Sailor Up

by · November 15, 2009

Now, I’m not some kind of hairy-giant-supersailor. Compared to anyone likely to read this, I’m a noob.  I am in the early stages of learning how to navigate my tiny vessel while avoiding serious consequences like sinking, lawyers, drowning, setting the marina on fire, etc. I am stumbling along like everyone else, learning as I go. Perhaps in a decade or so I can intone with authority on matters nautical, and pass judgment on those whose performance does not measure up to my lofty ideals.

Which makes this post a bit of a dilemma for me. On one hand, what the heck do I know?  On the other hand, well, I just can’t help myself sometimes.  So here we go.

Back in the day, I used to be a pilot. No, I was not Chuck Yeager or anything remotely resembling him, but I used to fly around Northern California in small rented planes, going after the $200 cheeseburger, and taking various hot women for plane rides.  The ladies were generally unimpressed (with one exception, who currently happens to be the lovely Admiral), but I did learn some things about personal responsibility.  My flight instructor, a great fellow named Rodney Janssen, had a mantra that he drilled into my brain at every opportunity: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. Aviate meant fly the damn airplane–  Everything else is secondary to that. Once you’ve taken care of Aviating, Navigate– Stay found, and know where you’re going. Once you’ve taken care of those two things, then you can jabber on the radio, or Communicate. Rodney used to pound that mantra into me so much that I began adding stuff to it– Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, Flaggelate, and Fornicate!  Only once did Rodney threaten to forcibly eject me from the Cessna at 8,000 feet.

Anyway, even I was eventually able to understand the point that Rodney was making.  It boils down to the concept of the “Pilot In Command”. This is a term with both documentary and legal implications, as in “The Pilot In Command was eating strawberries off the ample cleavage of the female passenger when the aircraft impacted the bridge“, or, more commonly,  per FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations) part 1.1:

Pilot in command means the person who:

(1) Has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight;

(2) Has been designated as pilot in command before or during the flight; and

(3) Holds the appropriate category, class, and type rating, if appropriate, for the conduct of the flight.

Any pilot will tell you that being alone in an airplane up in the sky is special. Your skills, and the continued structural integrity of the aircraft are the only thing keeping you alive.  99.99999% of the time you can relax and enjoy the scenery.  The other 0.000001% of the time you’re landing in the Hudson, praise Sully. But bottom line, It’s all you, Bud.  If you screw up, panic, or suddenly forget how to fly the airplane, you’ll be the first person to arrive at the scene of the crash.  If you get confused in your navigation, you run out of gas halfway to Hawaii. If you get attacked by demons and start speaking in tongues, the FAA will want to talk to you after you blunder through their airspace singing to Beelzebub.  Nobody is going to help you– No matter what deity happens to be your Copilot. It’s you, and nobody else. From the moment you untie the airplane to the moment you reattach the tethers, you hold your fate in your hands.

Now, I know you hold your fate in your hands when you are doing lots of other things, like driving a car, riding a bicycle, making explosives, bungee jumping, asking girls on dates, etc.  But there is a whole different thing about decisions made in the air compared to, say, decisions about whether to have another helping of bacon.

Which brings me to sailing. It seems to me that some people should not be allowed to take a watercraft any further offshore than they are able to swim.

Venturing forth on the sea has traditionally been an awesome way for one to inadvertently remove oneself from the gene pool. Since the first flea-infested caveman sailed a log over the horizon to his doom, sailors have been discovering that the sea can be dangerous. I learned this fairly early on: In the Navy, I once rode a frigate between two typhoons in the South China Sea. I remember green water above the bridge, which itself was 60 feet above the waterline. The seas carried away some external fire hoses, and tore a hydrant off the fore deck.  We had a geyser there for a while before Damage Control could locate the valve to shut it off. When things settled down, we discovered the superstructure had cracked for about 12 feet at the deck line, from the impact of seas. This on a warship, built to take battle damage. That experience told me things about the power of the sea that a childhood spent watching breakers land on Fort Cronkhite Beach only hinted at. Later in my life, exploring San Francisco Bay in various boats and  sea kayaks provided further lessons on the sea. I’ve never survived the Perfect Storm, but I don’t need to.  I get it.

When you venture out onto what is essentially a hostile environment, you need to be Pilot In Command, whether you’re 6,000 feet in the air or sailing across Raccoon Straits. If you’re on a boat, when things go amiss you may have more time to deal with it than the guy in the airplane, but the consequences of failing to deal with it effectively can be just as serious. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. On the water, you need to be  a sailor.  Or you need to be back home, safe on the couch, reading Joshua Slocum.

