Friday, December 22, 2006


Vero Beach

Last week, as I watched the mechanic taking our engine apart, I was thinking about the skills I would need to do that job myself.

Foremost of course, is not a skill but rather experience. Having taken something apart at least once before is an immense advantage when doing it again. Even related experience, such as taking apart other mechanical things helps. Use of tools is also something that derives from experience.

A critical skill that I definitely lack is the ability to throw all the removed parts in a bucket, stir, then confidently remember where they go when putting it back together. Another skill is dexterity with the fingers when working with very small parts. My father was an amateur watch and clock maker. He repaired them for a hobby. He was excellent in both of those skills. Even when he was very old and he could see only poorly with his one functioning eye, he could start a tiny screw into the threads. I don't have those genes, and I have trouble even picking up a tiny screw without dropping it. When I try doing some task especially delicate, my hands shake.

The mechanic also had specific skills that he had trained for. If I broke off a bolt head it would be a disaster that I couldn't recover from. Therefore, when I encounter a stubborn bolt, I'm afraid to even try forcing it out. The mechanic swore that if he broke this stubborn stud that he would have to drill and tap it to get it out, and failing that he would have to use an acetylene torch. In other words, he had two levels of backup skills.

What about boating skills that one needs to live life as a cruiser? There's a good topic for a blog. Actually it could fill dozens of blogs. My copy of Chapman's Piloting and Seamanship it nearly 600 pages long. Instead, let me pass along two of the simplest, easiest to remember, and most generally useful things I ever learned to be applied to boating and other situations. Readers: if you have your own list of best things to know, send me an email.

When I learned how to fly, we were taught the tactical priorities of a pilot. Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. Those three items, in that order, are the priorities that never vary. There are no exceptions. Even in dire emergencies, those are the priorities. Merely substitute boat handling for aviate and substitute helmsman for pilot and the same priorities apply to boating.

There are times when there may be someone on the radio demanding urgent information. Suppose you heard this on the radio; "Sailboat near marker 62 what the F are you trying to do?" The situation seems to demand an instant reply on the radio, but wait? Are you near marker 62? Perhaps the radio call was for someone else. Wait again, now is not the time for an inadvertent jibe or to get trapped in irons.

I read of a real life incident in Soundings last year. A couple in a sailboat were sailing at night underneath the Bay Bridge near Annapolis, MD. They got in the way of a fast approaching ship. The ship broadcast a warning to them. They tried to come about, but the winds were light and they put the boat in irons. Then they tried to start the engine but in their haste they stepped on the ignition key and broke the key off in the switch. Then they jumped overboard and swam away as the ship had a glancing collision with their boat. Too bad for them that they didn't have the right priorities. Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.

It is universally applicable hard to forget if you remember the rhyme. Aviate Navigate Communicate.

In fire service training, I learned about the universal method for making command decisions in an emergency incident. Assess the situation. Make a corrective action plan. Execute the action plan (especially communicating the plan to others.) The three steps have to be done in that order, and none can be skimped.

Acting without those three steps is acting irrationally. A plan can not remedy the situation if you don't understand what the situation is. Barking out orders without letting anyone know what the plan is is foolhardy.

When standing watch, continuous situational awareness is your primary duty. If you have situational awareness then the assessment step of the method is very easy.

Assessments and plans don't need to be fancy to be effective. Is the boat on fire? Yes! Then the plan is -- put out the fire. Call out to the crew. "The boat is on fire. Put out the fire. Use the fire extinguisher." If you just yelled FIRE, some of your crew might jump overboard rather than trying to put out the fire.

If your plan doesn't work, use the same method again. Have we lost control of the fire? Yes! New plan is abandon ship. "Crew: prepare to abandon ship. Launch the life raft. Get the ditch kit. Put out a mayday call."

The power of this method is that it universally applicable and nearly impossible to forget. Assess. Plan. Execute.

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