John & Phyllis’ 36 Immutable Rules of Seamanship


Seamanship, it’s a word that those of us who write about voyaging love to throw around, me especially, but what does it really mean? Can we define it? No, I don’t think so, not completely, because what constitutes seamanship can depend on the person, the boat, and the circumstances. And for each of us our seamanship is very much the result of our experience. That’s why I have titled the post John and Phyllis’ rules. Having said that, there are also fundamental things one must do to be seamanlike that the sea dictates to all of us, hence the word immutable.

And yes, I have written about this before, but seamanship posts bear repetition and anyway, since that post was written, we have thought of a bunch more items to add to the list.

Also, I think that these days it is more difficult than ever before to stay focused on basic seamanship, with the distraction of all the wiz bang gadgetry on offer, so that regular repetition of the basics is probably a good thing for all of us, me included.

As usual with these list posts, I have linked to underlying posts where available, that expand on a particular point (most, but not all, require membership).

So here we go.

  1. Before going to sea, we will always prepare our boat and ourselves for a multi-day storm. When the day comes that we are not willing to deal with that possibility, we will stop going to sea.
  2. Before heading offshore, we will always remind ourselves that a task that takes us ten minutes at the wharf, will take an hour while sailing in smooth water inshore and four hours–and several pukes, if you are anything like me–when offshore in waves.
  3. When preparing our boat for offshore sailing, we will never get everything on our list done, so it is vital that we concentrate on the big five before messing with anything else (and that goes triple for cool electronics):
    1. Keep the water out.
    2. Keep the crew on the boat.
    3. Keep the keel side down.
    4. Keep the mast up.
    5. Keep the rudder on.
  4. We will always stay as far away from lee shores as possible.
  5. We will never forget that it’s rarely the sea that kills sailors, it’s the hard bits around the edges–we are almost always safer offshore.
  6. We will do whatever it takes, including reversing our course or heaving-to and waiting, to stay out of parts of the ocean where a current of more than 1 knot is, or will be, running against a wind of more than 25 knots.
  7. We know that short handed offshore boats, like ours, must have an easy to deploy way to deal with heavy weather that does not involve steering and guards against a roll over.
  8. We will never forget that simple is almost always better than complicated.
  9. We will not install anything on our offshore boat that impedes the crew’s ability to properly handle the rig and sails. (The  three worst offenders we’re seeing are huge arrays of solar panels, cockpit enclosures, and big RIB dinghies.)
  10. We will not tie anything with any appreciable surface area to the life lines. A wave hitting such deck-litter can rip stantions right out of the deck. (The worst offenders we’re seeing are racks of jerry jugs, kayaks, and once again, solar panels.)
  11. Every part of the deck of our boat that a crew member could conceivably step on will have good non-skid. (Yes, that means no solar panels where someone can step on them.)
  12. We know that, within reason, fast boats are safe boats, more fun too.
  13. If we plan to sleep or leave the boat, we will always anchor as if it will blow gale force.
  14. The time to reef is when we first think about it–an oldie but a goody.
  15. I will never yell at Phyllis and/or our crew, it won’t make them move any faster when things are going pear shaped, and it will fluster them and make the situation more dangerous than it already is.
  16. I will remember that being a seamanlike skipper will sometimes make me unpopular with my crew and not let that influence my decisions; they will get over it and may even thank me in the end.
  17. At sea, whenever we don’t have something pressing to do, we will sleep, or at least rest–a rested crew is a safe crew, and that goes double for the skipper.
  18. There is only one skipper on a boat. Although I will listen to my crew because they can teach me a lot and they deserve to have a say in where we go and what we do, I will never forget that it’s me that makes the final decision and who is responsible when that decision does not work out well.
  19. We will not be lazy about provisioning before a voyage and cooking at sea. Good food for the crew is as important as good fuel for the engine, or maybe more so.
  20. We won’t drink booze at sea.
  21. I won’t be lazy about getting and analyzing weather reports. (We won’t always be able to avoid heavy weather, but at least we will know it’s coming.)
  22. We will never blindly follow the instructions of a weather router. We will do our own due diligence and make sure that we understand the situation. The router may have overlooked something, but it is us and our crew that will pay the penalty for that.
  23. In the high latitudes, we will always know where the nearest ice edge is and which way the current is expected to flow and the wind is expected to blow–ice happens quickly.
  24. We will always know what the bearing to leave an anchorage is.
  25. Even though our engine is not on the big five list, we will take good care of it. It has in the past, and could again, dig us out of some very deep yoghurt.
  26. We will make sure that we have at least one big anchor ready to drop in less than 60 seconds at all times.
  27. We will always remember that being a good seaman is hard work.
  28. We will always remember that the easy way is very rarely the seamanlike way.
  29. But, on the other hand, we won’t take action just to make our anxiety go away.
  30. We will remember that in an emergency, it is almost always better to pause and think before leaping into action.
  31. We will attempt never to confuse discomfort with danger. For example, it may be uncomfortable to stay offshore, but it is dangerous to make a night approach, or approach a lee shore.
  32. We won’t make night approaches, particularly to strange harbours.
  33. We will always set a course, navigate and know where we are, and not just blindly follow the plotter keeping the cute little boat icon in the white (deep water).
  34. We will always set a course to arrive to windward of our destination. [Thanks Colin, see comments.]
  35. We will never depart on a voyage across an ocean that contains a tropical storm or hurricane, even if it’s forecast path is well clear of out intended course–hurricanes are not, even today, reliably predictable. [Thanks Arlen, see comments.]
  36. We will never forget to always visualize a 500-foot cliff outside the lifelines. It may take a bit longer, but the result of going over the side from a short handed boat at sea will almost always be the same. Person overboard prevention is what matters. [Thanks Val, see comments.]

