Talking With a Professional Sailor

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There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening these days here in Lunenburg.

One of several new companies in town is Spartan Ocean Racing, who specialize in taking paying sailors offshore in high performance racing boats, albeit older ones, like Whitbread 60s.

The boss and lead skipper is Chris Stanmore-Major, a Brit with deep offshore sailing credentials, including having completed a single-handed round-the-world race on an Open 60 and skippering one of the pay-for-play Clipper Adventures boats some years before that. All in all Chris tells me he has racked up some 250,000 offshore miles, much of it in gnarly weather.

Chris was not best pleased about my musing about the dangers of putting amateurs on these high-performance boats that were designed for professionals, but he was nice about it and so we agreed to meet for lunch and have a chat.

And I have to say I had a fascinating time. Chris has more energy than any three normal people put together, and is both smart and articulate. He certainly made a convincing case that properly managed and led amateurs can have a good and safe time on these racing machines.

The core of his case is that keeping everyone safe is all down to the experience and smarts of the professional skipper and the pre-voyage training that said skipper supervises. And his bottomline is that he doesn’t think anyone should be in that position with less than 50,000 offshore miles under his or her belt, and a bunch of training that exceeds what is currently available in, for example, the Yacht Master program.

By the way, Colin, AAC European Correspondent and longterm professional skipper with decades of experience keeping inexperienced amateurs safe at sea, has said much the same to me on several occasions.

Made sense to me. If you are going to manage one of these racing machines and all the people-management issues of up to 22 strangers, many with little or no prior experience, you are going to need a lot deeper set of skills, training and experience than us recreational offshore skippers have or need.

So, did he convince me? Hum, still thinking about it. With the kind of experience and training of the skipper that he’s talking about…maybe yes.

Chris also had some interesting insights into the two recent fatalities on one of the Clipper boats, but I’m not going there since the last thing I want is to feed into the ghoulish discussion of these tragedies that is already going on. Also, I guess there might be legal fallout from this event, so it’s doubly inappropriate to speculate here. That said, I did learn things that will be useful when I write about safety issues in the future.

The other thing that was interesting was how many core beliefs about offshore sailing Chris and I share, despite our very different sailing experience:

Seamanship

  • Anyone who takes a sailboat offshore needs to know how to heave-to.
  • Almost any boat can be made to heave-to, and the cop-out that modern boats can’t be made to heave-to is just that.
  • It’s not the sea that kills sailors, it’s the hard bits around the edges.

Safety

  • Chris always clips on, except in very calm weather.
  • It’s really important that we don’t festoon ourselves with huge amounts of difficult-to-don safety gear that will slow us down getting on deck in an emergency.
  • That said, even in an emergency we should be properly clothed and have a harness on before leaving the cabin. No “I will dash up in my underwear and be a hero” stuff.
  • In a person overboard (POB) situation the boat should be stopped as quickly as possible (the quick stop technique), none of this reaching off on a course getting sorted out, and then trying to reach back on the reciprocal to the POB, as you sometimes hear advocated.

Watch Systems

He likes the same Swedish watch system that Phyllis and I have used for decades and agrees that generally watches should not rotate. In other words, each crew member should stand the same watches each day so their body-clocks can get used to the cycle.

Learning Good

I also learned a lot of new stuff, which I’m sure will appear in my writing going forward.

It’s always great to discuss offshore sailing with, and have my thinking challenged by—no, we didn’t agree on everything—someone who really knows the game, to make sure I’m not drinking my own Kool-Aid too much. Of course, you lot in the comments help to keep me well grounded too.

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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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26 comments … add one
  • Marc Dacey Feb 15, 2017, 12:49 pm

    I look forward to how your and Mr. Stanmore-Major’s opinions line up or fail to line up. An old boss of mine went on one of these Clipper trips and subsequently cruised a Leopard cat for some time; I should ask him his views.

    I think there is a different dynamic going on, however. Cruising couples generally have (due to the need to stand watches and general sailing experience) similar or at least complementary seamanship skills. They have to, otherwise the more experienced sailor would never fall asleep. Cruising couples also (if they are also smart) have several “outs” in vicinities of coasts planned in case of mechanical failure, fatigue, foul weather, illness or just not wanting to push the boat so hard. They generally aren’t on a schedule.

