Seamanship Lessons From a Yacht Captain – Boating

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There’s a lot to learn from a day with the professional yacht captain.

September 30, 2021

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Captains at the helm
Spending time with a seasoned captain can help you hone your skills. John Linn

Despite the trademark high winds of Chicago, the afternoon -summer sun beat down on my face while out on Lake Michigan. Squinting while wearing sunglasses, I fixed my eyes on the buoys as I navigated a 75-foot yacht. During my day of instruction with Capt. Kelly Gordon, she allowed me to take the wheel of the largest vessel I’d ever run in nine years of boating.

Over the last year or so, there has been quite an influx of -boaters joining the particular community. This influx includes seasoned participants and novices, popping up in major port cities like Newport, Rhode Island; Miami, Florida; and Chicago, where Gordon mans a privately owned 75-foot Sunseeker. Gordon often catches these new boat owners trying to tackle the cerulean waters of Lake Michigan, as well as the locks. While a female yacht captain might be a rare sight on the water, Gordon offers seen the best and worst associated with the influx, and too often, she witnesses couples having arguments, detracting through what should be the pleasurable experience. I know this all too nicely, and early on, the time on the water with my fiancé was quite the test. He had more experience than me, and it took quite some time for him to relinquish control and allow me to be his first mate.

Gordon, who splits time between Chicago and Fort -Lauderdale, would love in order to see more women upon the water, and she believes a good starting point is for lovers to learn how to work together. Boating is the perfect opportunity in order to build trust with your partner, and it offers a proud collaborative effort that can help build a strong bond. It’s also a sexy pastime. A good place to start, Gordon believes, is including your own partner in the basics.


“This season, a lot of boats have been sold, typically anywhere from a 30- to 50-foot range. I also see quite the few couples renting boats, and there is a lot of yelling, ” she tells me. “I can’t stress enough how important communication is for safety and success on the water. ”

Checking systems before heading out
Pre-departure checks include checking all associated with the fluid levels. John Linn

Starting Points

I get our first taste of how a good -captain operates by watching Gordon and her first mate, Gianna Mesi. They communicate with few words and have developed a rhythm that works for them. From the moment I step on the Sunseeker, I see this. While Gordon takes me into the -engine compartment, Mesi is outside checking the fenders and disconnecting the water line. We wonder if this process was always this smooth, or if I’m watching the result of years of cooperation.

Launching may go more smoothly when tasks are delegated. Gordon likes to start her departure with fluid inspections. “For your pre-departure engineering checks, you will check on the fluids within the main engines, as well as the antifreeze level, and the oil in the genset. ” Gordon also checks the particular oil in the transmissions, then she glances at all of the hose clamps to make sure there are no leaks and that nothing looks loose. She also bank checks the through-hull fittings with regard to cracks, water stains, plus any other signs that will they need to be replaced. Last, the girl looks for clogged strainers. If they are clogged, then the basket can be pulled out and cleaned.


Once these tasks are complete and she’s ready to launch, the lady switches power from the shore power to the generator. On the Sunseeker, that is as easy as pushing a button on a screen because it provides a smart genset. “The genset senses when you start the generator, and it’ll switch from shoreline power to generator power, ” Gordon explains. “Once you hear the air kick back on, the generators have taken over. ” After I pushed the “power off” switch, I listened as the particular air conditioners shut down, then whizzed back on.

For a boat without a smart genset, Gordon recommends -turning off heavier loads, like the air conditioning. Then you’d -disconnect shore power plus fire up the electrical generator.

Launching Tasks

  • Check engine oil, antifreeze, transmission and genset, if applicable.
  • Check line clamps for looseness or drips.
  • Make sure strainers aren’t blocked.
  • Switch from shore power to generator power, if applicable.
  • File a float plan to let others know where you’ll be.
  • Do a safety review along with any guests.
Casting off docklines
Dividing up the pre-launch work ensures easy sailing. John Linn

A good idea for couples would be for one to handle some of the checks, like pulling the dipsticks within the engine, and regarding one to be upon the dock, ready to untie lines, pull up fenders, and disconnect the particular shore-power cords. With one partner around the dock, there are more eyes in order to ensure a smooth departure. Aboard this boat, Mesi handles the dockside jobs, working in sync with her chief and calling out commands that they both understand. “She and I possess been working together for the about three many years now, so we’re getting to the point where she can just read my body language, look at my face, and she’ll know what it is I want, and I think ultimately that’s the goal to get to as a couple. There’s never any yelling or obtaining loud. ” Before officially launching, the crew should all do a safety check before departure. That crunch when a potential includes making certain there is a life vest for every passenger.


