“When people are about to go offshore for the first time, they go to seminars and read books to figure out how to equip their boat.”
“Then there’s the couple that saves up for years, buys the boat, equips it, and heads out the Strait down to Mexico, only to have one of them decide enroute that going offshore isn’t for them. They stay in Mexico for couple of weeks, maybe a month, fly home, hire a captain to sail the boat back to Seattle, and put her on the market. I hear that story all the time. If I can stop just one couple from doing that, then this course is worth it.”
“So let me just be blunt: You’re the weak link. Your boat is gonna be just fine out there, just the way it is, ‘kay? You? Maybe not.”
Seven of us were listening to Mike Rice, as he gave us our first briefing of a four-day venture into the open ocean. Mike runs the Puget Sound Sailing Institute, and the course is an accredited part of the American Sailing Association curriculum, but I was taking it for the experience. Also because my buddy told me: Mike’s an Old Salt whose knows his offshore stuff.
Mike may be from Tacoma, but he totally qualifies as a Kindly Old Salt (KOS), genus Seattlensis: Our boat briefing included detailed instructions on how to correctly brew french press coffee in the large thermos he had brought, with the freshly ground beans he had stocked. Mike might skimp on the quality of the cookies (his bulk store snickerdoodles became a running joke), but he never cut corners on the coffee.
I liked him already.
Mike has a drawling southern California accent and the leathery, tanned skin of someone who spends a lot of time on the open water. His briefing was thorough (cf “coffee, making of”) and patient, each topic punctuated by ” ‘kay?” that strange interrogative contraction which seems to have migrated to the English language via the San Fernando Valley. His teaching style was infinite patience, even in urgent situations. I could learn a lot from that alone (as the Admiral reminded me before I left). Mike displayed all of the humility of the KOS: If you had a better way of doing something onboard, he wanted to learn about it. But he was also a firm skipper: you coil and secure the lines his way.
Why are you here?
We were split into two watches, which ran in two six-hour day watches and three four-hour night ones. Mike wasn’t my watch captain, which meant that most of my underway instruction came from Mike’s fellow instructor and first mate, John Mulligan. John is a retired physician with a quiet voice, a matching demeanor and years of both inshore cruising and offshore passage experience. My fellow students were all ASA-accredited, with several courses under their belts. Most of us were from the PNW, with the exception of Dave, a commercial airline pilot from Dallas-Forth Worth. Mike only offers this course once a year, and this one was next on their curriculum.
Part of Mike’s briefing included listening as we explained why we were taking the course. The one couple in the group talked about their plans to retire onboard and make a Pacific passage someday. While the Admiral and I don’t have plans to do that, we have talked about going down the coast at some point, and I’ve got my eye on crewing for the Vic-Maui race one of these days. I hadn’t sailed on blue water since my teenage years, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to stretch my sea legs, especially with a couple of Old Salts.
I suppose I could have just signed on for crew duty on an offshore boat delivery — I have a number of friends who do that — but if and when I do something like that, I’d like to have more to bring to the situation, and I certainly don’t want to be the weak link. This was my chance to equip myself, and I was taking it.
The weather didn’t really cooperate
The course had us sailing west out of Port Angeles, down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, out past Cape Flattery, and a hundred miles into the blue water. Then we would turn around and go back. Not a cruising man’s itinerary. There was brief talk of the Barrow Islands — I saw John’s eyes light up at the prospect — but the lack of wind made that impossible to fit in to the time allotted.
My buddy came back from last year’s course with harrowing tales of gale-force winds and close-hauled tacking, while dodging heavy commercial and military traffic in the dark. That sounded like a good experience to me. Not my lot, alas.
We were sailing Passion, a 40-odd foot early Beneteau First. She was well-equipped and retrofitted with radar and GPS, but no chart plotter. The little hooded radar display was below deck, and while we could (and routinely did) read our position and heading off the GPS, all of our charting was done the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencil. My own boat is equipped with a full package of electronics including AIS, but I never missed it.
That said, I noticed that John liked to have one of my watchmates, who owned an iPad with onboard GPS and a plotter, cross-check our conclusions, especially when we were doubling back and forth across the sea lanes at night. But John wouldn’t allow it in the cockpit, except for a brief viewing: it had to be hauled out and put back just for the occasion. The course requirements include getting credit for a separately taught celestial navigation course; we did two noon shoots with sextants: one on the ocean, and then again when we got back into the Strait.
There are three kinds of teachers: The one who inspires you to fall in love with the subject matter, the one who drills you on skill or craft acquisition, so that you are equipped to deal with it, and the one who enables you to make the subject your own. The temperament and teaching methods vary for each; it is a rare teacher who can do all three.
Mike is that rare teacher. He listens closely, has an easy laugh and a good sense of humor, which he switches into a deliberate, slow intensity when he is instructing.