I’m sure there are more that Phyllis and I will think of five minutes after we push the publish button on this post, but this is a good start.


List posts like this are, by definition, pretty cryptic, so if you have a question or would like me to expand on an item, please ask in the comments. Ditto if you think I missed something out.

However, in both cases, please read the linked post first, if appropriate, to make sure we have not already written at length on that particular point. And yes, reading most of those linked posts does require membership, but that’s what keeps the lights on around here, and together with our sponsors, makes free posts like this possible.

{ 48 comments… add one }

  • Serge Paul February 4, 2014, 8:51 pm

    Congratulation to both of you, very good list.
    Personaly I would modify item 26 to mention an exception were the anchors should be stowed away during an offshore passage.
    Keep the good work

    • John February 4, 2014, 11:11 pm

      Hi Serge,

      That’s an interesting one without a clear right or wrong. However, my thinking now is that the best bower should be on the bow at all times and the bow roller should be engineered to stow it safely and securely even when offshore. My reasoning is that all offshore passages come to an end and that’s the point, when approaching a strange shore, that you may need the anchor in a hurry most.

      • Serge Paul February 5, 2014, 9:02 am

        Completely agree John that near the coast at least one good anchor should be ready to be deploy. But once in the open sea, unless you have a very special boat where the anchor cannot be in the way of any possible movement, I still like the idea of stowing my anchor out of the way.

        • Horatio Marteleira February 5, 2014, 10:58 am

          Great post.
          I agree and disagree with the anchor part – especially since I now have a Rocna 25 with a large exposed surface.
          I definitively wouldn’t want to sail within 50 miles from shore without an anchor on the roller. On the other hand, I’ve had the misfortune of sailing in some pretty nasty conditions and once arrrived in Sagres, Portugal, in a blow to find that the pin holding my previous 45 lb CQR anchor to the roller was bent and I couldn’t remove it. Instead I had to quickly righ up the backup 35 lb CQR.
          Moral of the story, you may be damned if you and damned if you don’t. Tough choice.

          • John February 5, 2014, 3:43 pm

            Hi Horatio,

            I agree that there are issues with both approaches, but we have been carrying a 55kg SPADE on the bow at all times for 14 years and a CQR before that without any problems at all. The secret is in engineering the bow roller with a striker plate that the anchor fits against firmly with absolutely no movement. The second part of the solution is a substantial band-brake on the windlass. All we do when going to sea is snug the anchor against the striker plate with the windlass and then put the brake and clutch (for backup) on, and block the hawse pipe–done and dusted.

            By the way, one of the reasons that we prefer the SPADE over the Rocna is that it has a more streamlined shape, which mitigates wave strikes.

            So, in summary, for me, I still believe that all cruising boats should have an anchor installation that allows the best bower to stay in place at all times and in any weather and wave conditions. After all, you are probably actually more likely to encounter a bow burying waves close in shore in the presence of shallow water and tides than you are in the ocean.

