The Longest Day

Happy belated New Year, friends and readers. It’s been an unacceptably long while since my last post, and I do apologize for that.

That last post was on the unglamorous but important subject of engine mounts; and although it made its appearance in Bimini Dream on December 22, it had in fact been written before December 18 and scheduled for automatic publication thereafter.

There’s an irony to that.

The engine mount post included, among other things, a story about another boat that was badly disabled by something hitting its propeller, and it ended with an expression of gratitude for the many bullets that have whizzed harmlessly by Meander. But by the time it was published, Meander had already been hit by a new bullet. One in the form of a stray length of line in the Chesapeake Bay that struck our own propeller, wrapping itself around our shaft and damaging our gearbox.

We picked that line up at 8:15 AM on Friday, December 18, one hour after we tried to end our previous eighteen-day repair layover in Deltaville, Virginia by casting off from the “A” dock of the Deltaville Yachting Center, motoring north out of Broad Creek into the Rappahannock River, sailing east to the Chesapeake Bay, and allowing the forecasted twenty-knot north wind we would find there to push us south down the bay toward the ICW.

But in that moment, neither I nor my wife Pamela nor our dog Honey the Golden Retriever knew what it was that we picked up. But we knew the sudden thud under our feet and the ominous grinding that followed from the engine compartment. And then we knew three other things.

We had to get back to Deltaville. And with the motor’s condition an open question, we had to do it under sail. And that sailing had to be done with a twenty-knot north wind heading us off.

I have since tried at least three times to sit down and write up the rest of that day. But the composition of a coherent, competent, and complete account has confounded my courage, confidence and creativity every time. Because that day didn’t end for us until 12:15 AM on Saturday, December 19, when we again tied up on the “A” dock of the Deltaville Yachting Center.

In summary, we spent seventeen hours getting nowhere. Seventeen very, very tough hours.

But, on the bright side, at least our engine mounts held.

A trip too far

Having so often failed to write my way through the myriad grisly details and sodden textures of December 18, I should disclose right away that I have no intention of trying again to do so now. I will simply note that I aborted my first draft when I realized I was closing in on 1,500 words before having reached 9:00 AM in my narrative.

It’s obvious that I’m not quite in control of my material.

However, I will note that the trip we needed to make to return to the “A” dock required, probably, no more than ten miles made good. I say “probably” because after the line strike, I lost track of our position for more than two hours while I worked through everything I had not realized I didn’t know about reducing sail on our boat to cope with a twenty-knot wind.

But that ten miles over ground took us sixteen hours to travel. And at the end of the trip, the knotmeter that doubles as our “odometer” told us Meander had plowed her way, under our inexpert guidance, through almost forty miles of water.

So it’s equally obvious that I’m also not quite in control of my boat. Meander, indeed.

12235 excerpt

Proving ground.

Inexperience, mostly

How do I drag out a trip like this over sixteen hours? Let me count the ways.

