Friday, 26 April 2013


I have been forced into action.  On Saturday we went for a day sail, and it ought to be easy to write an account of it but I am suffering from writers block.  Until a month ago I was a recreational sailor.  I sailed for pleasure and I suited myself, my decisions, my choices.  And whilst I believe I am a responsible sailor, I was responsible to no one but myself and my crew.  I could simply write about the pleasures of sailing.   Not so now.  As a commercial seafarer, I am subject to and must comply with a statutory regulatory framework.  (E-mail me for a full list of the appropriate documents!)  Fundamentally there is little change, if you have been making responsible decisions at sea, then recreational or commercial should make no difference.  However it is different; Saturday’s sail was about volunteer sea staff training.

Sea staff are volunteers and give off their time and experience for a variety of reasons.  A common one is that like me they enjoy sailing.   However their volunteering must encompass more than recreational sailing.  Avoiding a detailed discussion on the legal framework, and cutting to the chase, as well as enjoying themselves, they also need to be trained.  A great deal of discretion exists with regard to the latter but there are some red lines, which I am required to comply with.  I don’t know that anyone was expecting to enjoy a lazy day sail, but if they were, then they would have been disappointed.  Of course the holy grail is to keep it fun, thus encouraging them to return, whilst at the same time delivering the “documented and structured” training required by the MCA.   I hope I got the balance right; proof will be as to how many turn up next weekend.

Alongside we did four separate exercises or lessons.  Firstly, we looked at the anchor and windless.  The windless is a manual hand turned one and although not normally thought of as a safety system, it can be and in any case needs to be handled safely as heavy chain, cogs and fingers can be an undesirable mixture.  Going below for coffee, we embarked on the first part of a lesson on mainmast running rigging which included how the various halyards and hardners interact and tie off.  Then it was back on deck for a practical familiarisation, including identification of ropes, overhauling tackles and by way of confirmation “teaching” the same to each other.  Bythen it was time for a warm up, so down to the engine room to run through engine checks and starting.  The engine is not normally thought of a s a safety system but it is not hard to imagine a scenario when it is precisely that!  We now came to the infamous MOB or man over board.

MOB is an interesting example of how we manage or mismanage perceptions of risk and safety.  I have developed some firm and contentious views on the same.  The Trust has an unambiguous policy of always wearing life jackets.  As an employee, I comply and as skipper, I set an example.  My views on life jackets are not always understood and sometimes I sense that people perceive me as being “pig (or big) headed” on the subject.  Last year I was on a boat were the skipper insisted on us all wearing life jackets but had no pump or bailer.  Frankly on that particular occasion, I’d have swapped a lifejacket for a bailer or pump, or even some engine tools.  Any of the last three, would have made for far greater safety.  When challenged, the skipper insisted that because we wearing life jackets we would be safe even if the boat flooded or the engine failed.  It was a classic example of feeling or looking safe but actually having utterly misunderstood the balance of risk.  We would have had to try very hard to accidently fall overboard, but an open boat without a means of shifting water is an accident waiting to happen.  The engine was our only means of propulsion and we would have been literally “up the creek without a paddle” if it had failed.  So my point is that an over emphasis on safety being achieved by wearing a life jacket can be a barrier to a balanced risk analysis and paradoxically life jackets detract from rather than enhance safety.   An example being those whose thinking runs "if I wear a life jacket then I am safe because  have adopted a safe practice"  In fact they have completely misunderstood the reality of MOB. 

Meet Fred. . . . .  

Fred is Scalloway harbour authority’s man sizes/weight floating dummy. Even if a real life Fred was conscious when I managed to successfully bring the 65 ton Swan to a halt next to him, the chances are that he would be incapable of scrambling up a boarding ladder or net let alone grabbing a rope and securing it to himself so that we could haul him aboard. So with Fred lying in the inflatable to simulate him floating on his back, we considered how exactly we could attempt to get him back on board over Swan’s four foot freeboard. There are many aspects of my former career that I cannot unequivocally defend or justify but one area in which the Army typically excel is realistic training that emphasises bridging a theoretical or classroom skill with the reality of practical application and rehearsal in a near realistic environment.   Using this technique, we spent a most interesting and informative hour discussing and enacting ways of getting to Fred and lifting him to the deck. I for one learnd a lot and it has allowed me to develop some ideas and also to make some recommendations to the operating committee on additional equipment and adaption of current equipment. 
After a bowl of reviving soup, it was finally off for a sail and a chance to put those mainmast running rigging ropes to work!!  I’m now becoming more comfortable with Scalloway harbour entrance and the channels that lead out past rocks and fish farms.   Having cleared the entrance we hoisted the foresail, and tensioned the luff with the hardner.   Still under engine we ran on a broad reach for a few miles before gybing and hoisting the main. 
The foresail drawing
The main is an impressive sail and her gear is heavy and over gauge but its all good for the “full upper body work out” as teams sweat the peak and throat to raise the gaff and sail.  It’s a far cry from the convenience of winches on modern yachts and whilst it can be viewed as crude and backbreaking work, it is also a tribute to a forbearers’ ingenuity that they devised a system that allowed a few men to hoist aloft over a ton of gear.   Now because this post is meant to be about sailing I shall desist on elaborating on two thoughts about “frames of reference” and sea shanties.  . . . but watch this space! 

A small part of the Main Showing Swan's fishing registration
With the main hoisted we were final able to kill the “iron topsail” as the engine is sometimes called and enjoy some quiet.  Most of the crew had the opportunity to helm and we spent an all too short time tacking and gybing. 

The helm committee
 I enjoyed this but as a new skipper and very conscious of my inexperience and responsibility it was not relaxing.  I’m still learning about the Swan and navigation takes a goodly proportion of my time.  All too soon it was time to drop sail and return to the quayside.  The wind ensured it was my most difficult “park” if you are not nautical or “lay alongside” if you are.  It actually involved dropping a crewman ashore on an easier (leeward) berth and as he walked around to our berth, I came off and onto our windward berth.  Scott both assisted me greatly and then congratulated me.  I’m reminded of an old army adage that you can conceal your incompetence from your superiors far more easily than from your subordinates.  Scott’s praise is high praise indeed.  Not that it is one way.  He is stepping up fantastically and his ability to instruct and organise novice crew is growing rapidly.

Sail Handling.  Note Nat, one of his roles is to make me look like a wimp
I really hope (and believe) that people will return next weekend.  I sensed that everyone learnt something and felt that their time had been spent beneficially.  There is no reason that learning should be restricted to an activity for the young and an important lesson in seamanship and life is to recognise who little you know and to do something about it. 


  1. Hi Richard, it's a really interesting blog spot. Very well written and fun to read. Hope you can keep it going. All best wishes Nicky.

  2. Thanks Nicky, for those who don't know Nicky is chairman of the Colne Smack Preservation society. I am an absentee member of his committee. My open day/estuary clinker built boat "Hope"lies there. and its full of Smacks and Bawleys from teh East Coast.

    see for more detail

  3. Just thought you might like to know...Caroline the CDPS press officer and owner of the large smack Pembarth, has booked a place in the smack dock at B'sea for her partner's Zulu soon to be relaunched after a long restoration. Surely a lovely reflection of the Scottish fishing industry's past role, as the lugger fleet followed the herring shoals south down the coast every year.

    We look forward to seeing her. Thanks for the blog - it's great reading for us soft southeners!