How to sleep at sea

29 September 2010

This is a tricky issue as there are many conflicting views. First we have to say that the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea apply to every vessel on the sea, including short-handed and singlehanded yachts. They are quite clear when they say, “Every vessel must at all times keep a proper look-out”. There is nothing you can do about that: on the high seas you must keep a proper lookout at all times.

On the other hand, you must sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to carelessness and errors of judgement. In particular, loss of attention due to tiredness can lead to not seeing the blindingly obvious, even after having apparently looked. I have, when very tired, failed to notice that a huge car ferry was close and coming straight at me while happily attaching fenders at 3 am in the middle of Cherbourg harbour. He helpfully roused me from my tunnel-vision with a very deep blast on his huge horn. People faced with water sloshing over their floorboards in the middle of the night have sometimes been very slow to work out the obvious reason why, and so stem a simple leak. The last thing you need when you seem to be under a pincer attack from trawlers or container ships, is the feeling that your head is full of mud and you can’t remember the first thing about who gives way to whom.

When you are tired enough, my experience is that you will sleep, I have slept sitting upright in the cockpit with my head against the mainsheet ropes, I have slept lying on the upwind cockpit seat at 20° of heel with the throttle handle crooked inside my elbow to stop me falling off. From these examples, you can guess that in my early singlehanded days, I tried to stay awake for unrealistic periods of time (a) by staying in the cockpit and (b) by trying to make sure I was uncomfortable as possible to keep me awake. Neither of these things work, and neither of them are a good idea, even if they did.

On the other hand, when there is enough stimulus, you can stay awake. Stimulus in this sense is a psychological and physiological thing. When you are new to boating, or making your first singlehanded night passage, the natural sense of fear that you have is enough to keep you sitting on the edge of the cockpit seat all night. When you are worried about the rising wind, and the shipping forecast says, “Gale force 9, imminent”,  you are suddenly not sleepy at all. There are two problems with relying on this approach: one, the ability of adrenaline and anxiety to keep you awake all night diminishes with experience. After a few dozen similar extended singlehanded passages, or after you have the storm jib up, the boat on a run, plenty of sea-room, and see that she’s handling it fine, the tiredness comes back, redoubled, and can hit you like a wall, so that you can fall asleep in an instant. Second, even if that doesn’t happen, and even if you have an iron willpower that can conquer all, you will start to hallucinate and your attention and ability to make a good judgement call will be way down compared to what is considered normal.

It’s OK, I do have a plan, it’s very simple, and it’s coming in a minute, but let’s just deal with hallucinations first, since I mentioned them. I came across sleep deprivation hallucinations early in my sailing career, when I still had the adrenalin to make me want to push myself that far. I wrote about hallucinations and dreams on the sailing website I used to maintain at that time. There are two points to make. First, when lack of sleep causes an hallucination, it does not mean that you have instantly and completely lost your mind. I was perfectly capable of saying “I can see [tower blocks/an old lady/whatever] on [the horizon/the side deck/wherever] and I know that that is nonsense, so that’s OK. Now, are we still on course and doing all right?” Simple hallucinations are not something to fear too much, as long as you can see through them, as it were. What they do mean is that you are seriously overtired and that if a tricky judgement call is going to be needed any time soon, you are going to be ‘running through chewing gum’ trying to decide what to do.

While on the mystical side, let’s just mention the advice I read somewhere that a sailor alone at sea develops a ‘sixth sense’ than means he will wake up with a start when his boat is in danger and will be able to take the averting action just in time. That is nonsense. If you fall asleep on watch with no plan for waking yourself up very shortly, there will be no guardian angel who will wake you just in time, and you will be run down by a tanker, or sail up the rocks, or whatever, without any warning. Again, two points. If you find yourself seriously thinking that there may be guardian angels over your boat, then you are too tired to make any life-or-death decisions, so don’t trust yourself. Secondly, if you are taking a catnap, and you suddenly wake up in your bunk with a vague feeling that something is wrong, do trust the instinct, leap out, and have a good look around – you never know, you might have heard the throb of big engines, or you may just have received a mystical warning, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

OK, so what’s the plan? An oven timer. Rusalka Mist has one with a magnetic base and the steel disk is glued to the chart table to keep it from rolling around. It is an important safety-of-life device, so buy the best, have a backup and replace it on the first signs of rust or malfunction. When singlehanded, I use it to wake me up after taking short naps, whenever I feel the least bit dozy, provided there are no ships or other dangers in sight. This means day or night.

It works like this. In busy or confined waters, 10 minutes is my normal time. I scan the whole horizon and if all is clear, set the timer for 10 minutes (you have to overwind it well beyond ten to ensure it gives a reasonable ring at the end) and hit the bunk. Eyes closed, instant peaceful sleep, then ‘Brrrrrrr’, off it goes, leap up (no thinking, ‘Oh, just another minute’, you will sleep the rest of the night away, and may possibly die if you do that), scan the horizon, 360°, check the instruments, check the radar, set another 10 mins and hit the bunk again. If there is anything there, of course the routine changes and I start taking bearings on approaching ships, adjusting sails, altering course, or doing whatever is necessary. When the danger has passed, set another 10 and hit the bunk again.

I have used this 10-minute snooze method many, many times to cross the English Channel singlehanded. That’s about 100-110 nautical miles and takes between 24 and 36 hours depending on weather and wind. The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and there are two processions of large ships to cross each way, one going up and the other down the Channel. Usually both of these lanes need crossing in the dark, so I try to get my sleep early, before reaching the lanes, in the gap between them, and afterwards, before closing anywhere near the far-side land where there will be yachts and coastal traffic to look out for, as well as the land itself.

Sometimes, when threading between the Channel Islands for example, ten minutes can seem too long and five is enough to stay very safe, but it’s still better than nothing. At other times, out in the deep ocean, I have extended it to 20 minutes and then it is seriously refreshing. Don’t go beyond 20 minutes, as I have seen fast ocean-going ships that were invisible one minute, seriously close 20 minutes later. But never dangerously close. Yet. If you have nothing to do, you can try to guess what speed the fastest ships are doing, how far away the horizon is, and how many minutes the fastest will take to come from nowhere and get to you.

I mentioned radar. If you have this it is seriously useful when combined with a sleep timer. Even on short trips, having it on means you get a preview of what ships are going to become visible before you can see them. Using EBL markers means that you may decide to monitor their bearing while they’re still 10 or 12 miles away and grab another 10 minutes before reassessing their risk. On a longer passage, there is time, and an empty enough ocean, to set up guard zones and get the radar alarm to wake you as well if anything comes within, say 12 miles. I use a ‘doughnut’ shaped guard zone that wakes me up if there is anything between, say, two and twelve miles away, to reduce the false alarms from waves and sea-clutter within two miles. I also add a slim wedge of ‘guard zone 2’ to cover the gap in ‘guard zone 1’ because my radar won’t set a doughnut shape without such a gap. Out in the Atlantic and in Biscay, this worked very well, and the radar always woke me up before I could see the oncoming vessel. This worked even for yachts with radar reflectors, but don’t forget that while most ocean-going yachts have good reflectors, many coastal and racing craft do not, so this does not apply to inshore sailing at all.

People ask me, what is the hardest thing about crossing an ocean, or the English Channel, shorthanded in a small boat? It is not the sailing, not the boredom or the loneliness, nor the tinned food and lack of nice bread. In the Atlantic, the sails often went unadjusted for days or weeks on end, there were two of us to chat and regular daily shortwave radio schedules to keep, we had books to read and there were whales, birds, flying fish and other sealife to see. No, the hardest part was the tiredness. Even with two of us sharing watches, getting out of bed at 3 a.m. when you only crawled into it at midnight was hard. Wiping up all your spilled coffee when you had just made all the effort to make it in rough rolly seas, and then starting to make another one at 3:30 a.m., was hard. I read about a two-man crew who won one of the early trans-ocean yacht races and they put their success down to strictly enforced sleeping time when on passage: the man off-watch had to sleep, he may not stay out of his bunk whether it was day or night. They said that because of this they both arrived at their destination fresh and relaxed and ready to do it all again if they had had to. That is the goal I have always aimed at. Radio scheds and being more experienced than her with boat and sail handling meant that it didn’t always work out that way for me when Nicky and I did ocean journeys, but some 10, 15 or 20 minute snoozes, even when on-watch, meant that I never became exhausted and was always able to do the next thing, fairly cheerfully.

So what does it feel like? Are 10-minute sleeps enough? Well, it does get to feel a bit weird after a whole night singlehanded. I hit the bunk and almost instantly fall asleep, but I think I only just start to dream when the timer goes off again. The time awake is very short if all is well, but the next sleep does not lead back to the same dream, but to a new one, and these disjointed dreams get a bit muddled as the hours go by. EBLs (electronic bearing lines) on the radar are useful as it’s not always easy to remember if it was last time you stood here that you were worried about that ship, or the time before. You have to be aware that, dragged from your bunk at four or five in the morning after only a series of ten-minute sleeps all night, you are not functioning at your best, and so you must allow for that. If something is a bit confusing or worrying, don’t just set the timer and go to sleep again. Think. Concentrate. Put cold water on your face. Look at it again. Is it really OK? If so, then that’s fine. Don’t just let a predictable and momentary lapse or confusion allow you to miss an important clue.

