Don't Do

Some things a sailor must not do

If to himself he would be true*


If you would be a good sailor, and earn the comforting respect of your comrades at sea, the don't do's are much more important than the do do's.

It is a long list, but rather than sounding like a mother hen who clucks endlessly at her chicks, I will limit myself to salient don'ts, especially in those areas where real hurt, physical or emotional, can result to others, not to mention to your precious self.

The giving of advice (such as in this essay) is a matter that must be handled with extreme delicacy. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal but, knowing the Israelis, perhaps not, that Israelis never screw out of doors because, if they did, everyone would stop and give them unsolicited advice.

Unsolicited advice is often unsolicited for reasons about which the advisor may be ignorant. The advisee may well be seeing some additional moves ahead, while the advisor is limited to the immediate crises. Free advice, my Father, of blessed memory, liked to observe, is usually worth exactly what you pay for it.

The most dangerous, to the adviusor, kind of advice is advice that is accompanied by a demonstration. I watched a neighbor tie a bowline into a ring (rabbit in and out of the hole etc.) and I observed that there was a much easier method than the one he was using. Here, let me show you, I said as I took the line out of his hand (wrong!) I demonstrated my method (create a slip knot with a long tail and bring the tail up through the loop of the slip and tighten down.)

I had missed the bale of his glance as I demonstrated and we quickly descended into a furious argument as whether his or mine was the true bowline. Much energy was expended and we never spoke for the rest of the week.

And how many times have all of us, upon observing the misses of a tossed dock line, offered to demonstrate the correct method. Without fail the demonstration falls short and the kindest remark from the audience, punctuated by titters, is that the catchers arms are too short.

Another pair of don'ts concatenated into the most unpleasant, and unnecessary, event in my whole sailing life. The first of the pair is 'do not carry glass containers aboard' and the second is 'do not fail to lower the cover of your head.' We were sailing along quite pleasantly on a beam reach when a sea slightly larger than the rest gave us a little lurch. The lurch caused a glass jar of skin cream to execute a graceful parabola into the open head where it demolished itself on the porcelain. The resulting mess was heroic. Little pieces of glass sank down into the trap, closely held by the cream and embedded themselves in the rubber seals. There was no possibility of flushing through since the glass would tear up the fittings. I spent two hours totally disassembling the head and extracting sharp and nasty shards of glass from among the previously existing debris (polite term.)

So, carry no glass and close your head cover after each use. Post this notice, Close cover after sitting, ('h' omitted) and banish to shore disobedient crew.

Good sailors do not jettison plastic bags only out of deference to the environment. These tough, eternal and ubiquitous objects not only violate the pleasance of the sea but once entwined around a prop, a permanent mating takes place and divorce is painful. Tristan Jones once fouled his prop as he was making a ceremonial exit from Rhodes with every horn, bell and blaster in the harbor giving him a send off. At that precise moment, in full view of most of the sailing world in the Med, he was caught up on something some idiot had thoughlessly tossed into the harbor. A most embarassing moment but Tris with his usual aplomb and gentle nature was heard to remark, Why the bloody hell don't they stop those bloody horns. Most of us are struck dumb by embarrassment. Not Tris.

(A small tale about this remarkable man who never slowed down for a moment after having lost one leg then the second. A kind and loving friend, after the second amputation, while Tris, ignoring his aped state, was busily planning his next impossible voyage, said in awe, My God, imagine what that man could do without arms.)

We all know of the dangers of Freon to the ozone layer. Unfortunately it takes some time to develop and distribute a satisfactory (although anything would be better) substitute for this killer of sailorly skin and sailors sails. What we are less aware of is that Halon, used in our fire extinguishers, and for which there are eminently satisfactory substitutes, is a hundredfold more damaging to ozone than is Freon. Raise Holy Hell with any marine shop which offers Halon and especially those which offer no choice. Dry chemical extinguishers, make a little mess on your boat but no mess at all in the delicate layer that protects sailors more than ordinary folk who are less exposed to ultra violet.

At sea do not pass floating drums or, indeed any large floating object. The sailboat following you may not be so lucky as you were in missing it. A floating drum can put a large hole in a hull below the water line and, as an old sailor once told me, an event like that can spoil your entire day.

