Friday, May 27, 2011

How Much Experience is Necessary?

Rasmus, on her very first day in the OCEAN!

“Have you ever sailed on the ocean before?” one leery and rather curmudgeonly yachtie asked us, as if the fact that we hadn’t would change what we were about to do.  He wasn’t asking out of curiosity - he was asking in a failed attempt to intimidate us and to make us feel that we weren’t experienced enough to sail on the big, scary ocean. 

And yet here we are, over 4,000 nautical (ocean) miles later...

The topic of “experience” comes up a lot out here.  There are a heck of a lot of people who like to bash folks out here cruising with less experience than they see fit. We have met many people, like our friends Jay and Nicole, who have very limited experience, taking baby steps and are doing just fine and we have met cruisers who were raised on boats and have circumnavigated the globe ten-fold in nautical milage.   Bottom line: they are all doing it.  Sure, it might look different and some are more experienced/equipped/prepared than others - but there is only one way to learn.  This is not a competition.

While I don’t want to advocate that any Tom, Dick or Harry can just buy a boat and hit the high seas (that would be careless, right?) - I sort of do.  Because it’s true; any Tom, Dick or Harry can just buy a boat and hit the high seas...if they really want to and are financially able to, that is.  If they are equipped with a decent amount of common sense and the balls to get out and do it, most will fare just fine.

I guess my point is this - everyone must start somewhere and it doesn’t take long to learn once you untie the dock lines (though you might learn some hard lessons quick if you are truly coming from zero).   The important thing is to get out here.  The learning curve is steep - and, if you are lucky, you will get through it (like the majority of us) without serious damage to you or your boat.

If you lack common sense, however, and take unnecessary risks - you will not only be a danger to yourself, but all of us who are cruising around you.  In the Bahamas, for example, there was a young lad with a large bank account who bought a boat - a steel boat - and didn’t have a clue.  After running aground and sinking (yes, sinking) his boat in the Intracoastal Waterway, (rumor has it) he epoxied the keel back on and continued south. This was after he ordered a slew of solar panels, which, when our friends told him he’d better lash them down because the wind was picking up, he just laughed and said they’d be "fine". The next morning our very kind friends were diving for this kid's solar panels as they ended up in the bottom of the harbor. He then set sail across the gulf stream and ended up anchoring on the Bahama Banks where he dropped the hook in 20 feet of water and went to sleep. Upon hearing his anchor alarm (a GPS alarm that is set to alert you if you drag outside of a certain parameter) he promptly turned it off and went back to sleep...he was in the banks anyway, he could drag 20 miles and not hit anything, right? (This was his rationale). The next morning he found himself drifting aimlessly out to sea, without an anchor. His line had chafed through in the night and away he went. He then felt it "no a big deal" to continue on without an anchor. This guy was, for lack of a better word, an imbecile.  We heard stories about him all through the Bahamian island chain and they were downright scary.  Luckily for the rest of us, he decided to get rid of his boat and head back to land where he’s probably taken up some other sport like rock-climbing or paragliding.  Either way, we’re happy he’s scratched his itch.  This guy wasn’t just a newbie - he was careless, a danger to other boats around him and had little respect for the sea and it’s power.  Do NOT be "that" guy.

So... what sort of experience is necessary?  We are still complete newbies ourselves, but so far I have a few thoughts on this.  This list is compiled of things we are either happy we did or wish we knew before shoving off - hopefully they might be of help or guidance to you:

1)  Have a can-do attitude! Just like the Little Engine That Could you need to think you can before you can.   I know I have said it a million times before, but where there is a will, there IS a way.

2)  Get on someone else’s boat and CREW! Scott and I grew up sailing but the bulk of what we learned was racing on other people’s sailboats.  If your local yacht club has Wednesday night races or a fleet of dinghies that race regularly - get yourself on one!  You will learn a ton about teamwork, about sail trim, and about the different points of sail (all of which I think would be essential before shoving off).  In addition, you will also gain an appreciation for how quickly the "bleep" can hit the fan on a boat.

