The Definition of Seamanship

JHH5II-14022

Over the years many people have written to us for advice on how they should equip their boats. On looking back at those exchanges, it’s amazing how often the reply to our recommendations has been something like this:

Thanks for your suggestion, but that would really be way too much trouble, work, or expense.

Replies like this seem to be particularly prevalent when I suggest things like:

I could go on but you get the idea.

And that’s pretty understandable. After all, I know there have been several times over the years where I have taken the easy way out…and then suffered the consequences for my laziness.

All of this has got me thinking about a definition of seamanship. Here’s what I came up with:

Seamanship is when you do what you know, deep down in your heart of hearts, you should do, even though it’s a pain in the neck, a huge amount of work, and/or is going to cost way more than you want to spend.

 

This seems to work well and covers things that are not gear related, like reefing when we’re tired and seasick, and re-anchoring, after a long day, when we didn’t get it right the first time.

I’m thinking about such things because we’re in the process of putting together our boat work list for this winter and next spring. As usual, there are several items on the list that we dread doing and/or don’t want to pay for. But seamanship must win out.

By the way, contrary to what you may hear at yacht club bars, seamanship has nothing to do with gleaming varnish, or polished stainless steel, although cleaning the bilge definitely qualifies as seamanship—prevents clogged bilge pumps.

{ 28 comments… add one }

  • John Rushworth September 7, 2013, 9:37 am

    A good definition indeed. However can you add a caveat? What about choices when funds are low and you’ve spent all you have on bringing the boat up to spec. In my case to MCA coding standards, which of course are only part of the safety story. Anyhow, you get the idea. Should a good seaman go to sea if all is not just so?

    Reply
    • John September 7, 2013, 10:27 am

      Hi John, a good and interesting point. No, I don’t advocate that that everything should be “just so” since with that as a criteria no one would ever go to sea!

      Having said that, to be seamanlike, everything should be just so with the big five:
      Keep the water out
      Keep the crew on the boat
      Keep the keel side down
      Keep the mast up
      Keep the rudder on

      Also, I don’t think that not being able to afford to fix a big five issue is a valid excuse for not doing so–they sea does not care what state a sailor’s bank account is in, when it drowns him.

      Very often when someone tells me they can’t afford to fix a big five issue properly I look at their boat and see a lot of expensive non-essential gear that they spent money on because they did not distinguish between needs and wants. This post will help with that process.

      Another issue I see often is people that buy a boat that is bigger than they can afford to maintain properly.

      Bottom line, a small simple, but properly maintained and equipped boat is way more seamanlike than a large boat that is not properly maintained.

      Reply
      • bruno September 8, 2013, 2:31 am

        good points on the boat size vs bank account size,
        back we are on the famous :
        go small, go now,
        another way to say it, from pure seamen who left on small and simple but very safe and seaworthy boats,

        just finished a partial refit (as it never ends) of our small boat (always too big on the dry), with some cosmetics (for the eyes and the proudness) and many small fundamental basics like antennas, nav lights, mast rewiring, mast check, new rocna, bilge pumps, chain plates check/renewal … many more to do, even for our coastal navs …

        Reply
  • John Rushworth September 7, 2013, 1:00 pm

    Great points. I particularly like the one about the sea not caring about my bank account, even if I do. Taking the ‘big five’ made me think. Here’s a simple inexpensive one that I might not have done, to keep the water out, if I’d not gone through the MCA coding process. It concerns fitting barrel securing bolts to the companionway washboards with a lanyard to save losing your washboards in the event of a knockdown. They probably cost £15 and I’m sure I’d have spent that on superfluous stuff otherwise had I not been through the coding process, which certainly made me think. It’s worth noting that even if you don’t want to code your boat for commercial use, there are many good points in the process that any well found boat ought to pay atttention to. That was a point the MCA surveyor made and I felt it was a valid one. Here’s a photo of the cheap fix to keep the water out. http://on.fb.me/17N9GQK

    Reply
    • John September 7, 2013, 1:09 pm

      Hi John,

      Good point about the benefit of code. I have found that another way to get the same benefit is to make sure your boat meets the ORC class 1 regs that are required for races like the Fastnet and Newport Bermuda.