  • Inexperience with how Meander is rigged for the sail reducing maneuver known as reefing. Ninety minutes went into my pulling down the mainsail, getting the forward cringle of its third reefing point onto the mast’s reefing hook, and tensioning its outhaul line. Thirty seconds of observing the resulting misshapen mainsail reminded Pamela that the third reefing point wasn’t equipped with an outhaul line. Ten seconds of diagnostics revealed that I had, in fact, tensioned the sail with the second reefing point’s outhaul line. Forty-five minutes went into my forcing the sail back up to the second reefing point, a period during which I lost one waterproof winter boot out over the water. I won’t go into how that happened here other than to note that at the moment it came off my foot, I was out over the water as well.
  • Seasickness. That prolonged reefing exercise occurred while Meander, no longer being under motor, was no longer making way through the water. Sailboats that lose way are soon turned broadside to wind and wave. In our case, the wind was at twenty knots, and the waves it kicked up were a closely spaced six to eight feet high. Rolling in the troughs of those waves for two hours was more than we could take, and all three of us—Pamela, me, and Honey—gave up our breakfast shortly before lunchtime. Having established itself, that nausea would set the tone for the rest of the day, subsiding but never quite disappearing, making every bodily effort slow, tentative, and delicate.
  • Inexperience with sail balance. For all that my wife and I have accomplished in five years of learning to sail, we are yet rookies. And those years were spent exclusively on sloop-rigged boats that fly two sails, while Meander is a cutter that can fly three. Sailing under a 75% deployed headsail at the bow and a considerably shortened mainsail on the mast, I noted that we had lost some critical speed. So rather than struggle to get the main back up, I opted to hoist Meander’s staysail, located between the other two. I don’t believe there was anything in our experience to warn me that flying such a high proportion of Meander’s working sail area forward of her mast would cause her bow to be blown down. And I didn’t notice for the next four hours that our boat, typically capable of pointing forty degrees off the wind, was suddenly struggling to get up to sixty, retarding our progress north.
  • Inexperience with leeway. The wind that pulls a sailboat through water also, and inevitably, pushes her a bit off to her downwind, or lee, side. This idea isn’t new either to Pamela or to me, but we had had no direct experience of it in critical navigational settings where it mattered. So in my desire to sail the most direct line possible as we tacked back and forth toward Deltaville, I kept changing Meander’s course at the precise moment required to put critical turning marks ahead of us—a spit of land, a light marking a shoal or a channel—on a heading corresponding to a close-hauled point of sail. This is the one point of sail that would not let us point higher into the wind to compensate for the slowly accumulating and eventually quite substantial downwind error known as leeway, avoid the shoals onto which that error was setting us, and make it around our intended turning mark. I ended up having to take an extra tack away from three—not one, but three—of those marks before I worked out what was going on.
  • Accumulating exhaustion. By the time the sun was setting at 5:00 PM, we had put nearly nine hours of fatiguing and frustrated effort into our journey back to the “A” dock, and had managed only to reach the mouth of the Rappahannock. Our arrival there coincided with a forecasted backing of the wind from north to west, placing it to head off our progress up the river as it had previously done on the bay. Furthermore, as daylight dissolved into twilight, the air temperature began to drop. And once nightfall had fully added “cold” to our “sick” and “tired,” both our vision and our judgment began to dissolve as well.

Not the Rappahannock. But a good example of deep shadow on water at twilight nonetheless.

  • Inexperience with sail balance. After twelve hours under sail, we had the west wind’s sixteen knots blowing nicely over our starboard side on the highly forgiving point of sail known as a beam reach, and our course was finally aligned with the narrow entry channel to Deltaville’s Broad Creek, at the south end of which lay the “A” dock, safety, and sleep. Then we started to worry about our speed into the channel. In that wind, it was nearly seven knots; and we wanted two. So we went immediately to the most drastic thing we could have done: we dropped our mainsail, intending to fly in on our headsail alone. And in a reprise of our earlier staysail experience, our bow was again blown down, and we lost our line. Shame on us. Unable once again to point up and recover our course, we had to furl the headsail and spend another hour fighting the wind to get the main up. By the time we were done, the wind had blown away all the progress we had made in the past three hours.
  • Sheer stupidity. Obsessed by now with the lifetime’s worth of advanced sailing lessons we had inflicted upon ourselves in the space of fourteen hours, I firmly resolved that our second approach to the Broad Creek channel would include room for a late correction. And in so doing, I completely lost sight of the much more fundamental task of navigation. Even at that late hour, the slightest glance at the chart would have driven home to me how straight and narrow the channel was, but I was too preoccupied to check it. So, coming in at far too steep an angle at 11:00 PM, we went soft aground on the shoal to the west. And after wriggling off, we shot far too fast across deeper water and ended up much more thoroughly aground between two channel markers on the shoal to the east.

Not this aground. But aground enough.

Last-ditch efforts

With the west wind pinning us to the shoal, there would be no way to get off under sail.

More sobering still, our weather radio, the one that had so accurately predicted twenty-knot winds backing throughout the day from north to west, was now broadcasting a small craft advisory and calling for a blow of 30 to 40 knots after midnight. So there would be no waiting it out until morning, either.

So we did what we had been sorely pressing all day and all night to avoid. We dropped all our sails and once again fired up our suspect motor.

It took five minutes of spinning Meander’s helm back and forth while listening to her engine pound and grind under high throttle before she began to turn, first a few degrees to port, then a few degrees to starboard, then a few more to port. And it took another five minutes of pounding and grinding before her keel started inching forward through the mud, out from between the channel markers, back toward the deeper water.

We didn’t know what damage we were doing with this late, last-ditch motoring effort, nor could we have afforded to. And no amount of hindsight can reveal what portion of the five thousand dollars’ worth of drivetrain repairs Meander would eventually need was attributable to this moment as opposed to our initial early morning line strike.