Gordon also files a float plan prior to leaving, then checks in with that crunch when a potential person upon return.

Cruising out on the lake
Piloting from your flybridge gives a clear view. Steve Linn

Cool Runnings

As we embarked, I was reminded that will time within the water will be for pleasure. Gordon plus I set out through the marina at the flybridge, which is exactly where she has the best view of her surroundings. Once we were away of Burnham Harbor, Mesi joined us. After all of the times they’ve been out on Lake Michigan, they were still impressed by the particular miles of blue reminiscent of the -Bahamas. I actually was thinking, All of this beauty in the middle associated with the US ?

As we encountered some boat traffic, Gordon informed me that vessels with limited maneuverability have got the right of way. “Unfortunately, too many boaters do not understand the right of way. So, I drive defensively. ” Aggressive driving is just as bad, if not worse, on the water. A second set of eyes helps, and the pair watched for other vessels getting too close.


“When you are bigger, you must realize that you can cause more harm to others, ” Gordon adds. “Being aware of your surroundings and being patient with novice boaters is usually so important. ”

Still, captains can’t ignore the increase in accidents more than the last year, which also coincides with the particular influx of new boaters. “Again, I want to emphasize the importance of communication, ” Gordon says. “The more hectic it gets, the calmer I am, and that’s kind of a place you want to become yourself. ”

Boater at the helm
A lot of folks get so reliant on the technology that they actually forget to look out the windshield in front of them. John Linn

One task is adjusting your radar, but furthermore not being overly reliant on it. “Remember that radar doesn’t pick up every target, so you always have to maintain a proper lookout, ” Gordon warns. “My eyeballs are constantly scanning the chart plotter and radar. I look in my dash, and after that I look at what’s in front of me, and I just continually go through that cycle. I think a great deal of folks get therefore reliant for the technology that they actually forget to look out the windshield in front of them. ”

She recommends adjusting the radar in diets case of rain or choppy conditions, as well because high-traffic days. This is definitely because it can also protect you in case the smaller vessel, like a sailboat, is without radar and doesn’t show upward on your screen. If you have the capability, use a split screen for a close-up adnger zone and one farther out there. Fiberglass boats are furthermore sometimes not picked up.

Cruising Tasks

  • Adjust radar settings and scan it frequently.
  • Don’t rely solely upon your radar, your chart plotter or other electronics for what’s happening in the water.
  • Keep your eye scanning the water at all times.

Stopping Time

After a short cruise on the stunning waters of lower River Michigan, Gordon decided in order to demonstrate another crucial yet overlooked boating skill: Properly dropping anchor. Even with today’s modern technologies found on most large boats, specifically a windlass, anchoring is not as simple as finding a good spot plus hitting a button. The anchoring process starts by pointing your bow into the wind before dropping. The boat will probably blow backward, and facing the wind will -ensure that it holds.

Gordon notices many boaters making one major mistake. “I see people having trouble dragging because they don’t put out enough chain, ” she says. “Proper scope for anchoring can be 7-to-1. So you want seven times the string out as what the particular water depth is now, and within heavier winds, you’re going to need a little more chain. ” For example, if the vessel is in 10 feet of water, you would need about 70 feet of anchor line.

Gordon’s anchor lessons came from a senior captain. Another piece of advice he gave her: In a crowded anchorage, to avoid too much swing, choose a 5-to-1 ratio. “You can never go wrong with 7-to-1, though, ” she explains. After she drops anchor, she pulls back just a touch so that will the line isn’t too long. For temporary anchorage for swimming, she still recommends 7-to-1. In the storm or rough seas, you might have in order to expand your scope to hold. If anyone will be getting in to the water, you must have flags alerting other boats.

