By Barb Thomson
Special to Black Press
Forrest Gump had Lieutenant Dan, first mate on the shrimp boat Jenny.
Captain Ahab had Starbuck, first mate on the whaler Pequod.
On the HMS Bounty, Fletcher Christian was first mate to Captain William Bligh. Throughout maritime history, stories of loyalty and betrayal are pitted against the subordination of the first mate to his captain. Even the solo sailor Joshua Slocum (1895), delirious with food poisoning and caught out in a night storm, saw an apparition take over the helm of his ship spray. “Lie quiet, senor captain,” the strange man instructed the crippled Slocum, “and I will guide your ship tonight.”
In 1867, Admiral W. H. Smyth set down a comprehensive record of British Navy terms of expression in a book titled, The Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms. The book was reprinted in 2004 and introduced by its publisher as “one of the seminal references in naval history.” Smyth defined the role of first mate in one sentence: “The officer who commands in the absence of the master and shares the duty with him at sea.”
You wouldn’t think this definition of British naval hierarchy could apply to the recreational boat owner. It does. Because whoever happens to be with you – your wife, a fishing buddy, or your nine-year-old-nephew – that person is now in command if you fall off the boat and into the water.
Make sure your first mate knows the very basics of what to do and how to get help. Show them where things are and how to use them. I have a handy booklet put together by the Canadian Power & Sail Cape Lazo Squadron that lists the vessel’s name, type, and how to call a mayday. Keep it simple. In a kindly voice, say something like: “This isn’t going to happen. But if there’s an emergency, you press this button on the radio and call for help. Or if I fall into the water, yell ‘MAN OVERBOARD’ as loud as you can and throw me this life ring.”
Of course, it’s not that simple. Any number of variables can affect a rescue. But in a calm and friendly way, equip your first mate with the power to save your life if what you think will never happen – does happen.
Joshua Slocum: Sailing Alone Around the World, Leonaur Ltd., 2010
Admiral W. H. Smyth: The Sailor’s Word-Book, Algrove Publishing Ltd, 2004
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Barb Thomson is a boating enthusiast who writes regular columns for the Comox Valley Record.