      You will find more on companionway securing here, including a very cunning, but easy to use latch.

      Reply
      • John Rushworth September 7, 2013, 1:41 pm

        I do like that interior latch John. I had seen it before, being an avid reader of your posts, but it does mean my interior bolt needs a mod to similar.

        I also had a look at the ORC Class 1 regs and the washboards/hatches section is pretty much the same as the MCA. In fact I believe the MCA regs for the above came in after Morning Cloud sank during the Fastnet.

        I also took a look at your ‘needs and wants’ link. Again I’d seen that bfore but goodness, it is great to revisit in the light of hopefully having achieved more knowledge this year. Revisiting your posts brings new insights.

        Now don’t throw me off the thread for mentioning this, but I did have a smashing little chuckle at the ‘relaible diesel engine’ bit. As you know I’ve gone pure electric and this thread is not the place to raise the pros and cons again.

        However, what this year has taught me is that everyone ought to pretend they don’t have an engine on board (electric is good up to 2/3 rds hull speed, diesel 3/4 hull speed onward subject to duty cycle) as I think we rely on them too much. Having minimal range has made me (I hope) become a better seaman and sailor, sailing in a way that is as if I had no engine at all.

        I note I now pay for more attention to sea room, tide, wind etc. Maybe that could be the point of another post – unless of course you have already done that one too, which would not surprise me. Looking forward to reading more.

        John

        Reply
    • pat synge September 8, 2013, 7:31 pm

      Washboards are one of my pet hates.
      So often they could be replaced with 2 or 3 horizontally hinged panels that fold down onto the bridge deck (if there is one). They are always in place and quick and easy to flick closed when required.

      Aboard our boat the upper panel has a curved surface to it that forms a comfortable (and usually dry) seat when folded down. The downside is that this is by far the most comfortable spot when sailing and is in great demand. The ‘next boat’ might have 2 companionways!

      Reply
      • John September 9, 2013, 11:25 am

        HI Pat,

        I agree about washboards. I would much prefer a watertight hatch like those used on the Boreals.

        Reply
  • Sixbears September 8, 2013, 9:19 am

    Good advice. Being difficult to follow doesn’t make it any less good. I’m prepping a tiny boat for a long costal sail starting in October. I’m at the point where it’s not money that has to be spent so much as time and effort. The important jobs will be done before we hit the water.

    One example: I have to fix a tiny cabin leak. It barely drips in a heavy rain and is out of sight. Still, over time, it corroded three switches and a shelf has to be replaced. Really minor -until you need the radio and its switch won’t work.

    Reply
    • John September 9, 2013, 11:28 am

      Hi Sixbears,

      Exactly, very often it’s the small stuff that gets you.

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson September 8, 2013, 9:27 am

    John,
    I have long been interested in how people develop discipline and good habits. Your definition of seamanship brings up for me how one learns about life at sea and at anchor. To feel the urge to take some action, one must have the niggling itch that an action is called for. For some, that learning takes place during a childhood of experience and under the guidance of multiple mentors. Most must find other avenues for acquiring a sense of seamanship to guide them.
    I envy those who were brought up in a seamanlike manner with salt water coursing through their veins, but I did not. Although that is certainly something I regret, I feel I did have an approximation in the books I read as an adult that both inspired and educated me. The books certainly accelerated my learning curve. The Hiscock series may top the pyramid (for me) of the really rather large selection of impressive writing in this area. More modern versions are the Dashew and Pardy oeuvre with Nigel Calder and Beth Leonard contributing as well as many others. That said, I do not experience these admirable authors being referred to on the docks and in the watering holes like they used to be. So I wonder: what are the bibles nowadays?
    It might be an interesting blog to develop a 100 best books list that every sailor “should” have under his/her belt. Catagories could include the inspirational (Slocum) as well as the practical (Calder) and, of course, the yarns (Tristan Jones. Oh and not to forget humour, Farley Mowat, “The Boat That Wouldn’t Float”.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
    • John September 9, 2013, 11:42 am