    The Clipper cruises, by contrast, appear to follow a route. The seamanship is variable from (probably) approaching that of the skipper to zero, never stepped on a boat. With a large crew in training mode and a former race boat, I would suspect these boats don’t slow down much: the crew complement can mean they can be sailed more aggressively or at least efficiently than a two-crew heavier displacement cruiser. A watch with four members at all times would be logical, and you could have more watches.

    These are not necessarily situations in which there’s a right or wrong (save for obvious things like “always clipping on” and “know how to heave to”) but which comprise very different goals and onboard dynamics. A nice hike in the woods and an Outward Bound weekend can be done in the same place, but are rather different activities.

    Having said all this, however, I would be interested to know what the Clipper skipper’s Plan B is should he/she be the one brained by a boom or washed overboard? Are the “first mates” qualified to finish the leg and/or conduct the search? I would have the concern that the super-qualified, extraordinarily-experienced skipper on a boat with a number of newbies to ocean cruising on old racers might represent one of the bigger threats to safety aboard: the single point of failure.

    • John Feb 16, 2017, 10:12 am

      Hi Mark,

      I guess I can’t see that the skipper on a Clipper boat is any more a “single point of failure” that the skipper on a boat cruised by a couple. In fact I would say much less. After all, if the Clipper boat skipper gets knocked on the head there are twenty-some more people available to deal with the problem, not just one. And further all of those people will have been though the Clipper organization’s pre-voyage training program, and at least some of them will have prior experience.

      That said, I’m sure it would be better if there were two professionals on every boat, instead of one, but I doubt the economics would support that, and one must draw the line somewhere.

      • Marc Dacey Feb 16, 2017, 12:55 pm

        True, but I wasn’t presenting a hypothetical case, but reacting directly to this: “The core of his case is that keeping everyone safe is all down to the experience and smarts of the professional skipper and the pre-voyage training that said skipper supervises.”

        That’s “skipper”, singular. Which is fine, but it also assumes that there’s a differential in skills between the 20 crew still aboard, and that a leader will emerge. That’s not necessarily the case. While odds are good that there might be an RYA-trained Yachtmaster (Ocean) aboard, they may have done 50,000 NM on a Tayana 37.

        I see that the other skipper listed on the site is Diane Reid, whom I’ve met and who is an excellent sailor, mostly in mini-Transat but also in the Clipper Round-the-World race. So I am not questioning the depth of the bench, but its breadth, in terms of the massive forces and speeds of even veteran Whitbread 60s.

        I happen to think that if one of two equally experienced cruisers fall off a well-understood boat, the odds might in fact be better for a successful retrieval and/or safe landfall than with a boat load of newbies on a sled in rough conditions. But maybe that’s me, and it’s just an observation based on relatively limited crew time in both race and delivery conditions vs. harsh weather. Doing the Fastnet on a 60 footer would be a blast.

    • Dick Stevenson Feb 17, 2017, 12:48 pm

      Hi Marc,
      Marc, your comment,
      “Cruising couples generally have (due to the need to stand watches and general sailing experience) similar or at least complementary seamanship skills.”
      flies in the face of my observations.
      While in Turkey and the Eastern Med over a few years and winters hanging out, I did a very informal and casual survey of the couples sailing together: this at a time when sailors I knew were developing/doing a “Suddenly Alone” safety training program.
      A great number of the wives (every couple had the husband as the more competent sailor while a very few were more equal—where the wives had been avid racers if memory serves) felt they would have great difficulty bringing their boat home under anything but benign conditions. Some had never started their engine. Many felt the need to wake their husbands at night when on watch for sail adjustment/ and certainly for reefing and knew little about sail trim. Most did little of the navigating. In many instances the husband would not make it easy for his wife to learn these skills, sometimes quite the contrary.
      Many years ago Bernadette Bernon told Ginger and me of doing a survey of the wives at the famous and crowded water hole, Georgetown, Bahamas. I will go no further than to say, she found, in this extremely social community and all at anchor, most of the wives dependent on husbands for dinghy transport as they could not run the outboard. Again, I suspect that husbands contribute to this.
      All said, my take is that, if a cruising couple has similar “get home safely” skills, they are unusual and have probably worked hard at developing these matching skills.
      My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