Combining 3- or 4-hour off-watch periods with the odd timer-based snooze while on-watch is fine and works long-term, but singlehanding two consecutive nights of coastal traffic with only short snoozes is a challenge. It is not usually necessary as a singlehander setting off on an ocean passage should be clear of coastal traffic after one night. I have never done it, but I think that sailing the oceans with three capable watch handlers would be bliss – 4 hours on and 8 hours off would make it easy. We sailed two nights and best part of three days going close down the Portuguese coast once (original writeup). That was hard, because, although Nicky and I were doing watches, the rule was that if anything worried her, she was to call me. Never an hour went by during both nights when there wasn’t some fishing or coastal vessel doing something daft, and each time I got up, it took at least another hour before we looked clear and safe again. By which time it was often about time for my watch anyway. An Australian singlehander who did the same trip a few days before us said that he began by sailing 30 miles straight out to sea so that he was clear of the coastal nonsense before turning south, and that was wise advice, received after the event in our case.

Does it matter? What about having a nice long sleep and letting all the other vessels take avoiding action? Only the other week I heard about the investigation after a fishing vessel was hit in the English Channel by a 47,000-tonne bulk carrier, with one life lost. So yes, it does matter, and yes, they will hit you if you don’t avoid them sometimes. That was in the busy Channel, but even out in the deep ocean we only saw a handful of ships and had to avoid a couple of them, or speak on Channel 16 to ask them to avoid us. Sometimes in the day, a long ‘dah-dit-dit’ on our fog horn was enough to wake them up. Sometimes at night, the million candlepower torch shone at their bridge windows for five or ten seconds works better, and sometimes a chat on Ch 16 is best. I covered some of this here on the original website.

One last thought about sailing through the sea without standing at the helm all day and night: sail slowly. We have been talking here about the container ships and bulk carriers, but there is another whole class of dangers out there – the floating, half submerged hazards like lost shipping containers, trees, baulks of timber, abandoned unlit yachts (e.g. after the ARC!). These are unlikely to show up on radar and are completely invisible at night, even if you spend the whole night looking for them. Hitting one of these things at 4 knots in a sturdy boat is unlikely to do too much damage. Hitting it at 7 knots or more, flying over the waves under full sail is more likely to rip a huge hole right into your waterline. Times have changed since Joshua Slocum sailed the unsullied waves of the 19th century. There are hazards everywhere, ships do 30 knots even when we’re becalmed, and the days of long sleeps under sail have long passed.

So, let me make it clear. Every vessel at sea must obey the COLREGs and keep a proper look-out at all times. The point is that in my experience, regular, seriously executed scans of the horizon visually and by radar is a proper lookout for a slow-moving cruising yacht at sea. They are far more effective than a sleeping figure in the cockpit who will wake up with no idea how long he has been asleep for. They also means that we arrive at a destination (or a mid-passage hazard) fresh, alert, and ready to make good decisions with a clear head. For the single- or short-handed sailor, this doesn’t happen by chance but begins as soon as there are 10 minutes’ worth of clear safe sea around and in front of the boat, day or night. It requires willpower and determination, but will and determination towards an achievable goal. The goal is controlled short periods of rest, which keep you on-form while staying safe; not attempting the impossible by denying yourself necessary rest. Oh, and drink plenty of water too.


How to anchor

24 June 2010

A cruising boat spends most of its time relying on either the anchor or the self-steering. Someone said that, I can’t remember who, but I do remember thinking what a sedentary life I was leading at the time as my boat spent most of its time either on a drying mooring or in a marina berth. And so she does again at the moment, but for a glorious time, she and we lived the cruising dream. We spent weeks or months in each good landfall, getting to know the local culture, and a few locals, socialising with other cruisers in the anchorage and planning our next trip, whether that would entail a day-sail, and overnighter or weeks at sea.

Once we left the English Channel, we vary rarely paid for a marina or harbour berth. Everywhere we went there was a large, sheltered anchorage where you could drop the hook for free and dinghy ashore. These anchorages were usually busy with a scruffy-looking bunch of liveaboard yachts sitting on the blue. After a while, we found we regularly came across old friends in these places – people doing a similar trip to ourselves and following a similar timetable. Once the anchor is down, the boat becomes your home and the dinghy becomes your ‘car’: You use it to visit friends on other boats and to go ashore, people can tell if you’re ‘in’ by checking for its presence (like looking in your driveway). Those who visit you tie their dinghies alongside yours at your stern, and you can tell where tonight’s party is developing by checking out all the dinghies behind someone else’s boat.

So, anchoring is not an optional extra for the cruising life, it is where a lot of the main stuff happens. Most commercial boats come from the manufacturer equipped with an anchoring system that is suitable a ‘lunch hook’: it is suitable to hold the boat in a quiet bay while you and your guests sit aboard and have lunch, before heading back to the marina before dark. This is a different usage and a different mindset to that required for long-distance, long-term liveaboard cruising. If you intend to leave the boat for hours at a time while you explore the shops, restaurants and bars ashore and if you intend to sleep soundly, night after night, without mounting any ‘anchor watch’, then you need something altogether more substantial. Add to this the absolute fact that if you spend a year or more living aboard your boat then the will be times when the wind gets up, thunderstorms pass and gales blow, wherever you are in the world. The anchor (and your seamanship, if these things happen on passage) will just have to cope; it’s no good saying, “Well, I didn’t expect that”.

How big

Unfortunately there is no simple formula for calculating the ideal anchor and chain size. Even if you can predict what dire weather may blow up, you can’t tell what the bottom and the holding will be like on that day, or whether there will be a boat behind that prevents you veering out your full length of chain, or whether meter-high waves will build up in the anchorage and make your boat snatch at the anchor while she pulls. Even calculating the forward-on windage of your boat, mast and all its rigging doesn’t count for much if she turns out to have a habit of slewing around to one side and then the other in a blow. Most boats do, and this presents side-on windage to the gale, which is far worse. Every boat I’ve seen drag its anchor has done so by not swinging onto the other tack one time in the slewing process. Staying almost beam-on to the wind they heel over and drag back through the other boats, “with all the grace of a randy elephant”, as someone else said.

There has to be some compromise, for example, there is no point in sizing your ground tackle to cope with the windage of both boats after one of these rogue ‘elephants’ has drifted down onto you and entangled her tackle in yours. On the other hand, to cope with the rest, a rule of ‘as big as possible’ might be assumed. Unfortunately, manufacturers’ recommendations are less than helpful. The majority of anchors are sold into the lunch-hook market and manufacturers compete with each other. No one wants to be recommending huge, heavy things when their competitors are offering shiny, lightweight options that claim almost supernatural technical features. If the man in the chandlery says, “This will be fine, we sell a lot of these”, try asking him what it will be like with gusts to Force 9.

Some chandleries are more clued up than others. West Marine specify a range of boat sizes for every anchor that serves the long-distance cruiser well at one end. We have a 35 lb CQR and Rusalka Mist is 28 feet on deck. It has survived everything mentioned here, including a Force 9 thunderstorm in Spain, and never dragged. West Marine recommend its use from 26 feet and upwards, and that is even more conservative. Her manufacturer’s original 25 lb model put us in the middle of West Marine’s recommended range (16 – 32 feet), which was fine for general use. Using information like this from people who have a bit of experience, and whom you trust, is about the best you can do.

Which type

Beware the yacht-club bore who has an almost religious conviction that he alone has found the perfect anchor design (and its either half the price, or double the price, of everything else on the market). With diagrams, bluster and salty tales many people have strongly-held beliefs about anchor shapes. Anything that’s heavy will hold a boat in light winds; nothing will hold a boat in a gale if it’s not dug deep into a good bottom, or hooked firmly on rock; anything will foul on a suitable obstruction. Indeed, given enough force, any anchor will bend and distort, and some will actually break.

I’m not going to tell you which is the best all-rounder. We have a 35 lb CQR, which I chose for its forged strength, its pointy, penetrating hook and its hinge, as well as its deep galvanising. Others swear by the Bruce for its ability to put a lot of force onto a lot of mud, and then there are all the others. I would avoid “this year’s revolutionary new idea”, light aluminium alloys and anything that can take your finger off while you try to stow it.

If you upgrade, don’t get rid of the old one. When you depend on anchoring, you can’t have too many. If you ever have to tie a fender to your rode, cut, and run for any reason, you will be glad that you have spare anchors and rodes so that you can come back in the morning, anchor again and sort the problems out. Have a couple of different designs. If after the fifth attempt, your main anchor won’t hold on some bottom somewhere, then changing to a different design may be just the thing.

The rode

There are still people who swear by nylon rope anchor rodes, but they are in the very small minority. When you get to a busy anchorage, we’re going to talk about finding a good spot and fitting in with everyone else. If one person has anchored to rope and all the others to chain, then swinging circles and neighborliness gets a whole lot more difficult around them. If that one person is always you, you are giving yourself an unnecessary headache everywhere you go.

Get chain that suits the oversized anchor you chose. I chose 3/8 inch chain (roughly 10 mm), whereas the boat had been supplied with 5/16 chain (roughly 8 mm). Anchors break out of the ground as soon as the pull on the chain starts to lift the shank of the anchor off the mud. Therefore the heavier the chain, the more boat-force it will absorb before disturbing the set of the anchor. Get the heaviest chain you can.