      Hi Dick,

      That’s a very good point. It would seem to me that your list is already pretty good. I would add books by Peter Pye, who was a mentor of mine, and the Smeatons. I think there is a lot to be learned from these older books, simply because these authors sailed in a less forgiving time. If you got your seamanship wrong then, you never got to write a book!

      Reply
  • Chris September 8, 2013, 10:49 am

    John,

    I think there is a linchpin missing from the definition. It’s the knowing.” In the limiting case, one could know nothing and therefore perform perfectly through complete inaction. In the retrograde case one could be massively ill-informed and still be seaman-like provided that mal-knowledge was applied from one’s heart of hearts. I’m reminded of John Caldwell’s trip from Panama to Fiji. He knew virtually nothing of sailboats and sailing and much of what he knew was wrong (though a merchant mariner) and nearly died three times while doing everything to the best of his knowledge.

    One can argue he failed the first test of seamanship by not acquiring knowledge fit for his voyage. I’ve mentioned the concept of fitness for use (Kaizen) before as it applies to boat systems and hardware. It can just as easily be applied to knowledge. One can be perfectly attentive to doing the seaman-like thing and have no knowledge fit for use. We’ve seen plenty of that, although with the contraction of sailing reducing newbies and wannabes, we have seen less of late.

    I would add a coda to your definition that calls for the active pursuit of continuous learning to build the base of knowledge that enables “you should do” behavior. Having said this, I would submit that your definition is a good fill-in-the blank-man-ship definition, anything worth doing, is worth doing from one’s heart of hearts…especially partnership.

    Reply
    • John September 9, 2013, 11:50 am

      HI Chris,

      Your thought, linked with Dick’s above, point out the importance of adding, as you say, the process of learning, and being aware that you don’t know enough to be seamanlike on a given voyage.

      We are seeing way too many people taking on voyages that are way beyond their knowledge. The most glaring example is the people who are taking on a Northwest passage transit as their first high latitude experience.

      I think the key thing is to take a stepping stones approach to whatever you do offshore. More on that here.

      Reply
      • Chris September 9, 2013, 1:10 pm

        Although he received much grief for it, (and though he was para-quoting) Don Rumsfeld laid it out pretty succinctly.

        There are Known Knowns;
        There are Known Unknowns;
        There are Unknown Unknowns.
        The beginner’s mind is empty of knowledge. Moving from the bottom to the top of that list is life’s learning journey. For some its a fairly short trip or one retaken over and over.
        And most distressingly it is becoming a vicarious trip as technology pushes people to accept the surface as the content. Don’t get me started on smartphone chart-plotter aps…

        Chris

        Reply
  • Max Fletcher September 8, 2013, 11:05 am

    This is what I wrote for an Ocean Voyager article on seamanship: “My general philosphy is to go offshore with a well-prepared boat and crew; keep the boat under control during a passage; anticipate and avoid dangerous situations; and keep the crew rested, fed and cared for.”
    A few examples of the above culled from the article: you leave port with all systems working properly and the boat prepared for the possibility of severe weather. You want to be able to focus on the passage and not have a lot of loose ends to deal with the first few days (chasing down pesky leaks, stowing rattling gear and the like). You want to keep an eye on the weather and reduce sail before the wind pipes up, and keep the sailplan balanced. Boats often perform just as well with two or three smaller sails rather than two larger ones, and with much better comtrol and comfort. Keep systems simple, and all important systems need to have a backup. Morale is a challenge in rough weather, so keep the crew rested, warm and well-fed.