      • John Feb 17, 2017, 1:22 pm

        Hi Dick,

        I agree with your observations. Moving on from that, I think that we need to really think carefully about how we go about fixing the problem. It’s tempting to do as the magazines so often do and that’s spout unrealistic platitudes (you didn’t I notice) like “both members of a couple should have all seamanship skills”. Simply not realistic and setting many people up to fail, particularly those that come to sailing later in life.

        Phyllis, who did just that, has written some excellent articles on this problem:

        https://www.morganscloud.com/2007/05/18/what-happened-to-teamwork/
        https://www.morganscloud.com/2005/04/18/a-prairie-woman-goes-to-sea/

        • Marc Dacey Feb 19, 2017, 8:57 pm

          I wasn’t trying to bleat a platitude, John, but to propose an ideal, perhaps a Platonic one, but I don’t know if Plato had a boat. I would characterize sailing couples where only one of the pair has much practical sailing knowledge as a missed opportunity, as well as a potentially hazardous status quo. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s my wife who spent her childhood on boats; her father designed and built a few before a recession stopped him. She’s the natural; I didn’t sail until I bought a sloop at 38. Nonetheless. we’ve strived to maintain a rough parity in our skills, or at least to possess complementary skills. My friends Bruce and June Clark started their circ assymmetrically, but by the time I crewed on their delivery south in 2009, June was perfectly able to take the helm in a part-gale at dark o’clock and eventually became the first Chinese woman to complete a circ (naturally, she wrote a book).

          I find the sea is a great teacher in this regard; it will throw wind and water at whomever is standing watch, so you might as well gain some experience to better cope with it. Part of the problem is likely “skipper syndrome”, which I’ve seen too many times.

  • Chris Feb 16, 2017, 10:30 am

    I want to say I agree with this comment about ‘single point of failure’ and that is why Spartan boats go to sea with two experienced skippers of which the one with 50,000Nm is the lesser qualified. Redundancy in all systems should not be s philosophy limited to the hardware and i don’t think chasing down financial goals is reason enough to compromise.

    • Marc Dacey Feb 16, 2017, 12:56 pm

      Very glad to hear of it. Puts my mind at rest about your whole concept. I wish all similar ventures had the same point of view.

    • John Feb 16, 2017, 1:03 pm

      Hi Chris,

      That makes sense. That said, my main point was that I would still think that a Clipper boat with a single professional aboard who is incapacitated, would be better able to deal with the situation than your average cruising couple with the more experienced person down. I’m assuming here that with the skipper down the Clipper boat would stop racing and make for the best available port.

      • Chris Feb 18, 2017, 12:53 pm

        Hi again,

        If you look at the case of Hull & Humber racing in the 2009/2010 Clipper race – when the captain was incapacitated with a broken leg the result was actually not a retirement and diversion to a safe port- this was due to weather conditions and their location ( 1/3 of the way across the pacific 700Nm downwind from Tokyo).
        What happened was the injured skipper was transferred to a merchant ship and having no suitable replacement onboard the skipper from another Clipper boat was transferred across at sea leaving his boat (Western Australia) under the supervision of his most qualified (note I am not saying experienced) crew memener who happened to have his Oceanmaster and was therefore able to meet the minimum manning requirements for the vessel under MCA MGN195.
        Both boats successfully reached San Francisco without incident despite facing very heavy conditions in the Pacific. This choice -which I was against at the time but afterwards I had to reconsider as plausible- was reached because the upwind retreat to Japan was far more treacherous than the onward downwind route to America.
        My point here is only that whatever each vessel decides upon as its course of action in reaction to the loss of the skipper that solution better allow for a possible onward journey after the accident that is possibly more difficult than the journey initially was ever expected to be. We run with two skippers each qualified to run the boat alone and we sail on accepted trade routes where assistance from a merchant ship is at least possible- I see this as being the base of a pyramid of safety protocols that add up to a safe happy crew- I am however always open to suggestions that compliment our philosophy of professional forethought and excellence in seamnaship.
        I enjoy this ongoing debate of a very important point about command and responsibility at sea but ultimately the sea is a dangerous place that will exact the full penalty for every mistake we make. We can never cover all bases, we can never mitigate all accidents and we can never be sure entirely of the outcome of our actions- all we can do is take every precaution we can reasonably and repeatably apply, keep abreast of the most relative safety conventions and keep a weather eye in the knowledge that if disaster strikes it would be what a court would determine to be a ‘morally acceptable accident’ ie that all due diligence was performed and every reasonable precaution taken.