We knew only that we wanted desperately to be off that shoal before midnight.

And get off we did. Our inches of progress soon grew into feet, and suddenly Meander was free again.

Gliding back into the Rappahannock, we began breathing out the tension of the last ten minutes and took a few moments to recollect ourselves. Then we took one last long look at our too long neglected chart, and aligned our boat for our third and final approach to Broad Creek.

And then we motored through the channel, passed into the waterway beyond, wandered inadvertently into the creek’s west branch, narrowly avoided plowing into a dock tucked into one of the deep shadows inhabiting the spaces between the sporadic lights of the creek’s many marinas, turned around, found the creek’s south branch, turned to starboard, found the Deltaville Yachting Center, turned to starboard, found the narrow entrance to the inside face of the “A” dock, turned to port, passed the end of the dock, turned to starboard, came alongside the dock, stepped onto the dock, and tied Meander off to the dock fifteen minutes after midnight on Saturday, December 19.

And, this time for the last time, killed her engine.

And then fell into bed, gratefully letting the distant howl of a rising gale on the river we had just left behind lull us to sleep on our well founded, well sheltered, gently rocking boat.


And that, in a rather oversized nutshell, was our Friday, December 18.

On Saturday morning, we told our story to Tony, the marina staffer on duty that weekend, and Tony let Lew, the marina owner, know we were back on the “A” dock. Lew stopped by later that day to hear our story in person and then arranged to have Mack, his master marine technician, pay us a visit the next day. On Sunday morning, Mack discovered in our gearbox oil the hundreds of bronze shards that would portend thousands more dollars in boat repairs. On Monday morning, the marina’s effort to locate and order a new gearbox for a twenty-five-year-old boat began in earnest.

But what with Christmas and the New Year and the ripple effects they would have on parts departments and service departments and shipping companies, we spent many of our next seventeen days simply waiting for things to happen.

DSC_0553 (2)

Not that we hate Christmas. Far from it.

Add to that the eighteen days from our previous stay, and you will see that I might be forgiven for going around telling my wife, the marina staff and anyone else who would sit still long enough to listen, “I’m going to die in Deltaville.”

Perspective, Michael. After all, dying in Deltaville would have been preferable to drowning in a gale just outside it.

And neither of these speculative fates seems to have befallen us anyway. Having cast off again from the “A” dock on January 7, Pamela, Honey the Golden Retriever and I now have Meander tied off in Hampton, VA, less than fifteen miles from the ICW’s Mile Marker Zero. It may well be that I’m going to die in Deltaville. But not yet.

Meanwhile, my recent reticence has been reckoned with, my writer’s block is broken, and our December 18 story is more or less out. I may revisit that day again; there are a few more stories left in it to tell.

But not until I finish catching my breath.



Chart: Excerpt from NOAA Chart No. 12235, “Chesapeake Bay: Rappahannock River Entrance, Piankatank and Great Wicomico Rivers.”

Sunset: “Sunset on the Creek” by Rob, shared via photopin under a Creative Commons license.

Aground: “the mysterious chances : boat aground, santa barbara (“ by torbakhopper, shared via photopin under a Creative Commons license.

The “A” dock at Christmas: Mike Webster.

The Wind

In 1976, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot scored a No. 2 hit on U.S. radio with a tribute to twenty-nine sailors who lost their lives when a freighter on Lake Superior went down the previous year.

Nearly fifty years later, I wonder if Mr. Lightfoot has another song in him. Because last Thursday, another cargo ship and the thirty-three crew members she carried were presumably sent to the bottom by Hurricane Joaquin.

I’ve written before that the wind can make fools of the most experienced seamen.

Much of the time, its capriciousness will get a laugh from them; sometimes, a curse. But once in a while, it will cost them their lives.

The Beaufort Scale

The wind can drive even large ships onto reefs and shoals, and can create waves that will bury their bows in seawater or flip them right over. So it is important that sailors learn never to underestimate this force of nature.

But while efforts to understand and use the wind stretch back into prehistory, attempts to develop a consistent standard describing its strength are remarkably young. In Great Britain, the earliest recorded attempt to create such a standard appears to be Daniel Defoe’s 11-point wind scale in 1704.

And nearly 130 more years passed before Britain’s Royal Navy adopted a single wind scale in 1831 for use on all its ships. The scale so adopted was the creation of an Irish Royal Navy officer, Francis Beaufort.