How much chain? Well, again the answer is, as much as the chain locker will comfortably hold. For us, that’s 60 meters. People have different formulae for calculating the length of chain to put out. I’m going to explain why I use 12 x √depth in a minute, but suffice to say here that 60 = 12 x √25, so it appears we can use that in 25 meters of water. We spent a few nights anchored in 20 m off the coast of Portugal, in steady 20 kn trade winds, but most yacht anchorages are 5 -10 m deep. On the other hand, when the wind pipes up, extra chain sitting in the locker is doing no good at all – let more out provided there is room behind and around for swinging room. The evening when thunderstorms in the mountains behind the town brought 45 knot (Force 9) winds across a Spanish anchorage, I let out all the chain we had, and we were one of only a handful of boats not to drag. Several boats were badly damaged and a few people were killed that night (I think they were out in the bay in a RIB, not yachties).

Don’t forget that you are going to handle all this on a windlass, so this must be calibrated chain. I know that is the most expensive, but this is going to be a major part of your cruising experience; don’t be a skin-flint.

The chain will need marking for length. I used two tins of paint, and laid it all out along the roadside at home. I borrowed a sport-teacher’s long tape measure, and put cardboard under the chain to protect the road while painting. You can get various plastic things that mean you don’t need paint, but you still need to lay it out and measure it accurately. I used one red mark, about 4 links long for 10 m, 2 red marks for 20 m, etc up to 6 red marks for 60 meters. In between these I used a single yellow mark for each of 5 m, 15 m, 25 m etc. The paint has now worn off  for 5 and 10 m, and so needs redoing sometime, but that’s not bad for 12 – 14 years.

The windlass

There is no way you are going to pull all this up by hand. The choices appear to be between a manual or an electric windlass, with either a vertical or a horizontal axis. I looked a little deeper and found that a surprising number of commercial models actually relied on a short loop of ordinary steel bicycle chain to provide the final drive to the gypsy. That put me off, so I started looking at which ones used machined bronze gear-wheels to provide the drive. It’s true that, once anchored, you will take the strain off the windlass with a snubber rope. On the other hand, while actually raising or lowing the chain, the boat will be anchored by the windlass alone. Sometime anchors need raising in a hurry at the height of a storm because the wind has veered, or because someone else has dragged and fouled it. It struck me as useless to have all that expensive heavy chain and then to rely on a piece of (probably) rusty bicycle chain for the last bit. On the the other hand, I have never heard of anybody suffering a breakage in this area, so maybe I was overcautious.

Another horror story haunted my decision making too. Somewhere I read, and I’m sure saw photographs, of a boat that had been left at anchor, with a snubber, to an electric windlass. Sometime with no one aboard, something had shorted out by itself and started the windlass, which dutifully pulled in all the chain, casting the boat adrift. Worse than this, no one told the windlass to stop, so after the anchor was in the bow roller, it carried on pulling until first it damaged the roller and fibreglass, then finally it caught fire, melting the battery and really wrecking the boat. Now, maybe that is an urban (or a seafaring?) myth, but, along with the expense, hassle and space required for an extra battery or very heavy wiring, it was enough for me. I chose a Simpson Lawrence Sea Tiger 555 manual windlass, and have never regretted it.

I should give the cons as well as the pros. Neither my partner nor I find any great hardship in pulling up the ground tackle this way. There are two gear ratios and the slower one is so powerful that Nicky has successfully raised a whole aluminium roof girder from a Caribbean seabed without any difficulty (the remains of a hurricane damaged beach-front cafe had fouled our anchor). The lack of power consumption means that we do not feel that we need the engine running and so can happily anchor under sail, and leave the same way if we choose. The fact that you are doing it means that you can raise or lower the anchor fast if there is urgency, or slow if there is leisure. This is unlike electric jobs which carry on infuriatingly at their own pace whatever the circumstances. On the other hand, the clutch/brake arrangement which is meant to control the lowering of the hook, is a bit badly designed so that there is a tendency to get ‘too fast’ or ‘jammed stopped’ as the two speeds, rather than ‘just right’ and ‘ahhh’. Lastly, just this year, after about 12 or 14 years of use, all the white paint has decided finally to come off the cast aluminium body, leaving a nasty mottled grey. I think the problem has been electric currents set up by the electrolysis of all the different metals – aluminium body, bronze gears, bronze gypsy holding zinc galvanised steel chain attached to zinc galvanised iron anchor resting on stainless steel fittings on pulpit. Perhaps if I had not left the chain around the gypsy winter and summer year in year out, it might have looked nicer for longer.


Finally, with all the best equipment money can buy, carefully fitted, we get to an anchorage… Very often there doesn’t seem to be any gaps, or the only spaces are in what are obviously not the best areas – too near the wall, too near the open sea. The first thing is not to rush. Tootle around the anchorage for a few minutes, having a look from this side and that. Too often, the relief of having arrived, coupled with some kind of idea that people are watching and we don’t want to look like we don’t know what we’re doing, makes us want to rush. No, have a look around, wave and say hi to a few existing residents. Have a look at the compass and see which way the wind might change if the present forecast comes true. Look at the depth sounder and do 12 x √d in your head. Add a bit for high tide later in the day and do it again. There’s no rush.

Trying to imagine what your, say, 36 m of chain will look like when out, plus guessing how all the other boats will swing when the wind changes is usually too much for me to visualise. So we pick two boats that have a bit of space behind them both, motor up until our bow is roughly between their two sterns and drop the anchor there. If you lay out the chain and find that you don’t have anybody close behind or beside you, you did OK. If you do, pick it all up again and pretend that you always have a practice run like this.

If it all looks OK for space, engage reverse gear and find a side-transit. Put on a bit of revs gently and watch the transit (try not to use another boat, they all move all the time). Your backward motion should stop. Crew on the foredeck may put a foot on chain and should feel no vibrations or jerking. If things are not right, pull it all up and repeat. Keep repeating until everything is just right.

Laying out the chain is a bit of an art. It helps if the foredeck person has an idea what the depth is before going up there. If it’s 6 m, then shortly after the 5 m mark on the chain disappears below the surface, they can imagine that the hook has reached the bottom. A glance to the side should confirm  that we are already drifting backwards. If not, hold it there until we are. Then start laying out chain until we reach about two or two and a half times the depth (12 – 15 m for 6 m deep). At this point there should be just enough for the hook to start to set. Maybe hold it there for a few seconds and see if the boat swings bow-to-wind a little. If so, good, let the rest out, roughly at the speed that we are drifting back. Having some idea that the hook may have caught and set correctly early on is a comforting thought.

When everything is settled and the hook has been dug in and tested, it is time for a snubber. Many boats have a dedicated rope for this, often with a special hook spliced into one end. I don’t like those hooks, they look to me like they are going to damage the chain link that they bear on if enough force is put on. There is always somebody wants to make a commercial opportunity out of every little need. I use an ordinary mooring warp, preferably one of the nylon ones as they have a bit of stretch should the whole anchor chain catenary pull tight, although I don’t think it ever has yet. I have a curved rope-roller one side of the forestay, and an angular roller for chain the other side, so this takes a minute to think through. Figure-of-eight one end of the mooring warp to a large foredeck cleat and pass the other end out through the stem-head rope-roller. Loop it around outside of the forestay and bring it back aboard above the anchor chain. Somewhere between the bow roller and the windlass, tie a rolling hitch around the anchor chain, with the two loops towards you, to pull up the chain in the end. Then release the brake on the windlass again and let the whole thing out until the rope takes all the strain and the chain is hanging slightly slack. Put the brake back on, just in case, and we have a locking pawl that really does prevent the windlass from turning.

Lastly, we have a stainless steel rod that goes across above the two rollers to stop both the rope and chain from jumping out. I know it’s a long-shot, but the bouncing wake of a passing fishing boat may just dislodge these one day, and without the fair lead the chain could do some damage, so I always lock this back in. It is attached by a short lanyard to the pulpit so that I don’t lose it overboard.


There are risks when handling anchoring gear. The anchor itself is heavy and you don’t want it on your foot or shin, so make sure you are well braced before trying to lift it in or out of the stem-head roller. The real accidents, though, happen between the chain and the gypsy: NEVER under any circumstances lift the chain away from the gypsy, with your fingers wrapped around the chain, when the anchor is not secured right there on the foredeck next to you. If the boat pulls and your fingers get trapped twixt chain and gypsy, they will be mangled and cut off. Don’t ever risk it. Ever.

Another issue is securing the anchor for sea and ocean passages. Many boats come with some kind of clip to keep the anchor in the bow roller. Some people buy a beautiful expensive anchor and then drill a hole in it to pass an existing metal rod through. We remove the anchor from the roller and securely lash it to sturdy hooks welded inside the pulpit for the purpose. I lash both ends twice, using two separate short ropes at each end for double security. I really don’t want it starting to come free in a deep-sea storm and either crashing a hole in the bow somewhere, or needing me to edge all the way up to the pulpit to re-secure it in a howling gale.

Lastly, the Sea Tiger 555 has a great big hawse hole through the deck, but comes with no way to block it for sea. I have a large slab of 2″ thick glass filled nylon (don’t ask, I may tell you all about why one day). I carefully made a piece that would fit quite well in the hole, with a lip so that it can’t go through. I fixed a large hook into this from below and so the anchor chain,  detached from the anchor can be hooked on here and its weight keeps the plastic lid in place. I only bother with this for long ocean passages likely to take weeks. The anchor locker drains into the main bilge, which is easy enough to pump, it’s just that the less you have that’s actively trying to sink the boat, the less you have to worry about. The foredeck definitely gets very wet on passage, and can go right under on occasions, so this is worth thinking about. I have heard that stuffing the hawse hole with rags works too, but I had the time, the tools and the raw materials once, so I did my best.