Cruisers develop a comfort zone
Mike loves to sail, and he loves to get you to fall in love with it. The students surrounding me had plenty of stories to back that up, and Mike himself, though not what I’d call a purist, never gave up the point of sailing in any and every wind. Motors were for docking in marinas and chasing wind. Sails were for forward movement. I watched him patiently trim a sail in a 3-knot breeze in order to get us out of the way of a bulk carrier that was bearing down on us. I would have keyed on the diesel immediately. That’s not Mike’s way.
That’s part of why I take these courses. We cruisers develop a comfort zone. We know what we can and can’t do, and we tend to sail that way. Experience and instruction stretches you, and gives you the understanding and knowledge to do more than you already are. If that extends your cruising, and gives you and your crew better experiences in more locations, there’s every reason to invest in it.
Our first afternoon, as we motored out of Port Angeles in one knot of uncertain wind, Mike glanced up at the boat’s wavering wind indicator and sighed: “Let’s just get out there,” he said. So we did our engine check and fired up the diesel, as night fell and we got used to our watch schedule.
Out in blue water with the motor finally silent, the six-foot swells pushed and pulled our boat on and off its tack and the boom swung in 2.5 knots of wind. Mike demonstrated that we were still catching some wind and making headway. Offshore, fuel is precious. You don’t fire up the diesel because you’re not moving fast enough. But more importantly, you came to sail: do that.
Three days later, we were back in the Strait at night, a bit early because the weather guessers had forecast 15 to 25 knots of westerly there. My watch was on and I was at the helm, which became heavy as the wind built to 14 and then 17 knots. Given the forecast, John woke Mike to come topside and teach us how to reef his boat. The equipping teacher came up into the cockpit, meted out the assignments, talked them through, made us repeat the instructions we had just received, and then watched us do it.
Reef secure and everyone safely back in cockpit, Mike then talked through what we had just done, and then, satisfied with what he had seen and heard, went back below to sleep. Classic equipping teacher strategy.
The next day, again on our watch, the wind died. With traffic bearing down on us, we had to shake out the reef, or start the dreaded diesel engine.
Mike came back up, called his watch up to witness the routine in reverse, and then began to talk about how we would reef and shake out in a ketch (“I honestly don’t see the point of that little scrap of a mizzen on a yawl, unless it’s to keep you straight at anchor”), and went through how it would work on my own in-mast furling sloop.
All through the four days, Mike kept in mind what boats we regularly sailed or aspired to sail, and routinely transferred whatever lesson was at hand to our own situation, often quizzing us before he taught: “Stuart, how would you do this on your boat?”
John was equally careful in his instruction. During lulls in the action, he would bring up a topic (“What’s in your ditch bag?”) or lead an informed discussion on onboard medication. In an attempt to use a new charting tool while we were navigating the sea lanes, I got a position and heading wrong. John just quietly pointed out the discrepancy between my chart and our surroundings and sent me back below to correct it.
Both Mike and John had those Old Salt traits: Quiet confidence, strict seamanship procedures and a positive attitude. On our second 0200-0600 watch, John mentioned that watch-keeping made for some petty peevishness: “It takes about two days into the passage,” he said quietly, “before the little things — what’s being done with the food, how the other watch comes on or goes off watch — threaten to drive you a little crazy. If you don’t deal with it, resentments build and it makes for an unhealthy crew.”
That’s when some of our opposite numbers started coming on watch late
At first, it was only ten minutes. But John was right — ten minutes in cold rain at 0000 hours feels like thirty. And thirty minutes feels like an hour.
John used it as an opportunity to build our watch morale: by the fourth day, we were whiling away the final hour of our watch by making and taking gentlemen’s bets on the actual time of final watch transfer and the quality and specific components of the breakfast that would be waiting for us.
At 25 minutes past scheduled watch change, we had decided that they would leave us a box of dry cereal on the galley table and let us forage for the milk. John actually joined in on the exercise, which only increased our morale. The annoyance had been diffused into joking. Mike, who was busy rousing his crew, must have overheard.
As it became clear that his watch (and our breakfast) was going to be at least 30 minutes late, his goodnatured face appeared in the companionway. “Good morning, guys. The good news is, we’re up and we’ve already got your breakfast right here,” he said, as he slid a jumbo box of Oreos into the cockpit. “We’re workin’ on the coffee right now,” he chortled, as he went back below.
Later on that final day, I got an opportunity to tell Mike how much I appreciated his style of instruction, and the whole course. “That’s great”, he replied, “Hey, I’m doing the Swiftsure race next year, maybe you’d like to join us?”
I can get a crewing experience with any number of yachts in that race, without having to pay for the privilege. Only one of them will have Mike aboard as skipper/instructor.
I’m already signed up.