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Saying “NO!”

A pimply-face kid—totally ignorant of the sea—taught me an important, lifelong lesson.

It was somewhere in the Carolinas, along the Intra Coastal Waterway, on the east coast of America. He was a dock jockey at a rickety old marina, and I was a tired yachtie running south, away from winter. I swung alongside his fuel dock and refueled nervously as there was a considerable chop and crosswind pushing me onto the piling. Besides, there were a number of vessels waiting.

We were near an inlet, so there was a considerable tidal current running as well.

While Carolyn was paying for the diesel, I surveyed the hodgepodge collection of docks.

“Put her in D12 for the night,” the kid told me.

“… can’t,” I said.

“What do you mean can’t?” asked the kid.

Can’t or won’t—whatever,” I replied. “That corner getting into D12 is tight. There’s a cross wind and about a two knot current. I’m scared I’ll end up swept down. I want to spend the night resting, not filling out insurance forms …”

“You just buy the boat?” the kid sneered.

“Yeah,” I said breezily, being on my 25th year of cruising. “I did. And I’m not too good at handling it. How ‘bout putting me on the end of D dock—where I can power into the tidal stream, not have it on my transom?”

The kid was making a big deal of it. “Well, I suppose that one would be a lot easier if you were having difficulty handling your vessel.”

It was noisy and confusing inside the baitshop/fuel shed. People were arriving and leaving and buying ice and paying slip fees—and somewhere in between all this chaos, the kid assigned D12 to a twin screw powerboat with a flying bridge.

I figured the guy was a local, familiar with the area and its currents, and knew how to effectively use his two engines.

Wrong.

A few minutes later, we heard shouting and the panicked roar of big engines in big trouble. People were running. CRASH! The corner of the powerboaters transom clipped a protruding bowsprit, and this pushed his bow to port into the transom of a houseboat. Instead of doing nothing and minimizing the damage—he panicked and gunned it. Stanchions snapped. Outriggers fell. Flag staffs broke. His bow anchor hooked a stern-rail mounted BBQ grill—and carried off both, dangling.

It was bedlam.

Fat-mast-wind-speed-(7)“Idiot,” the kid said under his breath, watching half the boats in his marina being needlessly damaged.

“Yah, lots of those around here-ah,” I said in my best Downeast accent.

“… what’s that mean?” asked the kid.

“It means I rest my case,” I said as I turned away.

‘No’ is one of the most important words in a captain’s vocabulary. This is especially true if you’re a professional delivery skipper. I was once flown to Newport to deliver a racing boat to England—with the owner aboard so he could ‘learn the arts of offshore first hand’. The boat was supposed to be brand new and completely sea-trialed, or—as they always tell you, “All set to go!”

The people who tell you that a boat is ‘all set to go’ are usually the people who aren’t going.

The owner was—or he considered himself to be—a hot-shot racer who was a tad ‘short on offshore experience’.

He was a lawyer from Albany, New York, and at least knew enough to know that going transatlantic was beyond his skill set. Nonetheless, when I arrived he gave me a ‘chart and weather course’ to acclimate me to the task ahead, and then said, “We’ll leave on Thursday, the day after tomorrow.”

We went down to the boat. It was a fast & light design, sure, but it was also built like crap. It was strictly an ‘around the buoys’ design. I’d have to nurse it across the Pond. The first thing I did was grab a hose laying on the dock and gently flow some water over the cabin trunk.

The deadlights didn’t just leak—they gushed. One was dripping right into the SSB; the other on the port bunk.

“This boat has never been offshore, has it?”

“No,” he said, “but don’t worry. I launched it in a small lake behind my home—and prepared it for offshore there.”

I looked at the reefing system. At first glance, it appeared the clew line on the second reef might be led wrong. On second glance, both reef lines were wrong.

“The boat has never been reefed?”

“Well,” he said, “it’s all set to. I followed the drawing in the Harken catalog exactly. But, no, I have never actually reefed it because, you know, there’s not much wind on the lake.”

“Well, there’s plenty of wind in the North Atlantic,” I said dryly.

I spend the next few hours making a list of all the things that needed to be done—and purchased/installed/tested before I’d bring the boat offshore.

“Don’t be silly,” he said in amazement when I presented it to him. “I mean, I’ve researched this! I’ve read Don Street and the Pardeys …”

I ignored him. “If we hustle and don’t run into any major problems, we should be able to leave within ten days to two weeks. I’ll give you a list of the major safety items to be ordered and …”

“I’ll take responsibility,” he said, stopping me in my tracks.

“For what?” I asked.

“For leaving,” he said. “Thursday is a perfect weather window—that’s not just my opinion, Fatty, it’s the opinion of the Boston weather router I’ve hired as well. Besides, I’ve got an important case coming up—and we need to leave soon as possible so I can get back in time for it.”

“No,” I said. “I’ll take responsibility for when we are ready for offshore and when we leave. Period. You hired me for my experience, and, frankly, this vessel is a long way from ready for offshore, she doesn’t even have a bucket nor manual bilge pump nor liferaft!”