  • Colin Speedie February 4, 2014, 10:04 pm

    Hi John and Phyllis

    Great stuff and I’d only add one thing after serving my apprenticeship in the English Channel for many years:

    ‘Always set a course to arrive to windward of your destination’.

    Best wishes


    • John February 4, 2014, 11:15 pm

      Hi Colin,

      Good one, thank you. I have taken the liberty of adding it to the list.

  • Ben February 5, 2014, 10:15 am

    I particularly like 27 ,28, 29. Those are some of the tricky ones, that I think a lot of people don’t fully understand in the beginning. And 29 still gets me sometimes. Thanks for the list.

    • John February 5, 2014, 4:53 pm

      Hi Ben,

      Don’t feel bad, 29 still gets me from time to time too.

  • Val February 5, 2014, 11:25 am

    Reading this list brought back great memories of sailing down (or is that up?) the Labrador coast a couple of years ago on Morgan’s Cloud. As total neophytes we learned so much and felt so utterly safe. Food was amazing. The first lesson from John: “The edge of the boat is a 500 foot cliff”. Aye aye, skipper!

    • John February 5, 2014, 4:55 pm

      Hi Val,

      That’s a good point. I guess I’m kind of covering it under the big five, but not as clearly as I do in the safety briefing.

  • Bill Attwood February 5, 2014, 11:40 am

    Great list John, but I also differ on # 26. I have a Rocna 25 kg on the bow (I can´t fit it anywhere else), and a CQR 20 kg on chocks just forward of the cabin top – covered with a strapped down canvas tent. The hawse pipe is sealed when we go offshore – kitchen or vinyl glove fasted with an old inner tube “rubber band” – and the windlass and hawse pipe have their own tent. I sailed across the Indian Ocean in a sister ship (Rustler 36) in 2012. The skipper had two anchors on the bow rollers and two chain lockers. We were often more like a submarine than a yacht. My main anchor cable (80 meters of 10mm chain) is under the cabin sole just aft of the mast, and is only moved up for coastal sailing. However, the chain locker has a 20 meter chain plus 40 meter rope cable. I can´t say that I feel comfortable with having my main anchor cable not immediately available, but it´s a worthwhile compromise for me. I have also suffered from the bent-pin syndrome that Horatio commented – I now use exclusively lashings and have a knife permanently mounted on the pulpit – quicker than a hacksaw!
    Looking foward to more comments.

    • Marc Dacey February 9, 2014, 3:41 pm

      Good point on the knives. I carry in (zipped) pocket or on a belt a multi-tool, and all PFDs have a WM-grade folding serrated knife. I have plastic handled breadknives stuck with magnets around the boat for emergency “delashing”. I, too, have had issues with bent pins and find lashings of small stuff more logical and flexible, given of course the necessity of checking for chafe or knots undoing.

      I have been in situations where two or three swipes of a blade solved my issue and have found the maxim “always have a blade handy” to be a good one. I keep some of the small stuff for lashings in a ditty bag, a term nearly extinct these days.

      A great list, particularly concerning how long simple tasks take in even benign conditions, and for the willingness to hove to or even reverse course rather than to voluntarily continue into known dodgy weather.

  • Brittany February 5, 2014, 12:08 pm

    Excellent list, always good to be reminded of these things! Thanks for sharing.

  • Chris February 5, 2014, 2:58 pm

    If one is a regular drinker — and by that I don’t mean in anything pathological, it is a good idea to stop three days or so before casting off. Even in non-alcohol dependent persons, there are subtle effects on judgement, sociability and mal de mer that come with cold turkey at any level. It can especially affect the sleep cycle, which isn’t so hot the first few days anyway.

    • John February 5, 2014, 3:46 pm

      Hi Chris,

      Great tip. We agree. Some years ago we instituted a policy on “Morgan’s Cloud” that we don’t drink alcohol for a day or two before going sea.

      • Marc Dacey February 9, 2014, 3:50 pm

        I don’t drink and sail even on Lake Ontario (although once tied up for the night). Legalities aside, I feel I absolutely have to be at the top of my game at all times…I even joke that sailing have cut enormously into my drinking. I don’t have more than a glass of wine or a beer at anchor/on a mooring, either…there have been too many 3 AM “are we dragging?” or “what’s that weird noise?” drills to risk muddling the senses. Actually on passage? Forget it: the boat is dry unless we are giving brandy to a nervous castaway!

