Suddenly Alone, Totally in Control

A Cruising Club of America program encourages crewmembers with basic skills to practice a set of procedures so they can be in charge when the captain no longer is

In more than a decade of sailing, plenty of it offshore, I’ve stood watch unaided by autopilot, hit the POS button on the GPS, and used a handheld VHF enough to know the routine. Yet always lurking in the back of my mind is this vague sense that, if something happens to Rick-my longtime companion and an accomplished, professional sailor-I really don’t know enough to make it home on my own. For his part, Rick looks back over the years and dismisses my fears, citing situations where I reacted smartly, whether aboard our old schooner or on the charter boat we ran in the Caribbean.

Last April, at a Cruising Club of America (CCA) Suddenly Alone seminar in Mystic, Connecticut, I discovered that these concerns aren’t mine alone. The CCA, founded in 1922 by sailors with a commitment to seamanlike offshore cruising and racing, had sent out a questionnaire to its 1,100 members asking the wives among them to list their main concerns about being aboard. The club received some surprising answers in more than 140 responses, and many came from women who’d sailed thousands of offshore miles over many years with their spouses.

One woman had raced 13 times in the CCA’s biennial Newport-Bermuda Race and said she wouldn’t know how to put a fix on a chart if she had all day to do it. Another said she wouldn’t know how to get her husband out of the water if he fell overboard. Such responses prompted the CCA and its charitable arm, the Bonnell Cove Foundation, to create a program to prepare crews to be more self-reliant in emergencies. In addition to the Mystic gathering I attended, a Chesapeake Suddenly Alone seminar also was held in Annapolis late last October.

The Crew Speaks Up

If Rick is correct-that I’ve risen to the occasion whenever necessary-then I argue that logic and circumstance, not a thorough knowledge of the situation, has enabled me to succeed. Participating in boathandling is far different from running the show. I’ve never been a captain; Rick has. However, he’s also a heavy smoker with increased potential for cardiovascular disease. If he has a heart attack, what do I do first: administer CPR, lower the main, or call the Coast Guard?

Rick and other expert sailors take my concerns lightly; "You’ll figure it out," they say. Yet, inevitably, I wind up with the feeling that it’s as much the business of the crew-my business-as it is of the skipper to ensure that everyone sees the big picture on a passagemaking boat.

Appropriately, the discussions that led to the creation of the daylong Suddenly Alone seminars and its accompanying workbook took place afloat, while CCA members returned from the 2000 Newport-Bermuda Race and, later, during a summer cruise on the Saint John River in New Brunswick, Canada. Within months, a committee had formed, and core materials for the workbook were outlined. Word of the Suddenly Alone seminar went out in January 2001. By the time the April event took place, all 240 seats had been filled, and the waiting list had swelled to 19.

Practice, Practice

The CCA members I encountered that day were eager to learn the ropes. The audience was 75 percent couples; the crowd appeared to be split evenly between men and women. One woman told me that although she’s often at the helm and has wanted to practice bringing the boat into the dock, her husband is an excellent sailor who easily handles their sloop on his own. "It’s never a good day for me to dock or get the diesel," she said. "Either the wind’s not right or there’s not enough time." But today there was.

"It’s time to swap positions," said seminar coordinator and retired U.S. Navy Captain Ron Trossbach. Trossbach, a longtime CCA member who helped create Suddenly Alone, then described the workbook contents. Cruising couples would acquire these skills only by cooperating with each other and by practicing the task lists, he said. CCA members Tom and Cissie Keogh of Old Lyme, Connecticut, new owners of a Frers ketch, had done most of their sailing aboard a New York 40, and for a decade this kind of teamwork had eluded them. "We’ve been cruising long distances for 10 years," Tom told me. "My wife’s already learned things today that I never taught her." Most of the couples at the seminar, including the Keoghs, attended the workshops together.

A faculty composed mostly of experienced women sailors -licensed captains Jennifer Haddock and Sheila McCurdy and seasoned voyagers Harriet Linskey and Nancy McKelvy-made introductory remarks. U.S. Coast Guard Captain Phillip J. Heyl, commandant of cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, in New London, Connecticut, spoke about communications and the proper usage of distress signals.

How It Works

Suddenly Alone isn’t a program for new sailors. "It’s assumed that participants in this seminar have had some experience in cruising-in many cases, years of cruising-but no experience as a captain," the workbook’s introduction says. "It’s not designed for persons with no experience." The seminars and workbook focus on the areas that CCA wives cited in the questionnaire as major onboard concerns should the captain be immobilized.

Besides the main issues-stabilizing the situation and getting the boat under control, communicating with other vessels or with land, finding the way to a safe harbor, and recovering a person who has fallen overboard-partners wrote that they wanted a basic knowledge of first aid and CPR. The committee, however, chose to restrict the focus to direct boating issues. Nevertheless, the workbook’s resource lists, bibliography, and reprinted articles will help seminar attendees pursue related sailing topics and training programs.

Certificates of completion and post-seminar feedback forms were mailed to all participants in the Mystic Suddenly Alone event. Among other questions, respondents were asked how the workbook task lists had influenced their sailing experiences during the summer following the seminar. Input received was applied to the format of the second Suddenly Alone seminar held in Annapolis, Maryland, in October.

"You haven’t really completed this seminar unless you’ve gone through the task lists and physically done each task," continues the workbook’s introduction. The task lists offered here are summarized, don’t replace the workbook, and don’t reflect the full body of material covered in the seminar. The CCA seminars are open to the public, and groups are encouraged to hold their own seminars according to the club’s guidelines and parameters. For details, contact the CCA (Ron Trossbach, seminar coordinator; 703-403-8408, www.cruis ingclub.org or e-mail saseminar@aol.com).

Elaine Lembo is Cruising World’s managing editor.