“I insist …” he started to say, but I held up both my hands to stop him. Then I started to walk away.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I’m going home,” I said.

“You can’t,” he said, both desperate and angry now. “You promised! I paid for your flight here to deliver my boat—and you haven’t done that. You’re in default of our agreement.”

“Sue me,” I said and walked out.

About six months later, I heard he’d sold the boat after being in a ‘major storm’ which scared him.

Yeah, storms can be scary—especially when the vessel isn’t prepared for the conditions it is likely to encounter.

I am currently on my third circumnavigation. Often, I’m at a seasonal weather window/gate which puts me offshore with equally experienced sailors—plus, of course, some less experienced sailors. One of the things that is blatantly obvious in such circumstances is that the less experienced sailors are always urging the more experienced sailors to be bolder.

Example: my wife Carolyn and I never enter a strange harbor at night. It is a very simple, very ‘black and white’ rule. There’s little wiggle room. It is not a judgment call.

We. Do. Not.

I was recently on passage and approaching land with a large catamaran just ahead. It was late in the day. When I advanced my DR, it put me at the harbor entrance one hour after dark.

“I’m going to heave-to out here,” I said to the other vessel. “I’ve never been in that harbor before.”

“It looks straight-forward on the chart,” he said.

“That’s what worries me,” I said. “Most of the vessels that are lost have a very confident guy at the helm—otherwise, they wouldn’t be lost!”

“But, hey, seriously,” the guy said, “I’ll go first. I have radar, a night vision camera, and a forward-reading depth sounder. I think I can make it. I’m sure Carolyn would like to be in safe harbor tonight.”

I didn’t say it but I thought: what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?

The following day, I heard he was yakking on me about being timid and paranoid. “Any idiot could have done it,” he was saying with a self-satisfied smile.

Exactly.

A few days later he was telling me of his recent Euro cruise—and how he’d been hauled out for many months in Portugal.

When questioned, he admitted that he’d been coming into a harbor at night, with all his marvelous toys whirling and twirling and swirling and beeping, when …”

“At night?” I said, my ears perking up.

“… but it was not my fault,” he said, “The chart was wrong!

I managed (barely) not to chuckle.

I love these ultra common excuses such as, ‘unbeknownst to me, there was a drain on the batteries’ and ‘the weather report predicted only 30 knots but it was gusting over 50!’ and the very best of all, ‘the rock wasn’t on the chart!’

As a sailor who would like to continue sailing offshore until my health prevents me from doing so, I am trying to develop a series of rules, procedures and systems of thinking that will allow me to do just that, safely and serenely.

I have never had a major problem offshore that I could not handle—and I’d like that to continue.

Whenever an inexperienced skipper tells me, “I think I can make it,” I think to myself: Then don’t try.

The real question isn’t whether I can enter Chancey Harbor on this particular night—I may be able to or I may not—but if I should even try?

And if I do try and do make it tonight, how’s that going to effect tomorrow night’s decision?

Only the captain can—and often should—say no. It is a simple word—short and sweet—which should be used far more often than it is.

 

Do you have the spine to “Just say No!”  Chime in below through the comments…

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25 comments

  1. Again common sense is its own reward. Thanks for reminding us to “Just say NO”

  2. as a new skipper (following the shock leaving of my husband ) I am so happy to read your article.

    I am a cautious person and feel a serious boost to my own sense of being free to say no after reading what you wrote thanks!

  3. Nancy Reagan would be proud!

  4. always a pleasure to read what you write. Wisdom with humor and humanity.

  5. NO…I refuse to leave a comment (but, what a great article!).

  6. I often remind myself that no one cares more about me than I do. And generally speaking no one has a more complete picture of my circumstances than I do. This simple ‘rule of thumb’ has helped me make better decisions and not delegate my personal responsibility for awareness and insight onto others.

  7. S/Y Explorar Conmigo

    As a young Skipper… I appreciate the words of wisdom here. Even more meaningful if you’ve ever been close to anyone that has lost their home/boat dreams because of taking the risk…

  8. Hi ‘No saying skipper’!
    Your story made me laugh and many times nodding my head.I live in South Island /New Zealand, done a bit of blue water sailing.For the first time last year I was invited to crew for a yacht delivery-Dunedin to Bay Of Islands, coastal waters.Yacht owner came for a trial sail in Dunedin Harbour.We gave him a to do list-which was mostly done.However he did rely on our kiwi attitude-make do with what we got.First leg to Akaroa was the worst with lots of breakage in not too rough conditions.After careful consideration we carried on to Wellington and said no to Castle Point leg.Yacht owner was not happy.In hindsight we should have said no in Dunedin.Its a very unsettling experience to sail a yacht you lost your confidence in.To be honest it actually put me of deliveries as you are so dependent on owners integrity and reliability.So keep your head up and say no whenever it is not ok,stick to your principle and surely one day we will meet on the water-until then-happy+safe sails!

