Complacency and the Modern Sailor

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 12:01PM - Comments: (8)


Photo by Christophe Favreau/PPL/GGR
Photo by Christophe Favreau/PPL/GGR

Frenchman Jean-Luc Van Den Heede arrives in Hobart, Tasmania for a film drop during the Golden Globe Race. At press time, the 73-year-old five-time circumnavigator and his Rustler 36 yacht Matmut had a 1,000-mile lead over second place Dutchman Mark Slats.

This summer 18 sailors set out in the 50th Anniversary Golden Globe Race, a “retro” race which sought to recreate the circumstances of the original singlehanded around-the-world race using older production boats with dimensions similar to the eventual winner, Suhaili, sailed by Robin Knox Johston. 

Currently, only seven of the original entrants remain in the race. Two of them have rounded Cape Horn and are homeward bound to England. Five-time circumnavigator 73-year-old Jean-Luc Van Den Heede is in the lead. Mark Slats, a 41-year-old Dutchman who has already circumnavigated once and rowed solo across the Atlantic, is about 1,000 miles behind him.

The biographies of the remaining competitors in the Golden Globe reinforce the underlying message in the lead article in the January 2019 issue of Practical Sailor. Written by Editor-at-large Ralph Naranjo, “A Spotlight on Seamanship” reminds us that although a sound, well-equipped vessel is a big step toward eliminating risk, it is no substitute for experience. In his report, Naranjo, calls upon his years as an instructor at the Annapolis School of Seamanship to pin down the essential skills required for offshore sailing. The end result is an expanded course syllabus of sorts, something to guide the offshore sailor’s education.

For me, one of the most attractive things about offshore sailing is that our education is never complete. Even the most experienced sailor learns something new on every passage. That point was drilled home earlier this month, when a brand-new Beneteau 55.1 sailed by an experienced delivery crew was dismasted off of Cape Hatteras. The U.S. Coast Guard saved all hands, but the boat, which was en route between boat shows, had to be abandoned.

In recent years, it seems as if not a fall sailing season goes by without at least one presumably sound vessel and experienced crew running into trouble off Hatteras. In 2015, I wrote about a the fate of Rainmaker, new 55-foot Gunboat catamaran—supposedly representing state-of-the-art construction, engineering, and technology—that suffered a fate similar to that of the Beneteau. 

It is almost as if today’s sailors are suffering a severe case of amnesia, causing them to forget why this stretch of water has rightly earned the moniker “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Or perhaps it is just another example of how improved weather forecasting and state-of-the-art navigation and communication systems (not to mention distress signaling) has led us to become complacent?

As Naranjo points out in the January report, one of the greatest risks when planning for an ambitious voyage is the tendency to confuse luck with skill. When you compare his proposed curriculum for offshore sailors and the backgrounds of the remaining skippers in the Golden Globe revival, you can see how each of the racers have what it takes—a healthy dose of continuous experience, physical fitness, and sea sense. And although the finish line is finally within reach, I doubt that any one of them is becoming complacent. 

Whether you are getting started on your education as a sailor or an old salt trying to keep abreast of the latest trends, you’ll find a number of articles in our archives that eschew the gadgetry and focus on the essentials. 

Photo by Ralph Naranjo
Photo by Ralph Naranjo

PS Editor at large Ralph Naranjo tends to lines aboard a modern ocean racer (photo by Ralph Naranjo).

A fitting companion to Ralph’s seamanship report is his February 2018 article,
New Trends in Sailing Safety Gear,” which focuses on the essential safety accessories. And if your weather forecasting skills need fine-tuning, our May 2017 report, “Marine Weather Forecasting,” offers an update on the latest weather forecasting tools available to sailors. If you'd like a chance to learn these skills from Ralph first-hand, he'll be teaching two courses in March at the Annapolis School of Seamanship.

Those who are looking for a new boat will find a wealth of wisdom in Ralph’s special report on trends in sailboat design and construction—focusing on structurestability, and performance (February 2015, June 2015, and August 2015 respectively). All of these articles offer a peek of what you’ll find in Ralph’s outstanding opus, “The Art of Seamanship,” published in 2016 and available in the Practical Sailor bookstore online.

Although anyone headed offshore will benefit from Ralph’s book, it is aimed squarely at the sailor. It’s not a book for the novice tying his first bowline, or the yachtsman interested in flag etiquette. The topics Ralph addresses, particular those dealing with weather, anchoring, sail-handling, and navigation, are examined with a depth and insight that only come through years of experience.

If you don’t yet have the book, it will make a good gift to yourself. Full of hard-won wisdom, it offers a clear-eyed reminder that the challenges faced by the first Golden Globe sailors are the same ones we face today. It's the sort of book you want to keep by your bedside, close at hand whenever a sense of complacency starts to creep in.

Comments (8)

Noted sailing author John Kretschmer has written about that stretch of ocean off of Cape Hatteras: "...with all due respect to Cape Flattery in Washington State, Cape Mendocino in California, and Point Conception in California, the continental American headland that stirs sailors to certify their life rafts and update their insurance policies is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Physically, there is nothing dramatic about it. In fact, you wouldn't even know it was a headland without looking at a chart off the North Carolina Outer Banks. It's a sandy spit at the bend of elbow-shaped Hatteras Island, and on a summer day when it is covered with tourists it is difficult to understand why Cape Hatteras is infamous. I confess that I was something of a Hatteras skeptic, having rounded it without incident countless times as a delivery skipper and a in a slew of different boats...the waters off Cape Hatteras are treacherous because of a combination of meteorological and geographic factors"

Posted by: CA Dude | December 10, 2018 11:12 PM    Report this comment

A McConaghy 38 is a "Ocean" Racer? That's the kind of idea that leads to disaster.

Posted by: SBSailor | December 6, 2018 6:40 PM    Report this comment

"Graveyard of the Atlantic" is off the NC Coast / Outer Banks / Hatteras area.

Posted by: Mike Alyea | December 6, 2018 6:08 PM    Report this comment

"Graveyard of the Atlantic " usually refers to the Bermuda Triangle. Also occasionally to the Straits of Florida. Or various Straights between the Caribbean Islands. Some historians estimate upwards of 2 million Europeans perished crossing the Atlantic to the new world during the "Age of Sail". Hence the term "Graveyards".

Slocum did pretty well without the modern stuff. Maybe he was on to something. Old fashioned seamanship.

Peter I Berman
Norwalk, CT

Posted by: Piberman | December 6, 2018 3:03 PM    Report this comment

Is Ralph wearing a safety harness?
cannot tell from my screen.

Posted by: Davil | December 6, 2018 11:40 AM    Report this comment

Editor's note: Original number of entrants has been corrected.

Posted by: sailordn | December 6, 2018 10:39 AM    Report this comment

A consistent statistic on complacency was published a number of years ago involving private pilots. Each keeps a personal log book. It seemed that incidents were high, as would be expected, for low time pilots, and decreased with experience. Then incidents increased again for high time, experienced pilots. The inference was that they got complacent.

Posted by: DaveChicago | December 6, 2018 9:56 AM    Report this comment

I believe that 18, not 12 skippers, set off on the Golden Globe. At least five boats were forced to withdraw from the race due to problems related to wind vane self-steering gear failures. Five boats, so far, have been dismasted. Fingers-crossed for the safe rescue of Susie Goodall, whose Rustler 36 was dismasted after pitchpoling yesterday after her Monitor vane failed.

Posted by: RickSp | December 6, 2018 9:43 AM    Report this comment

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