Everybody crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man.

Like Defoe and other predecessors, Beaufort assigned numbers to wind terms that were more or less understood throughout the maritime culture of his day. For instance, his Force 4 was a “gentle breeze,” his Force 5 a “moderate breeze,” his Force 6 a “strong breeze,” and his Force 12 a “hurricane.”

The problem with all these scales, however, had lain in the “more or less” part of “understood.” Depending on individual experience and temperament, one man’s “gentle breeze” could be another man’s “strong breeze.” Put these two guys on one ship and give them each a gallon of beer a day. And pretty soon, the one will be implying, gently and diplomatically, of course, that the other is a total wimp. And the other will be offering, quite generously, really, to extract the one’s molars with his fists.

Yep, they allowed alcohol on Royal Navy ships back then, and, to a lesser extent, they still do today.

So Beaufort’s innovation, starting in his own ship’s logs in 1805, was to create working definitions of these terms by correlating his scale’s points to the observable effects of the wind on the sails of a Royal Navy warship.

For the men under Beaufort, a Force 6 wind soon became not just a “strong breeze, but “that in which a well-conditioned man-of-war could just carry, in chase, full and by, single reefed topsails and top-gallant sails.” (You know, there are still people around nowadays who know what that meant.) And a Force 12 hurricane became, in a much easier phrase that has since passed into sailing folklore, “that which no canvas could withstand.”

Had it not been a British invention, the men of the USS Constitution (the ship, not the document) would have found this emerging tool very handy for the tasks they faced during the War of 1812.

USS_Constitution_fires_a_17-gun_salute 2

The USS Constitution in Boston, all fired up.

Since then, the Beaufort Scale, like the U.S. Constitution (the document, not the ship), has proved itself well founded to keep up with changing times. Since its adoption by the Royal Navy 185 years ago, the scale has evolved to reflect:

  • Numerical wind speeds, not of interest to sailors before the introduction of accurate wind measuring instruments.
  • The heights and physical descriptions of waves, nowadays of more concern to today’s large, powerful motor-driven vessels than the wind itself.
  • The visible effects of the wind on trees, smoke, flags, and structures, so you landlubbers have some idea of what we’re facing.

Finally, Beaufort’s breakthrough insight in correlating the wind’s strength with its effects on one type of sailboat can be applied to sailboats of any type. In my copy of his copiously, fancifully and beautifully illustrated book on the art of sailing, The Complete Sailor, author David Seidman includes a wind speed table that suggests corresponding courses of action for the small coastal cruiser. Here are the last three entries.

  • Force 8 (Fresh Gale, 34-40 knots): Limit of boat’s sailing ability. Use motor or seek shelter.
  • Force 9 (Strong Gale, 41-47 knots): Run under bare poles, lie ahull, or sit to sea anchor.
  • Force 10 (Whole Gale, 48-55 knots): Swear oaths you will not keep once back on land.

That ever-present sound

It is widely assumed that sailors love the wind, and, to a point, this is not to be denied. The wind is, after all, what sets us apart from our motorboating brethren.

But, as the Beaufort scale demonstrates, there are limits. In winds up to about 16 knots, we take delight. Between 16 and 40 knots, we cope. Above 40 knots—if we were unlucky enough to be caught out there at all—we simply try to survive.


Not for the faint of heart.

Pam and I were not out there at all this past week. But I can think of several oaths I would gladly have sworn and kept as we sat here in our Cambridge, MD marina under a northeaster with winds to 25 knots and with Hurricane Joaquin on everyone’s radar.

And the one thing no mere study of a wind scale can prepare you for is the sound. The tremulous rustling of nervous trees. The slapping of halyards against masts throughout the marina. The whistling through your wires, the rattling of your rigging, and the creak of your docklines as they strain to hold your home on the water against being thrown onto docks and pilings by the rising tides.

And then, of course, there’s the sound of the wind itself. At 25 knots, not yet a howl. But a certainly a threat, and perhaps a portent: a constant, rolling resonance from across the water as if from a far-off and never-ending freight train, suddenly ramping up whenever a sharp gust, filling the space around you, seems to move your boat perilously close to the tracks.

The sound will get inside your boat. And after a while, it will get inside you.

And once lodged in there, it will have more power than the cold rain and the grey sky outside ever can to make you wonder if the sun will ever come out again.