        Of course, it’s not just beer, wine or rum: If you are, as I am, a dedicated morning coffee drinker, you will want to tail off a week before you cast off to avoid caffeine-withdrawal headaches or sleep disruptions. On the water, I find I want ONE mug of morning coffee, and that suits me all day. It’s also more problematic in all but calm conditions to actually brew a pot, and so a press of say, a litre in size yields a good mug for Mr. and Mrs. Alchemy…enough to warm and enliven the morning watch. Green tea or Bovril or soup are better options beyond a morning coffee, I think. Others will vary.

  • Erik de Jong February 5, 2014, 9:24 pm

    Try to get into “sea rhythm”, by sleeping, eating and living like you would at sea at least one day before departure. It significantly reduces time to adjust to the “new” environment, and reduces risk of seasickness during the first couple of days in which one will still be close to shore and shipping lanes.

    • Onno ten Brinke February 18, 2014, 6:47 am

      Interesting one, Erik. I wonder how this would reduce risk of seasickness. Could you elaborate?


      • Erik de Jong February 19, 2014, 4:20 pm

        Hi Onno,

        I have never experienced it myself, I am fortunate enough that I do not suffer from seasickness, but what I understand, and what has been confirmed on several occasions by some of our guests and crew, is that when one is tired or hungry, one is more sensitive to get seasick.

        It is usually difficult to sleep well the first night at sea. There is a different environment, different food, the stress of leaving etc. When “standing watch” while still ashore, the body will have to adjust to one thing less, this is the waking hours during the night.

        So when starting the new night and day rhythm a day or even to ahead, one will be much more rested when heading out to sea. One thing less to worry about.

        • Onno ten Brinke February 19, 2014, 8:42 pm

          Seems like a reasonable set of presumptions, Erik. We’ll keep that in mind.

  • Margie February 5, 2014, 11:58 pm

    Learn your knots. When you need to untie, you need to know what knot you are dealing with. “Knitting” never works.

    • John February 6, 2014, 2:05 pm

      Hi Margie,

      Good one. That reminds me, I need to do a post on the knots that really matter. We only use four knots, but knowing how to tie those quickly and reliably is vital.

  • Dick Stevenson February 6, 2014, 5:34 am

    John, A fun list that covers a lot. I wish to echo Bill A’s comment of the wisdom of lashing (we use a stout line, lashings when offshore) an anchor over a pin, esp. those boats whose anchor leads the boat into a slip. I have seen a couple of boats slide their anchor into a wall at minimal speed and have their pins bent. Just a little out of trueness can bring out the hacksaw.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Nick Kats February 6, 2014, 12:43 pm

    Love this article. It would take me a long time to write this on my own.

    Reviewing the 34 shows me how far I’ve come in a few years.

    One I might add. When the essentials are sound, but a lot of ‘optionals’ are deficient, my attitude is: Ok, the hell with it, let’s go. Otherwise I could spend months fiddling away tidying up the ‘optionals’, and lose lots of time. Easy to get into this trap.

    Another way of putting this: be perfectionist about the essentials, and be casual about the optional stuff.

    • Colin Speedie February 6, 2014, 12:58 pm

      Hi Nick

      great point – I doubt if I’ve ever left the dock with everything working 100% – aspired to it, but always at the last minute there’s a glitch of some kind, and that despite being very diligent with all maintenance.

      What’s perhaps most important with your suggestion is how to prioritise. For example, I just spent a futile few hours yesterday trying to fix our radar, but here in Antigua I don’t think we’ll be needing it just yet, so it’ll just have to wait until we’re somewhere we can get it fixed – no urgency. If we were in Maine or somewhere foggy, then I might view it rather differently.

      So I’m with your last paragraph 100%.

      Best wishes


    • John February 6, 2014, 2:03 pm

      Hi Nick and Colin,

      I agree entirely. I have always found that one of my greatest challenges in preparing for a long voyage is staying focused on what’s really important and not getting distracted by all the details that are not vital. To that end, we always keep three lists: vital, important, and nice to do. When the vital list is completed, we go. I don’t think I have ever got anything done that was on the nice to do list, but having it gives us a place to put things that don’t really matter, and constantly reminds us of that status.

      • Marc Dacey February 9, 2014, 3:55 pm

        What’s not always acknowledged is that much of passagemaking can be routine and uneventiful. If you’ve got 100% of vital covered and 75% of important, you can have plenty of time to do boat projects while underway. You may have to prioritize them according to power draws or state of the weather, but there’s generally enough time to “sort spares” or “inventory food stores”.

