What exactly is seamanship?

Dictionary.com defines Seamanship as “knowledge and skill pertaining to the operation, navigation, management, safety, and maintenance of a ship.”

I’d argue that Seamanship is a lot more than “just” this. I’d argue that all of us who go on the water rely on our own skills to safely manage and maintain our craft. (regardless of what that craft is) But, the nature of our activity means something can always break or conditions can unexpectedly change. With this in mind, there can be situations for everyone when some assistance may be very well appreciated. For this reason, I’d argue that an aspect of seamanship is observation, observation on our own craft to see where problems might occur but, also observation around us to see who might be in need of assistance.

50 knots of wind may not be conditions that everyone aspires to going out in, but it’s only through getting experience in an environment where you have support from other water users that makes surviving such conditions possible.

From a very young age, I’ve been aware of the need for all water users to look out for each other. To be safe on the water it is important to gain as much experience as possible, but to gain that experience we sometimes need to challenge ourselves. This is a catch 22 situation where the less experienced can greatly benefit from the possibility to go out and stretch their wings with the more experienced being in a position to come and assist should things get a bit too much.

Anyone can lose their mast and help will always be appreciated
If something doesn’t look quite right, then go and see if you can offer assistance. The next time it might be you who needs help.

Over the years I’ve been on both sides of this equation where I’ve been able to stretch my wings in challenging conditions under the watchful eye of more experienced sailors/windsurfers/boat handlers and in turn as I got more experienced I’ve also been in a position to help others who might from time to time need it. For me, this is a self-explanatory part of seamanship and something that ultimately connects everyone who goes on the water.

Mountain Craft vs Seamanship

In Mountain sports and particularly ski touring there is the concept of “Comraden Rettung” which basically means to be rescued by your peers. This is due to the fact that the survival chances of someone being rescued from an avalanche decrease drastically after 15 minutes. The only real chance of survival is when the others in a group (or those in nearby groups) immediately start the rescue before the arrival of the emergency services. Everyone going ski touring is equipped to locate and dig out someone buried in an avalanche to reduce the rescue time as much as possible and thus give someone who might be buried the best possible survival chance.

Safety training is an integral part of mountain sports
In mountain sports it’s normal to train and carry safety equipment to be able to help others when things don’t go according to plan. (Picture from an Avalanche Safety Course with Swiss Alpine Adventure)

The English Royal Yachting Association (RYA) teaches in their “Safety Boat Course” that every capsized boat should be attended within only 3 minutes. This is due to the fact that someone lying face down unconscious under an upturned boat could suffer brain damage within 3 minutes. How many water users actually think to go and check if everything is ok if they see something not quite right with another boat or board on the water?

With this in mind, I would argue that peer rescue is just as important on the water as it is in the mountains. As an ex RYA Safety Boat instructor it just does not sit well on my conscience to watch someone in difficulty on the water and not try to help.

Furthermore, in the UK and Ireland, those driving safety boats in sailing clubs and schools go and practice regularly different situations they might encounter when operating in fleet or free sailing environments.

Share the stoke - we all use the same playground let's play nicely together
Windsurfer, sailor, kitesurfer, SUPer or anything else. We are all in the same boat and share the same environment. Look for the similarities between our sports and share the playground rather than look for the differences.

The reality (of late)

Over the last few years, I’ve been surprised at the number of situations I’ve seen where something has not appeared as it should and those in the immediate vicinity do not go to help.

The first one that springs to mind is a number of years ago windsurfing on the Urnersee. Someone’s sail and board separated and they were swimming in the middle of the lake trying to hold their equipment together while people went past both directions without casting a second glance. I sailed past, saw what was going on, gybed back to her and stopped to put her equipment together so that she could enjoy the rest of her session. I couldn’t believe that no-one who had sailed past before me hadn’t stopped to help.

Sailing together in Switzerland on Dart 18 Catamrans
Strength in numbers, watersports are more fun when shared with others and it’s much safer if we maintain contact with each other.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a one-off situation. I’ve found myself either directly going to assist people (when others have been much closer to me) or trying to motivate others to go and check on people on the water quite a few times of late.

I’m not sure if it’s a societal or a cultural issue, but recently I feel that there just doesn’t seem to be an attitude of looking out for other people when we are on the water. This actually makes me quite nervous. Despite being the person who has gone to help in a number of situations I can not guarantee that at some point I won’t need the help from someone nearby and as things are these days you just can not count on the fact that those around you will come to help.

Newspaper Article - Catamaran assists kitesurfer
Catamaran Sailors give a kitesurfer a ride home when the wind drops. We are all in the same boat on the water irrespective of what equipment we use.

What should we do?

I could write a whole litany of situations here where I have observed a lack of “seamanship” in the last couple of years, but instead, I would rather just appeal to everyone who goes on the water on any type of craft, sailboat, windsurf, kitesurf, SUP boards or motorboats to keep an eye on each other and if something doesn’t look quite right perhaps make it a habit to quickly go and ask if everything is ok or not. Maybe once you’ll be glad that someone might do it for you. I know my day will come where I will be glad if someone will ask me if I’ll need help.

On the water we are all in the same boat

let’s pull together and make a good crew!



Originally from the South of Ireland. An ex-watersports instructor who found my way to land locked Switzerland via Maui. I try to get wet and salty as often as possible.


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