To sail another day

There are places in the world, such as Patagonia, where the wind never stops.

Here in Cambridge, I know myself a little bit better than I did a week ago. And I now know that I could not casually move to a place like Patagonia–not for a salary, scholarship, or sponsorship; not for a prize, and not on a bet. Because the sheer dread I found being built up within me by the ever-present sound of the wind is something for which I simply have no answer.

But before I knew this, I already knew myself to be an anxious person. New people and places make me uneasy. New experiences and their learning curves discomfit me. And whatever by its very nature lies outside my direct control terrifies me.

I can’t control the wind.

But I know I don’t have to.

And I also know through experience that my amygdala, that hypersensitive little fear center in my brain, is trainable. Just one or two walks around the same block, and it begins to shut up and settle down. The truism is true, after all: Whatever hasn’t yet killed me has indeed made me stronger.

So now I have a simple task, and no reason to think I won’t succeed. Like countless millions of sailors before me, I learned how to use the wind. Now, I have to learn how to wait patiently under it, so I can live to sail another day.

And, out of respect both for the wind itself and for all who venture out in it, try to remember the thirty-three who didn’t.

Portrait of Sir Francis Beaufort by Stephen Pearce, National Portrait Gallery (London) retrieved from Peter Sommer Travels.

USS Constitution in Boston: Retrieved from Wikipedia.

Helicopter Rescue: Royal Navy Sea King Helicopter Comes to the Aid of French Fishing Vessel ‘Alf’ in the Irish Sea via photopin (license)

A Captain for Meander: The Answer

On the morning of September 9, I posted the story of the nicely collaborative and reasonably successful first sail my wife Pam, Honey the golden retriever, and I took on our sailboat Meander.

On the afternoon of that same day, we went out for our second sail.

It’s taken me nearly two weeks to own up to that day. During that time, I’ve been moping over—I mean, obsessing over—I mean, carefully considering what makes a competent captain and who ours should be.

Mixing it up, or just mixed up?

We began that day as we had done on every boat we’ve taken out, by assessing conditions and assigning roles.

Since we were just getting to learn how Meander responds to winds, currents, and helm inputs, and since past experience has shown us that I have the greater gift for applied theory, we decided I would wear the hat of the Acting Captain.

At the end of the first sail, we had backed Meander into our slip stern-to, so she would require no maneuvers in reverse to pull out again. And since the breeze was gentle, I decided it would be a good time to grow ourselves a bit by switching the two other roles we have each usually filled. On this trip, Pam would take my oft held position at the helm, holding or changing our course as conditions (and the orders of the Acting Captain) dictated. I would act as crew, assuming Pam’s familiar sail trimming and line management duties.

Somehow, I thought all this wouldn’t be out of my depth.

Acting Captain Mike

The trouble didn’t start right away. The wind was over the boat’s starboard side, and the two lines on that side were therefore in tension as they kept her from being blown to port. After Pam confirmed Meander’s engine was in neutral and started it, I cast off the two slack lines on the port side.

With the boat already pointed outward and riding on the remaining two starboard lines, I decided that the best way to keep her off the slip’s pilings to port would be to cast off the stern line first. Pam could then start Meander going forward right away as I ran forward to take off the remaining bow line.

You know, I still believe it might have worked, had I just checked beforehand to ensure that the knot with which that last line had been made to its cleat was one I could actually untie.

Strike one: Situational awareness.

Before we were out of the slip, we found the trouble I hadn’t thought to look for. Within the five seconds it took me to stumble forward, Pam had obeyed my orders by slipping Meander into gear. In ten, the wind was pushing the boat’s stern sideways as I stared stupidly at the strange clump of rope I hadn’t previously noticed. In fifteen, Pam was shouting that she needed me to hurry with that line; and in twenty I was shouting back furiously that it wasn’t going to happen because someone (by inference, not me) had previously made Meander’s bow fast with a ridiculous and impossible knot.

Strike two: Composure.

In the end, what I had given myself five seconds to do had taken me thirty. And by that time, the boat’s swing to port had already brought us alongside a piling to scrape along the stern pulpit on which our life preserver was mounted. As Meander’s engine moved us forward, the piling began to rip it off the rail. We damaged it and nearly lost it.

Strike three: Maneuvering.

I should have walked away from the plate right then. But I wouldn’t let go of the bat.


Here’s looking at you, Mike.

