Seamanship, Signals and Rules of the Road

When I saw my ‘O Level’ timetable in 1972, this was the first paper listed. Of course, neither I, nor my friends had ever heard of this and to our shame, we thought it was amusing. How could something which sounded so mundane be administered by the same body which awarded us our O Levels in Maths, French, Physics, etc.? I know better now.
SSRR was an exam taken by Naval Cadets (Royal and Merchant). In those days the school leaving age was 15 and I knew boys who’d gone into the Merchant Navy and would take this exam. When I  started the Royal Yachting Association’s ‘Day Skipper’ course, I immediately realised it included a few elements of SSRR and even those ones were pretty difficult to grasp.
‘Rules of the Road’ are the directions for avoiding collisions at sea, where there are no road markings, although there are buoys. The three dimensional-ness of the sea, or even a lake, meer or river, can make it pretty difficult even  to know which way to go round  buoy, regardless of knowing,  in theory, what it’s telling you. These ‘Coll Regs’ require you to juggle which side of an approaching vessel you are on, where the wind’s coming from, it’s relative speed and then to have the nerve to ‘stand on’ or ‘give way’ at the same time as still keeping control of your vessel. And you don’t have a rear view mirror in a boat, so you have to be pretty vigilant. The rules require you to keep a sharp lookout at all times and do everything you can to avoid a collision, even if it means disobeying the rules. More difficult than the Highway Code and travelling on a marked, two dimensional road, then.
‘Signals’ can be lights, flags or sounds and you have to be able to send and receive them. It’s easy enough in the classroom, but on the water it’s a different matter.  It’s not acceptable to give a signal different from the one in the book. And if it’s a 14 hundred ton barge telling you to get out of the way, you’d better do it!
The compass, tells you  which way you’re going. But at sea, it doesn’t always read ‘true’. In other words, you have to add or subtract from your bearing, according to how the place you’re in affects the behaviour of the compass(Variation) and how the materials your boat is made of affect it (Deviation).   Cardinal Buoys, tell you the route to take to avoid a submerged danger, so  you’d better be able to read the compass properly. Right and left or ‘port and starboard’ are pretty easy, once you get used to them, but in European waters the left bank will  be on your right hand side when  travelling upstream!
Then ‘Seamanship’. Everything on a boat has a special name.  Ropes can be lines, sheets or warps, depending on their job. And whatever they are, they can tie themselves in knots, untie knots you’ve put in them and tangle around your feet and trip you up. There are special ways of making them tidy – which if done correctly also reduces the risk of tangles, wear  and unwanted knots. Everything has a place. Being tidy is paramount on deck as untidy ropes could make you fall in or even worse, if they get into the water,  can tangle with the propellor and then the boat can’t move.
On the water, things can go wrong very fast and you might also be cold, tired and wet ,unable to hear properly because of the wind, feeling seasick…so you need the knowledge at your fingertips and the skills to be automatic. Everyone has to rely on everyone else, but also understand that the Skipper’s word is law. Or you walk the plank. No democracy at sea.
This is only skimming the surface and I haven’t even discussed navigation. These days, there are  Chart Plotters and GPS to make it easier. So  I take my hat off to all competent people on the water  and especially to my contemporaries who took the exam back in 1972.


  1. On balance, think I’ll stick to our Eriba… at least walking the plank isn’t an option (more like who’s turn is it to stagger over to do the washing up…😄)


  2. Lovely to catch up on your travels – sounds as if you’re enjoying it and learning a lot. Lyn x


  3. We are ‘life-long learners after all.


  4. Very interesting. Reading what you have written shows how there are different kinds of intelligence; some academic and some practical. It also shows that the rules of sea-craft have been built up over many years of experience of what works/what doesn’t, and what matters/doesn’t.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: