Voyaging Skills

Scott and Wendy Bannerot, former marine professionals now sailing full time, discuss some of the knowledge and experience needed for voyaging.

from Oean Voyager 2001
Issue #113

U.S. sailors Wendy and Scott Bannerot have been voyaging in the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean since 1995 aboard their 41-foot aluminum sloop Elan, a production centerboarder designed by Philip Harle and built in France in 1979. Approximately 20,000 nautical miles have passed under the keel since departure. Baby Ryan was born in August 1999 while the couple was in Auckland, New Zealand, and he has now accumulated about 3,500 offshore sea miles. The Bannerots are now voyaging in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Before heading for sea from home in South Florida, Wendy Bannerot worked in professional diving and fishing (since 1987), managed a small tropical aquaculture company, and was a racehorse jockey, trainer, and owner for eight years. She is a licensed airplane pilot. Scott Bannerot holds a doctorate in fisheries biology from the University of Miami and a 100-ton U.S. merchant marine license. He has worked as a research scientist, charter fishing captain, and commercial fisherman since 1976. As a culmination of a shared lifelong passion, together they wrote The Cruiser's Handbook of Fishing, published in 2000 by International Marine/McGraw-Hill.

What skills do you think are most important for voyagers to have?

Given our ocean sailing experience, we'd say there are at least five basic skills one should strive to develop and possess.

Sea sense: the ability to step back from a situation and ask yourself what is the most simple, prudent thing to do. It's comforting, in a sense, to recognize that the overwhelming majority of vessel losses and attendant personal hazards result from entirely avoidable circumstances - circumstances that don't require 20 years of experience or 50,000 offshore miles to figure out. See a squall line or dense rain cloud approaching, either visually or on radar? Reduce canvas. Anxious to anchor in the tranquility of an unfamiliar but enticing harbor after a long passage, but it's getting dark? Heave to, keep a night watch, and wait until morning. Is the weather showing signs of really piping up? Put on your storm trysail and storm jib early, and if the seas start growing, getting too steep, and breaking too heavily, drop all canvas and set a parachute sea anchor or a series drogue well before it gets dangerous. Anchored in an area with steady wind mostly from one direction, but with hazards to windward? Be sure your anchor is well set (3/4 to full-power reverse with your engine), and that you can swing in a full circle. Tying up to a mooring? Dive it yourself to check out size, weight, and attachment hardware, and shackle a lazy chain rode to it for chafe insurance. Traversing a leeward reef, shoreline, or other hazard? Be sure sails and lines are ready, and leave yourself room to tack or gybe your vessel out of the danger zone. Getting severely overtired on a passage? Find a way to safely get a good sleep and catch up; make arrangements with your crew to cover a long nap; if necessary, and not in a shipping lane, heave to under-canvassed and with radar guard zone or watchman function alarm on, VHF on high volume, engine checked and ready to start, and masthead light on. Eager to set off on a passage? Forget "schedules," what other people are doing, and everything else other than the optimal weather pattern and time of year for the piece of water you wish to cross - be patient and ready to depart quickly on the leading edge of the safest part of the pattern. Voyaging in subtropical and tropical areas where hurricanes occur? Depart the storm zone during hurricane season. Anchoring for the night? Put out scope and gear sufficient for (at least) 50 knots of wind. And so on. It's the easiest skill to acquire, and yet underdevelopment of this skill continues to claim the most boats.

Navigation skills: the ability to identify, modify, and efficiently direct your vessel along a sequence of positions that gets you from one place to another with minimum damage to equipment and crew. Electronic navigation equipment dominates the scene today. Know how to get the most out of whatever subset of common devices you have aboard - GPS, radar, sonar, loran, knotmeter, trip log, personal computer/electronic charts - but don't ignore the fundamental tools and techniques that can get you safely to port without any electronic device. Carry a sextant, nautical almanac, and sight-reduction tables, and get a celestial navigation course under your belt. Familiarize yourself with piloting and dead reckoning, aids to navigation, chart symbols, and coastal navigation skills, and carry the tools necessary to make it all work. Thus, you can very precisely pinpoint your position relative to geological features using a bearing compass, making the discrepancy between your paper chart and GPS coordinates unimportant. Some argue that celestial tools are unnecessary with the affordability of back-up, battery-operated, hand-held GPS units, and we're guilty of not having used our sextant for longer than we'd ever have believed, but we're still glad to have it aboard. Rusty as we are, the knowledge that we can find our way with no electronics makes us more free.

Mechanical skills: the ability to fix things that break or stop working and the judgment to know how far to go and when to quit. We find this area intimidates perhaps the highest proportion of voyagers, and potential voyagers, which is understandable given the complexity of many devices and systems found on the majority of modern vessels. The idea of being a repair expert on everything aboard is illusory, unnecessary, and unrealistic, though we've met those rare individuals who come close. We'd say the most productive approach is to gain some exposure, time permitting, to as many areas as possible - common engine, rigging, plumbing, electrical, sail, and structural repairs - and to get as involved as possible with any tradespeople who may perform these repairs for you or your friends. Acquire quality tools that will give you at least a shot at those tasks most critical to keeping your boat a safe and functional place. Every time something stops working, you learn something new. The next time around it gets a lot easier. You can successfully handle a wide variety of repairs without all of the repetition common to expert repair persons. If it's something beyond what you can reasonably attempt with what you have aboard, it may have to await the attention of an expert. Another thing we do is "cheat": we carry a selection of rebuilt or new components, replace the malfunctioning unit, and then rebuild it at our leisure (raw water pump, engine starter, fuel-injection pump, lift pump, injectors, alternator, water-system foot pumps, head pump, etc.). This takes all the pressure off many repair episodes.

