I’m writing this blog partly as a debriefing for myself, but also for any other partners who are feeling anxious about taking command of their yacht.
When Baz burst into the Princess Suite early one morning and said “We’re going out at 9am for test manoeuvres and you’re Captain for the day” I replied “Great!” After 3 years of being Competent Crew to Barry’s Captain, I genuinely felt excited and up for the challenge. I didn’t realise the challenge would actually come in the form of a smoking engine that we couldn’t turn off, but I bounced out of bed, ready to do a great job.
The morning’s events were all filmed and as I write this, I’ve handed the edited version to Baz to do his editing magic to create the finished YouTube video – Episode #155. Barry has also detailed the incident in a blow by blow account in his blog, so I won’t repeat it here.
I’d rather talk about the reason for this particular day out: my getting practice handling A B Sea as the skipper.
A reluctant captain
In a nutshell you could say that I’m not confident and don’t trust myself. If I wanted to be clearer about it I’d say:
I don’t see myself as a leader. Why?
I don’t like bossing people about, it makes me feel uncomfortable. That’s it? What else?
I don’t like taking responsibility for anyone other than myself. Why?
I need time to feel into a situation and also can’t make quick decisions well under pressure. My mind goes blank and I can’t think strategically in an instant. And if I have to give orders fast in an urgent situation, they are likely to be inaccurate and too slowly delivered. On a boat, if an emergency happens, it needs to be addressed immediately.
Put that all together with skippering a 46ft yacht and it could spell disaster.
Wow, okay. Anything else?
I can experience extreme anxiety and self-doubt when making decisions that affect more than just me. Compound that with having to give orders to Baz (who can immediately look at all available options logically and work out strategies in an instant) and a part of me falls apart inside. It’s like I revert to a ten year old girl who’s totally out of her depth.
Interesting you said ten. Ten is the age your dad died isn’t it?
Hmm. Okay let’s move away from self-analysis. Let’s look at how that’s translated into your crewing situation on board.
Learning Sailing in Gibraltar
That was a huge and steep learning curve for Baz and myself! When we graduated as Competent Crew (which I loved as it involved practical things like learning to tie knots), to do our Day Skipper course, I felt extremely challenged. As I’ve said before, I need time to take things on board (no pun intended). I need to practise, practise, practise and eventually it clicks in my head and also turns into an innate ability.
We got tons of excellent support and practice thanks to our amazing instructors, but I struggled in the Day Skipper course to keep up. Baz and Ryan, one of the other guys on the course really seemed to pick it up very well. Baz also didn’t have a problem when he had to get the ‘skipper’s hat’ on and give orders. He has always done ‘boss’ well and he is mechanically minded, picked up the more technical issues of sailing quickly and although he was challenged, he acted like a natural. When Baz gave commands they were clear and precise, and when doing that also at the helm, he just got it. So did Ryan.
When it was my turn, my head (which felt as if it was packed with cotton wool the whole course), struggled to keep up. I did manage all of the manoeuvres and my instructor said she saw me improving as the course went on, plus I’d managed to do very well in the written exam, so I passed. I left feeling genuinely proud of myself.
Sailing A B Sea
Here was the tricky thing. Baz and I were both new skippers with only two weeks experience of sailing. And here we were on our new home, a 1995 Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 45.1 We realised that in order for things to flow better when we sailed, one of us had to wear the captain’s hat, otherwise it would just get plain dangerous with two people trying to make decisions. I immediately voted Baz as captain given all I know about myself, that I shared with you above. He reluctantly took the reins, but we both know it was the most sensible option.
Working as a team
It took us a while to get into our stride as a team. Baz used to bark out orders harshly (more so when he got stressed in situations). I took it all personally and did my knee-jerk ‘attack as defence’ reaction. Well, that didn’t go well. And we had to work very hard to get to a point where he calmly gives orders and I act on them without attitude.
When shit hits the fan though and it has – the worst time being when a mooring buoy we were tied to failed in the middle of a moonless night (I kid you not) and we ended up on the rocks outside the marina wall in Javea, Spain.
