A Seaman’s 14 New Year’s Resolutions

I have got to the age where I’m comfortable with my bad habits and so the standard New Year’s resolutions hold little interest for me—I’m simply not giving up whisky* or chocolate.

But as a voyaging sailor, I know that forgetting the basic rules of seamanship can be the slippery road to disaster. And even after all the years and miles I have cruised, or maybe even because of that (hubris is a dangerous thing), I often take a moment to remind myself of those rules. It’s New Year’s, a good time to turn those rules into resolutions:

      1. I will never set a course close to a lee shore just to save a few minutes, or even hours.

      2. When at sea with bad weather coming, I will stay offshore, the further the better, unless I am sure that we can make safe harbour before it starts blowing.

        It’s not the sea that kills sailors, it’s the hard bits around the edges.

      3. I will always know what the tide or current is doing where we are, and what it will be doing where we are going to be.

      4. If severe weather is expected, I will stay out of tidal waters or offshore currents (Gulf Stream).

      5. I will never do a night approach, particularly to an unfamiliar harbour, unless the dangers of doing so are outweighed by the dangers of not doing so (very rare).

      6. I will never make something complex, when it could be simple.

      7. I won’t be lazy.

      8. I won’t let myself be distracted while on watch.

        That includes playing with iThings, playing with the plotter, listening to music, and reading. Yeah, I know I’m tough about this, but it’s called “on watch” for a reason. (Some exceptions are made when we are way, way offshore, but not in coastal waters.)

      9. I will always remember that there is no reason that justifies compromising a good and safe footing on deck.

      10. I will listen to others, but do my own analysis and make my own decisions.

      11. I will always prepare for going to sea as if we will be hit with a full on storm.

      12. When anchoring, I will always assume that it will blow like blazes, probably while we are asleep.

      13. The time to reef is when I first think about it.

      14. I will keep our boat cleared for action, on deck and below.

In looking over this list I’m embarrassed to admit that over the years I have broken every single one of these resolutions. The good news is that I have not broken them often and every year I renew my commitment to not break them again. Will I be perfect in this? Of course not, but I will try hard.

The Photograph

In case you are wondering how the photograph fits in, it shows the boat that inspired this post.

We were walking along the beach at Cape May, New Jersey on a blustery day with an onshore wind. The boat appeared around the headland coming from Delaware Bay steaming with no sail up and right on the shallow water contour.

Wait, it gets worse. Later I talked to a crew member who allowed as how the engine seemed to be overheating—we could see steam coming from the exhaust, all the way from the beach.

But even if the engine was running fine, and they had some sail up, going that close to a lee shore, particularly one that is comprised of shifting sands, just to shave an hour or so off a passage, is not survival behavior, or seamanlike.

I’m pleased to say that the day before, in the same conditions, we slugged all the way out to the sea buoy, well into deep water, even though it added a good ten miles to our day, before turning for Cape May inlet. Also, we had timed it so that the tide was flooding before we ran the inlet.

Happy New Year

Our very best wishes for a prosperous, healthy, and above all, happy New Year to all our readers.

Comments

I’m sure I don’t have the lock on wisdom here. What resolutions can you add to the above list?

* As far as I’m concerned, there is only one type, and it’s made in Scotland.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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52 comments … add one
  • Magne Jan 1, 2013, 1:09 pm

    Some extra:
    – I will never leave harbour without checking that there is no loose ends off ropes. Not a ich are allowed outside the fence.
    – I will make sure that new crew understands the importance by doing exactly and instantly what the skip says, otherwise they must stay in cabin.

  • Chris Jan 1, 2013, 3:26 pm

    John,
    Good list.
    There is also an overarching concept that embraces intuition developed over years of practice — if it feels wrong, it probably is.

    The corollary is: If it feels wrong and nothing objectively is, then it is the feeler that is the problem.

    In both cases, don’t press on until it feels right. This was one of those flying lessons that came from learning from a pilot who had been a line pilot for years before becoming an instructor. The other guys taught flying — he taught getting there successfully.
    C

  • Richard Jan 1, 2013, 6:06 pm

    When in small boats, don’t go farther than you care to paddle back..

