Dear Potential Sailing Crew —
Sailing is a weird thing. It’s the most surreal combination of hard work and gutwrenching terror and beauty and spirituality and competitiveness and materialism and corrosion you will ever face. No one does this because they have to; I have never met anyone on the sea who was there for any reason other than that they loved it. And if you try to explain to people why you love it, you will find yourself telling disturbing stories of almost getting run over by supertankers in the pitch black, or being surrounded by thundercloud, or being escorted by pods of dolphins for hundreds of miles, or the most gorgeous sunrise you ever saw. People you talk to who aren’t sailors tend to back away and change the subject. People who are, lean closer, with a gleam and ask for more. Or, conversely, shut you up to tell you their story.
The sea, and traveling upon her, generates profound emotion in our species. So it’s not surprising that it also generates profound and determined opinions about things. Mariners are some of the most opinionated people ever. Sometimes, it’s about tradition, and sometimes it’s about superstition, and sometimes it’s about experience. You never really know.
There are some things, though, that should clue you in, as to whether or not you’re on a boat that’s safe, with people who are sane.
- There shouldn’t be water actively coming into the boat, no matter what it’s made of, and if there is, the people in charge should be actively engaged in figuring out how to make it stop. The first rule of boating is, keep the water out of the boat.
- If unquestioning obedience to the captain is required, your captain is on an Ahab trip, and you need to find another boat to be on, stat.
- If you are encouraged to seek out other experts and learn from them, that’s a good sign. If the only people around to learn from are people who’ve been on boats for a year or so, and the only people they’ve learned from are each other, you need to step out of the pool and go learn some stuff.
- A corollary to this is, if a boat has a diesel engine, Nigel Calder’s books should be on board, period. If there’s navigating, there should be a Bowditch. If the equipment is all electrical, there should be analog backups for everything. Never ever get on a boat that only has GPS but has no paper charts. Don’t fall so in love with sextants that you forget to check the lead line, too.
- Question everything. Not just questioning to question, but questioning to understand the underlying whys of everything you’re asked to do. Especially on wooden boats, but also on plastic ones, there is history dating back thousands of years for why some things are done in a certain way. If the person teaching you a task isn’t happy to burble on about why this thing is done this way, possibly until you want to ask them to stop because you know enough and will come back and get the rest later, thanks, then they don’t actually know what they’re doing.
- Ask about the budget. Any ship that’s worth being on is a ship that has no problem discussing funding, whether it’s “rum for everyone!” or “damn the government” or “what do you mean pirates in Panama cleaned out our whole checking account?!?!” If they can’t explain the ship’s operating cash flow to you, there’s a potential for problems.
- Ask to be shown, and to participate in, bail out drills. Find the liferafts, check the repack dates, do a headcount and make sure there’s enough raft for the whole crew, know what the deployment routine is. Ask to see the ditch bags, and evaluate their contents yourself. Check the flares, check the EPIRB and its registry, check the radio gear and the backups and the handhelds, and then find out where everyone is supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing in an emergency, and what your role as crew is. If this information is not written down, practiced regularly, and almost unconscious on the part of the crew, find a different boat.
Finally though, there’s this. Please don’t be so in love with the lure of nautical adventure that you ignore any sense that there’s anything shenanigan-like in any of the above points going on on your ship of choice. Don’t let your desire to be out there on the waves interfere with your desire to stay above them. There’s always another boat, another chance, another crew, and there has been for thousands of years of seafaring. It’s so easy to fall in love with boats, and so easy to overlook signs that maybe all is not as it should be, and that the Black Box on any given ship is so empty it’s inside-out. If it takes another few months to find another boat, maybe that’s a few months you can spend learning more, or hanging out at a boat yard, or a chandlery, or a sail loft, or anyplace where you can sponge up more information about the gorgeous and crazy discipline of seamanship.