)), or attempted seduction by sirens on the rocks, I need to find another means of dealing with fear. For me, that other means is an obsessive need to prepare. Preparation is my method of controlling variables, which of course depend on the sailing situation.

I grew up boating in NY. My father used me as an indentured servant for his fishing adventures (literally, he and his drunk friends fishing while I did the work. So really, he was a step ahead of the normal ’80s parenting technique of neglect– mm, maybe not) and then pressed me into service when he and his drinking buddies decided to join the Coast Guard Auxiliary. For years, I spent a few evenings a week teaching boating safety and at least one weekend day a week out on the boat with the old guys (again, in questionable states of sobriety) towing in people who needed help (who were often just careless idiots or old guys who were even drunker than the adults on our “rescue boat.”) Those experiences definitely taught me a lot about boats and contributed to my current psychological need to prepare.

Now I am primarily a day sailor on the San Francisco Bay. I sail with friends on their boats, crew for folks during races, and frequently take out day charters (both monohull and catamaran) of various sizes from Modern Sailing. So, I am rarely on the same boat twice in a row, have no responsibility for maintenance, and only a limited ability to do a thorough walkthrough before each day’s sail. These ever-changing variables also shape my preparation levels.

Knowledge is Power

I focus on two basics that I can control. First, I can control myself — both my attitude and my personal equipment. And second, I am very observant with respect to my sailing companions and the boat, which then helps me dial in my level of crazy for the situation.

The first item on my mental checklist is the conditions. When I look out my window, I see the San Francisco Bay, so it is easy to get a general sense of the current conditions. There is even a constant tideline in view that makes pretty clear the general sea state. The shoreward side of the tideline is calm in all but the worst weather. By comparing that calm area to the rest of the bay it is easy to get a sense of how rough the conditions are on the east side of the bay and through Racoon Straits (between Angel Island and Tiburon).

More important than my casual observation is my reliance on wind, tide, and weather information from the all-knowing internet. Before leaving my house to head to whatever boat I will be on, I check my PredictWind app, Tides Pro app, and Boating App. These three apps give me a reasonably reliable understanding of the wind patterns, currents, and weather for the day.

Physical Prep- More Than Hoisting Beer

I don't like the idea of Milhouse having two spaghetti meals in ...

I prepare myself physically for sailing. Sure, mostly I’ll be sitting around on a sailboat, but one slip, or too heavy a tug on a line, and I run the risk of a back issue, knee issue, or possibly simply bursting into flames, burning to ashes, and then my ashes scattered into the Bay by the strong winds. I am, after all, in my 50s.

I do my full pre-exercise stretching routine before I go sailing. Stretching only takes about 15 minutes, helps prevent injuries, and more importantly gives me some insight into whether I have a twinge, a pain, or a weakness that particular day. On a couple of races, I’ve switched my position to avoid further injuring myself and screwing up the day of sailing.

A Necessary But Unflattering Diversion (and an awful metaphor that goes on far too long)

To be clear, this visceral need to prepare did not simply arrive in my brain as a divine beam of light. Or, if it was divine intervention, it was certainly old testament.



Each lesson was an error donkey-kicked into my head hard enough so that I still hear the reverberating concussion of that particular mistake every time I consider sailing. Sort of an internal virtual drum circle of shame.

The Mistake

The tinny pitter-patter of rain on metal — an almost cheerful sound — seems to reside in the back left quadrant of my brain. I am pretty sure this particular hoof mark was the “quick trip” with my dad and his buddies that lasted several hours, crossed from late afternoon into early but inky black evening, and a heavy cold and driving rain. Nobody had rain gear, the boat had no bimini, and at 14 or so, I was the only person really capable of getting us back to the dock — if I could find it in the dark and driving rain all while being yelled at. I did — eventually.

Lessons Learned

I don’t drink much at all if I am responsible for the boat. A beer every few hours is usually my limit. I don’t drink much more than a beer every few hours even if I am not responsible for the boat on the theory that I could be if things go wrong. I am also compulsive about appropriate gear for changes in the weather.

The Mistake

More recently, the quick staccato beat of hands-on a pahu (Hawaiian drum) feel like an imaginary pull on my long since gone-missing hair, reminding me of the day (well, probably about three hours) fighting the current in an effort to NOT be pulled out the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean. We had full sails and the engine running on our small day charter, but it was a strong current day and we were underpowered. For the first two hours, our only movement was backward or toward the Marin County shore. Really, we could have just called for help and gotten a tow if it got dangerous, but it provided a lesson (and less than a perfectly fun day of sailing) on the power of the natural conditions on even a seemingly calm day.

Lessons Learned

Check all conditions and sail to take advantage of them and avoid the pitfalls. I now want to know the tide changes, impact on current, predicted wind, and overall weather every time I go out. Oh, and never rely on an unfamiliar boat to overcome more than relatively mild conditions.