        • Dick Stevenson Feb 18, 2017, 1:58 pm

          Hi Chris,
          I think I know what you meant and I always want to make allowances for literary flourishes, but I wish to comment upon the recent quote from your writing: “but ultimately the sea is a dangerous place that will exact the full penalty for every mistake we make”. For my mind and experience the phrase gives an exciting and challenging picture of offshore sailing, but I believe it to be inaccurate and possible contribute to those new to passage makers holding back for fear of making mistakes in a dangerous place. I write as well because I find some writers romanticize our sport’s more exciting moments, possible scaring partners (or potential partners) who may want the richness of traveling off the beaten track, but not the hair raising moments (actually fairly rare for most).
          My take is that, with proper planning and preparation of boat and person, that we are largely forgiven most of the inevitable mistakes we make. I know my boat has weathered the errors of seamanship and judgment I have inflicted on her (and for which I am quite thankful). This is not to say that I have escaped unscathed but crew has always been safe and the vessel’s integrity uncompromised.
          As to the sea being a dangerous place, it certainly can be, but I can think of a few highways that I believe may be statistically more dangerous to spend time on than the sea. And people drive them every day without second thought. In 15 years of wandering around on a boat, mostly full time, I don’t think I can count on one hand the times I truly felt in danger.
          My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

          • Chris Feb 18, 2017, 2:42 pm

            I think the quote was originally from Conrad but I am happy to be wrong.
            I hope only to be as humble as possible of my skills, as critical of my mistakes as my ego will allow in order to turn each into an opportunity to learn and forever be open to the chance that I may have been ‘getting away’ with this or that for years without realizing. As understand it the thread topic is ‘can amateurs sail safely on ocean-going race boats with just two pro’s on board’ I would say that if each shares my deep professional respect for the perils of the ocean then yes they can.

          • Dick Stevenson Feb 18, 2017, 3:08 pm

            Hi Chris,
            Understood and agree. A good attitude to embrace. And I was correct in hearing a lovely literary flourish. Dick

          • John Feb 19, 2017, 9:29 am

            Hi Dick,

            I agree completely and my experience has been the same, despite the many stupid mistakes I have made over the years.

        • John Feb 19, 2017, 9:24 am

          Hi Chris,

          Very interesting about the Clipper race. I like to think that if I had been the newly appointed skipper on “Western Australia” my first words to the crew would have been. “From this point on, we are no longer racing, but rather voyaging in the most deliberate and thoughtfully safe way possible to San Francisco”. My point being that a lot of being a safe skipper is about changing the situation to match your own skills and experience, and racing hard safely takes a lot more skill and experience than voyaging carefully.

          Of to put it another way, I think that skippers with very little experience can sail safely, but only if they recognize their own limitations.

          One other thought: I don’t actually agree that the “sea is a dangerous place”, or at least not for those who are well prepared. Even though Phyllis and I have made many cruises to the high latitudes, I still think that none of that was very dangerous. In fact my guess is that by far the most dangerous thing we do is getting into a car, and that goes double when we drive on highway 103!

        • Marc Dacey Feb 19, 2017, 9:01 pm

          There is a great deal of wisdom, I think, in this response which I find speak well of your attitude and organization. Thank you for expanding on your earlier post.