For manual anchors, Gordon recommends the chief assign a mate to drop and set this if possible so that the captain can maintain control of the boat. Don’t kill the engines until you’re sure the point is set securely.

Set It Right

  • Try to anchor upwind if at all possible.
  • Use a 7-to-1 anchor scope under typical circumstances, and make sure there’s enough chain to prevent anchor drag.
Passing under a bridge
Commercial traffic has priority, then government traffic, then recreational. John Linn

Locked and Loaded

Gordon also gave us a lesson on navigating channel locks, something I’ve in no way encountered back home in southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. But there’s one at the entrance of the Chicago River, and it offered an opportunity to show a scenario experienced by many boaters around the country. Before we entered the lock, Mesi prepared us by giving everyone a life jacket, which must be worn as you lock-through.

There’s an order for who gets to lock-through first. “Commercial traffic has priority, then -government traffic, after that we’re last since we’re recreational, ” Gordon describes. She pointed to the traffic light and said that yellow allows concern traffic. We’d have to wait for the green to  -enter.

When arriving, a sweet border collie greeted us and gave us the signal in order to enter. Well, the dog’s job was actually to chase away birds, but she worked overtime from the lock operator’s side.

In locks where it is necessary to tie off while they raise and lower the drinking water levels, make sure you have proper fenders and your own dock lines just in case. It’s also recommended to have some long-handled boat hooks in order to retrieve your lines -after the water -raises or even lowers.

Locking Tips

  • Life jackets are mandatory.
  • Commercial and government vessels have priority, and recreational boaters go last.
  • Bring fenders, and have your own lines and motorboat hooks.
  • Abide the lockmaster’s guidance.
Docking a large boat
Preparing intended for docking before heading out can make the particular return easier. John Linn

Bringing this Home

After an incredible day on the water, Gordon let us understand it was time to head home. As we made our way back to the marina, she mentioned that sometimes the end of the day is certainly actually the toughest.

Docking can be the ultimate test for couples or new boaters, especially if they are taking out friends who provide distractions. We’ve all been there. Everyone is loud and the music is bumping, so hypervigilance is necessary to keep everyone safe and in order to avoid any damage to your boat. Developing a docking strategy is ideal. -Gordon says the best thing 1 can do is practice. “Find someone who is seasoned, that you’re comfortable with, plus maybe even ask for lessons. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are usually plenty of captains who else offer that service, ” she advises.

Gordon encourages preparing for docking prior to takeoff. -Figuring out where you’ll keep your fenders and lines will make tying up much more seamless. Some prefer to leave at least one line behind to use in order to catch the boat in high winds.

As Gordon slowly pulled into the marina, then close to the slip, Mesi began calling out distances from the particular dock to the swim platform and to the port side, since well as the pilings separating the -Sunseeker from its neighbor on the starboard side. “Three feet! ” Mesi yells. Then, “One foot! ”

I’d never thought to shout distances or even anything other than “You’re too close! ” or “You’re going to hit the dock! ” (Don’t judge me. ) But hearing their conversation enlightened me.

Gordon adjusts the throttles and pays attention to which direction the marina flags are blowing. “You really need to check and see what your own winds and currents are usually doing so that a person know how to compensate, ” she says. “When I come in, I always look to get a flag to see in what path I’m going to get blown. ” Many people cut off their motorboats when pulling into the slip, but Gordon strongly recommends keeping the ship running until you are tied up. “Otherwise, you won’t have any manage over the boat, ” she says.

After Gordon flawlessly settled the boat into its slip, Mesi worked quickly to secure it with the lines and fenders. And with that, we were home safe and sound. Personally, I learned much from my day that I’m going to take in order to my home waters. In case nothing else, over the drinking water it’s vital to remember: Teamwork is dreamwork.

Docking Tasks

  • Practice before taking your boat away for the first time.
  • Develop a system with your partner that works and that you both understand.
  • Compensate pertaining to wind direction and current.


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