        I’ve been on a couple of boats that have little whiteboards in the galley or the nav station with scrawled “to do” lists and some sort of colour-coded “status” marker. I suppose today you could do that in a maintenance log or in an Excel file.

  • Pete Verdon February 6, 2014, 7:40 pm

    A good list we’d all agree with most of. But I do find number 6 and number 32 somewhat puzzling.

    I’m well aware of the effects of wind over tide, but taken at face value point six seems to be saying “Do not sail in the English Channel in a force 6″. The water will basically always be moving at over a knot (usually considerably more) and at some point of the tide the chances are it will be against the wind. Doing “whatever it takes” to avoid this would mean staying in port when the wind reaches over 25 knots, and that seems a rather conservative limit for a well-found vessel like Morgan’s Cloud.

    Number 32 says don’t make night approaches, and if it applies “particularly” to unfamiliar harbours then it would appear to also apply (at least much or most of the time) to familiar ones as well. I guess this is something that comes from cruising out-of-the-way places where aids to navigation are absent or unreliable, and charts can’t be trusted? That I can understand, but here in northern Europe I really don’t see a problem with entering port after dark. It’s inevitable around the Channel anyway, as common passages are often longer than daylight but not so long that you’d want to heave to outside and come in the next day.


    • John February 6, 2014, 10:41 pm

      Hi Pete,

      Good point on number 6. This list is by definition, being just a list, over simplistic. What I was referring to was ocean currents like the Gulf Stream where a current over about 1 knot combined with more that about 25 knots can produce really nasty and potentially breaking waves. Note that I say “about” because the parameters that will cause a dangerous situation are, of course, variable and complex. Still, the bottom line is that it really does seem that many, maybe even most, yacht casualties occur in a wind against current situation.

      As you point out, the situation in confined waters like the Channel, or our own Bay of Fundy is different, because we are not dealing with the same fetch. Having said that, a well found Swan was capsized off Cape Sable some years ago in about 25 knots of wind, so current against wind still warrants respect.

      As to night approaches. This is one of the personal ones and many people make seamanlike night approaches as a regular thing. However, there is no question that the risks of a problem are always higher on a night approach and therefore I would rather time my passages to arrive in daylight, even if that means doing an overnight, when it’s not really necessary, or heaving-to until dawn. Colin does a great job of expanding on this in the linked post.

      Another interesting thing is that it does seem that there is an inverse correlation between the amount of experience a voyager has and their willingness to do night approaches: Colin and Louise, Phyllis and I, and Steve and Linda Dashew, all avoid night approached whenever possible.

  • Arlen Sevrin February 10, 2014, 9:52 am

    Number 5 is simply wrong; it has not been correct since the end of the great age of sail.

    On the numbers, the vast majority of sailors are not, these days, killed by shipwrecks or other encounters with land. The primary cause of death is almost certainly hypothermia after falling off the boat, followed by drowning, trauma, and electrolyte disturbances or hypolvolemic shock due to dehydration or drinking seawater. Starvation would have to be in there, too, at least as a contributory factor.

    The reason for this is that our sailing vessels almost all have engines and excellent navigation, so that allows us to keep away from the sharp bits.

    It is the sea that kills sailors–almost exclusively now. Thinking otherwise may lead us to take foolish action, such as the Bounty putting to sea as hurricane Sandy approached. A sailing vessel from a hundred years ago might be safer at sea, but not one with a functional 60hp diesel.

    In my seafaring experience, which spans about thirty years now , I have never heard of someone being injured or killed in a classical shipwreck involving a collision with rocks or other hard bits. Hypothermia after falling off the boat while shoveling snow off the deck; disappearing after jumping overboard to catch a dinghy after the tow line parted; drowning after a capsize; electrocuted through pure ignorance; an entire crew falling overboard while trying to save one person and being unable to catch the vessel; all these and many more I have either experienced near at hand or read the investigation report about, but interacting with the hard bits? Never.

    You point is well taken; land does not necessarily offer safety, and it is important to overcome the psychological notion that it does. But it is the sea, and the sea almost exclusively, that kills sailors.