  • Dick Stevenson Jan 2, 2013, 5:06 am

    John, One rule (or “goal to strive for) on Alchemy when offshore is to do things at 2/3rds normal speed. Offshore, both the down side and likelihood of an accident increase and this rule keeps that concern in your peripheral vision. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Grenville Byford Jan 2, 2013, 8:47 am

    This has stood me in pretty good stead over 40,000 odd miles : I will not assume that I know where I am until I have a position which is consistent with every single piece of objective data available to me.

    Grenville Byford

  • Horatio Marteleira Jan 2, 2013, 9:19 am

    Very well said!!
    THE CATCH IS THAT THESE RULES HAVE TO BE FOLLOWED OVER AND OVER.
    The only damage (or near catastrophe) so far happened while breaking two of those rules: on a delivery I nearly splattered an almost-new Bavaria onto an unlit seawall while playing with the fancy chartplotter and ruining my night vision; and exploded a jib when I smuggly felt my boat could take the fierce wind.
    I think 99% of sailors (even armchair sailors) know the rules you listed.
    However, I’ve heard of so many stories of “I’ve being doing that for years and nothing has ever gone wrong…stop being a wuss”. It gives me goose bumps hearing that sort of warped logic.

    • John Jan 2, 2013, 5:10 pm

      Hi Horatio,

      Now that’s a good point. I can think of at at least half a dozen near disasters over the years that could be easily traced to me doing something stupid when I knew better.

  • Ed Seling Jan 2, 2013, 9:57 am

    From personal experience I think number 2 needs an addendum. ” If a storm is coming and you are in harbor…stay there.” Lives are more important than the boat.

    A suggested resolution: ” I will never approach a dock faster than I want to hit it!”

    Happy New Year

    • Matt Marsh Jan 2, 2013, 5:38 pm

      Nice one, Ed. I wish I could use it. (It happens a few times a year that the only way to get my runabout into position is to come flying in and give her hard-over and 1/2 reverse at the last second… that’s the downside of a very light boat with a lot of windage forward.)

      And one more: “I will do my preventive maintenance inspections on schedule.” (I think I’m way overdue for a water pump rebuild and a carb cleaning, not to mention the two missing zincs and the fried cranking battery….)

  • Dick Stevenson Jan 2, 2013, 10:01 am

    Ed,That is a great resolution! Dick

  • Scott Kuhner Jan 2, 2013, 10:16 am

    One more thing I do before going t sea:
    I go up on the foredeck, spin around three times to my right, throw a pinch of salt over my left shoulder and yell at the top of my voice, “Neptune Oh Neptune, great God of the sea, Look after my boat and look after me!”

    • John Jan 2, 2013, 5:13 pm

      Salt? Salt? Neptune has plenty of salt. Better a whisky, like Tilman used to do, I say.

      • John Rushworth Jan 2, 2013, 6:24 pm

        Or as my ex Super Tanker Captain of a father-in-law said :- ‘Why put any water in whisky, they’ve spent a long time getting it out!’
        Thanks for the H. W. Tilman ref. I must read some of his books.

        • John Jan 3, 2013, 11:56 am

          Hi John,

          Beware reading Tilman. Afterward you may suddenly and inexplicably find yourself on a sailboat heading for Greenland.

  • John Rushworth Jan 2, 2013, 10:55 am

    I will never set to sea believeing the fog will lift. I will never trust my radar reflector alone.

  • Paul Tetreault Jan 2, 2013, 12:17 pm

    Here’s another that may be just wishful thinking these days, like keeping a sextant on board along with a copy of HO249. “Always plan on your electronics going out. Always have paper charts and a running plot on hand.”

    Great post, the very best New Year wishes to all.

  • Bill Jan 2, 2013, 12:28 pm

    I am surprised (well, maybe not so much considering the type of sailor that posts here) that you haven’t caught a little bit of flack about the no-music-on-watch part. I agree with you, but find it hard to explain to those who don’t.

    BTW, where is Scotland? I’ve looked all over my map of Kentucky and can’t find it anywhere.

  • John Rushworth Jan 2, 2013, 12:31 pm

    Bill, then you have never drunk real whisky 😉 John on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.

    • Bill Jan 2, 2013, 5:59 pm

      To be absolutely honest, I did once try one of those peaty Lowland concoctions they make up there. Then, (Rule 1: Don’t get rushed; Rule B: Don’t jump to conclusions) I tried it again. And, frankly, will repeat as necessary. Wonderful stuff.

