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.
So 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.
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.