  9. Thanks for sharing. Excellent advice and a great reminder!

  10. What a great article. One time I went along with the skipper/owner when my mind was telling me to “get off the boat”. How I wish I had although I came out of it alive and gained a lot of experience.

  11. The only time I was ever in a dismasting was helping deliver a boat with rigging that really bothered me. The owner had a timetable he had to make and convinced me to go. I bet I stared at that rigging for 30 minutes before we left, thinking I should say no. On the last night, in 25 knots of wind, with the motor balking and running like crap, the mast went over the side. Not the way to learn a lesson if you can help it.

  12. excellent advice, for sailing and life… Do you keep a watch when heaved to? I’m sure it depends on circumstances but in the case you described?

  13. Thanks for the reminder. I remember in Boca Chica having a ‘Discussion ‘ with the dock guy trying to tell me I could fit my 22 foot wide cat in a slip as I had to move off the end T. It took a tape measure to prove that yes the slip was only 18 feet wide so maybe this lady skipper did know what she was talking about and NO I was not going to fit

  14. Thank you so much for your thought filled article. I’m a charter captain, but sometimes I get soft and lucky. You just made me think. That’s a word my Dad used to throw at me. It was the best advice I’ve ever had. He was a good boater. This is right there at the top. Thank you.

  15. Chris Faranetta

    Very wise words and excellent principles that I need to employ. On a related subject I am really lucky in that I have a mechanic who tells me “NO!”.

  16. Yes yes yes.

  17. Capitaine Risky

    Brilliant write up. Some of us including me are too inclined to risk it all. Wise words.

  18. Good article!

  19. Your last comment Fatty – how will saying yes, and getting away with it, affect your decision making the next time – was especially helpful. “False” success (squeaking by when the odds are poorish), can set us up for genuine calamity.

  20. I was a professional captain for many years. Carried passengers from Canada to South America and from East Coast to Alaska, with about 10,000 miles of rivers, canal, and inland waters thrown in. I never had a passenger or crew casualty due to a marine incident and never did more than leave a little paint on a piling. (I still hold the record for largest vessel into many ports, facilities).
    I was great skipper who was able to do so much because I knew my limits and the limits of my ship.

  21. Wonderful article for “the less experienced!” I hope they not only read this, but understand it, AND recognize by their impulsiveness that this article is directed at them! I’ve been cruising on friend’s boats and advised them not to follow through on their chosen course; not to “take that shortcut” or “try to go through that narrow cut at low tide,” even announcing “as the licensed professional onboard, I am going on record as advising against this course,” to no avail… “I’ve taken this shortcut hundreds of times!” “Was it always through breaking surf?” “Well, no… It gets shallow, but gets deep again quickly.” “Remember a hurricane came through here a few months ago…” BANG! Bottom bump.. CaBOOM! Another hard, slam into the bottom. “TURN THIS BOAT AROUND NOW!” This time the owner listened…

    Another time, I was condescendingly asked, ” Why are you so AFRAID to go through this cut? What do you think will happen?” “We have a 6′ 3″ draft. It is dead low tide. The charts all say there is only 4′ here at low tide. We will enter this very narrow channel, run aground, the onshore wind will hold us there as the 1-2′ waves bump us further onto the shallows (not to mention the force of the full main being up). There are day marks lining the channel. The boat will end up sideways, up against one of those day markers, ruining your navy hull paint job while blocking the channel for everyone until high tide comes. You will be screaming at me to hold the boat off of the day mark, which is physically impossible. It is one hour before sunset and we can safely anchor for the night just a mile further ahead and fix a wonderful meal. When SeaTow finally pulled us off, there was a 4” square chunk of rudder missing, a sea fan clogging the now inoperable bow thruster and the need to replace the rudder bearings… While cooking a wonderful meal in the previously mentioned anchoring spot, I was thanked for not saying, “I told you so.” (His license is larger than mine.) Inexperience comes in many forms.

  22. Personally I long ago added another “Just Say No” to my list.

    Just say no to yacht deliveries.

    The way we behave is largely determined by the way the situation is structured… In the case of a delivery skipper trying to make a living by moving boats around, time is money and there is never enough of the latter. So the delivery skipper arrives a day before departure, throws his sea bag on board, flips a few switches to see if the instruments light up, and goes to the airport to collect his crew and have a few beers. He probably is a good sailor and navigator, but by the very nature of the situation, the outcome is dependent upon luck and the ability to nurse the boat home when things go sour.

    The other situation is much worse: The owner is on board! Since it is his money, when push comes to shove he will demand that he is the de-facto captain— in spite of the fact that the reason he has professional crew on board is because he isn’t competent to be in command. So just say no if the owner is on board!

    There are two exceptions to the rule:

    If you have sailed on the boat enough to have confidence in it, and more important, know the owner/captain well and have seen how he reacts under stress, by all means join up!

    Or if you will be captain in charge, the owner will be staying on the dock where he belongs and will open his checkbook to supply everything the vessel needs to be seaworthy and accept that the weather determines schedules, not his court date—- then take the job!

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