Fleet Mentality

By Tom Neale

Mariners have often sailed in fleets. War and pirates and grand explorations are good reasons for this. But there can also be danger in fleets. It's a danger in perception.

Cruising fleet

Around 25 years ago some good seamen thought it would be a great idea to organize cruisers who wanted to go south down to the Caribbean. They came up with some exceptionally helpful opportunities. Fundamental was the concept of insisting that the boat be well prepared for what the trip could bring and that the people aboard be trained and prepared for what they might encounter. This included requirements as to boat features, equipment and supplies and abilities. Importantly, it also included inspections of boat and gear for needed functionality and safety and expert advice to assure compliance. The prep included training sessions. Careful arrangements were made for communications and emergency situations. Weather monitoring by well vetted experts and weather monitoring equipment was in place. Expenses common to the endeavor were shared. But even with the best planning and effort by organizers, some cruisers missed a mark. And perhaps they're more likely to miss the mark with less well organized fleets.

Boat gear breaks and/or the human body "breaks." And it so often occurs in the worst of weather. If you're in a fleet out in the ocean and your engine or other critical gear breaks during easy weather, you can usually get help from others in your fleet, ranging from a tow to mechanical to medical help. But you can't totally rely on getting the skill and parts you need by being in the fleet and you definitely can't rely on the weather and sea state cooperating.

Often the weather doesn't do what it was "supposed" to do. I remember being trapped in the BVI as a late killer hurricane, which had formed to the west of us, churned and then roared on in an easterly course. Yes, I said "easterly." They aren't supposed to do that but it happens. I had been helping to lead a fleet around the islands. We listened 3 times a day to high seas weather and saw it coming ... much to our amazement. We were able to get our folks out by air because we were just cruising around the BVI and the boats were chartered. As I was listening to landslides on the roof of the house where I had sheltered, (no room on the plane for me) and we were beginning to get drinking water from the pool, I knew that some of a Caribbean bound fleet was out at sea, heading that way. They had very little opportunity to bail out safely because of their location. This happens when you go to sea. There are no guarantees. Someone said, "well, they aren't out there alone." But in an important way, they were very much alone.

In a storm in the ocean (and often in protected home waters), members of a fleet can seldom help you. They can't come alongside, even if they are able to maneuver alongside, for fear of crushing collisions which can result in the loss of both boats as well as injury and loss of life. They may not be able to pick you up if you go overboard. They can call the Coast Guard for you. And these men and women will do everything they can, but if the wind is too high, the distance is too great or the sea too wild, that may be nothing until things settle down. Maritime history is full of horrific losses, caused by the weather, of fleets of ships ... large and small, steel and wood, sail and power, merchant and military, pleasure and commercial. We can try to diminish the risks of bad weather. But you never know.

I've been out and about on the water since the early ‘50s. I've noticed more and more pleasure boats relying on "fleet mentality" and the benefits one is supposed to get from being in a fleet. There seems to be more of a feeling that being on the water with a group of fellow boaters is going to make everything OK. There are the obvious benefits. These include comradery and shared skills and other help to the extent possible. And, yes, let's admit it, some pretty good parties. There are also special circumstances. For example, if I were going to Cuba right now I'd prefer to be in a well-organized sponsored fleet. But an unrealistic sense of security isn't helpful.

But we've noticed more boaters who seem to feel, consciously or subconsciously, that, if you're in a fleet, there's less need for the age-old truism that each captain has the sole responsibility for his boat and had better know what he's doing and be prepared. And further, that those aboard are charged with the responsibility of assisting the captain by following his orders or requests to do the things needed for the wellbeing of boat and passengers. Being with a group does NOT avoid or even diminish that responsibility. And if someone is hooking into a fleet for this reason, even just in part, he'd better reconsider.

I'm not talking about yacht club cruises or dock cruises to a harbor "up the river" for the weekend or week. This is usually a bunch of boaters all going to the same place to have some fun and enjoy the comradery. There's seldom the type of reliance here on THE GROUP that we're talking about. And I'm not talking about small informal groups of friends, new and old, who have done the ICW or cruised the Bahamas or other areas together and enjoy each others' company or, simply, buddy boating.

This, again, is different from large organized fleet cruises and the fleet mentality which they may develop. If you want to cruise by fleet and it makes you feel better, that's great. Go for it. It can be a wonderful rewarding experience. But if you have doubts that you can cruise the area by yourself, do some introspection. Are you ready for this? It has been the norm, for many decades, for people to take boating trips like this on their own or maybe just buddy boating with a few friends. Why is there now the feeling among some boaters that they need to go in an organized fleet? If the answer is "because I'm not confident I can do it on my own," that may not be great at all.

Each of us must be capable of handling our own boats. Also, the sea can do the same thing to 50 boats as it can to one. It doesn't care. The number of boats doesn't do anything to the sea and its storms ... except to provide more fodder for the fish. 

Tom Neale is Technical Editor of BoatUS Magazine, with a lifetime of liveaboard and cruising experience. Read more of Tom Neale's articles here.

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— Published: March 2016


Tom's Tips About Fleet Cruising

  • Fleet cruising may actually cause problems if it isn't well organized. Let's use the ICW as an example.
  • The trip usually involves many nights of anchoring out. But a large number of boats coming into an anchorage for the night may totally overcrowd that anchorage ... especially if there are other boats depending on that anchorage, as there usually are.
  • Seldom can you just send the "overflow" to another anchorage. Often that one particular harbor is the only good one around. And if the fleet needs to go to an unplanned marina because of weather, there may not be room.
  • Marinas may be overflowing.
  • Bridges may be a big problem because of overcrowding within the waiting areas for openings.
  • If the ICW is blocked as by a bridge failure or grounding, there may not be room for boats to anchor within the constricted current ridden channels.

See www.tomneale.com

 

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