I spend a decent amount of time working at the Cruising Club of America’s Safety at Sea Seminars. If you have done one, a hands-on one, you will know there is an awful lot of “stuff” thrown at you in eight hours. In the wider sense, it’s unrealistic for folks to hoist everything aboard. Like I tell the new kids joining the Prout Sailing team, after I’ve been pontificating for an hour early in the season, “If you can take home 5% of what I am talking about, that is fine.” Well, with the SAS a bit more than 5% would be good, but regardless…

The format of these day-long sessions is well known by attendees. In the case of the last one I did, last Wednesday, it began with about a one-hour presentation by Captain Jonathan Kabak. Jon is many things including Master of the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry, a SAS Moderator, and member of the US Sailing SAS committee. He knows his way around staying safe on boats, and ships. On the tables adjacent to the podium there are some piles of stuff, used in the afternoon wrap-up.

The key takeaway from this intro, and in fact the entire day, is “developing a culture of safety on your boat.” Because sailing is a hierarchically managed proposition, it is not unheard of for the low man or woman on the spinnaker to be very hesitant to call out something they see that they think is wrong. Anyone ever been that person – spoken up, got laughed at, and never spoke up again? No one really wants to be that person. Well, guess what. If the owner/master has developed an open, safety-conscious environment on the yacht, this gives permission for the lowly to speak up without fear of being ridiculed.

For argument’s sake, such an approach by the owner might be called Leadership. This is a big, heavy word that many enterprises make a lot of money out of teaching. I found a more cost-effective way is to read about it and practice it with teenagers. There are hundreds of linear feet of leadership books on Amazon and hopefully your local bookstore. One of my favorites is called It’s Your Ship, by a fellow named Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. And no, this is not a book review. Well, maybe.

The gist of the story is Capt. Abrashoff was posted to the command of the worst performing destroyer in the U.S. Navy, or perhaps a local fleet. Anyway, morale was in the pits and the ship was bottom-ranked in every metric the Navy captures. He turned it around, to be the top ranked destroyer. How? By promoting a policy of, “If you see something, say something.” He found out that many of the processes aboard the ship implemented by his predecessor were considered nuts by the guys who had to perform them. He notes with no irony that a Navy ship is, by definition, a big gun that must run under short, sharp orders when called upon to do so, and so the Master must not be slack in his management. Sound familiar?

Not the big gun part, but so many times at sea, racing or even not racing, things are coming at you pretty hot and heavy. The good news of course is they are not going to kill you. Most likely. On the other hand, having his crew own their roles and positions, and not be in fear of speaking up (yes you retired sea officers, through channels) when appropriate, to their line managers, as the Captain refers to NCOs, is empowering. Empowerment is not, or should not be, a political sound bite. It works – at least in my experience with teenagers – if you give them the authority to do so. One of the primary ways the good captain got his crew up to the top of the Navy’s podium was through practice. Ha, imagine. Tiller time is king; the top item on the Cooper T-shirt.

This is stressed all day in the Safety at Sea seminars. We have all practiced recovering the fender or cushion and seen COB videos ad nauseam, and rightly so. Knowing the many variables of rescuing someone from the water is not to be sneezed at. On the other hand, I was running the firefighting session, in lieu of the actual firefighter who usually helps us out. Cold turkey. The last time I’d handled a fire extinguisher was the last SAS, in February.

There was a dozen or so folks in each of the four groups on site that day. My first question to each firefighting class is, “Who has ever wielded a fire extinguisher in anger?” Very few; likely three out of all the combined classes.

Well, like crew overboard drills, you would much rather have practiced this more complex of sailing safety drills in advance of having to execute for the first time, with your Significant Other in the water (I hope). So it is with firefighting. A fire aboard ship is one if the hazards most likely to get your attention. Certainly, fighting the fire is critical, but the possibility is, a fire is the shortest straight line to having to abandon ship if it’s not brought under control in jig time. Thus, Cooper’s Theory of C4* is validated again. Bad things are analogue, not digital. One thing happens, leading to another, causing a third and so on until at some point you now have a really BIG problem.

Back to the firepit. I proposed to the class that the best time to learn how to use a fire extinguisher is not when you need it for the first time. I’m pretty sure the military does not expect their teams to experience the first time jumping out of a plane to be when they are doing so in bad guy country. Likewise using flares.

Several years ago, I was leading a Junior SAS at Sail Newport. The ever watchful and perennial SAS volunteer Dan O’Connor was in charge of the flares section. Having a collection of teenagers lighting off flares seems like the kind of thing one might read about in the local press, and we would shake our heads and ask, “What were they thinking?” The combination of Dan on site and smart kids kept such reports well at the bottom of the list.

I remember one of my sailors, a young lady of perhaps 15 or 16, holding the flare and being as timid as you can imagine about igniting it. Dan and I spoke with her, working through what she was afraid of – mostly everything – until she was calm enough to pull the pin, literally. The smile on her face when she did it was about as bright as the flare. She fired off about half a dozen more and was as calm as could be at the end. I had an email from her mum that evening remarking on what a development in her general self-confidence the experience was.

Broken rigs, injury, failed steering, broken rudders – all of these are events that if not purposely instigated, can be simulated and practiced. At the Damage Control station, I asked, “When was the last time you had to cut through half-inch steel bar stock with a hacksaw? Blank faces. “Well, imagine trying to do that on a heaving and wet deck, at 0200, blowing 35 knots with seas breaking over the boat and the mast banging alongside looking to get back aboard, or into its berth, via the side of the boat.”

In some of the Block Island and Vineyard Races, I have seen boats retiring and the answer was, “It was too rough.” Too rough? Isn’t that the time to practice heavy weather sailing? OK, you may back off racing, but really how often do you get to practice sailing in 30 or 40 knots on Long Island Sound? And that’s a pretty average day in San Francisco in August, and in parts of Australia and New Zealand. The Aussies sail 18-foot skiffs in 30 knots. If you find yourself racing to Bermuda and it starts to blow 35 in the Stream, then what?

PRACTICE. Before you need to perform in a condition or a situation. There is a string of letters for this: P.P.P.P.P.P.P. What does that mean? Send your answer into Zep, and the first right answer gets a free hour of me on the boat. Really. I ain’t that hard, folks. ■

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.

*C4: Cooper’s Cascading Cluster Calculation

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