    • Horatio Marteleira February 10, 2014, 10:56 am

      Hi Arlen,
      That doesn’t sound very plausible, particularly when I know of a number of deaths in recent years caused by sailboats washed ashore while trying to enter port in bad weather. And that’s within 50 miles of here (Peniche, Portugal).
      Falling overboard may be the number 1 cause, but I suspect that boats washing ashore or hitting land is cause number 2.

    • John February 10, 2014, 2:55 pm

      Hi Arlen,

      This is a hard one, because I think that neither of us really has any hard statistics. But I’m with Horatio in that I know of several recent incidents where people were killed while trying to make harbour in bad weather.

      And I certainly would not recommend going to sea with a hurricane approaching. The point being that this is a brief list post that needs to be read together with my other writing on this site to fully understand my overall seamanship philosophy.

      Bottom line, I really do feel, based on my own experience, that it is often safer to stay offshore in a well found boat than approach the shore particularly at night. (See 31 & 32).

      As to falling overboard, I would put that in a completely different class since that can and does happen with fatal consequences near shore and far from land.

    • John February 10, 2014, 3:47 pm

      Hi Arlen,

      I added another rule to clarify a bit, thanks to your comment.

  • Bill Attwood February 10, 2014, 11:12 am

    Hi Arlen,
    I tend to agree with Horatio. I think that John´s Rule was meant to make clear that if you are sea, and bad weather is expected, then the best course of action is to ensure that you have plenty of sea-room. Unless of course you are sure that you can make a safe haven before it comes.

    • Colin Speedie February 10, 2014, 1:04 pm

      Hi Horatio, Bill’

      I understand what Arlen is getting at, and it’s a reasonable argument.

      But I’m amazed that hasn’t heard of losses (including life) from yachts hitting the hard stuff, usually on the way into risky harbours with the weather snapping at their heels – recent instances at Povoa de Varzim, Figueira da Foz (both Portugal) and at least a couple of Moroccan ports spring instantly to mind.

      So, at least on the eastern side of the Atlantic, the old rules still hold true in my view – avoid the land in deteriorating weather unless you’re absolutely convinced you can approach.

      And as far as the value of technology is concerned, I’ll bet that one of the contributing factors to the above losses would have been having plotters etc. In the old days, unless you knew the place inside out, you’d never attempt a blind night entrance. Now you just might….

      Best wishes


      • John February 10, 2014, 3:07 pm

        Hi Colin,

        There have been at least a few on this side of the pond too. The one that comes immediately to mind was a boat in a rally that attempted one of the passes to the Abacos in bad weather, which resulted in loss of life.

        On the left coast of north America there were the two recent race tragedies where boats hit the rocks, both with loss of life.

        I really like your point about the inherent dangers of plotters. I have caught myself on several occasions considering approaches that I wouldn’t have even thought about in the days before electronic navigation and I’m ashamed to admit that on one occation I sucummed to the temptation–it came out alright, but I’m not proud of my decision and I have a few more gray hairs to show for it.

        • Marc Dacey February 16, 2014, 10:07 pm

          Perhaps the modern riposte to the old adage “reef when you first think of it” (whether you have composite sails or not), would be “would I try this at night if I only had a bearing compass and a paper chart?”

          A recent RYA course had me doing night approaches into unfamiliar and rock-surrounded harbours using precisely those methods as part of the instruction. It does tend to focus the mind, and were we in a less well-buoyed and nav aid-stuffed area, I would’ve waited for dawn. There are worse habits of nautical mind.

    • John February 10, 2014, 3:00 pm

      Hi Bill,

      Exactly, thanks for the clarification.

  • Wilson Fitt February 11, 2014, 9:00 pm

    Thanks to John and Phyllis and all of the participants for valuable reminders. They seem obvious when written down but most of us (me certainly) have had to give ourselves a slap more than once for overlooking the obvious.

    My only addition, and it’s mostly a corollary to several rules, is to recognize your personal limits and don’t test them to the point of breakage.

    So, for instance, don’t start if you or a crew member are ill or exhausted from the rush of preparation. Go to the nearest anchorage that’s out of sight of your home mooring and delay your main departure until tomorrow or the next day. And if you become overtired or over-stressed during the course of a passage, take a break by heaving to, enjoy a meal and get some decent sleep. If the going is too hard and reaching the planned destination involves excessive pain and suffering, change the plan and head for somewhere you can actually get to.

    I have made all of these errors but have (so far) had the sense to take corrective action before things got out of hand.

