Written by April Winship
January 2022
Finally splashed and in a slip - bought a boat - marinalife
Finally splashed and in a slip | April Winship

Trial by fire… that’s not exactly how I envisioned gaining my introductory seamanship skills. I enthusiastically signed on as an inexperienced crewmember aboard a tiny sailboat bound for Tahiti, even though I had never been on an overnight passage before. “In for a penny, in for a pound” came to mind during the 32-day nonstop romp across the Pacific Ocean. After two years of hitchhiking on several boats throughout these enchanted isles, I was hooked on the cruising lifestyle. My love of sailing never faded, and in time my husband Bruce and I bought our own spartan catamaran to carry our young family to distant shores. Now, several decades later we find ourselves empty nesters, retired and once again preparing for the next chapter, this time aboard our new-to-us 34-foot trawler, Rogue One.

To find a boat perfectly suited for our cruising plans was thrilling, but even before the celebratory champagne bubbles had a chance to tickle my nose, I knew I wanted my introduction to the trawler life to be a bit more methodical than my first impetuous ocean crossing. My mind began turning over a couple of very serious questions:

  • How do we gain the basic knowledge of operating and maintaining the mechanical and electrical systems of our new boat?
  • How do we learn to maneuver safely to and from the dock and feel confident exploring beyond the breakwater?

When we bought our first boat, we gravitated toward the “learn by doing” method of mostly figuring out things on our own, which didn’t always work out as planned. Fortunately, nowadays a multitude of online and traditional classroom resources can help acquire knowledge about a new boat and increase your boating skills in a structured and safe manner.

bought a boat - marinalife
Courtesy of April Winship

Listening intently during the Art of Anchoring presentation at our local boat show, I agreed that most of it made sense, but nothing improved our anchoring technique as much as the repetitive practice of dropping and setting the hook from our own bow.

Sometimes consulting others with a similar type of boat yields fresh tactics you hadn’t even considered. A case in point was figuring out how to shoehorn our 22-foot-wide cat into a 23-foot-wide slip unscathed. After a few hair-raising docking experiences my husband asked another multihull owner for a better way to park a boat like ours. “Why don’t you try backing her in? You will have optimum visibility, and with the rudders leading the way you’ll have better steerage.” Smacking himself on the forehead, Bruce sheepishly confessed, “I didn’t even think of that.”

For our first extended offshore passage as a family with our two young daughters, we decided to join a fun rally. As relative newbies, we were about to undertake the 1,000-mile voyage from San Diego, CA, to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and would feel more comfortable not flying solo. When darkness fell on that vast stretch of rugged coastline, it was reassuring to spot several of our new friends’ navigation lights twinkling on the horizon.

hands-on instructions - bought a boat - marianlife
Professional captain giving hands-on instructions | At the Helm

Joining a rally not only offered an alternative to venturing into foreign waters completely on our own but also held us to a firm date to begin our adventure. With its morning radio net, evening check-in schedule and planned rendezvous stops along the way, we found participating in a rally was the perfect introduction for our pint-sized crew to the big ocean and the cruising lifestyle.

Safety protocols and seamanship skills are now often gained by employing a professional training captain to coach and mentor you aboard your own boat. A pro can develop a personalized plan to help you reach the skillset you’ll need to feel capable and confident in your ability to operate and maintain your vessel. This hands-on training can make all the difference for a smooth, cohesive and timely learning curve.

Resources to Build Boating Skills

Like many of you, we are about to embark on the next exciting chapter of boat ownership — learning the ropes. I hope the resources mentioned below will provide additional tools to take your dreams of nautical adventure to a new level.

  • Follow sailors on their YouTube blogs to gain inspiration and insight into the live-aboard/cruising lifestyle.
  • Subscribe to boating or cruising magazines.
  • Watch how-to YouTube videos (boat maintenance, repair and docking).
  • Join online social media boating groups or forums (boat type/make, region, lifestyle).
  • Take online certification courses (see U.S. Coast Guard at uscgboating.org).
  • Attend in-person seminars offered at boat shows and trawler fests.
  • Seek out a “familiarization training” course by a diesel mechanic to learn about your specific mechanical and maintenance needs.
  • Join a yacht, trawler or powerboat club for both on and off the water activities.
  • Take a training class on a similar boat at sailing or trawler schools.
  • Hire a professional training captain for hands-on instruction aboard your boat. You can find female captains specializing in teaching women.
  • Join a rally to hone your skills.

Set Sail and Live Your Dreams (Seaworthy Publications, 2019) is the Winships’ book about their family’s 10-year adventure cruising aboard their 33-foot catamaran Chewbacca. It is available in both paperback and e-book editions at Amazon.