#45 – Tools in your Toolbox

A philosophy I picked up twenty years ago from a significant mentor has guided the way I’ve approached most everything since. I call it my Toolbox Theory.

At issue at the time was taking my scuba instructor’s certification. An expensive, challenging, week-long course with a major practical test at the end, it was all daunting in its own right, but additionally it represented a huge step in responsibility for others I wasn’t sure I wanted to take.

My mentor – then the skipper of a popular dive liveaboard in the BVI – said to me: “It’s like this, Gwen. If you do it, it’s a piece of paper in your toolbox. Once it’s there, you can choose to use it or not, but if you don’t, you don’t have the option.”

This advice carried me forward when I might have weaseled out, and, in the end, changed my life. Not just because it turned out I was a good scuba instructor and loved teaching, but because the Toolbox Theory has since guided many subsequent learning opportunities, filling my toolbox with lots of pieces of paper that represent skills I have picked up, including my Coast Guard Captain’s license.

Whether they have thought of it the same way or not, most of the Admirals have a toolbox of their own they are proud of.

Some have pieces of paper to show from the Power Squadron, sailing schools, or the Coast Guard; others have ham licenses, scuba certificates, CPR or emergency medical training. Some have taken special workshops in sail repair, diesel engine mechanics, navigation or radar use.

And others have learned new languages, tackled electronic navigation, figured out radio email, studied weather analysis, mastered racing strategy or experimented with new cooking techniques.

Plus, to a greater or lesser extent, all have specific accomplishments achieved through the “school of hard knocks” for which there may be no paper to show, but which are tools in our toolbox none-the-less.

The debate over the value of diplomas, licenses, certifications and the like in an experience-based lifestyle like cruising is one that has raged ever since there have been diplomas, licenses, and certifications. I think we all know that having a piece of paper does not automatically indicate that the holder has any ability beyond the next guy on the dock, as any old salt will be quick to tell you.

But neither does it automatically indicate the opposite. For example, what a captain’s license DOES indicate is that that person has had a specific amount of documented sea time, that he/she has studied for and passed tough government exams on the International Rules of the Road, navigation, boat handling, and seamanship, and that he/she has demonstrated sufficient competency to be granted the right to do this FOR HIRE.

At virtually every Women & Cruising Seminar we do, someone asks the question about whether or not “we” need a captain’s license to go cruising. Sometimes the women are asking for themselves; sometimes they are asking whether it is something their husband needs to get.

About forty percent of the responding Admirals are licensed captains!

I didn’t get a clear count on the number of partners that have one. I got my captain’s license to be able to run my own boat in charter, and Judy of Ursa Minor got hers to be employable as a charter captain on other people’s boats. For many cruisers, the ability to get work as a captain along the way – whether it be for chartering, doing boat deliveries, or skippering a resort dive or fishing boat – is the prime reason to get a captain’s ticket.

On the other hand, working professionally was never the primary goal for Sherry of Soggy Paws, Bette Lee of Quantum Leap or Susan of Erie Spirit, who all hold captain’s licenses. “For me, personally, it would be very uncomfortable to do the traveling we do and not feel competent to sail and navigate the boat on my own. I wanted to be an equal partner,” says Bette Lee about their South Pacific cruise. Even after 37 years of sailing with her husband, “Getting the license increased my confidence.”

However, when working along the way isn’t a priority, you may find you can get more apropos training from sailing schools, especially ones that put an emphasis on cruising.

Yoga Aboard’s Kim Hess, who recently got her captain’s ticket, says, “Getting my Captain’s license was definitely a good thing for me. However, unless you have a desire to use it for professional reasons, I’d highly recommend ASA’s (American Sailing Association) certifications instead. The information is the same, but with an opportunity to apply the information in a practical setting (instead of just being tested on it). I am a true believer in experiential learning, which is something the Captains license courses (essentially prep classes for the exam) don’t offer.”

Many experienced cruisers would agree with Kim. Susan of Wooden Shoe took a live-aboard blue water sailing for women course to prepare for her voyage, and, Kathy of Hale Kai and Ellen of Cayenne III both added US Sailing’s Safety At Sea  programs to their experiential learning. Come to think of it, I took a week-long Women for Sail liveaboard course six months after getting my license in order to learn how it all applied to 40’ sailboats!

What it comes down to, I think, is a matter of how we each as individuals learn. Some of us flourish when stimulated by a formal structure on which to hang knowledge as we gain it, such as preparing for the captain’s license or taking a sequence of courses from a sailing school. And we are proud to have the papers to show for it.

Others – like Bev of Cloverleaf, Sheri of Procyon, Debbie of Illusions, and Julie of Tapestry – are completely satisfied that they have gotten the tools they need to know from their partners and experience.

However you acquire them, the Admirals mostly agree on some basic tools that are worth pursuing for your cruising toolbox: the fundamentals of sailing, piloting, navigation, and boat handling all available from the Power Squadron, the ASA, US Sailing or other sailing organizations or schools, plus Safety at Sea training, first aid/CPR and some emergency medical training for offshore situations.

Someone aboard needs to know the basics of diesel engines, refrigeration, electrical circuitry and plumbing; rigging, splicing and emergency sail repair; as well as weather analysis.

You can get a lot of this from books on your reference shelf, but seminars in these are often available at boat shows and at SSCA Gams. In fact, SSCA now offers a series of webinars called Seven Seas U that you can take online from the comfort of your own home!

Some other useful tools you might consider adding are a HAM radio license and SCUBA certification. Plus, several Admirals suggest a course in radar plotting to be at ease in assessing collision risk.

On womenandcruising.com we have assembled a detailed resource list that you could pretty much consider your tool “hardware store.” Start by adding one tool and see how empowering its weight in your toolbox makes you feel! The more tools you collect, the more you are liable to want, but on the other hand, don’t, as Ellen of Cayenne III advises, “let a lack of paperwork stop you from living the dream.”

“There are plenty of courses I might wish I had taken before going cruising,” says Ellen, “but, if I’d taken them all, I’d still be waiting to shove off! In the end, the most important tool one can have is confidence – in oneself, in one’s partner, and in one’s boat.”

This article was published in the April 2010 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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