So what does this have to do with a sailing blog? There are a lot of similarities between flying and sailing, and I'm not referring to the oft-cited bit about the sail being like an airplane wing. I'm referring to crew and cockpit management. I'm referring to inexperience, and I'm referring to fear. In the Facebook group Women Who Sail that I belong to, I hear the stories over and over again, those of some nightmarish docking attempt, or a passage gone bad. While flying speeds leave you less time to deal with issues that come up, sailing emergencies require the same type of response. You must be trained to respond automatically, to quickly assess the issues at hand and to choose the appropriate response to yield the result of safety. Since many sailors are relatively new, like I was in the cross country trip described above, they are frequently lacking those response skills. Fear abounds. The trick, whether flying or sailing, is to follow the Rule of Three.
Major problems almost always begin as a progression of small events that, coupled together, begin the downward spiral of loss of control. Stop the progression, and you most likely will stop the event. Any irregularity that makes you uncomfortable, that makes you stop and take notice, should be considered one of the three. On past flights, we've had an instrument go out. No big deal as there are usually backups, but we still chalk it up as an event. Not too long after the instrument failure there might be some unexpected weather showing. Second event. Shortly after that you might develop a headache. Event three. At this point we always find a place to land. Three strikes you're out. On a slow-moving sailboat, there might not be any place to "land" nearby, but you can find an open piece of water and heave-to. Or if the event in question happens while trying to dock, you can leave the harbor and anchor for a bit, or heave-to, giving yourself time to take a break and regroup. If you're leaving for a long passage and the three happen early in the trip, you have the option of turning around and going back, waiting for another weather window.
The success of the Rule of Three depends very heavily on you being situationally aware, and in addition to inattention, it can be hijacked by pride and, more often, by a pressing adherence to a schedule. It can be very humbling to abort a docking maneuver with a dock lined with fellow sailors. You can also be pressured into doing something you're not comfortable with because the daughter you haven't seen for a year is waiting at the airport for you to pick her up. You must make a commitment at the onset to follow the Rule of Three. All crew members must agree to it, and no one may challenge a crew's assessment of an event as being one of the three. If anyone is unhappy, it affects the whole crew.
Clearly there are some catastrophic events that happen that are completely out of our control. Take the anchored sailboat that was slammed into at Elliot Key in Biscayne Bay a few years ago - drunk boater in a very fast-moving boat and zero chance of avoiding the accident. In those cases, just as in a flying emergency, remember to always sail the boat first. There's a tendency to freeze, to panic, but get control of the boat first before you stop to assess the situation. Those catastrophic events are clearly another level of discomfort, but committing to follow the Rule of Three is a sure-fire way to maximize your safety and comfort.
I did safely return to my home airport that day. My instructor was pleased, and I had chalked up a learning experience that would also help me in my sailing adventures. The Rule of Three is an easy piece of safety equipment to add to your boat. So the next time you hear in your thoughts...