Acting Captain Bligh

According to the research I’ve since done, a captain’s skill set includes talking to others to convey information effectively, paying full attention to what they are saying, and making adjustments in relation to their actions.

None of this describes me even when I’m at my dead level best.

Want to see me at my worst? Catch me right after I’ve made a highly visible series of mistakes that casts doubt on my competence.

So rather than talk, listen and adjust, I clung instead to a primary objective to save face while letting a cloud of brooding over our disastrous departure develop into a Category 3 hurricane of hostility toward everything around me.

The result, of course, was that both my fledgling command style and my more developed sailing skills started to fall to pieces. As captain, my demeanor became sullen, my actions precipitous, and my orders poorly worded and often technically inadequate. As crew, I fumble-fingered my way through simple line handling tasks I more or less had mastered three years ago.

And, most critically, I could no longer pay effective attention to changes in the direction from which that gentle breeze was blowing.

When you can’t tell which way the wind is blowing, you’re done with the hat.

So as Pam offered the seventh correction to my orders in six minutes, I turned to her and snapped, “I am obviously emotionally compromised and am therefore no longer fit to command this vessel. You be the captain.”

Acting Captain Pam

Pam sighed, and we sailed on for a little while in light winds and relative silence. Then it came time to change direction, and Pam called for a tack.

The sails on a sailboat are positioned to take advantage of a wind that rarely comes from dead ahead or dead astern, but rather over one side or the other. During a tack, the helmsperson turns the boat until its bow passes through the wind, and the side of the boat that had been on the wind (the “windward” side) is brought opposite it (making it the “leeward” side). While the turn is in progress, the crew responds to the wind’s changing direction by removing a line that had led the boat’s headsail toward the former leeward side, and then cleating off an opposing line on the new leeward side.

If the wind is strong, the momentarily uncleated and flogging headsail could tear the new line out of the crew’s hands. So the crew will lead the line around a rotating drum called a winch to keep it under control. On a light day, the winch might not be needed. But any wannabe sailor who expects to develop a muscle memory suitable for gale force conditions will get plenty of practice putting the line on the drum long before it is needed.

As it happened, however, I was no longer interested in muscle memory today. I get like that when I’m in a gale-force snit. So I started pulling the line in by hand.

Pam noticed and responded. “Mike, put the line on the drum.”

“Pam, there’s no wind out here. It’s unnecessary and it’ll just slow me down.”

“We agreed to stick with best practices, and you know this a best practice. Put the line on the drum.”

I’m not sure what, exactly, the sound was that emanated next from my mouth—a bark? a howl? But I knew well enough what I meant by it as I rapidly finished pulling in the line by hand.

And so did Pam. And that’s when she stepped out from behind the helm and finally got in my face.

First, she looked me directly in the eye.

Then, with considerable fire but no shouting, she said:

You are the one who made me captain. And now you’re disobeying my direct orders.

Captain Pam

Recently,  a loyal and persistent reader of Bimini Dream helped bring the question of this office to a head by repeatedly asking which of us should be running this ship. And in her latest comment on the subject, she contributed the suggestion that perhaps a personality test exists somewhere to help us sort it out.

There is. We take it every time we’re on the water.

Ladies and gentlemen, with both the contrition befitting a repentant mutineer and the humble pride of a man who married well above his station, I give you the Captain of Meander.


The Captain of Meander. (The gorgeous silver brunette. Not the gorgeous golden blonde.)


Man flashing “loser” sign: Eu loser via photopin (license).
Pamela Webster and Honey: Mike Webster.

A Captain for Meander: The Question

One of my readers has asked (twice already!) which of us, my wife Pam or me, would be the captain of Meander. And other readers have implied, I believe, that they would not think the election of Honey, our golden retriever, to that post to be irretrievably mad.

You know, if Honey could bark an intelligible order, we might consider it.

No thanks. I’ll stick to navigation.

Must there be a captain?

Meanwhile, the question itself is wonderfully insightful because it tacitly assumes that there must, in fact, be a captain.

Some people don’t like the idea of a captain. After all, captains Take Charge and Give Orders. And these people worry that taking charge and giving orders is undemocratic—potentially totalitarian, if you will—and, what’s worse, potentially rude.

They would rather see a consensus-building model of decision making: a conversation in which everyone is heard, all ideas are weighed by their merits, and the direction that eventually emerges is substantially supported by most of its participants.

