The tag boat skipper position is the last position you must pass in order to receive your certification in the coastal passage making course in the US Sailing program at Club Nautique.
Basically, you must skipper a sailboat, with your very own hand-selected crew to sail along with you, but there will not be an instructor on your boat. There will be, however, an instructor on a class boat that you will be tagging along with during the weekend. There may be one or more tag boats assigned to one or more class boats. I have heard of CPM journeys with up to 7 vessels underway.
Tagging along is somewhat of a misnomer because, at times, you’re either ahead of your instructors class boat or you don’t have visual contact. While there are rules as to how close you must be to the class boat I’m not sure those rules are always possible to follow. Thus, radio procedures and contact and regular check-ins with the safety net established by Club Nautique are essential.
On each of the CPM adventures thus far, you split the cost of the boat charter amongst yourselves. When it comes to your tag boat adventure, it is customary that the skipper will pay the entire charter and that the crew members will sail with you at no cost to themselves in return for their giving up a weekend to assist you, the skipper, in your educational endeavor.
Selection of crew to accompany you on your tag boat voyage is critical. My advice is to choose skill sets over friendships. You truly want people who know what they’re doing on a vessel in the ocean along for the journey. If you have friends who have expertise that is even better. I recommend having at least one, possibly two, crew on your vessel who have completed the CPM program. Should you not be able to find someone who is completed the program it is best to have at least two people who have completed their navigator positions. I would not plan to have a navigator on a tag boat who has not passed their navigator position. It’s just not worth the risk of failing this last sail in the program. You really want to stack the deck in your favor to ensure that you pass this last sail. Further, experience leads to safety. And you want to be safe, too. We are all still learning at this stage and even beyond. Ensure that you will learn a few things on the journey. This is best accomplished by being on the ocean with people who have more experience than you do. I do feel that it’s important to consider for the crew member and Junior navigator positions, if you choose to have both on your journey, folks who are in the CPM program or ready to start the program and need some experience and wish to determine if they have what it takes to progress to ocean sailing. I do caution against sailing with crew members who are unfamiliar with the ocean and on their first voyage out the gate. You really don’t want to deal with seasickness in addition to all the other things you have to take care of do you? In summary, mitigate the risks by the proper selection of crew. Oh. I am disappointed to say it but it’s essential to check references or ask around about someone you don’t know who might be interested in joining your team. I’ve heard stories of folks signing up for the adventure but unwilling to do the things asked of them on the journey.
The requirements to pass the tag boat skipper position are well established and you should review them in advance of your journey. Put simply, you are responsible for the safe navigation of the sailing vessel along the course chosen by your instructor boat skipper and navigator. This does not mean you follow their navigation plans. You must simply learn where they are going and establish your own sail plan and treat the experience as if you have an instructor on the boat and are responsible for everything. Do the work. It seems duplicative. But you’re going to want to have those plans and charts and everything on your vessel should there be an incident, you get lost in the fog, or should any other unforeseen circumstances arise and create a situation where you are on your own. Just imagine you’re NOT sailing as part of a group with an instructor on another boat. Skipper your boat as if it’s the only one in the ocean. Just imagine you’re not sailing as part of a group with an instructor on another boat.
By now, you have become familiar with the ditch bag that accompanies the crew on CPM journeys. You’ve probably seen one or more that have been passed around and shared amongst skippers in the program. If you haven’t already, you should seriously consider creating your own ditch bag before your tag experience. I highly recommend it. Then, you will have something that you can take with you whenever you sail, if you purchase a sailing vessel for yourself, or if you are invited along to sail in the ocean and no one else has the bag. It may be life-saving at some point. I hope too never need it. Put one together. You can do it for about $500 including the bag and an extra handheld VHF radio. It will be priceless if you need it.
Sail a vessel that you know! By now, you probably have one or two club vessels that you really enjoy Sailing. Reserve it in advance for your tag boat adventure. Sail it the week prior to your tag experience and become reacquainted with its systems, rigging, etc.
Reread the green textbook. Review the emergency procedures rafting up procedures, and all of the other things circulating through the club regarding CPM adventures. You will be expected to raft up to your instructors boat weather permitting. Know how to do that maneuver.
Begin daily communications with your crew 7 to9 days before the adventure. Establish ground rules. Set expectations. Share information regarding the weather. Work with your navigator to plan contingencies. Do you anything and everything that you should to prepare prior to embarking on your own. Remember, you will have to show your work to demonstrate that you can successfully plan and then execute the sailing adventure without supervision. This sail is all about demonstrating competency which is a result of experience, developed skill sets, and depth as well as breadth of knowledge that can be relied upon and applied to different situations.
I chose one of my good friends who has 20 years sailing experience as crew for my journey. My navigator and crew/junior navigator had both completed the CPM course and had extensive experience sailing. One of these gentlemen was one of my mentors. The other I had not yet met but he had an excellent reputation in the club and actually has a boat in the club at the Alameda location.
We met at the vessel I selected on Friday afternoon and began our inspections and preparations. The instructor, who’s class boat we were tagging for the weekend, was Wayne Shen. He came by to meet, ensure that we were meeting the standards for vessel preparation, and to set expectations. Just as he was departing our vessel he stopped, paused, and presented me with an apparent wind problem. It was one of those questions where the wind is coming from a certain direction at a certain speed and you are sailing in another direction at a particular speed, and you must calculate the apparent wind. Use your dividers and chart and you can easily solve this problem.
