Q&A: On Being A Newbie

Question: I’m planning a five-year circumnavigation. While I grew up as a live aboard cruiser, two of my crew have limited sailing experience. We have cruised the Chesapeake Bay extensively together and both are becoming good seamen but neither has been on a blue water passage.

Phyllis, I understand that you had little or no sailing experience before you started cruising in 1996, do you have any personal advice for them (or for me and how to coach them) about acquiring sound blue water seamanship for our planned five-year circumnavigation?

Answer: Things we’ve learned over the past 12 years, in no particular order:

  • Most people can gain basic sailing skills relatively easily, but what really counts on a long ocean passage are expedition manners: e.g. getting along with others in a small space, dealing with discomfort and fear without taking it out on those around you, and treating others with respect.
  • Because I came to sailing as an adult, I will never have the same level of ease around the water and boats that John has, who has been sailing since he was a young boy. When I start comparing my abilities to his, followed by my inevitable frustration, John reminds me that it isn’t necessary to be as skilled as he is; much more important is that I have common sense, which will hopefully prevent me from hurting myself, anyone else, or the boat. It may make it less frustrating for your crew if they know that you don’t expect them to be as proficient as you are and that they will do fine out there as long as they have and use common sense.
  • When we did our first Trans-Atlantic, which was very early in my sailing career, my lack of confidence in my ability to react quickly to a change in the weather or to an approaching ship, meant that I didn’t catnap during my watches. So while John found the trade-winds passage quite relaxing, I was exhausted by the end of the 17-day trip. You may wish to take this into account when planning the length of your initial offshore passages.
  • I find I learn better and feel more confident when I do the same part of a task each time, rather than rotating through the various aspects of each task. By becoming proficient at one part of a task, I’m much more likely to notice if something is going wrong than if I am only slightly competent at the entire task. Your crew may have different learning styles—something to talk about when deciding how to work things out.
  • By going cruising before I was an accomplished sailor, we went against the prevailing wisdom that you have to know what you are doing before you leave. Make sure your crew knows that they aren’t alone—no one knows everything before they go cruising, no matter how much sailing they’ve done or how many lessons they’ve taken. In fact, the great thing about cruising is that there is always more to learn.
  • Heavy weather offshore is a much more intense experience than someone who has only been sailing inshore, even in big winds, can imagine. The thing I try to remember in these (thankfully rare) situations, and that you may wish to communicate to your crew, is that discomfort and danger are not necessarily the same thing. If your boat is well-found and you have a strategy worked out to deal with heavy weather, things can be thoroughly uncomfortable without approaching dangerous. Conversely, just because you are comfortable inside your air-conditioned car, doesn’t mean you aren’t in danger on a busy highway.
  • I remember how euphoric I was during my first ocean passage (from Bermuda to Maine), when I didn’t know anything about sailing and so could just soak in the whole experience with complete child’s mind, without having to take on any responsibility other than to call John if something changed. John says he had that same feeling when he was crew on other peoples’ boats; once he became skipper on his own boat, the burden of responsibility interfered with that sense of freedom. We have determined that in our future cruising we want to get back in touch with that feeling of euphoria and sense of freedom by taking our responsibilities a little lighter and being more in the moment. So, to all of you, fair winds, following seas, and don’t lose touch with that child’s mind!

Ted, our friend and crew on two extended voyages to the Arctic, had almost no sailing experience before joining us but he was a great crew. An accomplished back country skier, he was able to teach us a little about mountains and has the added advantage for a crew of having a really quick and deeply sick sense of humour

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Meet the Author

Phyllis

Phyllis has sailed over 40,000 offshore miles with John on their McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, most of it in the high latitudes, and has crossed the Atlantic three times. As a woman who came to sailing as an adult, she brings a fresh perspective to cruising, which has helped her communicate what they do in an approachable way, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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