      And even if you get a bad batch, you can take a sip and imagine yourself on the west coast of Scotland…overlooking the ocean…watching the sun set…into the west…in the general direction of Kentucky…;)

      • John Rushworth Jan 2, 2013, 6:20 pm

        Bill, Yes and in fact Islay (8 distilleries) is but a day sail for me from the Clyde and Jura is close by too. I prefer the Speyside malts and admit that peaty is an accuuired taste. My Grandfather lived on Islay and gave his billiard table to the distillery, so that was a childhood introduction. My father’s job for our UK Health & Safety Executive was inspecting the whisky distilleries. An onerous task eh! I have to say he now has a taste for the amber nectar. I may go the same way 😉

        • Nicolas Jan 2, 2013, 7:58 pm

          Ay, the Islay whiskey I tried tasted like a cigarette ashtray.. I ascribed it to smoking the oak barrels.

  • Dan Alonso Jan 2, 2013, 12:35 pm

    I must qoute you John. Do everything at the dock, it takes 5 times longer offshore.

    There are old sailors and there are bold sailors, but there are no old bold sailors. -Bernie Jenks-

  • Shannon Jan 2, 2013, 1:22 pm

    I am not a sailor yet, but I am a pilot, and one thing I have learned is if one absolutely has to be somewhere, it is almost always better to go commercial.

  • Ben Eriksen Jan 2, 2013, 1:45 pm

    Super list, thanks John. #7 is a great one…

  • Kettlewell Jan 2, 2013, 3:58 pm

    Three more. Save your night vision by avoiding using lights as much as possible. I always tell the on watch to wake me, no matter what time, if they are uncertain about something. Two heads are often better than one. Approach any loaded line or cleat like it is a bear trap waiting to spring—take a moment to stop and think before releasing a line under great load.

  • John Jan 2, 2013, 5:05 pm

    Hi All,

    Wow, this is great. All kinds of really good resolutions I had not thought of, and good reminders for all of us, no matter how experienced.

    Please keep them coming.

  • Paul Mills Jan 2, 2013, 5:21 pm

    John,

    The one Scottish type is ????? – there are many tens…. said he with a small glass of 16 year old Jura in his hand 🙂 – so smooth and rounded, and less peaty than many.

    paul

    • John Jan 2, 2013, 6:21 pm

      Hi Paul,

      Oops, I was not clear, when I said “type” I was referring to geographical areas. Of course there are many different brands…and life is so short!

  • Dick Stevenson Jan 2, 2013, 5:49 pm

    Bill & John
    You may be confused about Scotland, but I too am surprised there is not more comment about John’s on watch rules. John, I wonder what you do during the time? How do you pass the time and stay alert? It is not so hard to imagine adhering to your rules if you have company, but we are always a crew of 2: our watches are alone. Our aim is always to be in the cockpit (fully kitted) where eyes and ears are most efficaciously utilized, but there is only so much watching of the heavens and observing phosphorescence trails one can do. In good conditions, we do listen to books on tape (one ear for your book, one ear for the boat) and we do also read with dim light. We have never been so distracted as to miss horizon sweeps nor have I noticed (and I have paid attention) that I have missed observations when I give a substantial amount of time to adjust. I suspect, knowing my proclivities, that I am a better watchkeeper for my entertaining activities than I would be if I just hung around keeping an eye and ear on things.
    Good & interesting topic, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    • John Jan 2, 2013, 6:18 pm

      Hi Dick,

      It’s an interesting subject, I agree. I’m thinking that the subject probably deserves a post of its own. Thanks for the idea.

      Mind you, I now just have to find a place for it in what seems to be a very full editorial schedule.

    • John Jan 3, 2013, 11:45 am

      Hi Dick,

      After some more thought, I think that the key here is that, although it is not my way, it is probably fine and perfectly safe for cruisers with your experience to read or listen to books on tape while on watch, although I would not recommend it in crowded coastal waters—suspect that you don’t do it in those conditions anyway.

      Having said that, what worries me is that people who are new to cruising will start off with many distractions and won’t have the knowledge or understanding to determine when a given form of “entertainment” is appropriate and safe.

      To answer your question about what we do on long solo watches, that is probably better answered as a post.

  • Steve Jan 2, 2013, 6:45 pm

    John,
    First off happy new year to all.

    All the rules are so important but for Tracy and I number 8 is very important on night watch. No music, especially with head phones. So many problems you hear before you see them. I know it is not easy staying awake, but.

