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Our Interview with John Rousmaniere

John RousmaniereThe author of 30 books about history and sailing including The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, Fastnet, Force 10 and A Berth To Bermuda, writer, editor and historian John Rousmaniere (pronounced “room-an-ear”) is one of the creators of safety at sea seminars. We recently sat down with John to discuss his life in sailing, the Newport Bermuda Race, lessons learned from tragedies on the water, and being safe out there.

 

John Rousmaniere at the helm of Brian Swiggett’s Hinckley Sou’wester 42 Zest during a return trip from Bermuda    © Chip Adams

 

 

WindCheck: Where did you grow up?

John Rousmaniere: I was raised in Cincinnati, and I have six brothers and a sister. We moved east to my father’s boyhood home of Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island when I was 10. My father had sailed very successfully as a kid, so we started sailing as soon as we got there. I had a Blue Jay that I raced for four or five years, and we’d charter a boat and go cruising every summer.

WC: What attracted you to history, and the history of yachting?

JR: Rousmaniere is an old French name that means “redhead,” and my ancestor was a horse wrangler in General Rochambeau’s army that marched from Newport to Yorktown and won the American Revolution. He married a Newport woman and had a son who married an Easton, so I’m descended from the founders of Newport.

We had a lot of sailing books, so I just started absorbing information. My father knew lots of great sailors, including Olin and Rod Stephens. I met them when I was young, and that’s how I got into the history as well as the technical part. The New York Yacht Club had a junior regatta, and I won a race when I was 14. They had the prize ceremony in the Model Room. That was 1959, and our speaker was Briggs Cunningham, who’d just won the America’s Cup. I knew Briggs because we sailed Atlantics against him. As we sat in our little blazers in that spectacular space, Briggs said, “Boys and girls, it’s wonderful to win the America’s Cup, but I have to say that it’s terrible that we won by such big, 15- to 20-minute margins…the best thing that could happen to the America’s Cup would be for the Americans to lose it and the British to win it.” The Commodore almost fainted dead away, and I thought to myself, “This is really interesting!”

Briggs was a straight arrow kind of guy. I knew people who did auto racing with him, and they said that when everybody else was toasting the car with champagne after a victory he’d be the guy in back sweeping everything up. He inherited a lot of money but he was one of those people – like some of the Vanderbilts – who used their money very well. He donated the schooner Brilliant to Mystic Seaport, and he endowed their program.

In the summer of ‘61, I sailed on the 12 Metre Easterner on the New York Yacht Club Cruise. Bus Mosbacher was the skipper. I was sailing singlehanded Finns but didn’t do very well because I was small, so I crewed a lot. When you’re a crew you can see a lot more, and I was learning everywhere I went. I studied History at Columbia, although at one stage I dropped out of college and ended up on a 77-foot Rhodes steel ketch, taking her from San Diego to Sicily with a bunch of really good New England sailors. That was my first experience with heavy weather, and the first time we had ever set a storm trysail.

WC: Do you recall being offshore and wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’

JR: Sure! One year going down to Bermuda it was blowing hard and we were beating in the Stream. There was water all over the deck and a lot of it was coming below for reasons we didn’t understand. It turned out that there were scuppers in the winch grinder’s cockpit that were closed rather than open, so water was spilling out and going below. The bilge pump didn’t work so I had to go down rebuild it… I recall thinking, ‘Jeez, why am I not back home?’

WC: You’re giving a presentation on lessons learned from recent incidents at the upcoming Safety at Sea Seminar in Newport. Please recount those incidents and lessons.

JR: In 2011, there were accidents that came to everyone’s attention. In the first one, a 420 capsized off Annapolis and a girl drowned. Gary Jobson, who was then President of US Sailing, asked me to do an official review. The boat turtled and the girl was in a trapeze harness that somehow hooked onto the boat. My emphasis was find what we should all learn about it – among other things, how yacht clubs and sailing programs can protect themselves against an accident like this. They need an Emergency Action Plan, which a lot of people don’t want to think about.

The next year, Timothea Larr, who is one of my oldest friends, and I did two days of capsize and rescue tests with kids in 420s – one day at Fort Schuyler and one at American Yacht Club. There are ways to keep those boats from turtling, and a lot of clubs are dispensing with the trapeze. I haven’t been to a yacht club in the last four years where someone hasn’t mentioned that incident, and as painful as it was for everybody I think the lessons are a great thing.