    Reply
  • Horatio Marteleira September 8, 2013, 11:11 am

    I completely agree but would also add “emotional intelligence.”
    It may seem that your definition covers emotional intelligence by default but let me describe an all-too-common real-life event to explain my point.
    About 2 weeks ago I was anchored in Culatra (Portugal) where a sailboat was anchored using insuficiente scope and a smallish anchor. 15 knots was enough for it to drag onto another boat, with tangled chains and the usual mess.
    Guess what? After getting untangled the guy motored up to the same spot, let out the same scope and that that was it!
    I happen to know this “experienced” sailor and he told me, “it should be OK, I don’t think the wind will pick up.”
    Judge for yourself.

    Reply
    • Marc Dacey September 9, 2013, 12:27 pm

      A good point, Horatio. Too often one sees sailors…even experienced ones…who are psychologically defeated by simple concepts, or who see incapable of learning. Others seem to rely on some sort of magical thinking when faced with the sheer indifference of nature…leading to failures to react appropriately. I’m thinking of stuff like having clean decks and removing windage when a storm is bearing down…as obvious as recalling to reach for an umbrella when you see it’s going to rain.

      This sort of defeatism or inaction seems to appear when a sailor is confronted with situations beyond their skill set or experience, and can resemble the old “deer in the headlight” scenario.

      Personally, John, my takeaway from your musings is your line about how “the sea does not care”. For me, realizing that the wind and water were impersonal forces of nature, and not some aspect of a higher power that I had pissed off, was actually a liberation. It meant that my work, and *only* my work, put into the “black box” of seamanlike preparedness would save (maybe…there are no guarantees) the vessel and her crew.

      And I found that freeing. Instead of a capricious fate or some random deity “to blame” for whatever mishaps or failures we’ve had at sea, I know exactly where the problem lies. How I respond to that realization is the measure of my seamanship.

      Reply
  • Dan September 8, 2013, 3:20 pm

    Hi John

    As you know I recently had to do a recue at sea in the Bermuda 1-2 solo leg, winds 30-35, seas 10-15 and I had no autopilot. It went well. I got him off without incident. I watched the “seamanship” award go to another sailor. He was helpful to others in Bermuda with repairs while suffered PTSD from a successful event. Seamanship?

    Dick stated ” I envy those who were brought up in a seamanlike manner with salt water coursing through their veins”. I agree that it does help. It’s the easy way into seamanship. After the rescue, they called me hero, what is that? I responded with this story. As a child of 12 years of age and 70 lbs, I would go sailing with my dad. We would show up at the boatyard and he would send me to get our CapeDory 25 from the mooring alone. The engine often did not work so I would raise a jib sail to the dock, drop the jib and tie up solo. Then go get dad from the bar. Mr. Standish, the owner of Standish boatyard would pull his wallet out and say to my father, how do you want for the kid. Mr. Standish was a seaman, an old salt. With a child’s eyes I looked up to him profoundly and I’m still trying to be that kid.

    Horatio also has a point with “emotional intelligence” or something like that. I’ve taken the helm from a few captains in the last few years, from circumstances they could not handle. There is a sense of emergency with calmness, do it now, do it perfectly. I think this sense of calmness in the face of tough circumstances strikes to the heat of seamanship. We earn that. We pay for it through experience and learning from others. I believe a great seaman is independent of a vessel yet has the ability to prepare a vessel in a way that expresses his seamanship.

    Thanks for the reading list Dick. I remember being highly affected by my dad’s recommendation of “Blue water” by Bob Griffith. I took away from that book, more than an idea but a challenge that I should be prepared and frankly unstoppable. My dad was an awful sailor. Sorry dad! he was very well read but could not execute. I hated reading and executed. Together we taught each other in the waters of Maine. Seaman are made though mentors, books, having the balls to engage and the blessing of clarity and good judgment.

