The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Nobody’s Perfect

One of the strangest exchanges I have ever had occurred in my days as a sailing instructor. My manager sidled up to me one day and asked, “Do you demonstrate all of the manoeuvres to your students in advance, before asking them to do it?”. Thinking this might be some kind of trick question, I thought for a moment, before replying that of course I did—how else would they know what to do? He then floored me by loudly proclaiming that “I never do—what if you get it wrong?”. I could have told him that surely that was the whole point of it—it would show that we can all make mistakes. That it’s how you recognise your error, take the appropriate action to stop it getting really messy, draw breath, and then go round again and do it right that matters. Mistakes are what we learn from, and that in itself was a valuable lesson for the students. But somehow I recognised that I’d be wasting my breath.

Who Never Makes A Mistake?

In my view, we’re none of us supermen, but if we work hard at it we can become capable sailors. Throw in commitment to life long learning and a large dash of humility and we can aspire to competence. To me, there are few other pastimes that require such a wide set of skills as becoming skipper of a yacht and going offshore cruising. And many of those skills are hard won, often the result of bitter experience—it’s a school of hard knocks.

As I’ve grown older I recognise more and more that ‘risk plays no part in adventure—planning does’, as the old British military maxim goes, so Lou and I plan and practice as much as possible, to ensure that when the time comes we know (hopefully?) what to do. And in the interest of candour, I still get things wrong!

And How…

Like last week. After a long, enforced lay-up, we had finally got Pèlerin back in the water and it was time to take her out for a gentle shakedown. All went well, and we decided to anchor for the night off a quiet beach where we had regularly seen other yachts at anchor. As this was the first time we’d anchored since our arrival in the Canary Islands we had our standard set-up of a 33kg Rocna with plenty of chain ready to go, picked a spot over sand, dropped the hook, set it, and when all seemed well, settled down for a peaceful night, gently riding to the ever present swell.

Next morning we decided to head across to another of the islands, and that’s when my complacency became apparent. As we motored up to retrieve the anchor, it came up solid—the anchor was snagged 8m down. No trip line either, so it was time to dig out the new wet suit, weight belt, snorkel and mask and get down there to sort it out.

Off I went, complete with trip line and buoy, found the anchor (under a boulder) and dived down—to get within a metre of it before excessive buoyancy sent me back up to the surface. The new wetsuit (bought, but never tried) was thicker and more buoyant than the old, so it was back to Pèlerin for more weight. Start again, and this time all went well. Ten minutes later we were on our way, with no scars to show for it.

It Happens

But it could have been far more serious, if we’d had to move due to a major wind shift, or if the anchor had been deeper. And it was entirely avoidable—I should have checked the bottom on the chart, instead of just relying on having seen others out there before, which would have told me that the bottom was sand and stone. I should have changed the anchor to our big fisherman whilst we were in the boatyard—I had enough time, and knew that many serious cruisers reckon that the fisherman is THE anchor in the Canaries, with its predominantly rocky and foul bottom. I could have simply set up a trip line (but I hate them), and so resisted using one…But no harm was done, thankfully, and I was very lucky that such a timely wake-up call had no serious consequences.

Ultimately, we can all make mistakes, perhaps due to fatigue or debilitating seasickness, or even simple complacency in seemingly ideal locations or conditions. The former is blameless in one sense, the latter less so—but it’s the truth that we need to ward off each with equal vigour, as both can be punished equally harshly. And there is no dropping your guard when in charge of your craft—if you want an easier life, maybe take up bowling, or golf, anything! So I’m currently busy reviewing our practices for all eventualities yet again, starting in the foothills of planning and aiming for the summit of error free cruising, in the sure knowledge that in such a complex life, we may never get there—but we can, and we must, try, try and try again.

Any new ideas to ward off complacency gratefully received…Please leave a comment.

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Ray Dunn

This is so timely (for humility’s sake). My wife and I were returning to the dock one day after a great (if not just a bit cold) day in the harbor in our J24, and having good wind (10-12 kts, consistent, not puffy) with an outgoing tide. We had two friends on the boat who had never been on a sailboat before, but we have double-handed this boat so many times that we had become a little complacent in some of our habits that we didn’t get the motor out, and the jib halyard was untied- things I remember (now) being warned about in sailing school, and probably in the first few lessons. We tacked into a dying wind, and the current swept us into the boats docked at the marina before we could do anything about it. Of course, one friend and his wife, who had been walking out to their boat (where we were heading) noticed our mast and realized something wasn’t right, as we were desperately trying to fend off and not cause any damage to the other boats. Luckily, a J24 moving sideways at < 3 kts isn't much of a hazard, other than to my ego. Lesson learned!