How much chain

People have very complicated formulae for the amount of chain needed – 3 times depth, 5 times depth, not just 3 times at this depth, never less than 25 m, more to be on the safe side, etc, etc. It was a while ago, and I can’t remember where I found it, but I looked into the equation for a catenary curve, which is what an anchor-chain makes half of, just at the point where it is about to lift the sank of the anchor and dislodge it. I found that the relationship between length and depth is a square-root. This is why people have all these complex rules and sub-rules to remember. Then I got lots of people’s recommendations and tried to work out what the constant would be that covers most of them. I came up with 12. So lay out chain to twelve times the square-root of the depth, 12 x √depth. This has never let me down, when combined with the other rule, “If it gets windy, spare chain sitting in the locker is doing nothing to help, and it costs nothing to put it all out”.

You don’t need a calculator to do the square roots from the helm: You already know enough fixed points: √4 = 2; √9 = 3; √16 = 4 and √25 = 5.

Depth Sq. root Chain
4 2 24
9 3 36
16 4 48
25 5 60

You can of course extrapolate other values either in your head, or by making up a little table and taping it up somewhere aboard.

Anchor buoy

I only once ever used an anchor bouy, in La Coruña in Spain, and within a week a French boat picked it up and started tying up to it, potentially casting us both adrift. It was an unusual, small, hard red ball that I had decorated with felt-tip anchor symbols and the name of the boat. It had only a thin line on it, but there’s always someone, somewhere who wants to tie up to it.

I never used one again, and never had an anchor foul anything that we couldn’t lift, secure with a rope and unhook ourselves from before dropping it back in. I did foul a fisherman anchor once, when I was a kid, by dropping it into a seabed of large granite boulders and getting it stuck between them. Luckily it was above the low-tide mark, so I just buoyed it and walked down to get it the next day at low tide. Most places have a scuba diving club and many cruising yachts carry scuba gear. I think if I ever lost an anchor again, it would be easy enough to get someone to dive to retrieve it. Maybe some money would change hands, maybe a meal out for the diver and their partner would be more fun.

Some people say that they like to see where their hook is by the buoy, others say that their buoy is fouling another part of the anchorage over which they should really have no claim. I’m more worried about people lifting it. I have seen people keep about 1 meter of floating rope attached to the front of their anchor with a bowline loop in it. The idea is that this is too short to foul anybody’s propeller, but long enough that they can dive to it themselves using just a snorkel, and pull it out if necessary. I’m not sure about this. I think that the compromise is likely to fail – either it will get in somebody’s prop one day, or be so far down, or so heavy, that free-diving won’t be possible, or do any good, on the day when it may be needed.

How to manoeuvre under sail

23 June 2010

It is important to be confident about handling a sailboat under sail power alone. You never know when you will need these skills, and the time when  you do need them may not be the best time to start practicing! Many eventualities may render you engineless, from a rope or net in the prop to mechanical or pipework problems, or simply running out of, or trying to avoid running out of, fuel. As with many things, from man-overboard to coming alongside, the time to develop these skills is now, when you don’t need them, so that they are ‘in the bank’ for when you do. The ability to do neat things with the silence and elegance of sail alone is not only a way to impress your friends as well, but it can be an immense source of personal satisfaction and simple pleasure.

You may be coming at this from one of two directions. Maybe you are coming to long-distance cruising after long experience of dinghy and/or yacht racing, or maybe you are coming from a motorboat background or at least, like me, a previous habit of starting the engine whenever any manoeuvring might be required. In the first case there are still a few things to learn, specifically low speed work, and to be able to stop when necessary, as well as the odd trick that may not get you there first, but gets you there effectively. In the latter case, the sooner you start, the better.

Where’s the brakes?

The most worrying thing about sailing in, or into, a confined space in a large boat is wondering how to stop when the time comes. Apart from smacking it into something immovable, there are two ways to stop a boat under sail. One is to come head-to-wind and coast along with loose sheets and flapping sails until the way comes off. The other is to heave-to, which may not stop the boat entirely but should reduce her speed to a small fraction of a knot in sensible winds. Both of these are useful, so let’s look at them in turn.

Stopping head-to-wind

This is at best a temporary measure. The boat will not remain stationary head-to-wind for long, and during the seconds when she does, there is no water flow over the rudder so the helmsman can do nothing about anything. Therefore there must be some other part to the plan. Possibilities include dropping the anchor, picking up a mooring buoy, or perhaps jumping ashore with warps to make fast. So, the success of this manoeuvre lies in planning – having a plan that is workable, and that has been well-communicated to the crew well in advance so that ropes, warps, fenders, windlass etc have all been prepared as needed and everybody knows what to do. Yelling instructions about such a plan to the foredeck at the last second, over the noise from the flapping sails,will earn you nil points, and will seriously reduce the enthusiasm of any crew to want to sail with you ever again.

It is a good idea to have a backout plan too, in case it all goes wrong, and this should have been discussed with all involved as well. The simplest backout plan, when practicing for fun, is to have the engine ticking over out of gear throughout. This is a good plan whenever practicing under sail. If trouble brews, a quick blast ahead or astern can work wonders for saving the day (and the shine on the topsides). Second to that, it is important to realise that a boat left truly head-to-wind may pay off onto either tack more or less at random. In a confined space, it is likely that paying off onto one tack is infinitely preferable to the other, due to harbour walls, other boats, or rocks in the vicinity. The foredeck crew can save the day by taking hold of the clew of the jib and holding it out to the side you do not want to go. Singlehandedly, this can be approximated by pulling in the relevant sheet, but it is much more effective if done from the foredeck. For this to be effective, it must be done while the boat is still firmly in irons and before she has started to pay off the wrong way. It is possible that backing the jib in this way early in the manoeuvre can help to slow the boat down, and may even work like a bow-thruster, but it also leads to the more likely possibility of conflict between the wills and the viewpoints of the foredeck crew and the helm: if the boat is still moving then the rudder is still steering and unexpected interventions like this from the bow are more likely to lead to confusion. You don’t teach someone to drive by sitting in the driver’s seat and saying, “You do the gears and the steering, I’ll do the clutch and the brakes.” Well, if you do, it’ll likely end in tears.

Determining, from a moving boat, exactly what will be the head-to-wind direction is part of the problem. Doing so can only be done from close by (due to fluky winds in many confined spaces) and at low speed (to reduce the difference between true and apparent directions). Judging an approach speed that will lead to a stop at the right place is the other part. This depends on many things including the strength of the wind, the windage of the boat and its flapping sails, and the weight and slipperiness of the hull. Any current flowing will affect things too – more on currents later.  There is no alternative other than to practice, practice and practice in all conditions in cases where it doesn’t matter, so that you’ll get your eye in for when it does.

Anchoring under sail

The easiest end-point to a head-to-wind manoeuvre is to drop anchor. This usually does not have to be at any precise point and can’t really fail. Once the boat is stopped and the hook is on its way down, the best role for the helmsman (and any other spare crew aboard) is to get the sails down or rolled away as quickly as possible so as to avoid them catching the wind and oversailing the anchor and its rode while it is paid out. Sails rapidly pulled down in this way should be rough-stowed as quickly as possible before either they rear up and catch the wind again, or somebody has to walk on them slips on their folds and comes to grief. The foredeck crew should get the anchor onto the bottom as quickly as possible but then try to pay out the rode at the speed that the boat is drifting backwards rather than dumping heaps of it onto the seabed in any one place, especially not directly on top of the anchor, where it will almost certainly foul it before it is properly set. It is not possible to put the engine in reverse and positively set and test the anchor in a true engineless situation, so it is best to be a sure as possible by all other means, including possibly taking a snorkel-trip to look at the anchor and chain after all is settled, but before leaving the boat or turning in for the night.

Picking up a buoy under sail

This requires pretty good accuracy, but if it is a soft plastic buoy with a bit of space around it, not much chance of damaging anything. The most likely cock-up is that the buoy ends up in the prop. (In some circles these days, the preceding sentences are called a risk assessment, and I suppose that is not a bad way to start planning any manoeuvre.) Under sail or power, trying to position a mooring buoy right under the bow, where the helmsman can’t see it and the crew can’t reach it, is asking for too much accuracy to achieve something of limited use. It is much better if a rope is passed out through the bow roller, but looped back over the guardrails and worked from the sidedeck, somewhere between the bow and the shrouds. This is not only a bigger target area, but the sidedeck is lower and everything is more visible from the helm.

With the rope left at their feet, the crew can reach out with the boathook to span the last few feet. Do not let the buoy go further aft than the shrouds to avoid fouling the propeller with its ropes. If the boat can’t be stopped with a normal-strength yank, then let it go, let the helm bear away and come around again (at that speed, the helm will still have rudder-control). If it can, get the rope attached quickly and head up to the foredeck smartly either with the led-back end to attach if is going to be slipped, or to haul in the slack if it was attached by the end. Dirty, weedy buoys and ropes should only rarely be brought aboard, and never over the sidedeck guardrails to hold the boat. Once again, as soon as contact is made and the operation can be seen to be a success, the sails should be lowered and rough-stowed as quickly as possible, away from the bits of sidedeck and foredeck that are in use for the ropework. Do not end up moored by the shrouds, the guardrails or anything else on the sidedeck, worst of all by a crewmember holding a boathook or a rope at chest-height and pulling with all their strength as the boat settles down beam-on to the wind, the sails fill again and someone ends up in the water. Get the forces transferred to the bow immediately, so that the boat settles head-to-wind and the sails can be stowed harmlessly.