  • bruno Feb 17, 2017, 4:22 am

    Hi john,

    amazing experience indeed to go sailing with these boats offshore with people of a limited experience,
    End 2015, i had the luck to be selected by teamjolokia project for their 2016 season,
    http://www.teamjolokia.com/en/human-project/the-idea/

    initiated in Lorient-France some 5 years ago by Eric Bellion (who just finished the vendee Globe in 99 days as a pure Imoca beginner and non professional sailor), and Pierre Meisel (skipper and director), the idea was to promote diversity in the business world and … in the world, and how it can lead to top efficiency,

    They do it this by selecting in january of each year a bunch of amateurs, valid and/or handicapped, young and old (i m 52 …), boys and girls, sailors or not … and go racing with them (for free !) the summer RORC sail races, on VOR60 (2001) ex Djuice Dragon, and get to the top of the podiums, …

    and yes it worked out with some magnificent results in race ! check their site,
    but the most impressive is the incredible manner of getting those teams at that level safely in a short period of training and coaching,

    2016 is a bad example as after the training sessions of february-april in the cold and windy Bretagne, with the main year plan being to sail the boat to Canada to race the Quebec-St Malo in july, we realised that the boat was suffering some uncontrolled slow water ingress in way of the keel junction with the hull (full kevlar).
    It appeared to be a known weakness of kevlar through the years, we then just brought her back home and drydocked her.
    She was fixed and renewed where necessary by the composite specialists in Lorient Base, another temple of offshore racing, minis, Figaros, Imocas …
    so we lost 2016 season and races,

    I cant fully judge the racing part as we are now looking to 2017 to start up in a few weeks,
    Anyway, what i saw during the trainings was absolutely magnificient.
    Eventhough we did not all started from 0 knowledge at sea, being myself a Merchant marine Master Mariner and amateur sailor,
    i was indeed very impressed on how the whole thing was managed, for best safe and fast operations offshore (we were training for “long term” offshore racing then),
    and how happy the crew was to learn the discipline and harsh comfort and life those boats impose, as well as our fitness training by Stephane Eliot, also one of the VendeeGlove racers physical coaches …

    imho, It s hard to put a limitation on the minimum experience of the skipper, Pierre Meisel is only 30y old … has sailed his entire life, and raced all kind of boats, lately Open 40s, … and jolokia,

    good to notice that the first step of the training is a MOB and survival at sea training at the French naval Forces training center at Brest !

  • John Feb 17, 2017, 8:47 am

    Hi Bruno,

    What a great story in your comment, thank you. I just took a look at the Jolokia site, an admirable concept and program that I had not heard of, so thank you again.

    The world definitely needs more of that kind of thinking.

  • Eric Klem Feb 17, 2017, 6:05 pm

    Hi John,

    I think that this discussion highlights the importance of both the captain and the crew as you have done in the past. Like you, I believe in some level of specialization but I also think that at least 2 people onboard should be comfortable limping a boat back in even if it isn’t pretty(for example, calling for help docking is perfectly legitimate in many situations but you do need to get inside the harbor). I think that a big part of the reason both my wife and I like cruising is that we see it as a challenge and enjoy learning new skills and becoming comfortable doing new things. Both of us feel comfortable sailing the boat back into a harbor and getting anchored up solo but not everything else, especially maintenance-wise, is equal with each of us having a unique skill set.

    In boats that are run more formally with a true captain, mates, etc, the captain’s sailing skills and leadership ability become critical to the safety and happiness of everyone aboard. Having sailed with many different captains, many are very good and some frankly are not. As I have ranted before, a USCG master’s license is not a practical exam and does not guarantee either the skill or the leadership abilities. Yachtmaster and other exams are better but are not perfect and nor is any captain perfect. One thing that I believe is very important when learning is to sail with many different captains and on multiple boats to understand the spectrum. Some people are great critical thinkers and can stick with one captain/boat and become very knowledgeable while others need to experience the possibilities.

    Eric

    • John Feb 18, 2017, 8:50 am

      Hi Eric,

      All good points that I agree with. I think that with couples the key is to tailor the single handed get home plan to each person’s experience level. Phyllis writes about that in her articles.

