Skip to main content

Doing Your What Ifs

Planning to solve all possible onboard problems is part of taking seamanship seriously.

I was carrying a load of groceries past a new trawler on the dock, a pretty 40-footer that looked ready for offshore. As I passed by, I could see the owner leaning against the pilothouse windows.

“That looks comfortable,” I said.

“Doing my what ifs,” he responded.

“That’s great,” I said with the bonhomie of people who are just making small talk. I might as well have said, “Nice weather.”

A bit later, I happened past again, and he was in nearly the same position, this time with a legal pad and pen. “Still at it, eh?” I asked mindlessly.

“It takes time to do your what ifs,” he said a little peevishly, as though I had criticized him.

This time it registered, and I stopped.

“Your whats?” I asked.

“You know, all the things that might go wrong—all the what ifs,” he said. “I’m taking a cruise this summer, and this way I’ll know that I’m ready for just about anything.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well, I was just thinking about what if one of my thru-hulls sheared off.”

“And what would you do?” I asked, curious about the mental process he was using.

“The first thing is stop the flow of water, so I have wood plugs in a variety of sizes, plus the hammer to pound them in.”

He held up the clipboard, which was divided into three columns. On the left, the heading was “problem.” Above the middle column was “on board,” and on the left, it said “need.”

“See?” he said. “I’ve got most of the wood plugs listed as ‘on board,’ but I need a smaller one for the head, so it’s under ‘need.’ This way, I have a list for the marine hardware store.”

We stood and chatted for a little longer, and I realized that it had been a long time since I’d heard anyone worry about what ifs. They weren’t called that on the ocean racers or offshore cruising yachts I’ve sailed aboard, of course, but they were still there.

On those boats, they were considered the preparations for every possible crisis that a crew could imagine. There was a plan for repairing broken steering, putting out a galley fire or sewing a torn sail. Just as important as the plan, however, were the tools, the parts and having someone aboard with the knowledge and skills to make the repair.

If you read the logs of famous cruising skippers, you’ll find them filled with just this sort of calm self-sufficiency that brings a boat and crew home after a disaster, bloody but unbowed.

Today, it seems to me that people will gladly spend thousands of dollars on a life raft, but they won’t buy a two-buck wooden plug that might keep them from needing that life raft after a seacock breaks loose.

I hear stories about yachts whose crews radio for assistance in time of crisis and then abandon ship. Days or weeks later, the yacht is found afloat, having taken care of itself and certainly capable of having taken care of the crew, too.

There seems to be too much preparation for rescue, and not enough planning for prevention or cure. Today, there are Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) whose sole reason for existence is to call for help. I’m certainly not criticizing EPIRBs, which have saved many lives at sea that otherwise would have been lost. It’s just that I’d like to see a little more preparation than simply buying your way out with an EPIRB. It’s almost as if having a life raft, a good boat-insurance policy and an EPIRB are a substitute for seamanlike preparations for any contingency. Hey, if something happens, just activate the EPIRB and abandon ship—the insurance will cover it.

Years ago, I sailed aboard a 70-foot ocean racer that had what they called “The Book.” It was a loose-leaf notebook like old-time airline pilots like my dad used in times of crisis. They would flip through the pages: “Let’s see, fire with black smoke—no. Fire with gray smoke—no. Ah, here it is, fire with white smoke.”

The Book on that ocean racer covered every possible contingency and then detailed the equipment on board to solve the problem (including the exact lockers where the gear was stowed), the tools needed, and any suggestions that might make the job easier.

At one point, I had to go up the mast to clear away a jammed halyard. Before I went aloft, we dug out The Book. There, under the heading “mast,” was a clear photograph of the top of the mast. Marked with indelible ink, the photo had notations telling me all the sizes of bolts, cotter pins and shackles. Before my feet left the security of the deck, I knew exactly what the masthead would look like, and I had a bag on the bosun’s chair with the right-size wrenches and replacement parts. There was no shouting back and forth to send up a three-eighths open-end and a little bit smaller shackle. I had a quick, drama-free trip up and down the mast.

The Book went the other direction on the boat as well, with photos of the prop, shaft and rudder, so that we would be prepared if we had to go underwater to untangle something. Everything in between the masthead and the prop was just as comprehensively detailed.

With all we needed to be self-sufficient at sea, we took no small pride in being seamen, competent at getting to our destination without outside assistance. Back then, we called it “being prepared.” In today’s lingo, we’d probably call it Systematized Options Management or Functional Logistical Programming. Frankly, I like just calling them the what ifs.

Maybe you should go off and do yours.