3)  Read a book or take a course on NAVIGATION. You don’t need to know celestial navigation - heck, you barely need to know how to plot a course on a paper chart if you have a good chart plotter - but you should know.  Having a chart plotter (electronic chart and GPS) is a great luxury and convenience but it should never be your only mode of navigating.  Scott and I always have paper charts on deck with us and we know how to use them if (and when?) our chart plotter decides to go kaput. Learn the basics, you can tinker with celestial navigation when you are out here.  Make sure you understand basic navigation rules and lights as well.  We came into a LOT of harbors in the dark when we started and understanding nautical lights helped us tremendously.

4)  Learn how to anchor. Scott and I really didn’t know how to anchor when we left (surprised?) and it ended up costing us a lot more money on docking and marinas because we (well, really, me) were too chicken to try early on.  It’s actually not that hard if you have the right ground tackle - and practice makes perfect! 

5)  Understand a bit about weather. Scott and I knew squat about weather when we left which is why we got caught in not one, not two, but three gales.  This was not fun.  We had no idea about Chris Parker and his marine weather reports on SSB and didn’t know about all the great weather sites out there.  You don’t need to be a meteorologist, but knowing how to interpret a basic weather report will help keep you out of trouble.

6)  Sail overnight. Before shoving off I would do at least one overnight sail just to get acquainted with sailing in the dark. It can be scary at first - but if you plan on voyaging, you’re going to have to sail overnight at some point and better to do it closer to home than not. Sailing overnight will also force you to adhere to some sort of watch schedule which is also an essential part of voyaging and takes some getting used to.

These six elements will teach you enough to be dangerous.  You will still be very naive, and you will still make a ton of mistakes (as we did...and continue to do) but if you stick to safe waters (I wouldn't recommend crossing an ocean just yet) in good conditions - you should come out on top.  It is important to bear in mind, however, that no matter how experienced you are - the sea always has the upper hand and if you get too cocky, she will promptly deal you a lesson or two.  While experience helps you to quickly asses situation and act accordingly, it will never immunize you from ‘bad luck’ at sea.  Bernard Moitessier, arguably one of the greatest sailors to have ever lived, lost three boats to the ocean.  Sailing as a lifestyle is always a challenge and, like golf, it is never mastered.’ve got to start somewhere, and if that is from zero, so be it.  More power to you!

It is important to remember that there will be people, many of them, who will try to discourage you. They will come up with a never-ending list of reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t do this.  They’re the same people who call what we are doing silly, dangerous, irresponsible and selfish.   Scott and I are a couple of the lucky ones, despite the naysayers, we have full support from our friends and family.  They are actually proud of what we are doing. Very proud.

And remember, “The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you can not do”.  So cast off your bow lines with a beaming smile, enthusiastically wave goodbye - and sail right on past them.


Mid-Life Cruising! said...

Being new to all of this, we still need to learn most of the basics that you listed. As you said, we'll never have it mastered and Mother Nature needs to be respected, but we can't wait to get past the learning curve! Thanks for the encouraging words ... most of our friends and family think we're nuts! =) Leads me to wonder ... has the experience been less challenging than you thought as far as the ability to sail?

NatGeoWannaBe said...

EXCELLENT post. I borrowed snippets for my FB wall (giving credit of course!) =)

Brett said...

Great post as always Brittany! Glad to see you two are doing so well, but I had no doubt you would. Have a slushy rum drink for me.

Lisa said...

Printed this one! Truly a well-thought out, informative and enjoyable post.

clubtrax said...

Bless ol' Cecil Lockhardt's soul!! Good tale 'bout your Grandpa!! Love from UT

Anonymous said...

If your guy had never been offshore, and considering the boats you all have sailed, how did he get his sea time for the USCG Master's License.

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