Lots of sailing publications relate  the misadventures of various people on the water. A few years back, some guy was cruising at night in the Sea Of Cortez, and ran up on a sandbar at O-dark thirty. In his story, he relates how the first thing he did upon coming to an unexpected halt was fetch the flares and fire them off into the night.  Huh?  You just ran aground and the first thing you think of is to launch a flare? Personally, I’d be working to get the boat back in deep water, not rooting around in a locker for the flare gun. This guy was not acting like a Pilot In Command–  Instead of taking responsibility and dealing with the situation, his first reaction was to send flares into the sky in a fruitless plea for salvation from the cosmos (he was far offshore, and there was nobody but Neptune to see his pyrotechnic show).  If I remember correctly, the boat was lost, though all crew were eventually rescued.

A more recent tale recounted how a fellow was motoring along halfway to Bermuda, when a passenger noticed water in the galley sink, which was a sign that the bilge pump was working.  Without knowing the cause of the water inflow, the guy decides to issue a mayday call. Upon further investigation it was discovered that a part had broken on the engine and the water pump was transferring sea water into the boat. They shut down the engine, and the water stopped.  The mayday call was canceled, and the worst thing to come out of that was the boater had to actually use his sails to get to his destination.

Mark me as old-fashioned, but to me a mayday call is not something you just toss out in the aether.  At least the flare guy probably only annoyed a couple of seagulls– Mayday guy probably caused adrenaline squirtage for a 400 mile radius, and possibly the mobilization of who knows how many coast guard people. To me, a mayday call should be reserved for those holy-crap-save-my-doomed-ass moments, not for “yikes, our bilge pump is running and I’m scared!”.  A Pilot In Command would have figured out what the problem was before bleating for help on the radio.  Jeesh.

Parenthetically, I understand being scared.  If water was coming into my boat I’d clench up a bit too. But I submit that if you are going to take your boat across open water, to Bermuda no less, you better be prepared to deal with water coming in before you untie from the dock.  And your plan should not be to scream for help. Pilot. In. Command.

Those are just two examples, but many more can be found. I seems to me that there is a growing percentage of boaters, versus sailors, out there on the water. Remember those poor football player guys that went offshore in Florida, and got swamped and drowned?  Boaters.  They took to sea in an entirely unsuitable vessel. I’m sure the conditions were nice when they started, and if they had stayed 10 feet off the shoreline there would have been no problem, but the guy that made the choice to go offshore in that boat was not behaving like a Pilot In Command.  At the very least, he had a lack of imagination. A true sailor would recognize that the boat was unsuitable for most potential conditions; a boater just wants to go fishing. Or water-skiing. or jet-skiing. 

I enjoy walking the docks;  many of the powerboats are very swoopy and cool, but would scare the crap out of me in a seaway.  Someone thinking like a  Pilot In Command would  decide not to go to sea on anything that might capsize if hit by a wave in the wrong place.

While waiting for a launch at the lake one blustery day, I watched a bass boat get  pooped as it was being put in the water.  The boat did not ship too much water, but conditions were such that it could have, and possibly sunk at the ramp.  That would have been embarrassing, but what it the same thing happened out in the middle of the lake?  When it was my turn to go I was a little nervous, but had my daggerboard cranked down immediately after being cast off, and when I put the main up I had already put two reefs in while in the parking lot.  My sailboat, I submit, was much better suited for  the conditions than a bass boat.  Personally, I would never have launched in any kind of powerboat in those conditions. But that fisherman, plus several others, went out on the lake that day. I think I was being a good Pilot In Command by (a) having a seaworthy boat, and (b) taking protective precautions before launching.  The other guys, not so much, in my opinion.

So I guess what I’m grousing about is that too many people seem to be unprepared to go to sea– They don’t understand the potential hazard, or don’t care.  They chose unsuitable craft, or don’t understand how to manage an appropriate boat.  And when something goes wrong, they bleat for help on the radio.  They Communicate, but fail on the rest of Rodney’s mantra.   I fear that we are going to see an increasing number of mishaps befalling such people.  It’s kind of like all the fat yuppies riding motorcycles you see nowadays– Lots more people are doing it, with a corresponding rise in the number of people plowing into the sides of minivans.  How many of the people buying sailboats are actually sailors, and how many will activate their EPIRB when the head gets clogged?

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