    Also on open ocean I do keep the chart plotter on but often will throw a towel over the damn thing so I don’t keep letting my eyes drift for a non needed look. I’ll take the towel off when writing in the log and need info off the plotter.

    When there is just the two of us and it has been a tough passage I think I would rather see the watch person take a 10 minute snooze with the aid of an egg timer than try and stay awake by listening to music. Seems like when one has done enough passages you hear everything going on even if you are sleeping. But that can be a big mistake as I have no way of proving it.

    Best to all.

    • Kettlewell Jan 2, 2013, 8:05 pm

      Offshore you don’t need to leave the chartplotter on most of the time. One advantage of using paper charts is that you don’t have all that chartplotter light ruining your night vision. I do keep a GPS going that keeps track of things, but can also run lightless. I even go so far as to turn off the compass light. A quick peek with a dim flashlight once in awhile is all you need offshore. There are a couple of little red indicator lights on the instrument panel down below that are all we need to get around at night. It makes a huge difference to safety keeping your night vision. On the other hand, I have talked to lots of folks that sit down below offshore, watching the chart plotter and the radar only, in between breaks from the movies on the laptop. They run purely on instruments. I don’t like that method.

      • Steve Jan 2, 2013, 8:39 pm

        Hi Kettlewell,

        I’m not so sure one can shut the chart plotter totally off anymore the way the new systems work. I know it has been written here about having a screen for radar, AIS and GPS instead of one screen for all and I agreed with that in the past. But that is getting harder to do when trying to keep all electronics the same brand. I know 8 days into a 19 day passage across the Pacific I don’t need the chart plotter much but it has our GPS position on it so when I do the log that is where I will get my position. Also will have radar and AIS on screen when brought up. I don’t like that anymore than the rest of us that have sailed for a long time but that is what is out there now. Even if I had different screens for everything I would want the AIS on and the radar at least in sleep mode. So I would actually have more interference from screen light with a different screen for each device.
        We will have two chart plotters one at the helm and one in the dog house, even though they talk to each other I can always shut one off.
        I know we will always have our paper charts and we use them all the time. I just went out and ordered 60 pounds over 500 charts of Bellingham charts from Brittany to Borneo our next 5 years of cruising.
        I’m not sure how it will all come out in the end, I don’t mind sailing on passage with everything off but I’m not sure that is the responsible thing to do when we have the equipment if used properly to keep us safe and maybe others around you.

        Would love some different ideas on how to supply a new boat with electronics before I go out and spend a lot of money in the next month or so.

        Cheers

        • Kettlewell Jan 2, 2013, 9:33 pm

          Offshore you can see the lights of any ship long before it is a hazard, assuming you’re keeping a good watch, so I don’t really get the point of needing AIS or radar. Anything big enough to have AIS on probably will have running lights on too. But, if you feel AIS is a necessity there are versions that integrate with a VHF radio or even some radios with built in AIS. I keep a standalone GPS running that doesn’t have to be illuminated, and it provides me a position if I need it, and for periodically noting in the log. You really don’t need a continuous position fix when well offshore. I don’t like integrated stuff—would rather one problem doesn’t take down all my navigation stuff.

          • Horatio Marteleira Jan 3, 2013, 3:23 am

            Kettlewell – AIS is an offshore must!
            I crossed the Atlantic from New York – Portugal, meaning plenty of ships every day.
            My electronics were a VHF and a hand-held GPS, but I would have loved to have AIS.
            You can see the ship lights alright, and you can determine their general direction and everything is dandy UNTIL their general direction is toward you and you don’t know if they’ll miss you by 4 miles, 2 miles, 500 m or run you over. Ships are like port entrances, easy during the day…deceiving at night.

    • John Jan 3, 2013, 11:54 am

      Hi Steve,

      I would definitely agree, particularly with your last paragraph.

      Like everything in short handed sailing, it’s all about balancing risk, but Phyllis and I believe and practice that if one gets so tired that staying awake becomes impossible, or even very difficult, that it is better risk management to take a 10-15 minute power nap than fight it.

  • Tom T Jan 2, 2013, 8:21 pm

    No Scotch while on watch else you be on the rocks.

