Monday, June 09, 2014

Review: Sailing a Serious Ocean

Sailing a Serious Ocean is John Kretschmer's memoir about 30 years of sailing as a delivery boat captain and off-shore passage instructor. Along the way, Kretschmer tries to teach about not just passage making, but also how to evaluate and buy a boat for such an adventure, what to do when the ocean becomes "serious", and recommends other books for deeper reading about storm tactics and so forth. But the real reason to buy and read this book is the stories, because while Kretschmer's an experienced sailor and probably a good instructor, he's a lousy technical writer.

Every chapter of the book's anchored by one or several anecdotes or stories. These are really exciting and impressive. When you set out specifically to teach off-shore passage making, your intention is to expose your crew mates (and yourself) to heavy weather sailing. The net result is that you're intentionally making poor sailing decisions like leaving port as a storm is starting. While Krestchmer doesn't go out of the way to tell you how harrowing the passage is, the events that happen tell the story. In every case, there's at least one incident which causes a flooded cockpit. In some cases, the hatch into the cabin was left open so the living space gets a deluge of water as well. (Kretschmer provides good reason as to why this was the case, so he's not entirely an incompetent skipper)

In one story, he tells of a daughter whose father is swept off the boat by a massive wave, and she can do nothing but watch as he drowns as she is unable to pull him back aboard. With reasonable humility, Kretschmer observes that he was more lucky than good: the other boat simply was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It's clear that Kreschmer has been everywhere, though this book focuses mostly on the Atlantic with a side-helping of the Mediterranean. While I'm unfamiliar with the Atlantic, I have sailed the Mediterranean, and I agree with his observations that you either get too little wind or too much wind, with nothing in between.

There's a significant bit of sailboat philosphy in the book, as Kretschmer tries to justify his love of off-shore passage making, which he knows is dangerous. Some of it is related to sailing:

Fear leads to inaction and then finally to panic, and that’s a deadly course to follow. The majority of sailing disasters result from boats and crews taking passive approaches to storm conditions. Staying engaged with the boat and the situation is the single most important heavy-weather tactic. You made the decision to go to sea and you own your decision. It’s your storm and you have to deal with it. You can’t just push the reset button.(Loc 2989-93)
Some of it is related to life, and why he deliberately chose a "career" that's fundamentally kept him relatively poor financially but rich in experience:

And time, the most precious commodity of all, far more valuable than gold, has been devalued as people are forced to squander it in a terribly backward equation—trading it for money. Just how crazy is that? Who, when their allotment of time is all but spent, would not trade every bit of gold for just a fraction more time?(Loc. 1755-57)
Kretschmer does note (and it's something that I've observed as well), that outdoor life and experience makes us all equal and honest. When you're on a sailboat with gale force winds coming down on you, it doesn't matter what your credentials or job title is, your life is on the line just as well as anybody else's is on the boat. You can't politically-maneuver out of storms, nor can you bluff your way down a mountain on a twisty windy descent. You either have the skills, mind-set, and ability to do so, or you don't. That's why those of us who regularly do outdoor activities have a more trusting and open mind-set than those who don't: when you regularly face natural disasters, more people are willing to help you with no agenda than when you're in the office facing the next performance review, and that can't help but spill over into the rest of your life as well.

The weakest part of the book is on the technical side. Kretschmer tries to teach you what kind of features to look for in a boat with blue-water aspirations, but with his many years of experience and hanging out with people familiar with technical jargon, he's not only unable to explain things clearly, he fails to start with engineering principles behind blue-water sailboats. For instance, he talks about how pretty a boat should look with its line and beam, but doesn't explain that a wide boat with spacious living quarters wouldn't handle well in a storm because the high waterline would provide too big a surface area for wind to catch and thereby hinder control in high winds. Instead, he praises the Contessa 32 as a submarine with a mast attached, leaving the reader to extract the principle of boat design from that metaphor.

Here's what I was able to extract from the book in that respect: you want a boat with the rudder amid-ships rather than at the end of the boat like performance cruisers have. The reason is when the boat's being pitched in steep seas, you'll end up with the rudder out of the water, which means you can't steer at precisely the most important time when steering is important. You want a boat with multiple sail plans, so sloops and cutters aren't that great, since roller furling head sails aren't very good when in a storm: chafing at the furling line could easily unfurl the sail at just the wrong time, and stay sails that are heavy and hank on are actually more reliable. Finally, you want as low a waterline as you can find to reduce windage. He claims that design is more important than construction, but really should have emphasized that design and construction are both incredibly important.

My biggest criticism of the book as such is that it appears Kretschmer has no experience sailing Catamarans, so he doesn't address that important topic. He also doesn't provide references to other books that would cover that gap. He addresses storm tactics in a fine and reasonable fashion, but again,  those are mostly restricted to the boats he's delivered and owned. The diagrams in the book are nice, but of course, next to useless on the Kindle version. (He does explain the The Perfect Storm was riddled with technical inaccuracies and was written by a landlubber, but fails to provide explanations of how you could tell)

All in all, the book's a fun read and enjoyable even if you're not a sailor, or even if you have no intention of ever making an off-shore passage. And if you do intend to make an off-shore passage, booking a passage with Kretschmer is probably a must-do.

My one caveat with this book is that if you do intend to make an off-shore passage at some point, by no means should you allow your spouse to read this book. You will absolutely not be allowed to go if that happens!


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