You bought the boat and are excited to go cruising. Your broker helped closed the deal and managed the process through survey and sea trial. Hopefully, he or she also spent some time with you to learn the systems and found the resources to cover some level of vessel operation.
Whether it is a large displacement expedition yacht, a speedy cruiser, a sailboat with the latest technology, or a cruising motoryacht, it is still new to you. Unlike driving a new car, which mostly all operate the same, boats have many shapes and varying characteristics. Every hull reacts differently to changing wind and wave conditions. No two boats are exactly alike.
Some like the concept of gradually gaining experience over time, which certainly makes sense on a big boat to sort everything out before heading over the horizon. Owners of big trawlers might take delivery of their new boat in the Pacific Northwest, for example, and spend an entire season there and up to Alaska before leaving on their long cruise of adventure. Before tackling the Great Loop, new boat owners might find it a safe strategy to spend a season cruising locally, where they can resolve any issues while getting comfortable with the new boat.
I often heard the value of surviving your first storm at sea. While it may not be the most comfortable way to get familiar with a new boat, it certainly helps. Every severe storm I weathered made me a better sailor with a greater respect for the boat and the power of the sea.
Bringing our new power catamaran up from Florida to Annapolis, I was lulled into a relaxed state of mind as day after day of idyllic travel kept a smile on my face…until we encountered truly frightening seas where the Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay. These conditions are legendary in the terror they bring to the unsuspecting boater when winds oppose the tides of the Bay. I have friends whose swim platform was ripped off the back of their Grand Banks 42 crossing this area, as they discovered later when they stopped for fuel. After my experience, I also learned many cruisers hug the eastern shore of the Bay to avoid the possibility of being caught.
The power cat crashed and rolled in steep waves close together with alarming frequency, as the seas came upon us without warning and it was not safe to turn around. Every cushion on the flybridge unsnapped, and the motion was so extreme I crawled down from the flybridge to the lower helm. By taking the steep waves at an angle, I reduced the motion a bit as we slowly made our way across the Potomac and the safety of St. Marys.
I have never been in such seas before or since, but now I had total confidence in the engineering and construction of that boat.
Seattle Yachts’ Laura Unsell says her goal is for customers to have a five-star experience when they buy a new boat with her, and that includes learning the boat. Often the new owners have their own “guru” to assist in the process, but she always makes sure resources are available for a proper orientation if the owners are new or inexperienced. Sometimes it even makes sense for the new owners to hire a professional captain to provide additional assistance when they go on their first cruise. This was the case on a recent trip to the Bahamas from Florida by a couple new to boating who hired a captain to get them comfortable with their new sailing catamaran. They told Laura it was a great experience, and the family loves the boat.
Seen below: A new Hampton owner gets behind the helm for some personal instruction on his new boat.
She says it all depends on the knowledge and experience level of new owners. On bigger, more complex cruising boats, it is also wise to arrange for techs from Caterpillar, John Deere, or whatever engines are on the boat, to spend several hours with the owners to learn and understand what they need to know. The same is true with complex electronics and systems like stabilizers. When the owners and these experts then go out on sea trials, the owners really learn the boat, its systems, and its capabilities.
Experienced broker Bill Boyer thinks education is a key element of getting to know how to drive a new boat. He offers an additional training course after the couple takes delivery from the dealer. Teaching couples at the helm of a trawler to visualize where they are in relation to the dock, seeing each corner of the boat, is critical, especially for people coming from sailboats, where one typically steers from the stern. The entire sailboat is visible in front of them, which is very different from steering in a pilothouse located near the middle of the boat.
He also emphasized how important it is to run the boat at full throttle, something new owners are often reluctant to do. They learn docking, anchoring, and close quarter maneuvering. He makes both husband and wife drive the boat, which is an important part of the training. How does a boat handle a high-speed turn? How is it on the flybridge if the boat is leaned way over?
It is also a healthy practice to run a boat’s engines at WOT occasionally for 15 minutes or so. You will not hurt anything.
Seen below: It may take some practice before being this confident behind the helm. (Video by: Youtuber Richard LaVecchia IV)
I participated one weekend in a sailing regatta put on by the U.S. Naval Academy and Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB). The annual event takes recovering men and women out of Walter Reed Medical Center for a day of sailboat racing with midshipmen and CRAB volunteers. It is a nice break for wounded combat veterans in the process of healing wounds which are often physical and emotional.
I spent the day with Admiral Phil Cullom, a seasoned Navy surface fleet officer with 38 years of service. As the sailboats rounded one of the marks, I took pictures of the action, while the admiral drove the powerboat we were on. He clearly knew what he was doing.
Over lunch I asked him if he could drive a ship that well, spinning it around like a ballet dancer. The admiral smiled.
He said that when he got his first ship command, a destroyer, he followed the advice given him by a surface fleet mentor. When the ship went to sea for the first time, he took control of the bridge, literally, and drove the ship himself. He operated all the controls alone. Full speed, tight turns in all directions, even full speed emergency stops to see how long it took and how much sea room he needed.
He spent three hours running the ship completely alone, going through every possible maneuver. His XO and crew were present on the bridge but did not touch anything. He knew they wondered what this new captain was up to.
He told me it was critical to establish the absolute baseline performance of his ship, how much it would roll while turning, and every other element of performance of the ship under his control. Speed, maneuverability, what it could and could not do. All without the human factor between what was in his mind and the ship's response to his commands.
He said that by doing this himself, he knew that when his XO and other bridge crew ran the ship, he would always know what the ship was capable of, and how quickly, without the actions of the bridge crew added to the equation. He would never need to lose his temper or wonder what would happen next because he had already determined his ship's abilities. He said he always knew when it was time to take back command of his ship from someone's error or misjudgment.
We all know the stress and raised voices when things on the water begin to get out of control. Knowing the absolute limits of your boat can provide you with the known edges of the envelope in which you operate, which Admiral Cullom said kept things calm.
This is something to think about, knowing what your boat will do. And then knowing if she is not doing it, there is a human in the way, or something else at work.
I can certainly relate to what the admiral told me that day, in terms of knowing the edges of the envelope. My experience crossing the Potomac River, however unintentional, gave me all the boundaries I would ever need.
Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore:
- Dawn Of The Paperless Helm
- Letting Go But Still In Control
- Improving The User Experience
- A Paradigm Shift In Cruising
- Consider Buddy Boating
- A Matter Of Staying Safe While Boating
- Should I Carry A Gun While Cruising?
- A Boater's 3-to-5 Year Plan
- Boat Tools: A 4-Part Series
- Provisioning Your Yacht For Extended Cruising - Bahamas
- Provisioning Your Yacht For Extended Cruising - Alaska
- The Evolution Of The Trawler Yacht