Medical skills: the ability to fix yourself and your crew when you break or malfunction, and to know what you should and should not attempt. Like mechanical skills, unless you became a professional in this field prior to your voyaging life, you can't expect to be an expert in everything that can go wrong. Also like mechanical skills, nevertheless, you can give yourself a good shot at solving most of the more likely events by arming yourself with basic knowledge, a selection of references, and a good kit of medicines and tools.

Boat-handling and -management skills: the ability to physically handle your vessel competently and confidently at sea and in port, and the ability to handle the stream of tasks that are necessary to keep your boat, and therefore your voyage, in good condition over time. A little attention to both will sharply enhance the pleasure of your experience. When you're maneuvering in tight quarters, perhaps to Med moor, dock, or get inside a narrow, winding pass, you'll develop the art of giving yourself just enough room upwind and up-current. As you are faced with maintenance and repairs over a lengthy period of voyaging, you'll develop a rhythm that gives you a similar space or margin of safety, without turning it all into a miserable grind.

OV: What skills do you think you need to improve on?

S&WB: We have room for improvement in every area of the voyaging skills discussed above, and we approach these skills as an ongoing developmental process that will never end. There are skills we've never had and those that have eroded. Regarding eroded skills, we would include celestial navigation and the ability to communicate via Morse code on ham radio, both easy to spruce up with materials on board, but we'd surely be embarrassed by a pop quiz. Important areas that could use further development include Scott's lack of advanced medical skills and knowledge relative to Wendy's (e.g. suturing, setting broken bones properly, familiarity with less common medications and their applications); and mechanical and electrical skills - we'd grade our tool selection and workshop as comprehensive, and experience with and ability to effect various repairs fairly broad but lacking desirable detail. Our theoretical knowledge about systems that enables more efficient troubleshooting, as opposed to more practical "manual oriented" or cookbook work, could in some cases use considerable improvement and further study.

OV: How have good skills and experience helped you surmount problems you've encountered while voyaging?

S&WB: Both of us are fortunate to have been professional mariners with considerable sea time prior to undertaking our own voyage. This exposed us to a variety of weather, working conditions, equipment failures, near disasters, and some very talented and competent mariners (and, importantly, to some not-so-competent individuals).

Our mentors and experiences taught us habits that have served us well. For example, wiping down and inspecting our diesel daily, and keeping it rust-free and freshly painted, has enabled us to catch many mishaps before they became big problems that could compound themselves into even worse trouble - oil leaks, worn hoses, leaking water pump seals, fuel leaks, clogged seawater strainers, worn and loose belts.

The teachings of a British rigging shop foreman have enabled us to check and keep our rig tuned and inspected, and once contributed to a pre-emptive rigging repair at sea. Previously instilled watch habits have kept us safe from collision, heavy contact with floating objects at sea, and quick engine shut-downs in response to habitual gauge scanning that on three occasions potentially saved our engine from serious damage.

One of these occasions involved an emergency tack off a dangerous, steep, rocky shoreline at night, made possible by habitually maintaining enough sea room. Sea sense habits learned over time from crewing under wise captains have greatly influenced our route planning, rough-weather boat-handling, reefing strategy and timing, and protocol for making landfalls at sometimes remote, poorly charted destinations. This has contributed immeasurably to the comfort and safety, and therefore the enjoyment, of our voyaging. Possession of good skills and experience doesn't make voyagers immune from mishap, but it certainly reduces the probability of things going wrong.

OV: In this age of electronic navigation, electric winches, and hydraulic power, are voyagers losing touch with important skills? S

S&WB: This is a philosophical question that could be argued convincingly in either direction. Some traditional skills are just as important on a modern vessel as they ever were, and others have been displaced or pushed into the background by technologically advanced tools. And some of the loudest proponents of selected traditional skills have no knowledge of other traditional navigation skills that may be equally important. We tend more to look at results rather than argue over the romance of various on-board activities. Natural selection is alive and well at sea, and when a lack of specific skills causes vessels to come to grief, those skills are by definition important. The extent to which modern conveniences reduce this percentage of mishaps, or obviate the need for certain skills to be performed regularly on board, determines how important specific skills are to staying alive. Other arguments for or against their prevalence quickly become less concrete.

Let's take the example of celestial navigation. How many boats have been lost in the past five years because their operators were unable to perform celestial navigation? It's safe to say not very many - possibly none? This doesn't diminish the pleasure one can derive from the ability to navigate by celestial bodies, or certainly the enhanced appreciation of their magnificence and utility. Same thing with Morse code. Older hams decry the erosion of Morse code communication skills, and argue with considerable logic that in situations of reduced shipboard power and marginal propagation, the ability to use Morse code could save a person's life.

What about the keen abilities to read nuances of winds and waves used by traditional Micronesian navigators on long passages: highly useful for survival, but never possessed by most ardent performers of celestial navigation that now decry the lessening use of their favored skill? Certainly the loss of these skills is equally worthy of mourning but probably not by the objective yardstick of contemporary vessel and crew mortality rates.

So, yes, undoubtedly modern voyagers are either losing touch with or never had a clue about some skills that were once critical to survival, but the risk entailed by this ignorance has been sharply reduced by advanced technology.

Since we are scientists, we can look at this question in purely scientific terms and say that the process of natural selection will favor those who pay attention to acquiring and mastering the devices and knowledge most likely to keep them alive, without regard to tradition.