Coming alongside under sail

There are only a limited number of times when this is going to be possible. As with sailing directly upwind, stopping while running downwind and learning to sail by reading blogs, sailing boats behave better if we do not ask the impossible of them. If the wind is within about 20° of being parallel to the wall, dock or pontoon, and there are suitable run-in and overshoot areas available, then this might be possible, with plenty of fenders. Come in slowly, under very reduced sail, perhaps the mainsail alone. If this is the case, loosen the main sheet tackle thoroughly and grasp the whole tackle (i.e. all the ropes between the blocks) so as to be able to pull the main in with one movement for a little more thrust, and let it out just as easily, without having to fiddle with the normal tackle blocks. Someone with a nice long bow line, between the shrouds and the pulpit, should be ready to step ashore and get it under a cleat as smartly as possible if all goes well. Keep all the sails from filling and throw them a stern line later, get the sails down and sort out springs and other niceties at your leisure. If two people were available to step ashore, the sternline should be seen as the ‘stopping’ rope, and so a faster approach may be considered. Boats can only be stopped by the friction of a warp passed under a dock cleat, never by standing still and pulling on the rope. Never wind a rope around your hand to pull, if the force is too big to hold it in your fist, it will break your bones if wrapped around your palm.

Coming to rest in wind and tide

Many people have kept boats in rivers for many centuries. I have seen entire chapters devoted to the arts of sailing up to a buoy with wind against tide, wind across tide and wind with tide. Things vary according to the relative strengths of the two media, but the basic rule is that it is likely that the current will exert the greater forces on a keeled vessel, so you will stop head-to-tide, not head-to-wind. This can be an advantage in that you may still have enough useful angle on the wind to sail gently right up to your mark. You also may have enough water over the rudder that you will still be steering the boat after she is stationary. The only serious problem will occur if you still have the main up after the point where it is sheeted right out and hard against the shrouds and it is still providing too much drive. It is essential to arrive under jib alone if, after you are stopped, the main would still be full and driving the boat.

Heaving to

Heaving to is a magnificent manoeuvre. It allows you stop the boat at any time in any place for any purpose. It can be done in almost any amount of wind and so is also a storm tactic. I have spent most of a day hove to in the mouth of the English Channel when the easterly wind was a steady force 7 to 8 and no sensible progress was possible under either sail or power. In lighter winds in a harbour it can give a singlehander time to prepare ropes and fenders, reduce sail and get everything ready before embarking on the next phase such as coming alongside. It is currently the recommended first action to take if somebody goes overboard: stop the boat.

There are two ways to bring a boat hove to. Either the jib is literally heaved to windward, using the lazy sheet, while the boat is sailing. That will back the jib. If the mainsheet is now released a little, the boat will lose most of its drive power. If, finally, the helm is put down so that you are trying to tack this underpowered thing, then it really will stop. As a double-check, looking from above we have a Z-shape: the jib is backed one way, the main is out the other, and the rudder is kind-of parallel with the jib. The other way to heave to is simply to tack the boat, without tending the jib-sheets, slacken the mainsheet slightly to reduce its drive, and then set the rudder to try to tack back. With the backed jib there is no chance of that, so again the boat stops and the Z-shape is made, but on the other tack. It is the latter manoeuvre that is the quickest way of stopping a sloop or cutter under sail. Lash the tiller or wheel in place to maintain the Z unattended.

In a confined space, it is worth knowing both methods, as the time will come when we want to free the jib and make way again, and there may be much more room in one direction than the other, so which direction you hove to in will matter. There is no chance of getting the boat onto the other tack again until a few knots of headway have built up for the tack, so some space will be needed. A boat hove-to will drift slowly to leewards, and may make some headway too (depending on how big the jib is relative to the main, and on how much you freed the mainsheet). It will certainly drift off to leeward while getting under way again too, so some space is needed.

Way to go

I have started this post a little backwards, as I wanted to tackle the big fear first, which I believe lies in the worries people have about stopping. If you believe you can stop when you want to, how do you actually sail the boat in confined waters without hitting anything? The answer is slowly, but not too slowly. My minimum manoeuvring speed is 2 knots. At this speed, Rusalka answers the helm, can be tacked and behaves predictably, but is going slowly enough that she can also be stopped. So when entering a confined space, reduce sail so that the current wind will produce just a few knots of speed. In this state, the windage on the bow and rig may be no longer be insignificant compared to the drive produced by the sails, so do not expect to sail as close to the wind and you would in full racing mode. If you pinch up into the wind and drop to speeds below a few knots, you will lose steerage, the wind will take control of the boat and it will all go wrong. Keep the speed up, have a plan, have an escape route or a backout plan, and make sure that the crew know the plan, and the backout plan, especially if they have to do something important like grab a buoy, jump ashore or rip the sails down.

Under sail, the boat will turn, but she won’t turn as tightly as she can be made to under power. Therefore, don’t plan on making a series of tight turns to get into a tight space like a marina berth, if doing so would already be a challenge under power. Know the boat’s (and your) limitations, and anchor off if that is the sensible option. Be aware of your lee-shore just as you would when manoeuvring under power – if anything goes wrong that is where you will end up, so stay away from it (to give yourself some ‘leeway’ in a crisis). Don’t pinch up too close to the wind, but put in a tack early to gain ground to windward if needed.

With a main and jib, the sheeting of the sails does affect the boat’s turning circle, so tighter turns to windward can be made by over-sheeting the main and even pushing the boom across to windward. Conversely the bow will drop off the wind faster if the main is released right out. These tricks are useful, along with potentially towing a bucket one side or the other, to enable a boat to be sailed home after a total steering failure, and they work, when used in addition to the rudder, in close-quarters too. For them to work, some speed will be lost, so the boat must be moving nicely in the first place before trying them.

If you have to sail past other anchored boats, or prop-tangling mooring buoys, be very certain of everything before you try to sail to windward of one of them. Line it up against the background and be certain that the space you want to go though is opening nicely for you, and that you have plenty of speed and wind to keep the situation under control. Be sure also that the wind won’t drop or veer just as you get there. It may do this due to dirty wind caused by the thing you’re trying to leave to leeward if it’s big, or by some other obstruction to windward. Look at the catspaws and ripples on the water surface, to see what the wind is doing up ahead.

Dirty wind is the bane of manoevring under sail in confined spaces. At low speeds and with reduced sail, you cannot sail very close to the wind. You may be limited to 50° off the wind rather than 40°, or 45° rather than 35°. This means that you may be tacking through a full 100°, not the sort of tacking angles people boast about in racing circles. Add to this the fact that after a tack you may suddenly find that the wind has died or shifted by 20° due to the influence of a harbour wall or a superyacht. Therefore look aft of your beam to see where the next tack may take you, and be prepared for disappointments where what you thought was the final tack turns out to be just one of several more. You bought a sailing boat to sail and mess about with ropes, didn’t you? Then don’t get cross or impatient when you have to do plenty of those very things.

There is an art to steering though a tack, which is to keep the jib slightly luffing on the new tack until your crew has the sheet in and secure, then complete the turn and fill it. Do not complete that turn too quickly as forward speed will have been lost in the tack and if you set up too much angular momentum, the boat will continue to swing off the wind and will lose ground to leeward before the sails provide enough drive for you to get her back on track. If you have to short-tack up through a crowded anchorage, your crew will thank you for every heave on the winch-handle you saved them in this way, especially when they are then up on the foredeck a few minutes later manhandling the anchor windlass, or heaving a heavy buoy out of the water to thread a bow line through its loop.

There is one final trick for edging up to windward without putting in that final tack. If you have plenty of distance to go, and plenty of speed available, e.g. 3 knots or more closehauled, say, then it is possible to steer 20 or 30° up to windward and carry some way upwind of the previous course. Before losing too much speed, the boat can be laid gently back onto the closehauled heading and will pick up speed again. At which point, this ‘shooting up’ to windward for another few meters can be repeated. Don’t get carried away though. If a significant distance needs making up – put in a tack, and don’t try this too close to the obstruction you’re trying to clear – as you get up to it, the wind may die or shift and leave you with egg on your face or a scratch on your boat.

Collision avoidance

Speaking of which, you almost never have to sail straight into anything, no matter how bad your planning or execution was. Putting the rudder hard over the right way will almost always make a moving boat head up to the wind and tack. At that point you have the choice whether to handle the jibsheets and sail away or leave them and stop hove to. To make the most of short-tacking it is amazing how close up to a solid wall you can sail before tacking away from it. Tacking always works and a boat with enough speed will always respond quickly.

The time when it can go wrong is when you try to, or for reasons like lack of space, have to, turn off the wind to avoid something. This can go wrong very quickly and simply. For example, suppose you thought you could pass close to windward of an anchored boat, then in the last few seconds you realise that you can’t, or that his anchor rode is close under the water. If you then try to turn off the wind and pass behind him, having left it too late, your sheeted-in mainsail will try to prevent this sharp turn, and by the time you realise that and start to free it, your boat will have picked up speed because you steered off the wind: You could hit him, hard, amidships, and do significant damage. The answer to all of this would have been to tack away from him as soon as you realised you couldn’t weather his bow. You would have been off into empty water, and even if there were other things in the way, you could have had more time to turn downwind the other way after the tack and lost nothing but some ground to windward, with your dignity, wallet, boat and everything else intact.  Pass close behind the sterns of anchored boats, not close ahead of their bows.

