A Captain’s Responsibilty

“I can handle anything that happens!”

Have you ever gotten a chill from something someone has said.  I heard this statement this morning, and I can honestly say the statement scared me more than I could have imagined.  The statement was made in response to Tradewinds “grounding the fleet” due to weather conditions.  The forecast, and the reason for grounding the fleet, was heavy rain, gale force winds, and thunderstorms.

A few of the potential “things” that might happen on a day like that include:

  • An accidental jibe caused by the wind shifting during a gust.  You may not realize it, however, gusts do not come from the same direction as the prevailing winds, they rotate around and come from further to the right, which means if you are on a broad reach on a starboard tack, a strong gust can easily cause a jibe.
  • A broach.  A broach is a sudden change in direction caused by the forces on the sailing overcoming the ability of the hull to track a straight line.  An over trimmed mainsail can easily cause a broach in a gust.
  • Demasting.  A flaw in the rig can cause the mast to come down during gusty conditions.  I was listening to the VHF one day a few years back.  Two different boats were demasted, one a schooner with two masts.  Both came down.  The conditions that day were very similar to the forecast for today!
  • A lightning strike!  I don’t know about you, however, I don’t want to be sitting at the base of a fifty-foot-tall lightning rod in the middle of a thunderstorm.
  • Crew overboard.   Gale force gusty winds are going to result in very wavy conditions, with a great deal of erratic healing.  Add to that wet decks and you have the perfect recipe for a crew member going overboard, in conditions which will make it extremely difficult to effect a recovery.

Which brings me to the point of this skipper’s tip.  Legally and morally, a captain’s responsibility is the safety of crew and vessel.  Your skills may be strong  enough to control or lessen some of the above situations, however, you can not “handle” them all.  You do not have control over a lightning strike.  Your skills are not going to keep a crew member from falling overboard during a “freak combination of events”, and what happens if that crew member is you?  You are not going to keep a mast up if the fitting at the top of the shroud lets go or the spreader breaks under the pressure of a gust.  Even if your skills are outstanding, what is the skill level of your crew?  Can they “handle” whatever happens?

I personally average 3 to 4 days a week on the water.  I have a total of over a thousand days sailing.  I like to think I know what I am doing, however, more importantly, I have a pretty good idea of when I don’t know.  Today is one of those days!    There is no way I would go out today unless I had no other choice.  If you have been sailing for 5 years, averaging 1 day a month, you probably are getting pretty good.  Good enough that you shouldn’t be thinking “I can handle it”.  Instead, start thinking of the reasons why you might not be able to.  That is being a responsible captain!

Note from Matt: We don’t lightly make the decision to ground the fleet. We want you out on the water and sailing, that’s what makes the business run! When we do keep the boats in, it’s after watching the weather very closely, usually for several days, and even then we won’t make the final call until the evening before or morning of. If it looks like one of those days is coming up when you have a reservation, you’ll want to check in with us before you make the drive to the marina. Before you decide to argue with the staff about it, think about the fact that 90% of everyone has already made the decision to cancel on their own, and we are only talking to a select few – if this looks like your type of sailing conditions, perhaps it’s time to get your own boat to experience it on! Even if everything turns out just fine from your point of view, these kinds of conditions are extraordinarily hard on rigging, fittings, sails, rudder systems, and all kinds of other parts that you may or may not be able to think of! It’s really not fair to call this ‘wear and tear’ and bill a boar owner!

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6 Responses to A Captain’s Responsibilty

  1. Truer word have never been spoken, Don and Matt! People always think they can handle any situation…until they can’t. Why do people always push things and take unnecessary risks?! It took a knockdown for us to learn our lesson and hopefully we have. Nothing is more important than the safety of your crew!!! Kudos to Tradewinds and their staff for always thinking of others, doing the right thing, and putting safety first!

  2. Gene Stangel says:

    Hi Don & Matt,
    Good Judgement is an acquired combination of EXPERIENCE (good and bad), TRAINING and PRACTICE. A deficit in any of these can lead to overconfidence that can, and often does, get sailors, divers, pilots, etc. into serious trouble.
    Your article this week is a sobering reminder to us all. Thanks! Gene

  3. Peggy Droesch says:

    Wise words. Very much analogous to newly licensed drivers, who think they know everything; & drivers with many years & thousands of miles under their belt, who know that they don’t.
    It takes a strong & confident skipper to say, I don’t want to deal with these conditions, & I don’t want to take crew out in them. If you have the choice & you (or your crew) are in any way conflicted about going out in the prevailing conditions, don’t. Your gut feelings are usually right, & there will always be another day.
    And be thankful for the cautious staff at Tradewinds, when they take that choice out of your hands!

  4. Chuck B says:

    YES. Thank you for this!

  5. Joe Tringali says:

    I applaud you’d decision. The ocean (and bay) are not to be trifled with!

    Joe

  6. BUtch Floreu says:

    from personal experience I have been out in heavy seas and where life was at risk. The boat is replaceable, lives are not. I have a few good pilots as friends, They say that most of the time that is experience and skills that over ride good judgement that causes tragedy. that is why life’s are lost. So when the fleet is grounded, it is the good judgement that makes the call, and we will not have to hear about the realization how fragile life is. Sail safe and have fun but the real story is there is always a safer day to sail. As one of the new boat owners in the fleet, I am counting on Tradewinds and the Tradewinds skippers to use good judgement for the safety of their crew and my expensive sailboat. So use her with respect and care.

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