In the summer of 2011, a boat capsized on Lake Michigan during the Chicago Mac Race and two people drowned. It was a very odd, low-displacement monohull – like a trimaran without the amas, and some good lessons about organization, safety and stability came out of that. The Chicago Yacht Club took their safety rules – which were poorly written at best – and simplified them in plain language. In the last four years, US Sailing’s safety rules have likewise been translated into plain language. If you lock a bunch of lawyers in a room you’ll end up with a legal document, but the person that has to understand a club’s safety rules is the 19-year-old assistant sailing instructor.

In the 2012 Newport Bermuda Race, a guy had to be taken off a boat because he was so seasick. He was diabetic and his blood sugar was going to hell, and our consulting doctor said, ‘Get him off the boat.’ There was an exercise to bring two boats back to try to recover him but it was blowing too hard, and he was taken off by a cruise ship. Among the issues is the obligation of a crew.  That is, if you hear somebody’s in trouble you have to do something. That could be getting on the radio, standing by, or offering to take people off a boat. Very few people really prepare for seasickness. If you know you have a tendency towards motion sickness, you have to take medication. Some medications have bad side effects, so you’ve got to test them before you get on the boat. The second part of that lesson involves familiarity with satphones – they’re not cellphones and they’re very complicated.

WC: What are the lessons from the fateful 1979 Fastnet Race?

JR: The first is that anything can happen, because you’re going out into a hostile environment. Even if it’s not blowing hard, it’s not raining and you don’t have a big sea, you’ve got the sun and the rolling to contend with. There’s always something difficult about it, which is one of the reasons we do it. Then there’s the illusion of control. If you think you are in control of a situation you clearly are under some illusion, because you’re not. You may be in control of steering – or changing a sail – at the moment, but you’re always on the edge of control. You might feel confident that you’re on top of things, but in a minute something can happen. Someone could fall across the cockpit, which is a really dangerous thing even if they don’t go overboard, or come up hard on a safety harness tether. I have a double tether system and I always use the short tether so that my fall would be half the length. 

The second thing is that boats keep improving and our safety gear keeps improving, in part, I think, because of Fastnet. Because of the survival factor, people were willing to make big decisions. The rating rule at that time was the IOR. The organizing committee for the 1980 Bermuda Race didn’t trust those boats, so they eliminated IOR and moved to a whole new rating rule that the Cruising Club of America had developed. It was soon after that when people started to think about crew overboard rescue, proper safety harnesses, and storm sails…the Fastnet Race did not require us to carry storm sails.

The third lesson was that the safety rules were not thought through as well as they should have been. With that, a lot of talented people shifted from speed to safety, and that’s where the safety at sea seminars started. The first public safety at sea seminar in this country was held at the Naval Academy in January of 1980. Admiral Robert McNitt and the guys from the Cruising Club put it on. I was writing Fastnet, Force 10, and I served on a committee. We had an “Aha” moment when a doctor talked about hypothermia. He went on about the symptoms and then sat down. Somebody asked, “How do we treat hypothermia when it happens on a boat?” He said, “Get ‘em ashore and into a warm bath.” Laughter filled the room, and we realized that we couldn’t count on others. John Bonds, who was a Navy Captain, Dick McCurdy and I created safety at sea seminars out of nothing. Within two or three years, we had seminars starting all over the country.

WC: Why should every sailor attend a safety at sea seminar?

JR: Because you’ll learn things that are beyond your own experience. You can read Fastnet, Force 10, but it’s not like hearing people talk about their experiences. When I’m moderating a seminar, we try to get someone who’s fallen into the water and had to be rescued. You really have to hear it from that guy’s point of view…in which the boat looks like Mt. Everest, he’s freezing, has water in his mouth, and is barely able to stay afloat. A lot of people think it’s a regulation issue, but I think it’s an attitude issue.

WC: What practices could save the lives of coastal sailors, such as those lost on Mobile Bay last year?

JR: It can blow really hard on Long Island Sound, and because it’s tidal it can get really rough. You might be close to shore but you’ve got to get into that harbor, and getting into a place like Indian Harbor, Niantic, Fishers Island or New London when it’s blowing hard at night can be pretty scary stuff. It’s important to know that those conditions can happen, and to learn how to stop your boat by heaving to. Have two or three people on board who have some experience in heavy weather, and know how to shorten sail to slow the boat down. Often boats get into trouble because they’re just going too fast.

WC: What safe practices should more cruising couples adopt?