Hi Ray

I’m always very nervous at haul out or launch time – despite having done each dozens of times over the years, and It’s partly due to the ‘ all fingers and thumbs’ element that accompanies it.

Plus I’ve seen too many blunders that ended up in tears caused, no doubt, by the same nervous tension.

Glad to hear that your tale didn’t have an unhappy ending – may it always be so…

Best wishes


Dick Stevenson

Good on you to free dive to 8 meters. Getting there is usually not the issue, getting back up is the challenge.
I also dislike an anchor ball and I hate the indiscriminate use of them by others. At times, though, they are a necessary extra work nuisance when bottom conditions call for one.
The danger with balls, are that they can get caught in your (or others) propeller or rudder. I have seen boats get hung up on their anchor ball on calm nights only to pull their anchor up when the wind came up in the morning. This was made particularly entertaining to all around as he could no longer use his engine. The same can occur when the wind shifts and the whole anchorage re-aligns to the changing conditions. All re-align except the anchor ball which stays in place and is a threat to those swinging into it. I have seen a couple of instances of boats firing up their engines to leave in the morning, not realizing they have caught another’s anchor ball, only to stall and do damage when put in gear and their prop eats another boats anchor ball and line. These incidents were unfortunate, but a worst case scenario would have boats hung up during a squall at night where all the boats are starting to play bumper-boat.
So, given the above, it is likely not surprising that I consider the indiscriminate use of anchor balls as a quite unsociable habit in anchorages where other boats are about and not wise even when alone. Further, some skippers seem not to realize that anchor balls take up 2 anchoring spots when used. I have almost given up trying to talk skippers out of their anchoring choice when their newly placed anchor and ball will be in my swinging range in a wind shift. A frequent argument on their part is that this allows them to know where their anchor is. I suggest there are other ways to keep track of one’s anchor. I just re-anchor.
A few things thoughts on anchor ball use when necessary. No floating lines and try to judge high tide closely to keep the slack out of the pennant. Use strong enough line to actually do the job of reversing the anchor out of a stuck spot. Our anchor has a 3-4 foot tether with a small (fish net) float and a loop at the end and is attached to the reversing end of the anchor. The float-with-loop makes finding an attachment point easier as it should be free of the bottom even if the anchor is buried or obscured. (First finding and then using the eye in most anchors when deployed is a real challenge.) The loop allows me to free dive with a line and a clip (spring loaded carabineer) as at 8 meters depth (or any depth): I am not going to be happy taking time tying a knot nor wish to drag a line through and drag back to the surface.
In the last resort, I carry dive gear for anchoring problems (or other underwater problems). It should not be underestimated, how little time one has at the bottom to work and how quickly tired one becomes, when free diving to any appreciable depth.
As always, an interesting topic. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Ps. When your anchor is stuck, , do not neglect a number of methods to free your anchor that can be attempted from the surface.


Hi Dick

You’re right on the money as always – the indiscriminate use of anchor balls is a curse, and one of the reasons I am so reluctant to use one. I’ve seen people wake up in the morning foul of their own trip line, too, and on two occasions have seen anchor buoys picked up in by mistake – the miscreants thought they were lifting a mooring strop (and one of these was mine).

For recovery I use an extra long line with a carabineer on the end, as it’s easy to simply pass it through the roll bar on the Rocna and make it fast to the riser. Like most kids who grew up by the sea I’m just as happy to free dive down if it’s less than 10m – over that I’ll get out our scuba gear. But I’m obsessively careful with the riser and buoy, always keeping them down wind or tide and then diving down well clear of them – and I carry a knife – always.

Like you I’ve had success (usually) with a loop of chain lowered down the cable, but that supposes that you can lift the shank – which we couldn’t do in this case. Perhaps if we’d got the dinghy out we might have been able to drag the loop over the shank horizontally. But that was even more work than simply getting in to what wasn’t deep, turbid or cold water. And at least I felt I’d been punished for my carelessness!