We departed the dock prior to the class boat. We completed our measured mile to determine the accuracy of the log readings, did the swinging of the ship to evaluate the compass, and then anchored for dinner and our night of rest.
The next morning, all the class vessels departed within 20 minutes of one another. We were actually ahead of our instructors class boat. It’s a good thing we had our own navigation plans! As we headed out the gate, it was clear that we would be sailing in fog. The wind was good so we indeed were sailing. We set up the appropriate watches and sounded our horn accordingly. Review those sound signals if you haven’t! We sailed out toward the Farallon Islands on the north side of the shipping lane. It’s always impressive, and sort of awe inspiring, to encounter a massive 1000 ft cargo ship or tanker emerging from the fog in the shipping lane headed for port somewhere in the San Francisco Bay. It becomes rather apparent why one must stay outside the shipping lane, and especially, in the fog. Of course, one can see them on radar before visual encounter or confirmation. Radar enables you be aware of a number of things and even to cross the shipping lane at a right angle if you have limited visibility. Make sure that you’re proficient in the use of radar before you start sailing in the ocean.
The fog began to lift as we passed the San Francisco buoy. The navigator on our instructors boat hailed to notify that they had visual contact and had just passed us. They had a larger vessel and were faster in the water. There was one other tag on our journey. The three vessels and sets of crew communed just east of the Farallon Islands. By then, the fog had completely dissipated. We practiced crew overboard maneuvers and then demonstrated the ability to our instructor who was assessing the activity with a set of binoculars from the cockpit of his vessel. The wind was a bit shifty so I had to have a couple of goes at it to successfully retrieve our floating surrogate crew overboard. The other tag boat skipper was unsuccessful and the instructor determined they would have another chance the following day. The other two boats in our group of three sets sail for Half Moon Bay. We decided to “hove to” and have a relaxing lunch. For those with limited knowledge of sailing, performing a “hove to” maneuver Is a way to stop a sailboat in the ocean for a break. The vessel is subject to drifting in an ocean current and one might have a little leeway due to wind. At any rate, there is nothing as enjoyable as a picnic in the ocean!
After lunch, we sailed our planned course to Half Moon Bay. The ocean was good to us. As were the winds. One of the crew members was a little queasy but that was it. The journey was otherwise uneventful. The busywork during this voyage was not only in navigating the vessel but also in keeping a record of the location of the other class boats and marking their position on the chart relative to ours. During this part of the journey, my navigator remarked, or rather exclaimed, and labeled me a “taskmaster“ when it comes to navigation. I took that as a compliment! My boat. We don’t take shortcuts!
Our instructor called to let us know that they had already anchored. They wanted us to come raft up. We lowered our sails prior to entering the harbor, were under engine power, and prepared our lines. I surveyed the current in the wind and planned my approach to the other vessel. We successfully executed the raft up procedure with expertise and beginners luck. A key to doing the raft up procedure is to learn to side dock a sailing vessel in different conditions. Practice. Then you’ll be ready when it’s a bit more unnerving to run up alongside another sailboat when you’ve been taught to avoid them at all costs. Our instructor invited us on his boat where we were required to present our sail plan, navigation charts, and a record of our journey known as the ships log or logbook. He was satisfied that we were completing all of the required elements of our journey.
After period of socialization, we broke away and motored to raft up to another class boat side-docked in the harbor. We departed our vessel and joined other sailors on their CPM journeys for dinner and one of the local restaurants.
Following dinner, we motored around the corner to the fuel dock and secured the boat. A good nights sleep would be guaranteed by the fact that we were the only ones on that dock. I found the atmosphere to be rather mystical so I got off the boat to take a couple of photographs after lights out.
The next morning, we had breakfast, tidied up the vessel, and prepared to be on our way. We learned that our instructors skipper had set out two anchors for their overnight and that both anchor rodes were entwined. They were having some difficulty and would be delayed. So, we started the journey back to the San Francisco Bay on our own. Our sail back was uneventful. We had some communication with my friend Pavel, who was on his tag boat with a different instructor, and had just successfully recovered his crew overboard surrogate from the middle of the ocean. His instructor dropped a bumper fender with a bottle of champagne affixed into the ocean. Sometime later he notified Pavel of the GPS coordinates where the drop was made. Because of ocean currents, you can’t simply always go straight to the GPS coordinate. The surrogate for the crew over board will have moved. So, you have to establish a search pattern. It’s always best to start at the GPS location. But a pattern must be employed to locate the crew overboard. There are several well devised patterns established by the Canadian and US Coast Guard authorities and I recommend learning these prior to your sail as a tag boat skipper. I understand that Pavel found his bottle of champagne, chilled by the ocean, in a relatively short period of time.
We completed our journey in Sausalito, unloaded our gear, secured the vessel, and left everything as we had found it when we arrived a couple of days earlier. Our instructor was in the Bay practicing crew overboard maneuvers with the other tag boat skipper who proved successful at the maneuvers. Pavel has also returned. He and I spent some time in the clubhouse discussing one another’s journeys and reveling in the fact that we both probably had passed. A short time later, my instructor met with me and signed my logbook certifying me in coastal passage making.
I was ecstatic……but, mostly content. I was grateful for and indebted to my crew who gave their weekend to ensure my success in the program. I had worked hard to achieve that goal, and yet, I just knew that there was a lot more to learn. My career in medicine had prepared me for a lifetime of learning and I would apply some of the same principles to sailing. In some way, CPM is the trophy but mostly, it is permission to get out there and learn how to REALLY sail.