      As to the spectrum of skipper’s skills, I agree on that too. Back in the day, I raced with a lot of different skippers and in the process learned a huge amount about how to behave…and how not to! All valuable when it came time to skipper my own boat.

    • Bob Feb 19, 2017, 4:13 am

      Eric
      Having just finished another longish (2500 miles) delivery, I have to disagree on your “YM and other exams are better” comment. Aboard we had 2 RYA YM Offshore ticket holders and one IYT YM ticket holder. None of these three had the skills to even be a watch leader let alone a skipper. I have been very disappointed in the last few years with the skill set of the YM’s and other newly minted ‘Captains’ license holders from various countries in Europe and the US. Back in the day a license holder had to have 720 sea days to reach the bottom rung of the “Master” ladder. This, in my mind gave most people enough exposure to the marine environment to understand their skill and limitations. The licensing system today is about the schools making money and pumping out license holders. These folks, for the most part don’t have enough knowledge to understand what skills they are missing. What is the solution to this problem I haven’t a clue. I have been training some YM holders through a “Seamanship” program I am running and the lack of “sea-sense” is astounding.
      I remember well the Coast Guard Commander comment to me, a 21 year old who had just passed the USCG Master of Inland and Near Coastal test, “Please use this ticket as a way to continue to learn and please be safe out there!”

      Bob

      • John Feb 19, 2017, 9:54 am

        Hi Bob,

        While I agree that the Yacht Master system can produce ticket holders who are not qualified to skipper a boat, I agree with Eric that it is by far the best of the alternatives, mainly because it requires passing a practical exam.

        When I first sailed my boat to the UK, one of the first things I noticed was that the average level of seamanship displayed by the locals was much better than that seen in North America. I think most of the credit for that goes to the RYA and their Yacht Master program.

        • Marc Dacey Feb 19, 2017, 9:09 pm

          I would concur with this observation. I can see the shortcomings of some of the RYA syllabus, but I judge them to be far fewer than those of the courses I’ve seen on this side of the pond. A great deal, of course, depends on not only the competency of the instructor but his or her ability to communicate concepts and to listen in order to properly interpret critical questions using non-standard terms (because they have yet to be learned, usually).

          I would also say that the seamanship in the UK is better due to history and tradition and a sort of pride in their seamanship, and that if one isn’t operating at a decent standard, danger or at least embarrassment and steep costs could be the result in places with so many shoals, rocks, strong currents and steep tides.

      • Eric Klem Feb 20, 2017, 2:28 pm

        Hi Bob,

        I agree with you that a Yachtmaster is not a guarantee of competence but I do believe that it is better than the USCG exam. At least the YM has a real practical component. Practical exams are unfortunately very expensive to administer and subject to the examiner’s judgement but even with their flaws, they are important. The USCG tries to establish practical experience through seatime which unfortunately is no guarantee of any competence. For example, I know someone who worked as a cook for years and then studied for and got their masters license but still didn’t know basic stuff like a cleating hitch as it wasn’t required to pass the exam. Neither exam is perfect and we are each responsible for evaluating a skipper’s competence.

        Eric

        • John Feb 20, 2017, 5:09 pm

          Hi Eric,

          I would agree and back that up with the story of someone I met with a USCG 100 Ton who got all of her sea time as stewardess on a superyacht and consequently had pretty much zero practical seamanship skills or experience.

  • Bill Attwood Feb 20, 2017, 12:06 pm

    Hi Bob
    I was surprised to read such strong criticism of the RYA Yachtmasters Offshore qualification. It requires a minimum of offshore miles, and the exam has both practical and theoretical content. How exactly did you feel these two were deficient? Was it a lack of technical knowledge, the inability to solve problems, lack of leadership qualities? As you may know, there is no requirement in the UK for a recreational sailor to hold any formal seamanship qualification.
    As several others have already commented, sailing in the UK is not without its difficulties, from the shoal waters of the East Coast, to the strong tides, rocks and overfalls of the West Country and Britanny – and crossing the English Channel to France from anywhere between Dover to the Solent needs strong nerves. The Yachtmasters that I have met have all been people that I would be happy to let take my kids sailing.
    Regards
    Bill

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