The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

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.

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.

So here we go.

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Serge Paul

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

Serge Paul

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

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.

Colin Speedie

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



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.


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!

Bill Attwood

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

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.


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


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.

Marc Dacey

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

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

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


Erik de Jong

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

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


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

Dick Stevenson

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

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

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


Marc Dacey

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

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.


Arlen Sevrin

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

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.

Bill Attwood

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

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


Marc Dacey

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.

Wilson Fitt

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.

Wilson Fitt

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

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

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

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!

Rob Benson

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

Ryan Ellison

Hi John,

This was a great list for a newbie like myself, thanks!

One thing I have noticed however, getting in the sailing world is the lack of attention spent in books, etc on exactly how to behave in an emergency. Some books touch on it, you touched on it above (pausing before taking action).

In another life, when I was a flight instructor we drilled into students a few common things. Before anything there was a typical saying (something similar is taught in Air Force pilot training). 1. Maintain Control 2. analyze the situation 3. take the proper action 4. land (park, whatever) as soon as conditions permit.

In ground training we pushed this in to peoples minds, and it saved my skin more than a few times (in fact before we would run emergency senarios on the ground we would have to recite the above phrase). This and memorizing a few exact procedures for dealing with critical emergencies such as fire, smoke, etc. I realize a boat is a bit different than an aircraft but it surprises me that the concepts I listed are not discussed a bit more. To me its fundamental aspects of seamanship.

Again, thanks for the list above, its given me a few things to think about.



Hi John,

this seems to be an appropriate place to post it. The USCG provides yearly accident statistics, and the top ten accident causes speak for themselves, or speak for your rules.
In brackets are the accident numbers for 2016 (I’ve omitted the death counts…):

1 Operator inattention (597)
2 Operator inexperience (480)
3 Improper lookout 475 20 380
4 Excessive Speed (360)
5 Machinery failure (323)
6 Alcohol use (282)
7 Weather (214)
8 Navigation rules violation (213)
9 Hazardous waters (205)
10 Force of wave/wake (160)

While number 4 might not seem to relate to sailboats it might as well relate to playing around with an overpowered Dinghy.

The complete report can be downloaded here:

Marc Dacey

The human element is clearly the most dangerous aspect of being on the water.

Paul Padyk

I am just beginning to learn about sailing but after 20+ years as an emergency medicine physician all of this brilliant discussion reminds me of a rule I have worked by: when caring for a critically ill patient, the first pulse to take is my own. There is ample literature supporting our inability to perform in an emergency if we are overly stressed. To echo Ryan Ellison’s comment, my air-medical helicopter and airplane pilot friends often say regarding an emergency: aviate (fly the plane!), navigate, communicate. Translating that to sailing would sound like sail the boat, figure out where you are and need to go, then call for help as needed. This post and comments are an excellent infrastructure upon which to build my own experience.


Used to leave the rocna in the locker. Now it’s out ready to go. Now take two containers of plumbers putty jam them in a thin baggy and use that to seal the deck opening to the chain locker under the windlass. Pops out immediately if you need to drop the anchor. The Rocna hoop allows you to secure a line to a bow cleat loop it around the hoop -go around the base of the other bow cleat go forward around the hoop and back. Then use the tail to make a Spanish windlass between the two loops. Need the anchor throw the line off the cleat. … undo the Spanish windlass. Done in less time than it takes to explain it.

Dave Meindl

On the concept of “sitting down to think about a problem before acting”, I couldn’t agree with that more. I can’t remember his exact wording but when Joshua Slocum ran into a problem, he would go down below, have a drink, and think about it before doing anything. While I’m not proposing that a drink is the answer, it does drive home the point that we should pause to think before we act. It lets the emotions settle out a bit before we decide on a course of action. As a professional aviator I can say with confidence that in almost all situations (there are a few exceptions like fire on board) the best thing to do is sit on your hands, take a breath, and think…. then act.
On another note I think that one of the crucial pieces, not discussed much in this post, is the concept of a personal performance envelope. Again, taking a page from aviation, one of the critical pieces that’s important to understand during the process of learning to fly is where your performance envelope is (read – safe limits). In other words, where does your experience place you in the big scheme and what you are ready to ‘try’. You need to take an honest look at your abilities, your crew, your boat, your experience, and only then decide what your personal limits are. The trick to safely becoming better at what you do is to truly understand these limits (serious personal reflection) and then pushing them out just far enough each time to learn more while learning safely. This is, hopefully, the process whereby we grow and become better without stepping too far over our personal safety limits. As the saying goes “you never learn much while staying inside your comfort zone”. We just need to be careful not to step out farther than we are really ready for.