When you drive down the highway in your car, do you keep your eyes glued to the speedometer or mirrors? How ’bout you power-boaters, do you run down the waterway with your eyes glued to the speedo and gauges? You VFR (visual flight rule) pilots, do you fly around never taking your eyes off the instruments?
Are you texting and driving?
The answer to all these questions should be, “no”! Although, I think the woman driving next to me last night on I-275 probably would have to answer “yes”. I shouted at her, “Put down the damn phone and stop texting”!
So why do so many sailors, particularly new sailors, get so focused on things in the cockpit? All they really need to sail can be seen while looking out of the cockpit at the front and sides of the boat.
Ever try to steer your car while staring out the sunroof? No, why not? The results would be the same as staring at the windex while trying to steer your boat. New sailors in particular get fixated with the windex on top of the mast, at which they stare for hours on end. I think they see it as a security blanket. If I can only get that damn arrow pointed over one of the feathers I must be close-hauled, right? They mutter to themselves.
Well, I guess that’s true if all the gods are lined up exactly and karma is with them. The reality is however, that the angle of sailing close-hauled has many variables, so the fixed angle of alignment that the windex shows is only accurate occasionally. It gets sailors into the ballpark, but from there they have to use other clues to truly get close-hauled. So why not simply use the other clues and keep eyes looking at the picture ahead?
God forbid the boat has an anemometer. Hell, those things are as attention-getting as a bug zapper to a mosquito. Now don’t get me wrong, the windex and anemometer are very useful tools, but if sailors get stuck staring at them constantly they will soon find their course over ground looking like the zigzag stitch on my sewing machine.
All helmsmen needs to do is look at the luff of the jib, with its telltales, and the main (yes the main luffs even with that tree growing in front of it). With the addition of a landmark, whether on land or water, the helmsman has a built-in course reference and sail-trim guide, all within the same sight line.
Learn to think outside the cockpit
Normally when I am working with ASA101 students I will keep the compass covered, our heading really doesn’t matter to us since we are just burning holes in the water. But as time progresses, new sailors eventually need to see the number that represents the direction in which they are traveling.
Actually, come to think of it, does the number really matter? In the short term, it doesn’t really matter where they want to go, what matters is where they can go, and again, all that info is located outside of the cockpit.
I know, I know. The compass tells us very useful information about wind shifts and current that would be very helpful in improving sailing performance. Furthermore, it would be nice to know if we are on a course that will end with us sunbathing on a sandbar waiting for the tide to come back in.
And, I understand that all I have to do is explain that the compass lags behind the actual turn so we have to stop the turn before it reads what we want (lead the turn). However, students understanding what I have explained and demonstrated, while sailing, is very different than being able to process and execute it while they are sailing along. So, for beginners I leave the compass out of the equation.
Sailors need to use the instruments — whether electronic, analog or simple pointers — in the same manner that they use instruments in their car — as references. In short, they should glance at them to reaffirm what they already know.
What a good sailor knows
New sailors should practice finding the wind with their faces. All they have to so is rotate their heads SLOWLY, until the wind is hitting both of their cheeks with the same pressure. When it is, they are staring directly into the wind. They should read the tell-tales (when sailing upwind), making corrections to their attitude, by turning the wheel to make them look pretty (flowing straight back). They should make sure that the landmark they have selected is just visible and “touching” the head-stay.
Students should be taught to see what is in front of them as a “photograph”. In other words, the picture should not be changing. If they close their eyes for five seconds, upon re-opening them, the “photo” should be the same. If it has changed, that is an indication that the boat is turning. In that case, the wheel should be turned in the opposite direction of the movement, halting the turn, and thus, turning the “movie” back into a “photo”. The “photo” should only become a “movie” if they want to turn the boat.
They should be taught to recognize the input the rudder feeds back to the helm. Their responds to that feedback should be to apply just enough pressure to the helm to match that input.
Most importantly, they should scan between these clues regularly and consistently, and to respond appropriately to each before moving on to the next.
These are all critical skills, adding other tools to the equation before they are mastered only muddies the water and gets the new sailor frustrated. Want to know how to master these skills? It’s easy, practice, practice, practice! Rent a boat and an instructor for an afternoon and just go sail. Read my article, “Sailing Naked…I have the guts, do you?” to learn more about the art of sailing old school, without instruments. Master these skills and you are a sailor.
Well, sadly, once again I find myself needing to move on to other things. So, til next time, when I see you On the Water…With Captain Frank