    Reply
  • richard s. September 8, 2013, 3:31 pm

    when i was still in elementary school my late usn father once took a multi-year assignment as an instructor at his alma mater in annapolis (canoe u. as often referenced at west point my alma mater)…he taught seamanship and navigation, which, while i couldn’t appreciate its significance at the time, i have long since realized this must have been a core part of the curriculum there just as i have long since realized there is much more to navigation than just taking sextant sights for their ultimate position lines as ideally these should only confirm what you have already surmised…at the time i struggled to understand what all the fuss was about; however, i have long since realized it was slowly but surely finding its grip on me despite being petrified to near tears the first time he took me out on one of the yawls for a day on the bay…now i am veteran skipper of several similar boats including my current dufour 433 and associated passages back and forth to virgin gorda via bermuda…who would have thought this even possible based on my first few youthful experiences provided by my salt-water-in-his-veins dad who knew to suppress what must have been his disdain for my choice for going to college (actually i think he was just thankful i was going at all) ? but after all this, his salty approach and attitude still managed to take root…so, while i heartily endorse john’s “big six” (the sixth being: “all the rest is small stuff”), maybe the real essence of seamanship is keeping your eye on the prize

    richard s., s/v lakota, tampa bay

    Reply
  • Matt Y. September 8, 2013, 8:10 pm

    At its core, I suppose each individual’s definition of seamanship is highly personal since risk is arguably relative.
    Seamanship: The practice of maintaining a vessel and crew that is capable of safely navigating a given itinerary under a range of possible circumstances while minimizing risk. In doing so, one must continually evaluate crew and vessel capabilities and weaknesses as they pertain to the conditions met as well as under the developing conditions that would reasonably be expected.

    Reply
  • Dan September 8, 2013, 9:15 pm

    Hi Matt

    Interesting point for me, crew and boat management. I think this is a good definition of a captain. I believe that not captain are seaman. There are too many people out there doing a good job but I can’t call them seaman. Maybe I’m being nostalgic. Not all fishermen are Gloucesterman? You meet a sailor like John here and there’s a special character. He is the sea. My “Mr. Standish, same quality. We can learn the procedures of the sea but is that seamanship. Maybe I’m confusing seaman and seamanship? John spoke at an SAS class and mentioned that he wants a passage without any event, no bad, had to deal with stories. It’s interesting to sail without any events, not a halyard breaking or snatch block coming lose. Honestly, they’re mostly predictable. I think you can meet good boat managers, captains but many are missing that, special quality, no deer in the head lights for these guys, connected and CONFIDENT. With all the yahoo sailors out there, a boating class and an offshore passage training program, and they’re doing all the right things. I’ve seen these guys freak out. I’m holding seaman for a special character.

    Reply
  • Pete Worrell September 9, 2013, 6:41 am

    Morning John:
    I think I would add fuel to your definition of Seamanship fire.
    So many people say or think that Knowledge is Power. Well, I say they are wrong. KNOWLEDGE isn’t power. ACTING on Knowledge is power. And acting on knowledge and experience is seamanship.

    Pete & Kareen Worrell
    S/V PATIENCE

    Reply
  • John September 9, 2013, 2:08 pm

    Hi Everyone,

    Lots of great thoughts in your comments, thank you all.

    Reply
  • James September 9, 2013, 2:44 pm

    And from the non-sailing part of the family, the observation that this is not a bad way of looking on “humanship”, as well!

    Reply
  • Nick Kats September 11, 2013, 10:57 am

    For seamanship I think only of fishermen, and in the 19th century the commercial clippers, whalers etc. They are (were) out there all the time and this is how they make a living. They have to be nuts & bolts about it. Nothing romantic here!

    Reply
  • Kevin Hicks November 5, 2013, 1:49 am

    Great comments, everybody. Throughout my growth as a diver, and then as a scuba professional, I’ve worked to define what makes a good diver, and the result is remarkably like your definition of seamanship. In particular, “The ocean doesn’t care” has been my maxim in diving, and in life, ever since I was certified.

    Reply

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