What should you do to be a drunken sailor?
May 15, 2007 8:49 AM   Subscribe

Through providence, luck, or my ability to be completely spontaneous, I've just landed a job crewing on a catamaran headed from Miami to Panama, then up to Seattle. The catch is that I have absolutely no experience doing anything like this.

The boat is a 38' catamaran cutter, on which there'll be three crew members counting myself. The captain knows I'm coming into this with absolutely no experience and seems quite amenable with it. That said, in between everything I have to do before I leave (write a 15 page paper, pack much of my apartment to sublet, etc), I don't have much time for independent research. So I'm asking: please answer the questions I don't even know I have! What small and stupid mistakes should I avoid? What should I bring? What should I worry about, or not worry about? What should I [quickly] read up on?

(For what it's worth, I'll be in a safe & friendly atmosphere--I'm not worried about potential sketchy situations, just how to catch on quickly and not come off as too much of an idiot!)
posted by soviet sleepover to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've some experience being an inexperienced crew member on different boats (although just for day trips). While on the boat, keep your eyes and ears open. You're not going to be able to cram all the knowledge you need to know before you leave (like the names of all the different ropes, the names of the different sails, parts of the ship, etc), so watch your crew members, listen when the captain shouts, look where he or she is pointing, and be willing to jump when someone says so! You'll pick it up rather quickly, but 3 crew members for that large a vessel is going to require a lot of quick thinking!

Stay hydrated. Never, ever drink salt water. Loosly coil rope before you throw it overboard (to tie-up on the dock or to pull someone out of the water).
posted by muddgirl at 9:08 AM on May 15, 2007

1) Learn knots, especially the bowline and square (reef) knot. Super important.

2) Review basic sailing concepts- internet is good for this. You don't say if you have any previous small-boat sailing experience, but if you don't, do not waste your time on vocabulary and terminology, other than the strict basics. But do learn why you can't sail directly into the wind.

3) Bring extra t-shirts, uderwear, especially if you aren't used to the weather. Think heat+sea salt- you do not want to fel like a marinaded steak 24/7.

4) Do you know how to use a standard marine VHF radio? It's easy, like a walkie-talkie, with squelch. Just take it seriously, and only use channel 16 for emergencies and official talk. Think of it as a police band.

5) Consider a Surf Shirt or rahs guard. For tropical going, white is nice, and while Dakine is a surfer/ windsurfer line, Gill makes the sailor rashies.

6) Bring sunscreen. You may find it's availability iinconsistent, and it's popularity among your shipmates is unknown.

7) Bring an extra, extra pair of non-metal sunglasses, with strap. Expect to break/ lose both.

8) Gloves (for lifting chain), if you'll be doing much deck work.

9) Sandals with strong soles and a backstrap. Don't expect flipflops to work fine on deck.

That's all I can think of now, good luck and have fun. Email if you have other q?s.
posted by conch soup at 9:16 AM on May 15, 2007

Lots of good advice in this thread.

As to the bowline and square knots: you will need them, and it wouldn't hurt to start practicing, but if you try to learn them out of a book you may find yourself having to un-learn your tying method and learn the one the captain or mate prefers. This is part of an important general principle for new sailors: it's better to show up and honestly say you don't know how to do something than to say that you do, based on small familiarity, and watch chaos unfold because you didn't quite know what you thought you did. Have people check out your knots the first few times before relying on them.

Also, get a snug hat and wear it when the sun's shining. It'll shade your view and keep sunburn off your face effectively. It's helpful if you can use a lanyard or alligator clip to attach it to the back of your shirt so you don't go flailing about trying to catch it when the wind whips it off your head.

Don't take it personally if you get barked at the first few days or weeks. Just be humble and open to learning and keep trying. You will make mistakes, guaranteed. Sailors aren't always polite when correcting newbies on the fly, but that's from long habit and from an understanding of the stakes when someone screws up. You'll find it's not really personal, unless for some reason after weeks of labor you still haven't caught on. If that happens, it might not be your thing. But most people achieve competence with some quickness.
posted by Miko at 10:20 AM on May 15, 2007

I highly doubt that 3 crew members will require a "a lot of quick thinking" unless muddgirl is talking about there being too many people on board (which seems odd). Three crew people should be plenty for that size boat. There are people who solo on more.

