Seamanship Skills

Learning the Ropes: Growing up on the Water with Dad

boat under sail, sailboat with sails up

Father and daughter enjoying the benefits of all their hard work.

While most kids were thrown into camps during the summer, my dad thought it was more important for me to spend time on the water. Throughout my childhood, he encouraged me to catch and kill crabs, tie bowline knots one-handed, read a compass, and even scrape peeling varnish. Each summer we spent a month exploring Desolation Sound, the Broughton Archipelago or the Gulf Islands; the same waters in which his parents cruised when he was a kid.

My dad encouraged me to get messy and try new things. He saw my need for speed and let me take the tender out in the harbor for joy rides. Soon, my favorite activity was throttling up and launching off the wake of other boats cruising by. By the time I reached my teens, after circumnavigating Vancouver Island, I was beginning to understand the importance of self-sufficiency while cruising. I understood why my dad’s hands were always calloused and blackened, why scuba diving is not just for pleasure but a skill that can come in handy in stressful situations and that the sound of the crackling weather forecast on the VHF isn’t just an annoying alarm in the mornings.

Real-World Experience

I was 15 when my family sailed to Mexico. By this time I wanted to contribute more as a crew member. My dad titled me captain of the dinghy on surf landings and even gave me the responsibility of a two-hour night watch. I began to ask more questions. On this trip, my dad taught me how to read the wind, set the mainsheet, and even fix the bent wind indicator at the top of the mast. He saw my desire to scuba dive, which of course led to teaching me how to change the sacrificial anodes. The world was at my increasingly calloused fingertips.

family eating on a boat, yacht dinette

The author grew up sailing in the summers with her parents.

Being a west coast child of the ’60s and ’70s, my dad grew up pouring through Robin L. Graham’s story of Dove. He passed on Dove and Tania Aebi’s Maiden Voyage to me, which I too eagerly consumed. Decades apart, we were both inspired by the same words; both shaped by the stories of adventure and the time on the local coastal waters below that now laps at our hulls.

Tackling the Pacific

A few years later, I found myself missing the freedom of being on the water. It seemed that my dad and I were both having the same thoughts running through our heads. After he acquired a 34’ (10.36 m) Islander, my dad called me out of the blue, asking “Do you want to sail to Hawaii with me?”

Over the next couple of months, the romanticism of crossing the Pacific turned into reality; this was my chance to learn as much as I could from him. Perhaps, I too could embark on my own journey one day. My dad did his best to try to teach me the basics while we refitted the boat, but still, there were holes in my understanding. He tasked me on jobs and I happily did what I was told. I worked alongside my dad to paint the hull, install the liferaft and I was the only one who could fit in the small space of the lazarette to help untangle some wiring. Meanwhile, he worked on installing a new engine and ensured we had spare parts for everything.

eating on a sailboat, dining at sea

Catching fish and preparing it for dinner that evening is a big accomplishment for new cruisers.

This time we didn’t have the safety of the coast beside us; we left our home waters of British Columbia with butterflies in our stomachs, pointing out to open ocean. My dad taught me many things that trip. He showed me how to make micro-adjustments to the self-steering device, how to read the clouds so I could reduce canvas before the next squall hit and the importance of routine checks on the deck looking for chafing and rigging wear.

Learning on the Fly

Some of it we learned together, like the time we discovered that we had installed the U-vent for the head too low, resulting in a literal poop deck. With only a boat and an endless horizon for 25 days, I was forced to learn from my own errors as well, which included when I turned the battery switch to “off” instead of “1” while the engine was running. I didn’t even know what an alternator was until that tense moment. Amidst the never-ending movement of the swells that rolled beneath us, I managed to teach myself a few things too. I learned how to reef the main while solo on night watch, how to trim the sails to get the most out of the wind, and even managed to successfully make tuna tacos from freshly caught fish.

We returned home early September with a few more smile lines, many stories to tell, and still, a yearning to head south. My dad offered to sell me the Islander shortly after our return. He told me that if I was going to be a boat owner, I would have to take responsibility for all the components. I still didn’t feel ready; could I really be responsible for maintaining my own boat? He sold it to another eager buyer and life went on.

sailboat on the hard, sailboat on stands, Prepping sailboat for storage

The best way to learn how to tackle new challenges is by taking a hands-on approach.

Taking the Plunge

Six months later, I still couldn’t shake the dream. After many calls to my dad, I decided to purchase my own sailboat. He sent me ads to look at and came with me to carefully inspect each one. He helped me write a list of things I should look for and with that criteria, it didn’t take too long for me to find a boat that called my name.

