Tuning In, Tuning Out

Posted by at 02:18PM - Comments: (5)

Contributor Frank Lanier checks out ICOM M802 after installation using the KISS-SSB ground plane system and the split-lead GAM backstay antenna as part of our upcoming series on single-sideband radios.

Earlier last month, I had the chance to join renowned sailing author Lin Pardey and survival expert Steve Callahan (author of “Adrift: 76 Days Lost at Sea”) for a round table discussion at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Show, in Port Townsend, Washington.

Since my own approach to cruising was shaped by the philosophy of self-sufficiency that Callahan, Lin, and her husband Larry have long advocated, I wasn’t surprised by their responses when discussion turned toward two categories of safety equipment we’ve covered extensively: the combined inflatable life jacket/harness and electronic devices used to signal distress.

Both Callahan and Pardey echoed the concerns that we’ve raised before. Inflatable life jackets and satellite distress communication devices like EPIRBS have impressive records, but they’re no substitute for common sense and basic skills of seamanship. The same goes for the new portable satellite communication devices (or satphones, or SEND devices like the SPOT). Our growing reliance on these backstop devices is engendering a worrisome sense of complacency. In place of a proactive approach of taking responsibility for our own safety, we adopt a more passive stance.

Sometime during the 1990s, the question, “What can I do to stay on board?” became “What equipment can help me to stay on board?” And instead of asking, “What skills do I need to keep me and my crew safe at sea?” new boaters asked, “How can I call for help on the water?” Many also assumed that simply purchasing safety equipment was enough. They didn’t practice using the gear nor carry out the required maintenance.

On the topic of harnesses and tethers, Pardey’s advice made perfect sense. First, learn to be comfortable aboard without the harness or tether. Being able to confidently move around your boat is critical. In this way, you’ll pay more attention to details like handholds and nonskid that should always take precedence over jacklines and tethers.

And although Callahan’s ordeal would have surely been shortened if he’d had a portable VHF (nine ships passed him by), he reminded us that electronics can chip away at our environmental awareness. He wasn’t saying throw away your GPS, or sever all communications, only that we need to be wary when our reliance on electronics begins to dull our senses.

This susceptibility to what I call “screen creep” can have unsettling results. Just as the incurable text-sender spends more time staring at his phone than interacting with the people around him, sailors intoxicated by their display screens can lose the ability to recognize natural patterns in the weather, the waves, and wind. Nurturing environmental awareness is more than just a matter of safety. To hide behind a digital wall diminishes the art of sailing into something easily quantified, which it simply isn’t. To punch a few buttons and safely sail across a pixelated sea is truly amazing, but it isn’t sailing.

What prompted this reflection was the upcoming feature in the November 2014 issue of Practical Sailor on marine single-sideband radio. During our discussion in Port Townsend, Pardey recalled a powerful storm that struck a cruising rally several years ago, and how afterward, some survivors regretted hovering over the radio instead of getting much-needed rest. They paid for the lack of sleep with poor decisions; the electronic link had become a noose.

Over time, the cruisers’ nets, like social media or the broadcast news, become the filter for reality. Our own ship may be fine, but hearing about the problems on other boats far away or the heeding dire predictions of armchair forecasters can rattle our nerves, raising clouds of uncertainty and insecurity. Maybe the answer to this isn’t, as some have suggested “to turn the bloody thing off,” but to have the confidence to recognize which channels to tune in, and which ones to ignore.

Comments (5)

I try to apply the skills I learned as a USAF navigator. These were the early days after computers were introduced into the cockpit and long before GPS. It was standard operating procedure as an Instructor or Flight Examiner to "freeze" the navigational computer and have the student demonstrate his basic navigational expertise on an overwater leg without it before being considered qualified. Today, we have all become spoiled...some of us more than others.

Posted by: MIKE H | October 7, 2014 12:14 PM    Report this comment

Situational Awareness: A short story.
Delivering a boat from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest in the recent past. The boat was a spirited 42' cold-mold with a wood composite mast. One fine day we were about in the middle of the Pacific. Sitting out on deck we spotted a freighter on the horizon, maybe 6-8 NM. Given the boat construction and one typical radar reflector hung, rain-catcher style from the port spreader, we wondered if the freighter crew could see us on radar. Upon VHF hail we asked. The response: "Wait a few minutes. Let me turn on the radar and warm it up."

Posted by: Raandly W | October 3, 2014 9:32 PM    Report this comment

When I was bring my new boat home, the first with extensive electronics at the helm, I tossed a towel over the displays to encourage me to keep my eyes "outside the cockpit." There was nothing there that I needed, even though it was a multiday trip. Since then I've learned to selectivly tune them out.

I'm glad to have learned on small boats.

Posted by: Unknown | October 1, 2014 4:42 PM    Report this comment

Having read both contributors several books, but sailing a 25' Catalina Water Ballast, we're hardly 'cruising'

But I agree: failing to maintain situational awareness is important at all levels from paddling kayaks to ocean crossing cruisers. We hear of so many incidents locally where skippers did not pay attention to their surroundings. Even on our small boat, if the power went out, then we had better be aware of our compass heading and wind direction. Sailing on comparatively protected waters like in Biscayne Bay can still offer challenges from the weather and other boaters.

I recall when sailing on Biscayne Bay a few years ago, a power boat pulled along side us and asked where was Elliott Key Harbor. The Bay is only 8 miles wide, we were midway between shores. I pointed to it without hesitation and looked down at the compass and gave them a bearing to follow. Being aware should start at the dock!


Posted by: Paul A | October 1, 2014 9:53 AM    Report this comment

Not much different than following that Magenta line on the ICW. If you don't look at the 'reality ' around you you sail into a beach---see Cumberland Divide buoy discussions elsewhere for case stories.

Posted by: JAMES M | October 1, 2014 9:10 AM    Report this comment

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