I started by running around topless, shouting to the Universe, “This is not where we lose the boat!” and Baz did the proper captain thing by assessing the situation and giving me fairly clear commands. Which I obeyed. Between us - despite the boat lurching with every wave onto the rocks - we got off. And without any damage too.
Now we work well as Captain/Competent Crew team.
"It’s time", he said
At the end of the last sailing season, Baz said to me, “It’s time you learned to take the helm as a proper skipper.”
“I know,” I said.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” he said.
Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t say a thing.
The longer you leave it, the harder it becomes
That’s not to say I didn’t do anything but swan around on the boat and throw a few mooring lines. I took it in turns with Baz at the wheel in varying conditions (by hand steering in the last season as the autopilot failed) and when I’d broken my foot (in October 2019), I took the helm while Baz brought up the anchor. Usually dropping and raising the anchor is my job, while Baz helms.
When we made our first trip from Spain to Turkey and we had seasoned sailors Mike and Elaine on board until Greece, Mike took the time to very patiently guide me in a few situations such as docking and undocking from a fuel dock. At that time I took instruction from Mike well, whereas Baz and I were still at the touchy stage of commands and it just didn’t work.
As I said, since then, we’ve got to communicate well with each other when we’re sailing, and as Baz is now very clearly a competent Captain, I’m more than happy to take the helm as skipper under his watchful eye.
First day as Skipper and we narrowly avoid a fire on board
After pretty much a whole year of fixing A B Sea, Baz and I were ready to do some sailing before the weather at Kaş finally turned wintery. It was December 2020 and when Baz suggested we take A B Sea out so I could practise manoeuvring the boat under calm conditions, I felt quite eager. I was quite surprised by my reaction actually!
We hadn’t actually sorted out the day we would go out, but as I said the next morning, Baz woke me up telling me I was going to be skipper for the day. After clearing my head – I’m not a morning person – I got straight into it. I felt mentally ready. I could do this. This was going to go really well. And as I got dressed, I found that I was looking for to the opportunity to up skill.
As you can read from Barry’s blog, and watch in the video, things didn’t to go plan and we nearly had a fire, not 100m away from our marina berth.
Without going into details of the outcome so I don’t spoil the story for you, I did realise that I gave my power away almost immediately as captain.
We started out well, with Baz asking me helpful ‘leading’ questions so I could make the necessary decisions in correct order (such as “Which lines are you going to release first?”). I was happy that I’d thought most of the answers through in my head already, so that gave me a kick of confidence.
So where did it go wrong?
When I smelled burning rubber and mentioned it to Baz (who’d seen smoke at the boatyard but hadn’t smelled the burning), I took his explanation as being the cause. In truth, if I’d really acted as captain instead of mentally deferring to him, I would have stopped and looked for the cause of the smell, which if I admitted it, came from down below.
I didn’t do that though, and went on deck, checked the engine temperature and decided it would be okay. It wasn’t okay and by the time I’d manoeuvred the boat halfway out of the berth (bloody brilliantly if I do say so myself), I noticed smoke coming up through the companionway hatch.
Baz took over. Quite right too knowing how my head works. And he called for marinero assistance as he reversed us back in. We then discovered that the engine wouldn’t turn off.
During all of this however, I did remain calm. So much so when we both went down to look at the smoke belching out of the engine bay, when Baz said, “I’m trying to work out how to stop the engine” my head actually worked and I suggested shutting off the fuel supply. Which he did. That was eventually what stopped the engine.
The marineros also told us to turn off all of the batteries, isolating the problem, so the affected wire wouldn’t keep smouldering.
… is definitely a wonderful thing. And yes if something like that happens again (please God don’t let it happen again, we’ve had enough fixing/learning curves this past year already thank you) then I will definitely listen to my gut instincts which (had I listened to them on the day) were telling me to follow up with my observations.
It’s time to ditch the self-doubt.
Yes, I need to learn to make decisions whether they’re right or wrong. And accept the consequences. Not be afraid of being harshly judged by people who are way more competent than I am. Just do it.
The issue has been fixed and A B Sea is sitting in her berth waiting for the winter weather to give us a day when we can go out (again) and this time complete the manoeuvres, with me as skipper.
Until next week, I wish you health and happiness, as you take the actions that bring your dreams to life.