If it is a drum sink it with a few well placed rounds from the gun you carry for just that purpose as you will explain to the Port Police when they query your need for firearms. You are just being a responsible seaman. Let them chew on that.

If you cannot sink the flotsam, take it aboard. If it is too large to take aboard you might consider towing it into your next harbor. If it is too large to tow, at the very least fasten a yellow flag to a long pole, tie it on and save another sailor some grief.

Concerning smells. Don't eat arcane and garlicky foods not shared by your shipmates. The trick on a small boat is that everyone can smell awful as long as everyone smells the same. A bit of unshared garlic will cause your mates to move disdainfully upwind of you while garlic shared causes no discomfort.

It should not be necessary to inveigh anymore against smoking either aboard or ashore. Ashore smoking remains an option. Aboard the option is canceled. Period. End of discussion.

Do not mistrust your instruments. Marine instruments can go belly up but they are designed to be correct as long as they work. A piece of electronic gear can aggravate by going out at precisely the moment of your greatest need but if they operate at all they are hell of a lot better than your imperfect perceptions.

I was running for cover in the Aegean (that is another don't, don't sail in the Aegean) from nasty little vertical seas and thirty knots of inconsistent wind. I sought shelter on the island of Serifos in a port called Livadhi. There were, annoyingly and unknown to me, two Livadhis, half a minute of latitude and 3 minutes of longitude apart. We found the a Livadhi but it was too small and too open to enter. I assumed that the other one was just to the north where the island, I opined, curved eastward and had more protection. When I could not find the more northerly Livadhi on the weather coast, I cast a mistrustful eye on my GPS and chart. One of them, or both, was wrong.

Who was wrong was I. The other Livadhi lay, obvious now to me, on the lee side some half mile to the east across this narrow island. While I struggled with steep and nasty seas piling on the coast on the weather side, a safe haven waited just a few miles away. I had ignord my insruments at my peril.

Trust your instruments. They are damn site better than your own biological electronics which, though they may never fail totally, are consistently imprecise.

Don't stand on the dock arms beseechingly outstretched as if asking alms, as a boat approaches. If the guy aboard wants you to have his line he will signal you. It is more likely that he will not. Having had enough of lubberly dockline fumbling by shore side beseechers he would rather do it himself than risk an enthusiastic foul of lines handled by non sailors. (If you are actually a sailor how is the guy on the boat to know since everyone else oaround you, non sailors all, look more yar than you.)

A boat's anchor, embedded safely in the bottom, is like another man's wife (or husband,) not subject to sharing. Probably the most despicable act, worse than mate hustling, is to tie one's boat onto another anchor already in. It is even de trops to ask permission, which will, or should, be denied. Should you espy a boat casing your rode with intent, you are fully entitled to put a shot across his bow, even if the projectile is only verbal. Brook no anchor snatching and snatch no anchor thyself.

Above all, don't yell. Every abusive word that you cast at your anchorman (or anchorwoman) is heard more clearly ashore than by the poor victim trying to decipher your mostly confusing instructions. After a particularly vicious verbal docking you are likely to be made pariah by your audience. Don't yell. Don't abuse. It ain't dignified.

These are my pet don'ts. There are scores of others but they become more technical and less universal.

It is not necessary to tell a sailor, even a tyro, not to make fast his jib to windward. It is not necessary to instruct against raising a main except when bow is to wind. It is not necessary (I hope) to remind people to enter a harbor with a main up lest the engine should fail.

Let us eschew human, emotional don'ts, those don'ts that are pregnant with embarrassment and which detract, inappropriately, from the pure pleasure of pushing a sailing vessel around the world's oceans. After all, you are out there for satisfaction, and not to be reminded of failure. The sea is critic enough, you do not need, and can easily avoid, the condescending glances of others.

What am I saying?

Simply do not give unecessary advice. Most of the time error is discovered by the doer and error self discovered is much more potent than error pointed out. The giving of unecessary advice makes you look oaflike, wastes your time and annoys the advisee.


*Attributed to Jonah as he was pulled from the belly of the whale. Attributed wrongly, for, in fact, I made it up.