Another way that things go wrong is by messing up a tack (‘missing stays’) and ending up paying off back onto the original tack, when there is now no room left to go in that direction.  There is no solution to that, you will not have enough speed to tack again soon enough and there is not enough room to build up that speed. You could try bearing off downwind, but chances are, you will be too close, and the scenario above will play out, albeit perhaps in slow motion. The only answer is not to let it happen. Keep your speed up so that when you want to tack, you do. If there is some doubt mid-tack, maybe grab the main boom and push it out to windward; maybe an alert and suitably equipped person on the foredeck might get the jibsheet released for them and push the jib out enough to back it prematurely with something like a boathook. But if the boat is already going too slowly, then either of these measures is going to slow it down some more, and really, I think it’s going to go wrong. Always have enough speed to tack, or drop the anchor and give up for now.

Getting started under sail

And finally, we come to the beginning. If you have been practicing stopping the boat and moving her around under sail, maybe it’s time to try getting her going under sail too.

Sailing off a buoy

This is the easiest. Hoist a bit of sail. Maybe don’t hoist the main if there is a current under the boat and you are not lying head-to-wind on the buoy. Be careful that the sails flap free, and that the sheets are free and don’t foul on something and start you sailing while still attached to the buoy. Give some thought to which tack you need to pay off onto when you first start to sail. If it doesn’t matter, then just slip the line. If it does, then back the jib appropriately so that the bow begins to point in the right direction. Don’t stay too long like that as it will reverse again as the boat slews around on the mooring. Just slip the buoy at the right moment and you’re free.

Wait a few seconds, you don’t want to sail straight over the buoy and end up with it in your prop. When you have drifted a few yards downwind, sheet in the sails and set your course. Remember not to sail close across the bows of other moored boats: be safe and patient, pass under their sterns, and wait until you have got moving before trying heroic deeds.

Sailing off the anchor

This is almost the same as sailing off a buoy except that you have to pick up the anchor and chain. In light winds, the windlass will be powerful enough to pull the boat forwards with sails loose until the anchor breaks out. In heavier winds, you will have to provide sail-powered assistance while raising the rode. It’s done by tacking within cone-shaped bounds up to the anchor. Keep the boat slow. You do not want to oversail the rode, you only want to move at the speed that the chain is coming aboard, which may be 0.5 or 1 knot. This means either heavily reduced sail, only one sail, or spilling wind, or all three.

The mainsail is much easier to raise while sitting head-to-wind at anchor, so raise it, perhaps reefed. The jib will be all over the foredeck crew and they will have enough to do, so have it ready but furled. Loosen the mainsheet tackle and take hold of all its parts in one hand. Perhaps push the boom out to windward to make her pay off, or perhaps just pull the mainsheet in gently with that one hand if she already has. Steer about 40° off the wind and tweak the force on the mainsheet to spill wind and progress just enough to keep up with the efforts of the crew on the windlass. After a while the angle of the rode will be too great for easy progress with the windlass. The crew makes the rode fast (if they were pulling it up by hand) or just stops the windlass, perhaps makes a prearranged signal like pointing in the direction of the required tack, and the helm steers to tack. The angled pull on the anchor rode will help and she should easily tack even under main alone at low speed. Now retrieval of the rode continues apace, and the boatspeed is controlled as before until the angle becomes sharp again in the other direction.

Eventually, after a few more tacks, the anchor breaks out and hopefully some other pre-arranged signal is made from the foredeck. Do not increase the speed. Just keep sailing slowly until the anchor is brought aboard. (There is nothing worse than being marooned on the foredeck with the anchor trailing under and behind the boat while speed-freaks in the cockpit pile on all the sail they have. You watch the scratches and gouges accumulate in the topsides, while wondering if the anchor really will hook the rudder or the prop under there and pull one of them right off…) Once it’s aboard and secure, unfurl the jib, maybe shake out the reefs and head for the open sea.

Sailing off a pontoon or dock

If the wind is blowing off the dock, this is easy. Hoist enough sail and reduce the docklines to one or two slips that can be released from on board, do so, sheet in, and bear away for a few yards to pick up speed before choosing your course at will (within the normal constraints of not sailing too close to the wind, and avoiding lee shores).

With the wind from ahead, there is a chance of being blown backwards into the boat behind before making any way.  Either warp her onto the outside of other boats so that there is nothing behind, and try to get a nicer angle on the wind while you’re at it, or with a smaller boat, perhaps you can persuade someone on the dock to give you a good shove, away and forwards, after your ropes are off.

Wind from astern prevents you raising the main, so you will have to leave under jib alone, or warp her around so that the wind is from ahead as above. With the wind astern, you will still run into anyone ahead of you on the dock so warp her out or get a shove as above.

A wind pinning you against the dock really is a game-changer. There is no way that you can leave under sail if that is happening. Using either a kedge anchor or a line passed to another dock or other boats to windward, she will need warping out to a place where there is enough leeway to get started and to get enough speed on to manoeuvre. In light winds with a smaller boat, it might be possible to get someone to give you enough of a shove, off and forward, to make away from the lee shore. They will need to be holding your boat away and almost running with it before they let go.

Finger berth

It’s even possible to ‘sail’ out of a finger-berth in a marina if the wind direction is fair. There are two methods. If the ‘aisle’ is narrow and the sterns and bows of the other row of boats to leeward is close, then you need to get the boat out and facing the way you want to go using warps and muscle power. Once the boat is held beam on to the wind, by a single slipped line from roughly amidships, with (probably reduced) main and jib flapping gently, it will be easy to slip the line from on board, bear away to pick up speed and sail along the aisle towards freedom. The slipped line may be around the cleat on the end of the finger, or around some strong point on a neighbour’s bow or stern (e.g. guard rail or cleat). To keep your boat beam-on, your side-deck crew will likely be holding both parts in their hand and be free to move back and forth along the side deck to find the balance point. How you manhandle the boat into this position without engine or mishap depends on the boat, the crew and the wind, and I shall ‘leave that as an exercise for the reader’, as they say in the most irritating mathematical textbooks.

There is another option, which may suit marinas with more space between the rows, or stronger winds, in some cases. Begin with a long warp and arrange a loose slip that starts and ends on the foredeck and is passed through the cleat on the end of the finger (at the stern of your boat, assuming you came in bows first). (If you reversed in, forget this and come in bows first next time to try it!) Next slip all your normal lines and let the wind drift you backwards out of the finger. Eventually, that long bow-slip will pull tight and you will end up about a boat-length out into the aisle, moored by the bow, head-to-wind. If you didn’t already do it raise some sail, pay off onto the right tack, slip the bow line and sail away.

Always consider pulling in as much slack as possible in any slip line to increase your searoom to leeward before finally slipping. When slipping any crucial line, be careful at the halfway point, just as the loose end flips around the far object and you become free: go slowly here as that loose end can also suddenly flip around the standing part of the line and tie itself fast! Once it’s free and in the water, get any line in as fast as humanly possible, before it gets into the prop or rudder.

As with any close-quarters manoeuvre, you will have to visualise all of this before starting, given today’s wind conditions and crew capability, do your ‘risk assessments’ in your head, decide on the ‘back-out plan’ in case it all goes wrong, and brief your crew appropriately. Never ask the impossible of your boat or your crew, plan ahead, and you will be surprised what you all can achieve together.

How to manoeuvre under power

16 November 2009

I have made a point of recommending a long-keeled underwater form, particularly because of its inherent directional stability when at sea. It took me years to get confident about overcoming that directional stability and getting the thing to behave predictably in the tight spaces of a modern marina.

There are a number of things that, if you keep them in mind, will definitely help when trying to get a boat into or out of a tight space. First, forget all about the way you drive your car around a car park. If you want a road analogy, it’s more like reversing a bus around, in a sloping car park, on ice. Even if you stop, you’ll carry on sliding down the ice until you hit something.

Lee shore

The first thing is to work out where your ‘lee shore’ is. That is the row of boats, or whatever it is, that you will drift down onto if anything goes wrong and the wind takes command. Once you know where it is, avoid it totally – motor down the other side of the passageway. If you have to approach the lee shore, make sure you do so end-on with a clear plan for motoring cleanly away again as soon as possible, or with enough way on that you know the boat will answer the helm and turn away when you ask.

Under power you can move very easily forwards and backwards. It is harder to turn sharply, and it is impossible to make the boat move sideways. Therefore, don’t worry at all about going close to something ahead or astern (briefly), we will look at using the wind, prop-walk and prop-wash off the rudder to help with turns, but on no account let the boat drift sideways into that lee shore – especially if it consists of a shroud-tangling series of dinghy davits, rudders, pulpits, bow-rollers and other people’s expensive self-steering gears.

Never throw a boat engine straight from high revs forward into reverse, or vice versa. It is possible by so doing to jam it into the new gear with such force that you cannot disengage it again, which could ruin your plan. That’s the trick: have a plan. If you know you are going to need reverse soon, disengage forward gear and let her carry her way for a few seconds, then slip into reverse. And, of course, vice versa. In fact keeping reverse gear engaged is usually enough to stop Rusalka turning one way in reverse at all, due to prop walk. Slipping her into neutral really helps.