As it happens, Pam is among these people. So it might not surprise you then that we ourselves have debated this issue for a long time.

Well, I see their point. After all, we’ve all heard something about the instability of Captain Queeg (The Caine Mutiny, strictly fictional) and the brutality of Captain Bligh (Mutiny on the Bounty, based on a historical event). And it’s easy to imagine scores of small-minded people using a good office badly to make themselves feel bigger inside. (Politics, anyone?) Maybe the office is more trouble than it’s worth.


Of course, some captains are harmless. Probably.

But this sea tradition has continued through centuries of development for a practical and necessary reason. Under international law, the captain is the ultimate authority aboard his boat; and morally, his primary responsibility is for the safety of his passengers. And when a suddenly arising crisis at sea demands fast action, there is often no time for debate or for consensus-building. There is time enough only for one person to exercise superior judgment to make a quick and informed decision and, sometimes, give decisive and binding direction to others in order to avert it. The seafaring culture has found great practical value in agreeing in advance on who that person will be, and giving him a dashing hat to wear.

Still in doubt? Search Google on the phrase “why must a ship have a captain,” and you’ll find not one single web page dedicated to debating the question. Instead, you’ll find nine or ten sites featuring variations on the theme, “Must a captain be the last one off a sinking ship?”

Then, at your leisure, consider this Guardian piece discussing the “last off” mystique in relation to the behavior of two captains of lost vessels, the HMS Coventry in 1982 and the Costa Concordia in 2012.

Now ask yourself if this is a job you would casually put yourself up for. After all, there are other ways to get dashing hats.

More cheer. Less responsibility.

More cheer. Less responsibility.

Ready or not

After literally years of discussion, I think Pam gets it. Even if she doesn’t like it.

But in addition to its wonderful insight, my reader’s question is also wonderfully provocative, and the way I handle it could turn my marriage into a scene from the Jerry Springer show. Which would be wonderfully entertaining. For some.

Because, having shot off my mouth about a captain’s need to exercise superior judgment in order to command a boat out of a seafaring crisis, I’m now left with a looming question: Which of us—Pam or me—has the necessary superior judgment to be the captain of Meander?

The answer is obvious. Neither of us do.

Five years ago, neither of us knew how to sail.

Since then, we have racked up most of our tiller hours on boats at least eight feet shorter and several thousand pounds lighter than Meander, pushing around at the south end of a lake that, by the standard set by the Chesapeake Bay, is little more than a puddle.

And after our long years of preparation, we have undertaken to sail Meander without yet having anchored any boat completely by ourselves. Not a large one. Not a small one. Not one. (However, if you include all the times we did it under the tutelage and supervision of another captain during a week-long sailing class, this number skyrockets to “Exactly one.”)

So here at the beginning of our liveaboard cruising career, neither of us is really in danger of making an excellent captain. (And one of us–me–is also not in danger of making an excellent crew.)

But the sea shows little enough respect for the most experienced people who try to travel her. And with the stumblingly semi-competent, she can be downright impatient—hostile, even. If the ship hits the can, someone must be in charge, ready or not.

So Meander’s captain is. . .

. . . to be announced.
For now, the theoretically correct solution is to take turns. Each of us needs direct experience in gauging and monitoring the situation moment by moment, anticipating viable responses to emergent conditions, formulating the best coping strategies, and communicating our intent to the other.

So every time we cast off, it follows, one or the other of us will be assigned the dashing hat for that trip (metaphorically), no matter how ill-fitting it is or how ridiculous we look in it.


I could never carry this off.

One if by sea, two if by land

One last corollary to all these high-minded ideas, and the theory is complete. Once the boat is made fast again, the hat comes off. The rocks and shoals upon which marriages founder are not of the same type as those that can sink a ship, and do not require the same strategies and tactics to avoid. On land, there is still plenty of room for that slow, careful, listening, consensus-building process that is otherwise so badly suited to a crisis at sea.

When the ship hits the can

Of course, where theory ends, practice begins.

And with apologies to my fledgling readership, I will note that practice is precisely what kept me from posting all this past week. Eighty nautical miles, three days and two overnight marina stops away from our temporary home in Fairport, Virginia, I am writing this on Saturday, September 19, from our new slip in the municipal yacht basin in Cambridge, Maryland.

And at the end of all the experiences that led us up to and through that trip, we have arrived at a practical working conclusion to my reader’s insistent question: Who is Meander’s captain?