Best wishes



even in benign conditions i find myself constantly constructing in my mind the consequences of my actions or proposed actions and then how i would address these consequences…in these anticipations i believe i have avoided numerous less-than-desirable situations although not eliminating them entirely…it seems there are palatable risks with all boat-related actions so maybe what i am really doing is assessing whether or not the risks are acceptable…if not then i need to decide how to make them acceptable…richard in tampa bay (m/v cavu’s skipper, formerly s/v sidra’s skipper)


Hi Richard

I tend to do the same – it was always drummed into me that difference between a skipper and a crew member was that the skipper had to think in the future and multiple dimensions!

Assessing risk requires sometimes that we deviate from preconceived certainties – as is often said, ‘the first thing to go is the plan!’.

Best wishes




Check out threat and error management plans that are used in aviation. Not sure right off my head of what some of the book titles are but a quick google search of ” crew resource management , fatigue risk, or threat and error management in aviation” should turn up several articles and books.

Tired and overworked pilots do crazy things and have killed lots of people. Needless to say governments and airlines have gone to great measures to make sure it happens less and the same mistakes never happen again. That said almost all of the material is solid and makes sense for everyday applications in the marine emvironment.



Hi Mike

Of course – what a great idea, as you suggest there are so many parallels with flying – although the consequences are worse in the air.

I hate heights, and can hardly climb a tall step ladder, but I’m an avid fan of climbing books, and find many similarities with sailing thinking, particularly in regard to the difference between subjective and objective risk. Many of my best sailing friends are former climbers who have survived, and are all really good guys to have aboard a boat – they have an innate sense of risk, and can be relied upon to do the right thing. maybe I should add pilots to that category – great idea, so thanks.


Nick Kats

The real issue here is making mistakes. How does one deal with this at sea?

I make lots of mistakes & I expect others to too. I accept this – up to a point.

Minor mistakes are normal. Relax. Learn & get on with it.

Mistakes with extreme consequences are totally unacceptable. I make a total effort to avoid these.

In the 4 yrs I’ve sailed out of W Ireland, about 12 months total and ranging 1500 miles out, I estimate that as skipper I’ve made 4 mistakes with a relatively unacceptable risk of severe consequences including shipwreck and/or death. 2 were solely of my own judgment, and 2 more were mistakes that I allowed others to make against my better judgment as skipper.

On those occasions I tend to recognize the mistakes on analysis afterwards. Initially there was unease & discomfort but not clarity.

One thing I learned from these was to emphasize more fully my instinct and judgment as skipper. Listen to the discomfort, the unease. Do not allow others to override these feelings.

Most potential mistakes or risk I instantly recognize to the best of my ability & continually assess as conditions change.

Honesty is critical. If I make a mistake I correct it instantly. If crew are present I explain to them. There is no embarrassment – I correct things & explain what I’m doing. Just do it. Easy.

As opposed to this is the attitude of several crew I’ve had. They showed themselves incapable of acknowledging when they made a mistake. One person would hide from his mistake if it was nighttime. If in the day, he would try to ram his mistake through or create a BS cover story. Another person was incapable of discussing his basic navigation mistake in the one leg course he gave me, which led over lots of rock & shallows & which would have led to serious problems in the freshening onshore breeze & rising tide. This inability to acknowledge error is extremely dangerous. Such people cannot be relied on. I do not take them out again.

A lot of yachtsmen have an inferiority complex precisely because they don’t know much about boats & the sea and are fed a lot of gobbydegook by yachting clubs, sailing magazines and the mores of yachting fashion. I feel that machissimo and dishonesty re making mistakes is rampant in this group.

Mistakes are just part of normal sailing, indeed of life. Conditions change, the complexities are everchanging, unforeseen things happen, and one may simply not be on the ball at all times. Therefore I have a laidback but uncompromisingly honest approach re mistakes.

A huge part of avoiding mistakes is to avoid the drama. This
means looking far ahead, excellent preparation, and taking steps to increase the margins of safety should things become unacceptably risky or go awry.


Hi Nick

Lots of very good thoughts here, and an honest reflection of human fallibility.

