Although there are an infinite number of hints and tips for things you should do in the practice of good seamanship, there are only four absolute commandments. They are at the heart and core of boating, without which all else means nothing. The first is to stay afloat, here is the next. Stayed tuned for the rest.
The second commandment of seamanship is to keep from hitting anything. Collisions at sea are, at most, dangerous, and at least, embarrassing. A collision may be between your vessel and other manmade structures, such as another vessel, a buoy, or a dock. Or it may be between your vessel and the bottom. The latter may be called a grounding, stranding, or shipwreck, depending on the length of time your vessel stays on the bottom.
One way to keep from hitting anything is to stand watch. Watch is an ancient marine word meaning, "To look or observe attentively or carefully; be closely observant."
The most important area to watch is the water ahead, but don't do so to the exclusion of the rest of the horizon. Every little while, do a rapid but methodical sweep across 360 degrees to see what might be sneaking up on you.
Have as few obstructions to vision as possible. Have high steering positions and low deckhouses. If you have the luxury of a wheelhouse, keep going outside for a better look around, especially at night or in fog.
Use binoculars. Remember that they gather light to your eyes at night. To pick up dim objects on the horizon at night, look a little above or below the horizon so that what you are looking for will be exposed to the most light sensitive parts of your eyes.
The Rules of the Road specify that you shall keep "a proper lookout." Courts have interpreted this to mean a trained, vigilant seaman properly stationed and with no duty other than looking out. Because of the latter, helmsmen have been held by the courts not to be proper lookouts.
Of course, this legal interpretation may not be practical on small boats-and impossible when you go out alone. But such violation is only a concern if you hit something. To keep from hitting anything, helmsmen and every other person on the deck, insofar as possible, should act as lookouts.
The first consideration when avoiding hitting a vessel is to determine when there is a risk of collision. This occurs when another vessel is closing with you on a steady compass heading. Take a bearing of the other vessel while it is still far away. The Rules of the Road state: "If the bearing does not appreciably change, such risk [of collision] should be deemed to exist." The Rules are correct.
It is best to keep track of the other vessel using a hand-bearing compass. If you don't have one, observe if the relative aspect of the other vessel (45 degrees on the starboard bow, just abaft the port beam, etc.) is remaining constant.
To keep from hitting another vessel that is closing with you on a steady bearing, someone must change course or speed. The other boat may change course or speed, but then again, it may not. You can depend on your own actions, you can't depend on the other boat's.
One of the best defensive maneuvers is to stop. Another good defensive maneuver is to turn away from the other vessel in a huge circle and then come back on your course and keep going as if the other boat had never been there. Make big course changes that are obvious to all.
There may not always be enough space to maneuver defensively. In that case, the only way to keep from hitting the other boat is for the two of you to do a careful dance according to an elaborate, rigid choreography. The three basic maneuvering situations are: meeting, crossing, and overtaking.
When meeting head-on, never turn left. Don't even come left the tiniest bit. If it looks as if you are going to pass the other vessel starboard to starboard, and you are uncomfortable about the closeness of the approach, make a great big, early right turn so you can come back on course and pass comfortably far away for the more proper port to port.
When crossing another vessel, never turn left. If you're on the right, and thus the "stand-on" vessel, according to the Rules of the Road, you must continue on course. If you're on the left, and thus the "give-way" vessel, turn right or slow down to let the other vessel cross ahead. Don't try to cross ahead of a vessel that must continue on course.
When overtaking, the vessel doing the passing must keep out of the way of the vessel being passed. While the Rules say that the overtaken vessel must maintain course and speed, it's good manners-when safe-for the overtaken boat to slow down to make it easier for the other to pass.
Fog greatly complicates keeping a lookout. Black-and-white objects show up best in the fog-thankfully the white foam from breaking waves can appear quite dazzling.
Distance becomes difficult to judge. When you first see something coming out of the fog, it's hard to know whether it's something big far away or something small close aboard. This is why you should reduce your speed. The old axiom is that you must be able to stop in less than half the distance of visibility.
Blow fog signals. Listen for the fog signals of other vessels. Remember that the sound of your engine can drown out the sound of another vessel's fog signals. Occasionally stop and listen.
The Rules of the Road state that if you hear the fog signal of another vessel ahead of you, you "shall, so far as the circumstances of the case admit, stop...engines." Then you may proceed with caution until you hear the fog signal of the other vessel astern of you.
Try to know where you are in fog. Take full advantage of any periods of greater visibility. Get any kind of fix you can, anytime you can. In fog run for sound signals. Silent buoys are hard to find.
If silent buoys are hard to find in the fog, they are all too easy to hit at night. Watch out for them. Never take a navigational light for granted. Time it, and time it again until you are absolutely positive of its identification. Don't assume it's the light you expected it to be.
To keep from hitting the bottom (running aground), keep track of where you are. If you're not sure where you are, steer a course you know is safe-even if it involves extra distance.
Charts are remarkable documents and great bargains. A chart contains a vast array of accurate information. Don't skimp on charts. Buy them and use them. Don't be embarrassed to own a chart of your home waters and to consult it frequently. Familiarity breeds contempt. If you allow it, you will probably hit something.
Keep track of your position on the chart roughly, but frequently, using cross bearings by eye; ranges, when you're lucky enough to have things line up; and distances between locations. It might go something like this: "Let's see, I'm opposite the south end of that island. Its other end and that headland are nearly in line. And I'm a third of the way from that buoy to the mainland. That puts me about here."
Buy the best good compass you can afford. Keep magnetic stuff away from it. Learn the deviation of your compass at different headings and apply it.
Sooner or later you'll get lost. No matter. Trust what little information you have and proceed with caution. Stop and take soundings. Try to fit them to the soundings on the chart. Even if they won't fit, there's nothing like a nice deep sounding to give you courage. You can always say to yourself: "I may be lost, but I ain't aground."
Try not to hit docks. When you bring your vessel in to a dock, make an eggshell landing-imagine holding an egg between you and the dock without cracking its shell. Move in slowly. Make your landing with patience and grace. Land with majesty, not panic. Don't depend on a blast of power in reverse-you may never get it.
Pick the lee side of the dock for a landing. If you have to land on the weather side, stop a ways off and let the wind set you in on the dock slowly. If wind and tide are taking you away from the dock, get a line over and make it fast somewhere amidships. Then you can go ahead or astern on it, as the case may be, using it to bring yourself right in alongside.
So, my simple message is: If you keep on watching where you're going, you probably will keep from hitting anything; if you don't, you won't. Amen.
The book The Elements of Seamanship, from which this article has been condensed, is available from The Gestalt Journal Press, Box 990, Highland, NY 12528, firstname.lastname@example.org.