Prop walk

For the boat you want to turn, you need to know which way the stern will kick when you put the engine astern. To find this out on a strange boat, before untying from the pontoon (or out in the open sea, but stop the boat somewhere calm first), put the engine in astern and watch the water either side, between the stern and midships. One side or the other, you will see disturbed water coming up from the prop. If the disturbance appears on the starboard side, the stern will kick to port in astern, and vice versa. Remember this, or write it down; write it in the log – it is important. Remember the phrase, ‘stern kicks to port in astern’ or ‘stern kicks to starboard in astern’. Don’t use left or right: port and starboard don’t change when you face the other way, and when you’re reversing, you probably will face the other way. Don’t try to remember which way that stern-kick will make the boat turn, that depends which way you’re actually going before you engage reverse gear, and you use reverse gear in both directions.

There are exceptions. If the disturbed water appeared equally on both sides, your boat may not kick either way. If your prop-shaft is off-centre, for example on a converted engine-less classic, anything could happen – you will have to learn your boat on your own. If you have an outboard mounted on the transom, aft of the rudder, then you have all the problems that I had with Liza, the boat I had before Rusalka – more on this configuration later.

Distinguish prop walk and stern kick, which refer to the same sideways thing, from prop wash, which just refers to the stream of water moved by the propeller. I use all these terms from here on.

Turning on a windless day

So, on a windless day, you’re coming up a narrow fairway and want to make a sharp turn, for example into a finger berth. The first thing to do in this case is take her out of gear and slow right down in good time. On a calm day I would slow down to between one and two knots for this bit. Then, before you put the rudder over to turn, put her back into forward gear and, even on lowish revs, the prop-wash against the rudder will give it much more effect than you would expect from your speed through the water. By having slowed down first, this use of forward gear won’t accelerate you too much, but none the less, you will have to stop very soon. So, engage reverse once the boat is turning nicely. One of two things will happen: either the prop kick will help the turn or it will hinder the turn. If you have done your homework as above, you will know in advance which will happen.

A turning boat has angular momentum, so will tend to continue to turn anyway and the prop walk may be advantageous or not. Luckily, even in these last few yards, you have three options open to you and so you still have the situation under control. The boat is still moving forwards (even with the propeller turning in reverse) so the rudder still works. You can tighten the turn or unwind it a bit with the rudder. If neither of these work, or if they’re not going to have the desired effect in time, just increase the revs in astern and stop, and maybe reverse a bit. Even on a calm day, the boat may turn considerably in reverse (helpfully or not) as the prop kick or prop walk really takes effect, but you may get another go to complete your manoeuvre.

Even if it all goes wrong, on a calm day you can always turn around, go back out, or go up to the end of the aisle and turn to come back, whichever is easiest, and try again. Turning around in a confined space is only really possible if you work with the prop walk, so choose your turn direction in advance. Go ahead with the rudder hard over, pushing the stern in the direction the prop walk will kick it in reverse, then swap to reverse and reduce the forward momentum, while continuing to increase the turning momentum. Reverse back as far as space allows, then put the rudder back to hard over and power ahead again.

Turning in a wind

In a wind, the bow will always try to blow off down-wind. It is hard to make the bow come up into the wind, and trying to do so can lead to considerable side-slip too. As you throw the boat around in a blow, the most important thing is to be aware of the lee shore at all times. Remember, you may approach it, but only end-on so that you can power away again. This is made harder in a cross-wind as, as you approach the lee shore, stop, and power away again, the wind will be weather-cocking the bow around, and the prop walk will kick the stern in its favourite direction too, if you engage reverse. It’s a bit like a snooker player not only potting the ball, but planning where things are going to end up for the next two or three balls too. Don’t despair; it is possible; just practice.

You need a little more speed if you intend to throw the bow up into the wind. Once the bow is through the wind, sometimes you just need to hold the boat in place with forward thrust while the wind completes the turn for you. Even if barely moving, if forward gear is sending prop wash across the rudder, it will have a useful effect on the position of the stern, just don’t expect it to have much influence over the position of the bow – the wind will do that. You have to do the planning so that the wind will put the bow where you want it in the end.

When manoeuvring in a wind, you will need to use blasts of plenty of power. You only need these high revs for short bursts, when changing direction (forward to astern) and when pushing water over the rudder in forward gear. Drop back to lower power as soon as possible to keep the boat speed from building up in a confined space.

Sometimes, as you may expect, it is just not possible to make the turn you want to make – if the space is too limited, the wind is too strong and its direction completely unhelpful. Just continue to avoid lee shore embarrassment, using enough power to stay away from it. At some point it is time to give up. Put the engine into reverse and let the bow weather-cock completely downwind until you reach a stable state: with the stern to the wind and the engine in reverse, you can balance the wind force with engine revs and just stop. By adjusting the revs carefully, you can very gently approach whatever is behind you to windward. If it is a pontoon with traditional ‘horned’ cleats, you can drop a bight of mooring line over a cleat (be very careful not to drop it into the water and into the prop! Go out of gear just before you drop it). If it is another boat, you can slip a mooring line around some strong part of it, such as a pulpit, pushpit or cleat. As soon as you have done that and made off the line aboard, you can relax, and start thinking about using warps or lines to get from here to where you want to be.

One great trick with a line around someone else’s pulpit, that I have used in a full gale in a marina, is to walk from the cockpit slowly down the sidedeck, holding both parts of the slipped line. By the time I got to the shrouds, Rusalka had swung and was beam-on to the wind, facing the direction I wanted to go. I pulled in the line until I was inches from his boat, then slipped it and marched purposefully back to the cockpit and powered away with plenty of time to spare before drifting away to leeward.

Difficult rudder/prop configurations

If the propeller is not directly ahead of the rudder, then a lot of what I have described will not work. This can happen with an offset propeller and with an outboard on the transom, behind the rudder. In either case, you can have prop walk effects in both ahead and astern, and you never get the benefit of being able to amplify the effect of the rudder by putting prop wash over it while you turn. The only way to control the boat is to have enough speed that the rudder can be relied upon in the normal way. That amount of speed can be dangerous in a confined space, and it never builds up instantaneously; until it does you are at the mercy of prop walk and the wind. I know the problems and I never found a solution. I sold the boat.

Planning for failure

As in so many things afloat, always consider the options in case of failure: Never be one more cock-up from a disaster. It is a good idea to have the sails ready to hoist before casting off. If the engine fails at a good time, you can always hoist a sail and regain some control over the boat. This is more likely to be possible if you have been regularly practising manoeuvring under sail when it didn’t matter and the engine was ticking over nicely in neutral as a reserve.

Of course, if the engine stalls as you go from forward to reverse heading for a solid pontoon, there will not be time to do anything about that. I increased the tick-over revs slightly after Rusalka did that to me once – she has never done it again.

Having the anchor ready to drop is also recommendable, especially in a river where currents add to the fun and excitement. Be aware too that it is perfectly OK to use an anchor, especially in an emergency, in a harbour or even a marina.

Always enter a marina with fenders ‘all round’, not just on the expected side – you never know when they will save your blushes. Same with ropes – one on each corner, I say. It’s easy enough to re-purpose those on the wrong side as springs on the right side later, but you never know where you might end up if things start to go wrong. Having fenders and ropes ready all round is just a seaman-like way to proceed into a tricky, confined space, I think.

Warping the boat

As hinted above, there are many ways that ropes and lines can be used to make manoeuvres easier and less risky. Trust your fenders too. It is perfectly acceptable to lean against another moored boat, with fenders, while you warp into a space.

Coming into a finger berth singlehanded, with a wind blowing off the finger, has often left me blown against the boat next door before I had a chance to step onto the finger, with then a four-foot jump to it. Don’t even try it. Put some temporary lines onto the other boat, cut the engine and throw a couple more lines across the finger (including a spring or two, depending on the exact wind direction). Climb aboard your new neighbour, walk around, make the finger lines fast onto the finger, walk back aboard and warp yourself across, loosening the lines to the neighbour and tightening those to the finger until you’re there. Everything under control and only an extra 5 – 10 minutes passed, doing pleasant and satisfying boat work in safety.

I have warped from the leeward berth between fingers to the empty windward one in a rising gale. I used a primary sheet winch to pull the stern across. It was fine. Nicky and I have walked Rusalka around empty pontoons like walking a dog, one with a bow rope and one with a stern. Pull with the stern rope and use the bow rope to steer. Put a turn around a cleat to stop her.We’ve also moved deserted rafted boats from outside of us to outside of someone else in order to leave alongside raft-ups.

If the wind is pinning you into place and you have to leave, there is usually something off to windward that you can get a slipped line to, to pull the boat off, to get moving. Be very careful when slipping the line once you are under way: pull very slowly around the time when the loose end is getting short and just about to whip free from the distant object. Just at that time, a line is quite capable of flicking a turn around itself, sometimes tying you firmly with an unreachable half-hitch or worse.  This can be a major embarrassment and really mess up your smooth departure just after you thought everything had gone so well. Once the rope is in the water, pull it in very fast to keep it away from the prop. If something goes wrong and this is not possible, shout to the helmsman to go out of gear till you get the rope out of the water.

Be careful about standing holding a rope and pulling a boat around with it. You are usually facing the open water at the time and the boat is quite capable of pulling you straight in, for example in a gust. I know I have done this, I mentioned walking down the sidedeck holding a rope that held the whole boat in a gale above. I haven’t been pulled in ever, but it’s not recommended. The safe way to hold a boat by a rope is to pass the rope under a cleat at your feet then hold a rope that is pulling you down into the pontoon or the deck, not away into the sea.