Life is different for me these days, as I no longer sail with a crew – Lou and I are happy enough together, and we take extra care in all things, whether it be navigation, watch keeping or boat management, but when I used to sail commercially with a full crew I saw many of the incidences you mention. Luckily, we had time to select and train our first mates, and discarded any that couldn’t be relied on to be honest at all times. As you’ve acknowledged, we can all make mistakes – it’s how we get out of them, and I was really fortunate with all of our team in that regard.

The ones that really worry me are those who ‘never make a mistake’- or so they claim. As the old saying goes, ‘the man who always says I’m no fool usually has his doubts’!

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.



Hi Nick,
Your comment is filled with tons of sound advice and merits re-reading. One thing that stands out in thinking about the types of mistakes I’ve made— if it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. Rather than go into detail about particulars of my f-ups, let Frank, a senior airline pilot I was in business with describe his approach to emergencies:

“When you have an emergency the first thing to do is think about what is happening. Think, then react.” A good friend of his saved hundreds of lives by flying a DC-10 with no flight controls for a hundred miles to a survivable landing in Iowa using that kind of approach.


Hi Richard

Good point about thinking before reacting. Every week we went out we had to carry out a safety briefing for our volunteers, and one point I always made was that if anything broke or went wrong, they were NOT to try and do anything without the say-so of myself or the Mate. If we wanted help, we’d ask them for it, and explain exactly what we needed them to do. I also always stated that if there was a problem, I might not do something instantly unless I absolutely had to – I preferred to think for a minute, weigh up the options and then act.

As many of our volunteers were new to boats they sometimes found that hard to understand – they’d seen the movie, and the hero always acted instantly, and always did exactly the right thing to save the day. But in real life you can just as easily do the wrong thing, or worse still put yourself or someone else at risk needlessly – and a few moments reflection can make all the difference in the world.

Best wishes


David Nutt

If Judy and I knew everything that was going to happen aboard Danza on our circumnavigation or the trip to Greenland there would be little point in going. We prepare as best we can all the while knowing that it will not be as imagined. Passages and anchorages will be better and worse than anticipated, some gear will perform as hoped while other gear will fail catching us completely by surprise.
The one tool we both carry in our bags is the confidence that we
can deal with it. In Kupang, West Timor I went down the anchor chain in 18 meters of water with about 50cm of viz to find the anchor hooked on an old chain with massive links. I fell and broke bones in my face and received a significant laceration at the beginning of a very rough passage from Sardinia to Minorca and left the night in the hands of my 12 year old son and 8 year old daughter. We just knew we could do it. No doubt there will come a time where we are against the wall and we will have to find another way out but once again, we will find that way.
We go out there for the very reason that there are no guarantees, that we are on our own, that the decisions, both right and wrong are ours and simply because we can.

Nick Kats

David, this is the best attitude to take re mistakes. Thanks.

Colin, slipping & buoying the anchor chain for later retrieval after a presumed blow is always an option. Just switch over to the back up anchor & rode.

Phil Austin

“What if….” – before you begin any action, what’s your back up plan if it doesn’t go well? Make it THE standard mantra for you and your crew. Talk the maneuver through out loud, as well as what you and each crew member will do if it doesn’t work out.


Thought provoking – thank you Colin et al. The maxim to “pause for thought” serves so well in so many situations.

On the trip-line problem, sailor and inventor Cllive Loughlin has just publicised a very interesting option – a trip line with embedded magnets, strong enough to stick to the chain rode yet small and localised enough not to affect the compass.

I’ve not been unlucky enough to need it yet but will use one for that day.


Hi Neil

Interesting concept, especially as it does away with the anchor buoy – the cause of many problems with tripping lines.

I have once or twice simply taken a line long enough to be at least a couple of metres above the surface at HW and rolling hitched it on to the chain at the appropriate height up the chain. This also does away with the anchor buoy (I’ve only done this in crowded anchorages where the bottom was known to be foul in places) but I still worry that it might itself snag on something and so be more of a nuisance than a help.

So if this works….

Best wishes


John Harries

Hi All,

Like several people who have commented on this post, I hate trip lines too, and consequently, we probably don’t use one as often as we should.

We are currently testing the AnchorWitch device as an alternative to trip lines, thanks to the kindness of Antoni Campins, AnchorWitch inventor who provided us with one of his units. So far things look positive. We will report in due course.