Seamanship is a concept for which is difficult to provide a simple definition. One of the best sources for understanding it comes from The Essence of Seamanship, a Sail Magazine article by Tom Cunliffe.
Excerpts are shown below:
SEAMANSHIP – BIG PICTURE and LITTLE PICTURE
The big picture is all about “holistic skills,” like recognizing the dangers associated with trying to make port on a dangerous lee shore when staying at sea until conditions improve might be the only safe option. It’s knowing how to deal with fog. It’s sizing up wind and current so as to bring a boat seamlessly alongside a dock. It’s understanding the nature of the boat you are on, so that you make the most of what she can do and never ask her to do something which, by her nature, she cannot. The list goes on and on.
Little-picture seamanship, on the other hand, encompasses all those skills we need to remain relaxed on board. Even in a gale far out at sea, we must be as confident as we are when driving our cars or working in our backyards. But that makes it no less important or satisfying. It includes things like knowing how to rig and secure dock lines so there’s no hassle when the action starts. It’s about balancing the boat’s sails so you don’t need to use a lot of rudder to steer a course or come about. It’s about being able to change a blocked fuel filter or clear a water strainer.
The bottom line is this: a true seaman never becomes obsessed with what he’ll do when something goes wrong. He has foreseen the possibility already and has made sure it doesn’t happen.
The idea expressed in the last 2 sentences is extremely important. One very important illustration revolves around the MOB or POB (person overboard) topic.
Making sure it doesn’t happen is absolutely critical since in the circumstances a POB is likely to happen the chance of a successful recovery is highly remote. We would go so far as to say that the main benefit of POB practice, which is invariably done in benign conditions, is to help people realize how unlikely successful recovery would be in a real life situation in anything other than calm weather in warm waters. This is especially true when there are only 2 people on a boat.
How to set up and manage your boat to minimise the chance of a POB occurring is quite a complex topic. We highly recommend subscribing to Attainable Adventure Cruising and reading their online Person Overboard Prevention book. The AAC site has an amazing wealth of practical information on a wide range of sailing topics.
How to manage decision making on your boat is also a very important aspect of seamanship. In particular, we highly recommend a couple of the tips we were given when we started out.
A simple one is to have a boat rule that no one ever leaves the cockpit while underway unless there is at least one other person on deck.
The second tip relates to how decisions are made. Although the skipper should seek input from the crew, at sea it is not a democracy so ultimately all important decisions must be made by the skipper. However, before leaving port every member of the crew should agree with a decision to set sail. There are any number of reasons one or more members of crew might not want to agree to leave while others still do – different perspectives on the weather outlook, illness or mechanical issues are some obvious ones. In reality the conflict situation may never arise, but it is an important principle that should be agreed – particularly with couples where staying behind is not an option.
How to actually sail a boat is a huge topic. However the basics are pretty simple. Rather than reinvent the wheel I just googled “How to sail” and found that the first result, How to Sail a Boat (with Pictures) – wikiHow, was actually quite good!
However, in this case the best thing you can do is get out on the water to learn and practice on other people’s boats as well as your own if you already have one.
Although not required everywhere in the world, we’d highly recommend that the skipper, and ideally a second crew member, get either the ICC or the ISP certificate at a minimum. More advanced qualifications such as Yachtmaster would be recommended if you are going to do long ocean passages. Ideally crew members would at least do a Competent Crew course. A marine VHF radio certificate is also required for the skipper, at a minimum.
One other thing to keep in mind is that in some parts of the world you will often be motoring more than you sail because of either 1) too little wind, 2) too much wind or 3) wind on the nose, i.e. coming from the direction you want to sail.
This covers getting into and out of marinas, anchorages and town quays. In many ways this is often more challenging that actual sailing. You will often be going into and out of places you have never seen before and will likely never see again. Add in anything other than calm weather and it is a recipe for challenges. Depending on where you are in the world, the types of situation you will find include these basic types – other types are variations of these:
- Marinas with finger pontoons, i.e. you will go alongside and be able to get off on one side of the boat (Video is quite good because of the running commentary by the single handed skipper)
- Marinas with lazy lines, i.e. you will go directly in between other boats (either stern to or bows to although stern to is more common, but you usually have a choice) and pick up mooring lines attached to the seabed
- Med mooring at town quays – similar to a marina with lazy lines except that you will use your own anchor instead of lazy lines
- Anchoring – free swinging
- Anchoring – with long lines ashore – similar to Med mooring except you need to take lines ashore with your dinghy or by swimming them in. Needed in crowded anchorages or where depths are too deep for free swinging anchoring
- Attaching to mooring buoys (be sure to check that ground tackle is in good shape and robust enough for your boat – a mooring buoy for which there is no charge and/or is not occupied when other boats are anchored in the same bay may not be the good luck it seems)
- Alongside (eg. at fuel dock and some ports) May need to use stern spring or bow spring if being blown on.
Here are links to useful videos and diagrams of knots, coils and rope handling techniques:
- Cleat Hitch – simple
- Cleat Hitch – advanced options
- Round Turn and 2 Half Hitches
- Slip Hitch (To make more secure make the loop big enough show that you can make another hitch around the lifeline with the loop.)
- Rolling Hitch
- Double Overhand Stopper
- Buntline Hitch
- Coil video
- Coil article
- How to toss a dock line
- How to catch cleat from boat
Another very big topic, but one where modern tools make life much easier. RYA online courses in Essential Navigation and Seamanship and Marine Radio are recommended.
On a practical level, the tools most people will have on modern cruising boats over 40 feet are:
- Chartplotter in cockpit with integrated GPS speed/AIS/Radar
- Wind speed/direction display
- Bow Thruster
- VHF with DSC
- iPad/Tablet with apps like Navionics HD charts and PredictWind
- Pilot Books
- Paper charts for backup
These Excel based Passage Plan and Ship’s Log templates are ready to enter your information as is or can be customised to fit your exact needs.
They are free with our compliments so why not have a look and give them a try. Just go to the Help page and let us know you would like them via the Contact Form or send us an email requesting them.