The Mistake

And finally (well, final for the blog — in my head, the list goes on and not all are amusing), the death of Pac Man sound echoing from ear to ear in my skull signals my compulsive need to check charts, aids to navigation, and depth. Oh, and never give the drunk guy the wheel.

A decade or more ago on a lovely vacation to the USVI, my wife and I bareboat chartered a small powerboat with friends. As was usual, I handled the boat and got us from island to island. By the time we approached White Bay on Jost Van Dyke excited to visit Soggy Dollar, the drunk friend was alternatively begging and demanding that he be allowed to drive. He assured me he was sober enough to go slow and get us into the still uncrowded bay. I moved aside and stupidly allowed myself to be distracted.  It was vacation after all.

As it turned out, he did not know what the red and green buoys meant and thought everybody waving their hands at us were just being friendly. And right about then, with spectators waving frantically at us, I looked up just in time to see that we were heading onto the reef.  Then we heard the gut-wrenching and credit-card-depleting sound of the prop crashing against rock.

Nobody was hurt, the boat remained seaworthy for the trip home, but it was a slow trip home given the damage to the prop. If not for some possible damage to the reef (I believe we hit a rock and not any coral), the $1000 charge was almost worth the decades worth of giving the drunk guy crap about the damage. But, even as I give him crap, I feel the sting of my own lapse in good judgment. Things could have been worse and it would have been my responsibility.

Lessons Learned

For one –seriously — never give the drunk guy the wheel. Two, make sure that everybody on the boat is at least generally aware of what is going on, what the aids to navigation mean, and what dangers lurk near us. And finally, as learned in boot camp, always abide by general order #5 –quit my post only when PROPERLY relieved.


Be Prepared — Equipment

Routinely sailing on a variety of boats demands that sailors are well equipped to care for themselves. The equipment must be portable, easily accessed, and well maintained. Unlike boat owners who can store everything they need on their boat, we gypsy sailors bring it along in our sail bags.

In addition to the basics, like appropriate clothes, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, and provisions for the day, I also prepare for less than idyllic days on the water. My life jacket is equipped with an AIS Man Overboard Beacon (“MOB”).  If I am the only person on the boat who I think is competent enough to rescue a man overboard, then my portable VHF is also attached to me, just in case I happen to be the man overboard. The GPS and emergency signal from both the MOB and radio at the same time should clue in the Coast Guard that it is not a false alarm. And, if I am conscious, I can use the radio to call for help.

I am never without a sailing knife on my person while on any boat. A line jammed so that we cannot reduce sail (this has happened to me) or a stray line tangled on my foot and pulling me overboard (I’ve seen this) may need to be cut quickly. In my sail bag, I also include a basic first aid kit, a variety of seasickness remedies, water, waterproof sailing boots, foul weather gear, and a good set of binoculars with built-in compass.

Are these things overkill? Almost certainly. Do they require an over-sized sailing bag? Absolutely. Might they be necessary for an emergency? Yes. Do I hate rhetorical questions? With all my heart.

Constant Education

I thrive on learning. With every hobby I’ve ever had (and there have been a few), I do a deep dive. I take classes, read books, and practice religiously. The same is true about boating and sailing. While I enjoy a day just sailing with friends, I really love a heavy weather sailing class or learning navigation techniques, etc. I enjoy filling up my American Sailing Association sailing log with all the little stickers they give you for completing a course (probably compensating for a lack of gold stars in fourth grade).

Before the pandemic, I had a petty solid schedule of American Sailing Association classes on my calendar including coastal cruising (a three-day trip along the California coast), offshore passage making (NY to the Bahamas), and the first of the instructor-level classes so I can begin teaching basic sailing to newbies. I was also looking forward to Cruiser’s University at the Annapolis Boat Show, but that may not happen.

Due to the stay-at-home orders, some classes were canceled already.  Because the classes build on each other, even those not canceled will likely be rescheduled so that there is time for students to take the canceled prerequisites. But, fingers crossed that I can make those work when rescheduled. Luckily, I completed the class and passed the test for my U.S. Coast Guard Operator of Uninspected Vessels exam (AKA, Six Pack License).

For all of my experience and education, I do not profess to be the most knowledgeable sailor at any club. But, I definitely want to be. The desire to keep learning, the humility to realize I don’t know nearly as much as I could, and willingness to learn from others is what I hope will someday put me in the category of sailors who practice “good seamanship.”

One thought on “Good Seamanship Begins at the Dock

  1. Jim Kellogg

    Great post Scott. I will be one of those sails on the Bay this Sunday ;). First time out since last fall so things will definitely be cautious and calculated. Your post is very timely as we all begin to venture forth from our COVID Hobbit Holes and spread the sheets.

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