  • richard s. Jan 2, 2013, 9:49 pm

    to help being sure i don’t nod off at 4 a.m. two hours into a four-hour stint i always keep that bell-ringing egg timer lanyarded around my neck…just setting it every ten mins seems to help…that’s also my cue to do another 360-degree visual assuming visibility is decent…if not, then it’s radar screen time…just my two-cents worth

    richard in tampa bay
    s/v lakota

    • John Jan 3, 2013, 11:47 am

      Hi Richard,

      A good tip on the egg timer, particularly since I’m getting too deaf to reliably hear the alarm on my watch.

  • RDE (Richard Elder) Jan 2, 2013, 10:46 pm

    My rule: No offshore deliveries with the owner on board ever again!
    Well— I might make an exception if she were single, rich and beautiful and owned a new Boreal 53—.

  • Colin Farrar Jan 2, 2013, 11:26 pm

    “I will not sail a passage (or a cruise, for that matter) to a schedule.” Sure, I like to plan my arrival based on daylight and tide, but whenever I convince myself that I must be somewhere on a certain day and time, usually so as to avoid disappointing someone else, I get into trouble. In aviation it’s called get-there-itis, a causal factor in many accidents.

    • John Jan 3, 2013, 11:30 am

      Hi Colin,

      Great point. The most dangerous thing on a voyaging boat is a calendar!

  • Giancarlo Jan 3, 2013, 7:56 am

    Buon anno a tutti and a special one to our ”broken john,
    on long passages
    ”eat and sleep when you can”
    the worst judging mistake i ve done at sea were when i was tired and weak.
    Giancarlo

    • Nicolas Jan 3, 2013, 8:23 am

      Giancarlo, this is good. My priority over everything else is energy. If tired, thats when shit happens. If energetic & strong, you are clear headed and good for anything.
      Which is why I skip night watches when with limited crew in empty seas. The risk of a tired crew are vastly greater than the extremely slim risk of being run over by a commercial ship. Everyone sleeps at night & at all times are blasting with energy.
      Energy needs sleep, food, comfort, ease of movement, reliability, etc etc. Whatever it takes.
      I’m a mother hen when it comes to the comfort & energy of crew.
      So my rule to add, John, is: Energy first & foremost.

    • John Jan 3, 2013, 11:27 am

      Hi Giancarlo,

      Thanks very much for the good wishes. Still constrained to the walker, which is very limiting, but each day is a little better with a little more weight on the leg.

    • John Jan 3, 2013, 11:29 am

      Hi Giancarlo and Nicolas,

      I agree completely on how vital it is to get enough good food and rest when offshore.

  • Dick Stevenson Jan 3, 2013, 12:09 pm

    John, Agreed. The experience vs safety habits is an interesting area. Here in the UK there is far more regular inflatable lifejacket use, almost approaching seatbelt use, and we have been roundly critisized upon occasion for not having them on at all times. We have them and we use them, but only when conditions suggest it and that is every now and again. We did do single-handed man overboard drills in boisterous conditions last Oct. Sad to say, someone would have died the first go round. We were undercanvassed for the conditions, unlikely in regular life, but a good learning experience. With waves, you really need canvas to horse the boat about. Dick

  • RDE (Richard Elder) Jan 3, 2013, 12:26 pm

    Hi John,
    Back in the day when Formula 1 cars were fragile things built from steel tubes, the famous British driver Sterling Moss suffered a badly broken leg in a crash. His surgeon advised that he follow a radical program in which he began to exercise his broken leg almost immediately. Nine weeks (as I recall) later he drove a full length Gran Prix with a manual gearbox and clutch!

    Keep pushing! You’ll be back aboard for a summer of cruising!

    ps. Too bad we weren’t able to meet for skiing this year—maybe next season.

    • John Jan 7, 2013, 7:50 am

      Hi Richard,

      I used to watch Sterling Moss racing Formula one on TV back when I was at school in England in the sixties. A good man to try to emulate, although I fear that he was way tougher than I am.

  • Bob Tetrault Jan 3, 2013, 3:53 pm

    Wow, this post ran to the extremes and back. Here are a few to contribute to the future debate. “Always take care of the boat so it can take care of you”. “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best”. Always stand a “proper watch” but get into the routine early on, there is no day and night underway. The solo watch stander doesn’t leave the bridge, wheelhouse, or cockpit until joined by another. (I don’t sail solo except for very short runs in good weather.)

  • Magne Jan 3, 2013, 9:41 pm

    Many good advices above here! As an extra from the “crazy norwegian” : Dont leave harbour with an hangover, be sure your balance and fysio-coordinations are good. We leave the other choice to the motor-people 😀

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