By R. J. Rubadeau, Special to the Islander
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Rubadeau’s forthcoming book, “Bound for Cape Horn: Skills for Expedition Cruising” due out in summer 2020. It’s in the form of a letter from the veteran sailor to a younger version of himself, the night before his first offshore voyage. Rubadeau and his wife make their land-home in Durango, Colo. and keep Dog Star, their Philip Rhodes’ designed 85-year-old wooden ketch, and summer preoccupation, on Mount Desert Island.
To the Captain of Indiscretion,
I can picture you there, sitting in the dark on the settee bunk aboard Indiscretion. You have that lost look in your eyes reserved for rabbits under the heavy paw of a big bad wolf. Nixon is our president, Vietnam rages on without you, the new Lecomte NE 38 floats gently at the dock in New Rochelle and you are posing as the paid captain.
The sleeping family crew, consisting of three children under the age of nine and their adventurous parents, who are fortunately infected with a cruising virus, huff and puff in their bunks like dolphins feeding in a quiet night’s anchorage. The soft, vulnerable sounds are like clawing fingernails to a slate blackboard.
The boat’s inaugural passage is scheduled to depart at first light on an extended Down East cruise, and the nasty habit of young men biting off more than they should chew has landed you knee deep in a real pickle. I know you are seriously contemplating snatching up your duffle and sneaking away before the really bad stuff happens. The escape plan involves heading inland with an oar on your shoulder and not stopping until a stranger asks you why you are carrying such a big club.
This time-warping letter is a well-intentioned life-ring meant to ease your mind and sideline your fears about most of what lies ahead. Spoiler alert: You do survive your maiden attempt at command without loss of life or shipboard catastrophe, even though your razor-thin experience to date has been teaching young sailors to handle a Turnabout Dinghy in Gloucester Harbor and racing around buoys with the yacht club’s mid-week campaigners.
The learning curve will suddenly spike in the next few weeks and the long trek towards finding meaning, joy and competence in this unique lifestyle will begin.
My first advice to you tonight is a pretty straightforward truism from the legendary British yachtsman Peter Pye: “In order to be a sailor you have to go to sea.” You will use the lessons of the next few months to frame the operational stage of your passionate pursuit of how to do it all, better. These gut-born butterflies you are feeling right now before departing on your first voyage will never go away. Live with it. Second guessing yourself will become a lifelong creative exercise and watch mate.
Indiscretion is bound for Newport and beyond in a few hours, with your rookie crew and their green-to-the-gills captain. Let’s start on a positive note. The first thoughts you need to have as you coil the dock lines in the morning is that your very first voyage, as vexing and daunting as the future may well be, has begun with a guarantee of success. Fold your mind around the reality that during the next fifty years of your sailing experiences most voyages will evolve into the absurdly unexpected, with the vagaries of wind, wave, weather, mechanics, emergencies and the other irksome legions of troublesome things beyond your control mandating formidable options to your original plans.
Never say, even in polite conversation, that you are “sailing to” a distant port. You are making illogical certainties from frail assumptions and your chance of a successful outcome is the flip of coin. The correct term that encompasses your striving to have a survivors’ mindset is “bound for.” You have nailed the promise of the voyage by simply leaving port.
I don’t want to scare you silly with testosterone-laden sea tales of close calls you will have in the decades to come. Sailing is fairly simple when you can keep the pointy ends up and the water on the outside, but some wicked good stories come visiting with the absence of one or both of these conditions.
Suffice to say, you watch and learn from key teachers in real life situations. The nuts and bolts of the dozens of skill sets and time-proven techniques that help you turn the corner on a boat’s safety and survival against the worst the oceans throw at you are the hard currency of competence.
Pay attention to the simplest things on board that can go wrong. It’s the job. Being a pessimist is being prepared for what happens next. The trick is having the sense to laugh at yourself regardless. When stuff goes wrong you are proven totally right all along, or pleasantly surprised at your good fortune to be mistaken.
The toughest lesson you need to learn quickly is keeping the number one critical skill to survival constantly firing on all cylinders when the chips are down. You must practice the discipline to change your “now” to meet the unexpected as quickly as possible, and then keep changing your focus on the cascading series of real life events until you are out the other side of the problem.
In a crisis situation you need to leave behind the scolding voice in your head listing things that should have been done before this mess happened, which maliciously tag-teams with the fast-talking, whiney voice trying to pre-guess what disaster is coming next in the machine gun chaos of a squall on a dark night at sea. These thoughts are false friends and a huge waste of time. Your survival mantra will become three simple words, “Be Here Now,” a simple ditty that laser focuses your attention on the safety of crew and boat, and those decisive, spontaneous actions necessary to reach that goal.
