Zero Sailing Knowledge

Zero Sailing Knowledge is Unacceptable

Recently, a news story came down the wire that involved an elderly couple who were embarking on what they projected would be a four-year circumnavigation. Four hundred miles off the coast of Barbados, and more than 2,500 miles into their voyage  Stan Dabrowny, 74, slipped and fell from the boat. His wife Elizabeth, 69, saw him fall and quickly threw some life rings to him. But here’s the bad news. Mrs. Dabrowny, like many “first mates” had zero sailing knowledge and wasn’t able to manage the boat in any way after the accident. Apparently the steering system was intentionally locked and she had no idea how to unlock it, so the boat sailed away from Mr. Dabrowny.

zero sailing knowledgeSo while Dabrowny floated in the sea, Elizabeth’s dramatic situation was just beginning. With no clue as to how to sail the boat, she was completely at its mercy as it sailed towards an unknown coastline. She used the sat-phone to make a broken and confusing call to her daughter who was able to put out the word that her parents were in trouble. This resulted in a coordinated rescue of Elizabeth from a passing ship, but Stan has yet to be found.

It’s obviously a terribly tragic story but also a supreme cautionary tale.  Many of us know this story all too well – a partner that is happy to be part of the experience but not one that will learn how to sail. It seems logical enough – “I’ll go out in the boat with you because we like it (you especially), but I’m not going to become a ‘sailor’.

At first that seems more than fair, especially the part about them going out with you on the boat all the time. But the truth is, on a two-person crew, both people have to have enough knowledge to help the other in a pickle.  This is the part of the story where we want to urge you to take a 101 class and get certified in 103 while you’re at it. Of course we do, but short of that, at the very least, insist the crew-person knows how to drive the boat well enough to act appropriately in an emergency.

Here are four extremely basic skills that should be bare necessities for a non-educated crew-member with zero sailing knowledge.

  • Throwables
    Everyone should know where and what can be thrown into the water should someone fall overboard. Seat cushions, PFDs, life rings, whatever – they should be familiar and those items should be handy. If there is a Lifesling hooked to the transom, they should know what it’s all about. 
  • Slowing/stopping the boat
    This one is the one that really should involve some basic 101 education, but for this purpose we will assume there is none. With that in mind, a crew person should at least know what it means to luff the sails by heading up wind and letting out the sails so the boat slows down without going into irons, tacking, jibing or losing control. This action will at least keep the boat in proximity to the MOB. It will require a bit of practice to instill this concept but it will be practice well spent.
  • Motor operation
    If a boat has an auxiliary motor, the crew person should know how to start it and operate it in a basic way – forward, neutral and reverse. It’s important that he/she has the skills to drive the boat back to the MOB and pop it in neutral without injuring anyone. That knowledge could be the most important thing anyone could ever learn.
  • Call for help
    It sounds so simple but you’d be surprised how many people don’t even know where the VHF radio is! So, that’s the first thing – make sure everyone knows where the VHF is located. The next thing is that crew knows how to turn on the unit and that channel 16 is the place to call in an emergency. Maybe tell them about that squelch dial too…

Once again, these basics are suggested with the understanding that the crew person has zero sailing knowledge like Mrs Dabrowny. We strongly encourage that inexperienced sailors take an ASA course or series of courses so the sailing experience can be more deeply shared and that it is as safe as it can possibly be. 

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Allen Gordon

The mob situation: the person overboard should have been wearing a PLD and PFD esp in this situation, at the very least.

B Bailey

The remark of the PFD is true, but that would not have saved him. Even if the man overboard was in a raft, his chances of survival were slim. The jist of the story is that the people on the boat need to know basics to get back to the MOB.

Guys, if you want to reach the wives — that’s a whole demographic being missed. Lecturing by husband — not going to promote sailing partnership, and you know the problem is real. Teach a class for spouses to teach spouses, the how-to on those basics, emphasizing tolerance and praise of beginners (specifically based on a leadership method like Scouting that the spouse-teacher can respect, not the Navy SEALS). Provide a women’s only class with a calm mature woman instructor who tolerates the yikes-culture of older women conditioned to support and not to lead. Right now Wooden Boat School in Maine… Read more »

Ditto to everything you said. I especially appreciate your comment on the approach. That is a class I could thrive in. I will have to look into the Wooden Boat School.


And I’m heartbroken for Mrs. Dabrowny. Safe harbor, Mr. Dabrowny…


And my heart goes out to Mrs Dabrowny. She looks like a nice lady who did not deserve what happened to her. And to Mr Dabrowny, ‘Safe Harbor.’

Rusty claridge

Everyone should know the mob drill. Beam reach for 4 boat lengths. Come about , and sail downwind and come up in irons hopefully near enough to retrieve them. We did this over and over in 103.

Generaly Im agree with principals of this article, that in two person crew, both should be able to maintain and handle a boat. But, there is but to this article, becouse you are using this tragic story as exaple, without providing true information. My name is MArcin Zielinski I’m living on Saint Martin, sailor, yacht rigger and electronic specialist. But more I’m long friend of Dabrowski Family, and i help them coordinate search effort. What you can easy confirm on my FB page. First of all, you did not mention, that Stan fell over board at 0915pm, after dark. Stan… Read more »

Marcin, Thank you for your additional insight into the incident. Many of these details were not available in the sources that we read before writing this article.

I am so sorry for them. And I do appreciate your further part of the story as it shows BOTH people need to be aware of dangers. I just sailed with an experienced sailor and the rule was NO ONE went forward without letting the other person know and have them at the helm with a watchful eye. Either way knowing the basics is best for your “mate” regardless, but being safe as the captian and having safety rules and a plan is just as important. My captain said “your job is if I fall off the boat you come… Read more »