JR: Each one should know the other’s job. The old hierarchy of the woman in the galley and the man in the cockpit is fine…until the man breaks a finger. If she can’t steer a course that’s really an issue, so it’s important to know your alternatives. If you’re coming into a tricky harbor with the tide against you and all of a sudden it starts blowing like hell, do you really have to go into the harbor or are you prepared to heave to and wait for it to calm down? The Cruising Club offers seminars for cruising couples, and they are very valuable.

WC: When did you do your first Newport Bermuda Race?

JR: My first Bermuda Race was in 1966 on a boat called Caper. She’s a 56-foot Phil Rhodes-designed sloop, built in 1957, and she’s now sailing in Oyster Bay. I sailed on her three times last summer in the Oakcliff Classics Series. That Bermuda Race was an eye-opener. There we were on a 56-foot boat, and we woke up on the morning of the last day surrounded by Cal 40s. Everybody thought the Cal 40 was a California downwind boat and there was a fair amount of beating in that race. A Cal 40 won the race, and a whole new school of yacht design was coming along. Every time there’s a surprise, you have to learn from it.

WC: What makes Newport Bermuda a special race?

JR: Part of it is that it’s international – it starts in a very nice place and finishes in a really nice place. Part of it’s the adventure of going across the Gulf Stream, which is different every time. You can go across the Stream one year and it’s flat, and you can go across another year and it’s 6- to 8-foot breaking seas. There’s nothing predictable about it. Bermuda is extremely hospitable and a very nice place to spend time. It’s semi-tropical, the locals are wonderful people from all over the world, and there’s a real community among the race boats in the harbor.

Historically, the Bermuda Race has placed an emphasis on safe sailing and fair racing. From the first race in 1906, participating boats have always been rigorously inspected and every crew is evaluated. If a fellow comes in with a good boat but doesn’t have much experience, the committee will say, ‘You ought to get an experienced person as a watch captain.’ And it’s not a 650-mile trip – it’s a 1,300-mile trip because you’ve got to get the boat back.

There’s been a lot of concern over the return delivery, and our Safety at Sea Seminar is particularly dedicated to people on return crews, who are often a little less experienced. I’ve done nine Bermuda Races and 13 deliveries to or from Bermuda, and the worst weather I’ve seen – except once – was on the deliveries.

WC: What other types of sailing do you enjoy?

JR: I’ve been sailing for 60 years, and I’ve decided that the boats I want to sail from now on are older than I am. I was born in 1944, so any boat conceived before that – like a Bullseye or an Atlantic – is fair game. I race on an 8 Metre in Newport called Angelita and I race with the Graves on their Q Boat Nor’easter out of Indian Harbor. Those boats look great, and they tend to have big mainsails. That means that the helmsman handles the biggest sail, so you can have a pickup crew and do really well in a race. They’re medium performance, tactical boats that sail close together so everyone thinks they have a chance, whether they do or not. It’s important to feel that you’re in the game. My son Will has a nice little Stur-Dee Cat, and I enjoy sailing with him and my grandchildren.

WC: Please tell us about your next book.

JR: I divide my time between history books and technical books, and I’m beginning research on two Vanderbilts. Harold Vanderbilt won the America’s Cup three times and wrote the Racing Rules, and his brother Willy Vanderbilt introduced automobile racing into this country and later became an oceanographer.

WC: What’s the best thing about sailing?

JR: There’s that sense of looking out on the horizon and the dream that where you’re going is limitless, even if you’re just going out for an afternoon sail. On Will’s catboat up in Annisquam, if the tide’s flooding we go in one direction and if it’s ebbing we go in another. I find the fascination of tacking along a shoreline against a foul tide as interesting as winning a sailboat race. There’s a sense of adventure, of going beyond horizons. No matter where you’re sailing or what kind of boat you’re on, every time you go out it’s a new thing.


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  • commented 2016-03-15 19:09:50 -0400
    Excellent interview… yea the Gulfstream… never the same…
  • commented 2016-03-10 02:11:46 -0500
    I’m Joe Rousmaniere, one of John’s many younger brothers. I am now a weekend sailor-one weekend every 15 years-but when I was a kid we went sailing with John often enough, usually when he couldn’t find any other crew.

    Seared into my memory was a time we had a nice easy passage south on the Cape Cod Canal, the sun was warm and all was smooth… When we came out into Buzzard’s Bay we were met with a violent squall and terrifying waves. Going below and curling up in a bunk not being an option for me, John shouted at me to do this and do that, including a death defying sail change on the foredeck that left me a wreck.

    All throughout he was enthusing about how we were handling the boat and the wind and the seas. He actually enjoyed it! Here it is 50 years later and he still enjoys it! Good on him
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