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Sometimes the most important learn-to-sail lesson is to play nice

2023 June 1

In the process of learning to sail, there is one thing that is not often taught yet it is extremely important. It falls somewhere between learning to duck your head on a jibe (ouch) and not getting your fingers in the winch (double ouch). It can be described with a single word.


At least, that’s what it was called in my generation. Today it might be dismissed as courtesy. My mother would have called it good manners (and whacked me upside the head if I forgot it). 

We live in a world of “all-about-me” where rudeness or bad manners are the norm. This is a (favorite) rant for another time and place, but how often do people walk through a door ahead of you and let it slam in your face? 

This is SAILING Magazine, however, and we’re learning to sail. There are unspoken rules not unlike rules of etiquette ashore and these were once handed down from experienced skippers to first timers.

Today’s novices often head out on the waterways absent any sense of manners. In the highly structured curricula of sailing schools and in learn-to-sail books, there is never a class or a chapter that would summarize the edict given by your mother on your way to school: “Play nice with the other kids!” 

Item: Long ago, I was entering a harbor on a charter boat and I didn’t know the area. I cruised around a bit, looking for the whiteness of sand in the darkness of the grassy bottom that would hold my anchor, when a man on an anchored boat waved me down. “Hang on a minute,” he shouted, “I’ll show you a good spot.” He hopped into his tender and rowed off to one side (rowing shows how long ago this was!) and pointed down. There was a perfect spot that would grab our anchor and hold us worry-free through the night. That was a random act of courtesy that I would remember forever, and now I’m the one who points out a good spot to newcomers (although I no longer row). 

One of the first things I learned at the hands of an experienced skipper, who gave me a treasured crew spot on his 6-Meter, was to help others. The first time, we were sitting in our marina slip enjoying the end of a day of racing when another boat headed for a slip nearby. Several of our crew jumped up and our skipper looked at me and said, “Get off your duff, come on!” We helped the other boat to a perfect landing in spite of crosswinds and secured his lines, coiling them tidily. I still get off my duff to help people into docks.

Sound is another thing, especially in a quiet anchorage. I love the song, but I can only hear “Cheeseburger in Paradise” so many times. Keep your stereo to yourself, keep your kids from screaming, use your generator when it won’t be a bother and muzzle the barking dog. Play nice.

When you’re anchoring, remember that “first come, first served” means that all boats arriving in a harbor follow the lead of the first boat, dropping either a single anchor or bow-and-sterns. The law says that the first boat (even when anchored) has the right of way, so don’t anchor right next to someone and expect them to move. Especially in the wee hours. Play nice.

Be a good neighbor at the dock, too. The above sound edicts apply, as well as keeping your hose and shore cord tidy so no one trips. Coil up the tail of your docklines, too. Play nice.

Keep your wake down, don’t crowd the line at the gas dock, and look downwind to see who the smoke from your grill (or your exhaust if you’re running your engine) is going to asphyxiate. Play nice.

Don’t ever yell at your crew, especially in times of crisis. It doesn’t help, and usually confuses things.  

Play nice.