We eagerly tackled projects together, but the time crunch so I could move aboard resulted in him having to finish some of the projects without me. I returned from a work trip to find a new AC and DC electrical system along with a hefty marine store bill. The realities of boat ownership were setting in, yet my excitement wasn’t easily discouraged. My dad and I spent the next few months with our heads in the engine room. He patiently taught me how to change hose clamps, fuel filters and walked me through how the salt water cooling system works. I asked questions with the goal of fixing and maintaining it without him. I’d never felt so proud.

On Her Own

My first sailboat taught me much. Like when the salt-water pump belt slipped. Between my newly learned knowledge of the salt-water cooling system and my dad’s helpful voice over the phone, I was able to continue on with my voyage. My learning progress was slow, but I was becoming more comfortable with small fixes and the overall upkeep of my little home.

prepping to sand a boat, maintaining a sailboat

The author preparing to remove bottom paint from her boat at the end of the season.

It didn’t take me long to realize my little boat wasn’t the one to take me south; I needed a boat I could to rely on. My dad sent me home with a small library of books to read and I studied each book carefully, trying to absorb as much information as possible. This time I went to look at the boat myself, with the inspection list I had previously made. I carefully scrutinized a Jason 35 with my checklist in hand and decided she was the one for me. After the purchase, my dad came with me on my first time day-sail with her. He talked me through reversing out of the tight spot with a full keel boat. I hauled her out shortly after for fresh bottom paint. He reliably showed up at the boatyard with a trunk load of tools and ardently showed me how to grind down fiberglass and paint the bottom.

After a summer of sailing, I pulled the boat for the winter. Dad kindly offered his yard as her new home. He gave me access to his shop, patiently taught me how to use the power tools and together we started on my list of projects. As we started pulling cupboards apart and rebuilding the galley, I realized that my confidence was growing. I was tackling each project with a plan, rather than simply relying on my dad to tell me what steps were needed. Soon I found myself covered in epoxy, paint and fiberglass dust, tackling projects by myself on weekends my parents were using their boat. I’d never felt so accomplished.

As I work toward sailing south I know that my dad won’t always be able to be there for me when I’m stuck. Of all the lessons he has taught me, the most important is that the best way to learn is by making mistakes. I don’t hesitate for a second knowing that I will be making plenty of those over the years.

woman on sailboat, woman sailor

The author has evolved into an accomplished sailor.

8 Tips I learned from my Dad

1. Take the time to pre-plan. Some of my best projects and ideas have come from a napkin while having our morning coffee. Draw out the idea, plan with a few days ahead and stop to think before you jump into each project.

2. Have at least three projects on the go. This means you are more efficient ordering parts and when you get stuck on one project (like waiting for paint to dry or the right part to arrive), you can move onto the next one without wasting time having to run to the store.

3. Measuring is a skill. I took for granted how important accurate measuring is when purchasing parts for my boat, until being an eighth of an inch off and having to spend $100 more on hoses that I had just bought an hour earlier. I’ve now learned that accuracy is key (and a caliper is a useful tool).

4. Leverage is your friend. Being a female means that I naturally don’t have as much muscle power as some, but there are always ways to get creative. Using long-handled screwdrivers and socket wrenches to increase leverage on rusty old bolts and hose clamps has made me feel like Popeye the sailor. A breaker bar helps, too.

woman in engine room, sailboat engine room

Sometimes being petite makes it easier to squeeze into an engine room.

5. Creativity is key when on a budget. I may not have all the fancy tools that fill the walls and cupboards of my dad’s shop, but by using a bit more patience, creative thinking and spare bits from other projects, I have come up with some great solutions to projects like my decking and storage systems.

6. Function over form. The key to being a self-sufficient sailor is to be practical and prepared. For example, having an organized tool cabinet that takes valuable storage space is much more important than, well, pretty much everything else on board.

7. There is no such thing as being finished This lesson was taught to me when I was 10 when we spent the summer cruising on my parents mastless Formosa 51 that was halfway through a refit. At some point, the tools should be stowed away and the lines should be tossed ashore. After all, isn’t another name for cruising fixing boats in different places?

8. You don’t have to fit the stereotype Sailing and owning a boat can be an intimidating endeavor. Some sailors, like my dad, have degrees in engineering or perhaps have spent years working on fish boats. Some are retired or maybe just have a disposable income. We all share the same desire to be on the water and just because someone doesn’t fit the stereotype of an old salt, doesn’t mean they are not capable (or capable of learning).

Article courtesy of Pacific Yachting magazine