November 7, 2013

No more scoffing at captains

 I USED TO SCOFF at skippers of sailboats who referred to themselves as “Captain,” but my attitude has softened over the years.  I have slowly come to realize how the responsibilities of a small-boat skipper compare with those of the captain of a large sea-going freighter or cruise ship.

Both face the same storms, currents, rocks, winds, and navigation problems. Both have to understand the dangers and problems confronting them, and make plans, and communicate with land-bound authorities. Both are responsible for the safe stowage of ballast and cargo, and both have to ensure there is sufficient food and water aboard. Both are responsible for human lives.

But the big-ship skipper has a whole crew of officers and men to help him, each an expert in his own right. The average cruising sailboat skipper carries this huge burden alone, or, with the help of, at most, a couple of amateur friends or family.

Herman Wouk described the onerous duty of a ship’s captain in The Caine Mutiny:

“You can’t understand command till you’ve had it. It’s the loneliest, most oppressive job in the world. It’s a nightmare, unless you’re an ox. You’re forever teetering along a tiny path of correct decisions and good luck that meanders through an infinite gloom of possible mistakes. . . . “

And Eric Hiscock pointed out that one of cruising’s greatest fascinations is that the basic knowledge you require is identical whether you intend to crawl from gunkhole to gunkhole along the coast or make an ambitious dash across the open ocean.  As he said:

“The most modest ditch-crawler must in some part equip himself with the same knowledge and experience that would serve to take his yacht (if she were of a suitable type, and well-found) across the oceans of the world.”

So I don’t scoff at sailboat captains any more.  I just wish them good luck while they meander through that infinite gloom.

Today’s Thought
I believe that all of us have the capacity for one adventure inside us, but great adventure is facing responsibility day after day.
— William Gordon, Episcopal Bishop of Alaska, Time 19 Nov 65

“Any hint of a proposal yet, dear?”
“Yes, Mom, several. But he just ignores them.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


biglilwave said...

As captain during a race, I had a friend/crew member tell me he didn't need to wear a life jacket. He's a fateful person I respect and I appreciate his sense of personal responsibility, but I couldn't get the thought out of my head that if he fell overboard and drowned, I would have a lot of explaining to do and would ultimately be found liable. Needless to say if he did fall overboard, me and the rest of the crew would be scrambling into gear to bring him back on board, which puts the rest of the crew at risk.
That's when I pulled the "Captain card" and said, "Put the @#$%ing life vest on!" He did put it on because he understood what my responsibilities were and he's my friend.

S/V Blondie-Dog said...

It occurs to me that the few times I ever happened to be called Captain was to be admonished for a perceived infraction of sorts.

It was either that or because the US Coast Guard or Homeland Security had nothing better to do than to harass me. It got to the point that my apprehension level would immediately escalate upon unexpectantly hearing someone calling out to me as "Hey Captain". I don't miss that noise.

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

A small-boat skipper has to recruit and maintain crew skilled enough to be competitive and numerous enough to be safe. Captains of large sea-going freighters or cruise ships have a paymaster to help him out.