However, my experience involves single-hull boats, not catamarans. YNMMV (your nautical miles may vary).
posted by mbatch at 10:22 AM on May 15, 2007

Another voice for learning knots. Your basics are right here. Read the descriptions of each know you learn, and know why it’s useful. Get a length of rope and practice them until they become second nature.
posted by ijoshua at 10:36 AM on May 15, 2007

highly doubt that 3 crew members will require a "a lot of quick thinking"

Yes, but

Miami to Panama, then up to Seattle

This is a long, long open-water voyage, and they'll be standing watches. It's not like all 3 of them will be on deck all the time. Sometimes they'll be alone, sometimes in teams of two. They will have to do quick thinking sometimes.

My favorite expression about what long offshore voyages are like is this: "Offshore sailing is 95% boredom punctuated by occasional bouts of sheer terror."

It's in those sheer terror moments where the quick thinking is required. In addition, sometimes it's actually easier to solo than to work with a crew, because soloing takes away the problem of command. You know what you're going to do and what you need to do next, and you don't have to shout it to anybody or wonder whether they know how to do what you're shouting at them to do.

There's almost no sailing that doesn't require teamwork, willingness to learn, and quick action - now and then.
posted by Miko at 11:02 AM on May 15, 2007

Well, if absolutely no experience really means no experience of any kind on a boat, you'll probably spend most of the first week just learning the basics I guess. Assuming the other crew knows what they're doing, they'll do a better job of covering everything you need to know than will metafilter.

But anyway, I'd say the number one thing not to do is fall overboard and watch the boat sail away from you while the others sleep. Avoid any possibility of that. Good idea to remember not to get over-confident, no matter how much experience you've had. Err on the side of caution in everything. Also, if my limited experience is any guide you will probably get seasick for a while, which is not very much fun, but nothing to worry about, you'll get over it.
posted by sfenders at 2:38 PM on May 15, 2007

What should I [quickly] read up on?

Easiest thing to learn that might be helpful is the terminology.
posted by sfenders at 2:53 PM on May 15, 2007

When winding a line around a winch, keep your thumbs up and out of the coils.
posted by DandyRandy at 3:18 PM on May 15, 2007

My DH sailed with one other guy from Seattle to Hawaii. He was a fairly experienced sailor, but the journey from Seattle out to open water was hairy and nausea-inducing. Definitely get a prescription for some good anti-nausea meds, even if you haven't needed them before.

You may have to get used to sleeping weird hours or in fragmented bits, depending on the watch schedule.

You may also have to get used to hanging your bare ass overboard rather than "stinking up the boat" and using the head :) For some reason, that really made my shark radar freak out. What an undignified way to go!
posted by purenitrous at 4:17 PM on May 15, 2007

Be cheerful about chipping in, regardless of experience, some stuff is just plain hard work and not enjoyable for anyone - you ARE all in the same boat!

Don't be too ambitious with your cooking when at sea. It takes far more effort than you expect.

Try not to clog the heads (toilets). Be careful about use of resources (electricity and water), switch off lights not in use, don't use them when you don't need them, don't use fresh water for things that salt will do for. Ask about these things.

Ask questions if you don't understand something as any mistakes on a boat usually become fairly obvious to everyone else - you can't really fudge your way through things. Do turn up to your watch on time, have a (quiet) alarm.

Do learn bowlines, any other knots are a bonus. Don't expect to really understand sailing from a book, it all makes much more sense when you see it. Try and learn some key terminology quickly - which sails are which, which ropes/lines are which, what they mean when they say 'turn up into the wind'. Learn where all the safety and communications equipment is, and how to use it. Know where the Man Overboard button on the nav system is.

Take plenty of antiseasickness medication if you are prone to this.
posted by AnnaRat at 9:25 PM on May 15, 2007

The really important thing is to cultivate within yourself an obedient nature. When the captain or skipper "asks" you to do something, do it immediately. Don't make him ask twice, and don't make him shout.

Learn to coil rope fast, not by winding it around your upper arm, but by twisting it in your fingers as you loop it into your other hand. Then secure it by pulling a loop through. Do this without being asked whenever there's a line lying on the deck - as soon as you're idle after tacking or changing sails.

