How to Learn Good Seamanship (and Why You Should)

how to learn good seamanshipWhen they start out, people are usually intimidated by the process of learning to sail.  It all seems so complicated.  There are all of these ropes all over the place (their called lines, actually), and even the physics of how a boat can sail upwind seems crazy hard to understand. And don’t even get started on the hundreds of new words for mysterious bits of mechanical jigery-pokery!

The surprising thing is… sailing is actually pretty easy!  You’ll have the hang of getting the boat to go in any direction you want (except directly upwind, of course) by the end of the first day.  You’ll know how to tack and jibe (and what tacking and jibing means), and you’ll be able to steer the boat, even if it has a tiller.

After a few more days of instruction, you’ll actually be ready to take a boat out without an instructor and without doing any lasting damage to persons or property.

Congratulations, you’ve learned to sail!

The only problem is, you’ve only scratched the surface.  You were so focused on the mechanics of sailing, that you didn’t even know what you didn’t know.

I think this is where we have a bit of a problem of terminology.  You can learn to sail in a few days to a week.  You can get pretty good at it with a couple more week-long courses.  But you will be worlds away from some old salt who’s been doing it for the last 10-20 years in varying conditions.

So what does the old salt have that you don’t have?  Seamanship.

You can gain a lot of sailing knowledge in a relatively short time.  It takes a much longer time to gain sailing wisdom.

This sailing wisdom is what is known as Seamanship.

So what is good seamanship?  It’s understanding the weather and currents, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the boat and crew, and being able to anticipate and react to potential problems before they even arise.

There’s an old saying:

Great sailors use superior seamanship to avoid the need to demonstrate their superior sailing skills.

How do You Learn Good Seamanship?

Time sailing isn’t enough.  You can sail for 20 years on sunny afternoons with 10 knots of wind and the first time you’re caught by a thunderstorm you’ll be in trouble.  Or you can take a systematic approach and develop good seamanship in a couple years.

Just as there are a number of ways to learn to sail, there are a couple ways to learn good seamanship:

  1. The slow and steady way:  Make it your mission to continually challenge yourself.  Go out in rougher conditions and in winter, anchor in tight places, sail overnight, join a racing crew, navigate a whole day with the GPS turned off…  Just make sure that you’re taking it slow enough that you stay safe.  Stretch yourself and your crew incrementally (this is also known as “the school of hard knocks”.  Just make sure the knocks aren’t too hard).
  2. The shortcut:  Do method one, but add mentorship or advanced lessons so you can get out into more varied conditions faster and be given direct feedback and tricks of the trade.  It would take years to work your way up to being ready to ride out a gale 100 miles offshore using method one, but you can get there in a single season if you’ve taken advanced lessons and are out there on somebody else’s boat.

Whether you choose method one or two, make sure that you spend at least a little bit of time stretching your horizons so you’ll be prepared when things don’t go quite as planned and you get caught in rough weather or in a tricky anchorage with no engine.

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4 thoughts on “How to Learn Good Seamanship (and Why You Should)

  1. I just moved up from a 27 hunter charabini to a Morgan33 out islander sloop I have coastal sailing and lake sailing for years but I believe you education is Never. Finished . Life is full of Learning experiences

  2. Well done and spot on. We’ve actually combined a bit of both methods. We learned to sail on a lake in Illinois before we left to go cruising, challenging ourselves gradually over those years. But when we decided to go full time cruising we searched for a mentor to give us some true blue water experience (which we lacked). We found that in the trips offered by John Kretschmer.

    S/V Kintala

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