    • John February 11, 2014, 10:40 pm

      Hi Wilson,

      A very good set of recommendations. I particularly like the idea of slinking off to a secluded anchorage to rest for a day or two after the stress of getting ready and before going sea.

      Also your recommendation about heaving-to really resonated with me. I will long remember a truly miserable windward passage from Iceland to Scotland. After four days of nasty motion, cold, grey skies, slow progress, and not a few pukes, the level of humour was low all round. We heaved two for three hours, had a great hot dinner and a nap. The transformation in the crew’s outlook was miraculous and lasted for the two more days it took to finish the passage.

      One point though: Really, is a man who beats across the North Atlantic in April, east to west, really qualified to tell the rest of us “If the going is too hard and reaching the planned destination involves excessive pain and suffering, change the plan and head for somewhere you can actually get to”? :-)

      • Wilson Fitt February 12, 2014, 10:29 pm

        Well, John, I guess that it will be a long time before I live that one down, but let me say that, as a father of three sons and grandfather three times again, I have a well earned right to adopt an occasional do-as-I-say-not-as-I do posture.

        In my further defense, after a week of significant windward pain and suffering on an old Scotland to New Scotland attempt a year earlier, I found myself only 400 miles west of Ireland with about 1,700 miles still to go. I came to my senses, turned around and ran down to Dingle where warm pubs and Guinness were in good supply. It was a significant climb-down that I do not regret in hindsight.

        While I am on the soapbox, I’d like to endorse your Rule #5 with the notation that the hard bits may be steel, not rock. My illustrative anecdote is that, on the last night of my retreat to Ireland, 40 or 50 miles offshore in big wind, seas, and rain (typical Irish weather), I came upon a small fleet of Spanish trawlers executing mysterious maneuvers. I suppose that my maneuvers were equally mysterious to them and radio communications were hampered by language problems. Regardless, what should have been a stately COLREGS waltz between passing vessels came perilously close to becoming a very frightening bump and grind. I was very glad to get off the dance floor unscathed. I have had other such encounters near shore although not so close, but never in deep ocean.

        • Marc Dacey February 16, 2014, 10:11 pm

          Would love to hear which Dingle establishments you favour. I’m guessing you walk right past O Flaherty’s and make for Brosnan’s.

  • Colin Speedie February 11, 2014, 9:30 pm

    Hi Wilson

    great comment, and something we should all bear in mind – fatigue makes errors more likely.

    Not only that – taking five makes for more enjoyable passage making, no?

    Best wishes


  • Gerd Fehlbaum June 4, 2014, 9:07 am

    Very good list! May I add a point, which I always try to keep in mind, except way out in open waters: Always keep in mind, where the “dangerous side” is. Sailing through island chains, archipelagos, reef strewn waters, especially with running currents, you almost always have one side, you should keep a better eye on, than the other. So, engraving this side deep into your brain for the length of a particular leg, is in my opinion very important! I use this “dangerous side” term a lot, when I sail with beginners.
    I usually tell everyone the three basic dangers as most important: A) Falling over board B) Collision (with anything, including land) C) FIRE! I kind of miss this threat in your otherwise superb list.

    Be greeted by an old salt, sailing the seven seas, with no big problems!

    • John June 4, 2014, 4:10 pm

      Hi Gerd,

      That’s a great addition, thank you. We do the same thing, only a little differently in that I will often say when going off watch “all errors to port” meaning if anything goes wrong, don’t even think about a turn toward the dangers (assuming they are to starboard).

      And good point about fire, I missed that. In fact that risk is the major reason we carry a liferaft.

  • Rob Benson June 15, 2014, 6:24 pm

    Hi John,
    LOVE your rules. We’re newbies at cruising, seven months out of San Diego, and coastal cruising south. We’re doing nothing as challenging was what you’re doing. But so much of this still applies to us also.

    I have a rule that I really strongly work to apply but it is challenging. It is:

    The Harrington Rule: Do not allow external circumstances to compromise your common sense.

    This is probably my favorite rule because external circumstances can often seem overwhelming. Or, they can even be underwhelming but still guide our behavior if we let them. We adopted The Harrington Rule after I read it in Sail magazine’s March 2013 issue in an article by Paul VanDevelder.

    Fair winds

    • John June 16, 2014, 8:26 am

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for the kind words on the post. I hadn’t heard of The Harrington Rule, but it certainly is a good one.


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