In 30 years of sailing I have only ever used square knots when reefing on old boats - they really aren't that useful now. But I've tied an essentially infinite number of bowlines, so learn it well. Learn the clove hitch, and practice cleating off a rope correctly and quickly, these are both vital when docking.

Familiarize yourself right away with the contents of the boat's first-aid kit. If no-one else has, add a big box of large flexible-fabric Band-Aids.

Whenever you're not doing anything else, reapply sunscreen. For the first two weeks at least, you should always have a tube in your pocket. (I really like Coppertone Sport because it leaves your hands not-greasy for handling lines.)

Bring a headlamp with a red filter; I like the Petzl TacTikka. This will let you read charts, books, &c. at night without spoiling your night vision. Bring many spare batteries!

Bring a snorkel and mask, and maybe fins.

Bring a ridiculous amount of reading material. But, sleep whenever you can.

If you'll be spending some time ashore in the Caribbean and Central America, bring condoms, the ones you can get there sometimes aren't the quality we're used to...

Other than that, I'll recommend the US Sailing Basic Cruising, Bareboat Crusising, and Passage Making certification books.
posted by nicwolff at 1:19 AM on May 16, 2007

In 30 years of sailing I have only ever used square knots when reefing on old boats - they really aren't that useful now.

The OP probably will use them when stowing sails, though, on the cat. Sail-stops on middle-size craft like this are almost always secured with square knots, often tied on a bight for quick release.

That said, it's not an important knot because it is never, and should never, be used for any purpose on which safety or security depends. That's because they easily capsize and slip. They're utterly unreliable for anything important.

I still stand by my point, though - let the crew show you the knots as they want them tied, especially how they want you to tie a bowline. Trying to learn by following printed instructions usually results in all kinds of elbow and hand contortions that are unnecessary and ineffiecient. Tying bowlines in large-diameter docklines is a physical skill that is best learned under personal direction.

Seconding the clove hitch, that's a damned handy one for stanchioning and for affixing lanyards to things, among other uses.
posted by Miko at 6:31 AM on May 16, 2007

Response by poster: I may've missed the boat (ha, sorry), but I meant to ask: what sort of clothing should I bring? I'm on a very serious budget, so buying new provisions is largely out. Still, I assume I should err on the side of more clothes rather than traveling light, right? Synthetics rather than cotton for quick-drying, right?
posted by soviet sleepover at 11:10 AM on May 16, 2007

Best answer: Gear makes a big difference in your comfort level. Scour the secondhand stores if you have to, but don't go without the basics.

1. Light, quick-drying layers. Several T-shirts, short and long sleeve. Avoid wearing jeans, they never dry, but 1 pair of something tough like Carhartts or jeans is a good idea. Take stretchy tops rather than a lot of button-down shirts. Comfortable shorts. Light pants like synth/cotton blend cargoes are perfect. 1 nice outfit (khakis, button-down, or a wrinkle-free skirt for gals) for shoregoing.
2. Fleece (better than sweats, dries quicker and cuts wind)
3. Windbreaker that can serve as outer layer over a sweater
4. Full rain gear is a MUST, including rain pants and tall rubber boots
5. Warm wool sweater
6. Wool hat or cap
7. Gloves
8. Hat with a brim effective for sunshading
9. Sunglasses on a lanyard
10. Sandals - something like Tevas with a rubber sole and full set of straps, but completely waterproof and durable (sneakers grip well but get wet and funky real fast and can cause fungus problems on boats)

You don't need a ton of clothes and you probably won't have a lot of personal storage space. You just need the right clothes. On boats people re-wear clothes for days on end. You only need enough to always have something dry and warm to change into while another set of clothes is drying. I know it might look crazy to emphasize wool and gloves boots - but even in the tropics you can get cold, cold, cold. Be ready for temps ranging from 30s to 90s.

A knife would really come in handy - not a lockblade, preferably, but a short sheath knife. Some people like a Leatherman, but I don't like having to fiddle around before making cuts. However, that may be a bigger deal in traditional rig which is my experience. Any knife is better than no knife. A small size maglite is great to have when you're fumbling in your bags predawn and don't want to wake your crewmates.
posted by Miko at 11:49 AM on May 16, 2007

Oh, and a swimsuit, unless you're going commando or in your shorts.
posted by Miko at 11:50 AM on May 16, 2007

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