Learning to Develop Your Sixth Sense, Listen to Your Boat

My Boat is Small, The Sea is Big...

Some of the most accomplished voyagers from Joshua Slocum onwards have given interesting little hints in their writings about some kind of help being given to them from an outside agency in times of need. Those that have done much single-handing will know the strange thoughts and feelings that pop into their head at odd times when at sea. Oftentimes this occurs when waking up from the kind of cat nap that single handers know all too well...

Most long-distance voyaging types will have their own stories to tell. Others will have stories to tell but will keep quiet about it for fear of appearing sheepish. The open sea is a big, big place and whilst on night watch with a clear sky and the boat bowling along nicely it's impossible NOT to ponder on our place in the bigger scheme of things. On nights like these things are clearly put into perspective... we are tiny, the universe is big. Any sense of self-importance will quickly be re-evaluated when you have a sea to yourself, under a canopy of stars.

It is not at all surprising that seamen as a breed are superstitious, and are more likely than most landlubbers to start developing a sixth sense that may one day save them from danger.

So, how can we set about accelerating and developing this talent to help us as we go voyaging ?

Take away the trappings of normal day-to-day life ashore, the silly gadgets, the relentless soap operas, the news, the constant inane chatter "I said to him...She said to me...and I said to her." Strip this all out of the equation... it's easy enough to do at sea.


Once we remove all the excess "noise" in our lives, what is truly real starts to reveal itself in subtle ways. The first thing you need to do is to learn to listen. When at sea on passage, even on a well crewed boat, you will have ample opportunity for some solitude... make good use of this time and listen. Start by listening to the boat, not just with your ears up with all your senses.

The ideal time to do this is when you've just come off watch and you take to your bunk safe in the knowledge that someone else  (that you trust)  now has responsibility for the ship. In that dozing off period your mind and body will be at it's most receptive. Listen to the sound of the water rushing past the hull, the thrum of the rigging, the rhythm of the sea.

Many long-distance sailors will know what I'm going to say next.... listen out for the boat singing to you. Boats are the nearest thing to a living being that have ever been crafted by the hands of man. They are not cars or gadgets... even two seemingly identical boats off a production line will often display different handling characteristics and may well have completely different " characters".

After a certain amount of time together your boat will start revealing itself to you if you take the trouble to just listen. Most of the boats that I've got to know very well have a very distinctive and individual song. It's not loud, in fact it's very subtle. Quite often it's like laying in your bed at night and hearing someone playing music in the next room... not loud enough to disturb you, but loud enough to register.

Obviously in motorboats there is the constant throb of the engine that tends to overpower the other sounds, but the brain is very good at filtering this out after a while (but often even a slight change in revs will have most skippers very alert is indeed).

During that wonderful 5 to 20 minutes when you take to your bunk after having completed a satisfying watch, listen carefully and feel with your senses what the boat is trying to tell you. Oftentimes it's not trying to tell you anything in particular, but with a bit of practice and experience you will learn when your boat is happy and contented (it sings to you)... now you can truly drift off into the "sleep of the just", the... just off watch !

If the boat is unhappy it will have ways of letting you know... it certainly won't be singing for a start. Don't for one minute think this is only a good weather phenomenon. Even when the boat is running downwind in huge seas, providing it is not overpressed in any way, it will be happy, its rhythm will be regular and it may well sing to you.

Two very brief stories about singing boats... I sailed on a 45' fast Italian made cruiser/racer... what a boat. It was a happy boat and it sang to me, very clearly. The owner, a hard-nosed silicon valley computer person, admitted (after I mentioned the lovely song his boat had) that he too heard it regularly but felt too silly to ever tell anyone about it.

Another example, Marina, a young Colombian jazz musician, was employed on a cruise ship. She told us down in her cabin right in the bowels of the ship she could hear it singing, regularly. Not being a sailing type, she was treading gently trying to find out from us if we ever heard anything at sea.. or knew anyone that did. She had brought the subject up with her direct boss on the ship, and he had told her very firmly never to bring the subject up with other crew or passengers in case it spooked them. She was absolutely overjoyed when we explained we heard our little boat singing to us regularly.

A little bit of thought on this matter may bring one to the conclusion that this phenomenon could be the root of the seamans' superstitions about mermaids singing and luring mariners to leap overboard.

A Better Seaman...

Listening to your boat with your ears and all your senses, is part of becoming at one with it. Try to make your boat do something it doesn't want to and it will soon let you know. A bit of plain logical thought will bring many rational people to the idea that being at one with your boat will certainly involve listening to it, becoming used to its motions, and noticing when something is "not right" before it causes a problem. Rational materialistic people may well put the "singing" down to the rhythm of the sea, the thrumming of the rigging, the whistle of the wind and other natural and rhythmic forces that combine to sound like singing or music to the receptive...

Whichever way you look at it, becoming at one with your boat, is the first stage in being a good seaman (and something you'll never "learn" on any RYA course !). Once your senses are sufficiently tuned to boat and sea, other phenomena may start revealing themselves in the strangest and most subtle ways. How about "feeling" that a ship is around, even if over the horizon ? How about "knowing" the wind is going to dramatically increase suddenly ? How about being able to "smell out" your anchored boat when searching for it in the dinghy during thick fog ?

This introduction is already long enough, and there is much more that could be said. That may be the subject of a further article. The main thing is to learn to tune your senses to your boat, by simply cutting out all distractions, and listening to what it is telling you. A boat and its skipper in perfect tune together are a joy to behold, strive for it.

Whilst in this article we always refer to the boat as "it", this is not because we're unsympathetic...plenty boats are a "she", and some boats are a "him"..you just need to know your boat...

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