You can practice this critical skill with every sail; pay attention, roll worst case scenarios and connect the dots. It is the job. Staying exclusively focused in the “now” during any life-threatening event dictates who survives, who doesn’t and why.
Neptune is an equal opportunity despot you will soon learn to give his due. In the years to come you will sail more miles and see more wild and wonderful places than you can imagine right now. Writing about what you see, experience and know-for-sure will become your life’s work. Where sailors gather to share their passion you will constantly be asked to recount the very worst of those salty, hard-won experiences with wind, wave, icebergs, hurricanes, rocks and dangerous ports-of-call.
You will share that in the years to come your most difficult experiences on boats will not be Neptune’s temper tantrums but making true shipmates out of those you sail with. A boat venturing off soundings brings out the very best and worst in those aboard. Packing a half dozen colorful, macho, multi-nurtured crew out of their natural element in a space the size of a horse stall, and adding to the mix sparse ventilation, dangerously taxing sea and wind, damp clothes, lumpy egos, a 24/7 work schedule and then shaking the contents like a bartender’s martini for days on end will often produce some knife-slasher-situation-comedies not made for primetime family television. It is a miracle that more boats don’t return to port a few offensive sailors short more often.
You will struggle to learn that real leadership is not a captain’s hat, palatial berth or a snappy order, but finding the magic open space between long-held opinions among strangers where reason, humor, or candor can slip in. Boats are not a playground or a playing field for ego. Tempers make unreliable shipmates. Coping as someone in charge in these situations is alchemy and not to be confused with science, discipline or psychology. A good hint towards success is to practice smiling affably when you don’t really mean it.
I can still taste the longing and frustration you felt just last week as you once again watched the permanently moored fleet from the veranda of the yacht club. All those go anywhere boats sitting year after year and quietly going nowhere. All you want, as a headstrong twenty-year old, is to sail away, yesterday, to that adventurous life you unearthed in the public library stacks at 910.45.
By trial and spectacular errors, you will slowly learn the nuances of ocean racers, square riggers, ocean cruisers, buoy racers, vintage classics and custom boats. Each cockle will capture your heart and teach you something important. You will learn from these “ladies” that beauty counts, preparation is lifelong, crews win races, leaving exotic seaports is always hard, take chances as a last resort, always move to the upper berth, single-pot cooking is an essential nautical skill and things left unsaid on a long voyage usually speak the loudest.
Luckily you will also always feel that special bootstrap-to-waist tingle of universal belonging when a close hauled boat under your seaboots heels to a gust. Along the way, boats will come and go in your life but one will fit like a glove and you will have her at the center of your compass for thirty-six years and counting. Your wish does come true.
Shipmates are the gold in the vein of this whole quest to diligently pursue the art and practice of seamanship. You will sail with, for, and against the notable icons of their day and each personality will be a landmark piece of work. A long, arduous race with a gang of complete strangers in a high latitude challenge will easily forge lifelong friendships. The same will be true of coastal cruising with your summer friends, watching their families grow alongside yours and slowly perfecting over the years the rituals of life aboard.
Do not neglect to make a yearly tapestry in the ship’s log of people, ports, anchorages, recipes and the best ice cream cone in Bar Harbor, available as a handy collective reference for all the special shipmates you know.
Survival research recognizes that there is a lifesaving motivational correlation between those facing unexpected calamity who share strong emotional ties in their life. It adds to your odds when you have people to “live for” when your fitness to survive at all costs is tested in extreme situations. Friends don’t let friends give up even if they are not present.
Luckily, over the next half century you will build a startling number of these anchors to hold on to if things go wrong. You and I do not expect our final words before meeting Davy Jones to be, “Gee, I wish I hadn’t spent so much time sailing with those I love.”
Oh yeah, along the same subject, you know that horse-crazy girl from St Lawrence you’re seeing? Don’t let her get away.
Sorry to startle you tonight with the realization that you will become an old opinionated fart like all those over-the-hill, know-it-all phonies you love to hate right now. Get over it.
You don’t die while heroically freeing a spinnaker debacle that saves the America’s Cup from the upstart Russians’ planning to move the precious silver chalice to Vladivostok. I know it’s tough to take advice from someone you just met, but, do us both a favor, start taking better care of yourself, think then leap and don’t do to excess all those things twenty-year-olds do in the sixties. It is our brain cells you are wasting.
On second thought, do it exactly how we are going to do it anyway, go to sea whenever you can, keep your friends close, respect the boats and those who sail them well, and don’t change a wrinkle. We will try to sort it all out for the best down the pike.