To Skipper

To skipper a boat is to take on a role that’s well defined. To skipper – to command, to be in charge of, to run, and to lead. But to command or be in charge of what? Certainly not the wind and the sea.

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Adjusting the sail to the wind.

It is to command the boat, and her crew. It means that the decisions to be made are the skipper’s. Decisions as small as heaving to for a lunch break during a daysail and as big as taking the boat across an ocean. Most of the decisions are somewhere in between on that sliding scale of importance – to go or not to go on any given day (given the conditions), when to replace the battery bank (assuming they haven’t simply gone dead), how much sail to put up (given the conditions and the forecast and the experience level of the crew), to go through a tide gate a little early or to wait (given a reading of the water), when to change the raw water impeller (assuming it hasn’t failed), and how much anchor rode to deploy (given the depth of the anchorage, the wind, the forecast, and how many other boats are there and how close they are).

The day is filled with one decision after another, just like all our days are, but intensified.

These decisions can mean the difference between dragging anchor or not, the engine running or not, the crew getting seasick or not, and even, in the extreme, life and death. Being in command doesn’t mean not listening to others’ input, but it does mean that the final decision is the skipper’s. Period. To skipper is to be responsible – for the safety of the ship, and more importantly, her crew.

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Plumbing project below decks.

I was first mate for eight years, with a skipper who was an excellent sailor and had studied Kagán’s systems until he could fix the plumbing standing on his head (which, if you have a boat you know, is often a necessity in the small spaces the systems are crammed into, but that’s another story…). I admit that as I gained experience there were times I questioned my skipper’s judgement, sometimes silently and sometimes not. My late partner, Jerry, despite being an accomplished skipper, sometimes seemed indecisive to me. And I didn’t understand why. I had complete confidence in him and I wondered why he didn’t.

I UNDERSTAND NOW.

Most days the consequences of a skipper’s decisions aren’t big. But not all days are most days. Big things can, and do, go wrong, even on small boats. What looks like indecision may be the skipper waiting for one more piece of information that will make her feel sure about, or at least more confident, in whatever decision is at hand.

Last sailing season, I made a series of decisions, and mistakes, leaving a dock in heavy wind. It resulted in an injury to my first mate. It’s too close, the mental images too vivid, to write about (I will just say that, thankfully, my injured crew has recovered). In a way that I never did before, I now understand the consequences of my decisions. The decision to slip the dock lines that day, because there was a check-out time at the marina, despite boats having been moved into positions that made Kagán’s departure precarious, was my first mistake. I have played the scene over and over in my mind.

I’ve tried to learn that day’s lessons (which are many) and let go of blaming myself (which lingers).

In some posts, I’ve eschewed metaphorical leaps, but here I won’t. The leap from commanding Kagán to commanding my life. Decisions must be made – to not make a decision is to make a decision, because something will happen either way. I’d rather take command, make my decisions, and undoubtably my mistakes, in life, as I have on Kagán. I choose to live with those consequences, and to learn the lessons.

Living one of those lessons today, as I’m posting this while we sit out a Southeaster. We’ll head north to Desolation Sound after it blows through.new skipper at the helm copy

WHAT DECISIONS, OR MISTAKES, HAVE BEEN YOUR GREATEST TEACHERS?

 

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Showing 6 comments
  • Garry
    Reply

    A key life lesson learned. Did it take becoming a sailor for the lesson to become part of you or was the isolation of sailing necessary for you to become conscious that you already knew the lesson?

    • Deborah Green
      Reply

      Great question, Garry. Upon reflection, I would say, a bit of both, is the answer. Sailing really intensifies decisions, for me. I can get complacent in land-based life. For instance, every time we get into our cars could be life or death, or result in thousands of dollars of expense, but I don’t think we generally think about it that way. Whereas, every time I dock Kagán (eight tons of boat [when she’s unloaded], that doesn’t like to start to turn and when she does start to turn, doesn’t like to stop [full keel boats are like that], and has wind and current pushing against her, sometimes in direct opposition to where we need to go), the consequences of the moves made feel big. I’m never complacent docking Kagán (and I think all the skippers I know would say the same thing), but I can’t say that parking my car puts puts me on such high alert. Another example, going to bed in the house, I don’t worry about the wind picking up (in most cases, though I’m sure people in hurricane zones might beg to differ right now), but when I go to bed at anchor on Kagán, I’m on alert to the boat’s movement and the sound of the wind in the rigging, because dragging anchor can put the boat on the rocks, etc. etc.

  • Eldon Gath
    Reply

    Nice poignant and succinct (despite all the “nots”) description of leadership, and followship. Both are critical to any enterprise. But to become a first mate in a new endeavor when you have been a skipper all the rest of your life is really really hard, indeed I would expect that few could pull it off. You went from skipper to first mate under two different skippers, now you are skippering again. And you said it all so easily. Congrats.
    P.S. We all missed you in Colorado Springs.

    • Deborah Green
      Reply

      Thank you, Eldon! Glad to hear I made it look easy. Guess I’m learning my lessons as a writer, as well as a skipper.

  • Terry Groves
    Reply

    How I envy your opportunity to be first mate to an accomplished skipper. I think my biggest mistake has been to undertake being a skipper learning everything on the go. While I respect the sage advice I am given while alongside, it is an awesome responsibility to take on slipping the lines with little more than rudimentary knowledge to accompany me (at least I do have some awesome Power Squadron training) and the care of my trusting partner. Fortunately my bad decisions haven’t resulted in much more than a bruised ego, some moments that needed tender words to mend, and a few dollars.

  • Gerry
    Reply

    Deb … Your analogy of “skippering thru life” rings true in regard to decisions, mistakes, successes, and living with the consequences of each of those facets. For sure we are all skippers of our “personal life ship” to some degree, and many of us (as you and I are, for example) are lucky that we can generally do that (even if emotionally and severely hard at times). For sure we must be grateful and never forget that many are less fortunate (for multiple reasons too numerous to list) and might, in certain situations, have little control on what happens to them. Let us not forget our blessings, even in the difficult times.

    I am glad you are on your boat and letting the sea breezes ease you mind – but for sure i missed seeing you in Colorado Springs … as did many of your other geo-friends.

    Knowing you are so very good with words and choose them carefully, how do you personally contract “skipper” vs “captain” of a vessel? Just curious when ya’ have time to respond.

    Sincerely,
    Geo-Friend Gerry

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