It is. . .

Ah, but look at the time! 2:00 AM, and so much sleep to catch up on. More soon.

Honey the golden retriever: Pamela Webster.
Captain mascot: The Captain Presides via photopin (license)
Girls in fancy hats: DSC_9442 via photopin (license)
Captain’s hat: Captain Speaking! via photopin (license)

What Makes a Competent Captain?

Last Wednesday, I posted about the first sail my wife Pam, our dog Honey, and I took in our new home on the water, the sailing vessel Meander.

Two days ago, we went out for our second time together. I may write up the details of that short daysail someday. But for now, the experience has led me for the moment simply to contemplate the notion of being a competent captain.


Not that kind of captain.

Competent Captains are Prepared People

A Career Guides page at the State of Virginia’s job opportunities website lists, in the unromantic, black-and-white, sans-serif visual style typical of state bureaucracies, the following Skills desired of candidates for Ship and Boat Captain positions in the Commonwealth.

  1. Controlling operations of equipment or systems.
  2. Adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions.
  3. Watching gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.
  4. Talking to others to convey information effectively.
  5. Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work, identifying the best people for the job.
  6. Using mathematics to solve problems.
  7. Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate in one.
  8. Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.

That list is less than one fifth of what the State of Virginia has to say about the position of Captain and the qualifications of people who would fill it.

But it is easy to see that the skills in it cover a lot of ground, and that those who have them could not have come by them overnight. . . and certainly not just by acquiring a sailboat. Rather, it takes education to become a competent captain, whether by formal study or by apprenticeship or by, as the musician answered the tourist who wanted to know how to get to Carnegie Hall, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Competent Captains are Practical People

First, a review of Items Nos. 1, 3, and 6 suggests that the page’s unromantic visual style is actually not a bad fit for the job of captain. Sure, the TV and film images we carry around in our heads are filled with swashbuckling glamor. But in truth, out on the water, there is an awful lot of gauge, dial and indicator watching to do.

At the bottom of the page, the Virginia career guide goes on to characterize the position of Captain as Realistic, Enterprising and Conventional. For Virginia’s purposes, this means that the job requires a basic grasp of external, practical realities as opposed to theoretical ideas and constructs, an ability to conceive of a project and see it through, and general conformance to a widely accepted set of tried-and-true procedures.

That general conformance to widely accepted procedure, incidentally, is one cornerstone of the cost-benefit analysis referenced in Item No. 7. Situational awareness is another. The United States Coast Guard defines situational awareness as the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. I define it as the ability to understand the implications of the train coming around that bend there for your car stalled here on the tracks.

So while captaining a ship may look and sound exciting to audiences, excitement is actually the last thing a captain wants. Excitement is coping with a fire in the engine room in the middle of storm-driven seas, or launching into your crew-overboard procedure after watching someone disappear over the lifelines.


Too much excitement.

Rather, a true captain wants the boredom of routine, the kind of routine that brings the satisfaction of a maneuver well executed, a landfall well made and a job well done.

The captain can then find plenty of excitement on shore, off the clock, on his or her own terms.

Competent Captains are People People

Competent captains may not need the people-handling skills of, say, our best (or worst) politicians. But even a captain who is sailing alone around the world will sometimes need to rely on others in order to reach that desired haven.

In fact, half the items in the skills list (Items Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 8) are about talking to, listening to, responding to, and working with people.

Most of these people will not even be on the boat. There will be the officials who just drop in to check that papers are in order. The local market stall people with whom to haggle for provisions. The parts vendors from whom to acquire a replacement for that bent rudder stock. The boatyard managers with whom to haggle for space and time to make rudder stock repairs. The technical departments of half a dozen multinational companies, located in half a dozen countries, who have the daunting job of helping you understand the intricacies of the new instrument package for which those companies’ sales departments are asking $6,000.

But the people upon whom you will rely every day at sea will be traveling right next to you. They are your crew, the ones Item No. 5 says you need to motivate, develop, and direct, the ones you need to sort out as you struggle to identify who is best for a particular job.


Pam should be so lucky.

More on that subject soon.

But I’ll tell you now: If our second sail was any indication, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Cereal box: cereal mutiny via photopin (license)
Mud-streaked ship: Queen of Sidney 3 via photopin (license)
Captain and crew: UFV_WINGS via photopin (license)