Coming and going

When I bought Rusalka I inherited a set of heavy docklines, shackled and chained to the marina cleats, with eyes spliced in the other ends for the cleats aboard. I hated them and quickly changed over to using the normal mooring warps permanently in the home berth, winter and summer. I thought they would quickly wear out and that I would replace them as necessary. Well, 18 years have passed, and I haven’t had to replace a single one yet.

Coming into your own marina berth with the lines left behind on the dock is a nightmare – you either have to stand on the deck fishing around with a boathook while precious seconds slip away and the boat begins to drift, or you must jump ashore holding nothing attached to the boat, so it can drift away without you. You end up trying to pull it back in by the guard rails – another sure way to have it pull you into the water one day. Always have one or two people step ashore with ropes in their hands to get quick turns onto the shore cleats. This applies in distant harbours and marinas where you are a visitor, so why should you not practice the procedure every time you use the boat at home too? Again it is the seaman-like thing to do.

If you are single- or short-handed you have to decide as you come in, which is the most important rope to get on first? It is the one that will hold the boat roughly in place without any others. If the wind is from ahead, it’s the bow-rope, etc. If the wind is off the dock or blowing you forwards in a short finger berth, then a short midships spring may be the best bet. This one is not a normal part of the mooring plan, but is often temporarily invaluable when singlehanded. Rusalka has no midships cleat, so I run this line from a strong point on the cabin roof under the rails to a pontoon cleat whenever it may help coming in and often when about to leave too.

Once you have temporary hitches holding the boat in place, it is time to change over to final mooring knots. As you know, you really must keep all your tangles off the public pontoon and off your neighbour’s boat when rafting up. If you’re going again in just a few hours, then double some or all of your lines back as slips. If we’re staying overnight or longer, then we put a round-turn and a bowline through the middle of each cleat ashore. That is the most secure and tidy, and kindest on the rope too in terms of chafe.

When leaving, these lines will have to be removed one by one. Just one, or two, of them need to be kept as slips. Once again, I was taught that the sight of someone standing holding the boat by the guard rails waiting for the word, then shoving off and scrambling aboard at the last second was an unseaman-like, amateurish shambles that one day will surely go completely wrong. It will go wrong either with a bigger boat, a stronger wind, slippery shoes, a more rheumatic crewmember or – heaven forbid, singlehanded skipper – landing in the drink while the boat goes off without him or her.

So, with the lines, it’s back to choosing that single rope that will just hold her. If I’m singlehanded then one slipped line it has to be, sometimes the midships line or sometimes a bow or stern line that allows the boat to drift out at a slightly strange angle for a minute. When we’re both there, we often have two slipped lines, one each. The point is that, once all the ropes are removed except for one or two slips, everyone gets aboard and the casting off is done from there, being careful that the ends don’t whip themselves into knots. Foredeck people should shout, “Clear!” in a way that is audible at the helm. Slipping the lines in the right order, with a few seconds delay, can sometimes allow the boat to blow helpfully in the right direction before applying power.

I have tried the trick where you motor against a spring to bring the bow or stern out into the wind, then slip the spring. In the kind of on-shore wind where it matters, Rusalka usually drifts back in again before I have a chance to get away. I have seen very substantial fishing boats make it look easy in Weymouth, so maybe this says more about how underpowered Rusalka is under engine than anything else.

I spent a week in a finger berth in Brixham once, taking people out for sails around Torbay each day. The wind was a steady 20 – 25 knots all week (westerly, which is why we weren’t sailing to Ireland as planned). We found that rigging a slip from the bow back to the cleat on the end of the finger allowed us to motor out gently in reverse then wait for the wind to settle her to this bow line. Foredeck crew could then slip it and in a few seconds the bow blew off to the right direction to leave smoothly. This was much more preferable than a near disaster I managed in a windy Southampton marina once. I had left my own berth and reversed as far back as I could, upwind into the space of a few empty finger berths. Forward gear, rudder hard over and I began careering downwind straight into the sterns of several expensive yachts across the way. I was amazed how quickly the space began disappearing. Once you start, you quickly pass a point where you are committed. All I could do was pile on more power, keep the rudder over, and hope. Not good. In the end I escaped with a glancing blow against somebody’s scooped stern bathing platform, just above my waterline at who knows what stupid speed. Never again. Use ropes.

Coming alongside

Always approach so that you will stop more head-to-wind than not. Come in at about 45 degrees if your prop walk in astern will help pull the stern in (which is preferable) and as shallow an angle as possible if it won’t. If the prop walk is going to help, this is great fun. Use plenty of speed and take her out of forward gear early. Use the rudder to flick the bow away from the dock at the right moment, engage reverse and apply plenty of power. The boat will turn sideways and drift gently against the dock broadside on while you blast away in reverse gear until she stops. Judging the right moment to turn means that this manoeuvre is worth a little practice when the conditions are right and you have time on your hands. I have watched ferries on Lake Windermere doing exactly this with great aplomb as they came up to their passenger piers. I use it all the time when I row a dinghy up to Rusalka‘s stern ladder – row hard, flick the boat sideways, pull powerfully backwards once or twice, then whip one oar out of the rowlock quickly and bump gently against, broadside on. If the prop walk is not going to help you, do your best with the rudder, but be prepared for failure in an offshore blow. If you have a crew, don’t expect them to make super-human leaps across open water, just to save you from your mistakes, go round again and try it slower. In the end try reversing up and lassoing something or throwing a line to a passing helpful person. The bow can be warped in later.

I watched a helpful crewmember stood on the sidedeck of a boat coming into an alonside space recently. As the helmsman passed very close to the bow of the last boat before the space, the crew put out his foot and gave that boat a hefty shove away.  This completely messed up the approach and the helmsman could not get anywhere near the pontoon in the distance left. Keep your crew informed when you need their help and when you do not.


It is rarely a good idea to drive ahead down a narrow space where you will not be able to turn, as you may not be able to reverse out when the time comes. Much better to reverse in now, so that if you get there you will certainly be able to drive out. Reversing a long-keeled boat down a long narrow alley in a crosswind can seem impossible.

There are a few things that will help. First, face aft and hold the tiller or wheel very firmly, it can pull out of your hand as the rudder is quite unbalanced in reverse. Second, be aware that she will try to weather-cock stern-to-wind and be prepared to fight that. Third, be prepared to lose the fight not just once but several times in a few dozen yards.

If she starts to veer off towards the shore, be that other boats or a harbour wall, and increasing rudder angles are no longer preventing the veer, reverse the rudder and change gear to forwards. Two things will happen, both good. She will slow down and that averts the collision. Prop wash over the rudder (even though you are moving backwards) will push the stern around as directed by you via the rudder. This should also prevent any collision. Try not to stop entirely as that will really encourage the bow to blow off downwind and you could end up stopped against your lee shore (you did rig fenders and ropes all round for this, didn’t you?)

Sometimes, when doing this, Nicky has been up on the foredeck carefully wielding a boathook. By applying a carefully aimed push onto some strong part of a passing boat, or onto the harbour wall, from the bow, she has been able to keep the boat straighter for longer. Try not to smash their windows, bend their windvanes or scratch their classic topsides doing this, it’s not really essential as diligent blasts of forward thrust can save the day anyway. If you do stop and drift alongside something, either shove off again from midships with the boathook (carefully!), or give up and set about warping her the rest of the way.

Manoeuvring in a current

There is not much water movement in our home marina, but many do have river or tidal streams under the pontoons. Lézardrieux in northern France has ferocious currents in its marina. There are two ways to look at currents. Sometimes, such as when approaching a mooring buoy in a river like the Yealm, it is sufficient to think of it being towed through the water by a submarine: just chase after it and catch it up. Don’t forget that the cliffs, the shallows and the pier are all also being towed by the same huge submarine, so stay out of their way too.

The more seaman-like way to deal with currents (and strong cross-winds) is by transits. Forget where you are pointing the bow, the important thing is which way are you going? More to the point, are you going in the direction you want to go in? The only way to find out is to line two things up and keep them lined up. If you want to approach a berth, take note of whatever is in the background behind it and keep those things behind it as it gets closer. That’s the only way to be sure.

I have discussed what a friend called ‘transients’ too. This was his idea that if you have a nearby and more distant thing appearing to move past each other, then the direction of that movement tells you which side of the nearer thing you will pass. The concept is sound but I’ve since found that the correct nautical terminology is ‘opening’ and ‘closing’. When steering the boat into a boat hoist, make sure that the steelwork on both sides of it is opening for you, regardless of which way that means you have to point the bow. The same applies to harbour mouths you hope to enter and pierheads and moored boats you intend to go around.

How to sail

12 November 2009

This sounds like it’s going to be a big section, but really there’s not that much to it. It’s easy to make a sailing boat sail: you just pull the strings and off it goes. The trick is knowing which ones to pull, when, and how hard.

Everything you can say about sailing has two sections to it – when sailing with the wind ahead of the beam and when the wind is aft of the beam. This is because, in a fore-and-aft rigged boat (like almost all modern yachts) there are two modes of operation of the sails. They can either be acting as aerofoils in a laminar flow of air (wind ahead of the beam) or they can be acting as wind-jammers, stalled and mostly just catching the wind and turning it into turbulence (wind aft). Somewhere around a beam reach, the boom is so far out that it comes in contact with the shrouds, won’t go out any further, and there is a transition from one mode to the other if the wind continues to back aft.

Wind ahead of the beam

When the sails are acting as aerofoils, the simplest rule for trimming them is to start with the fore-most sail on the boat and pull in the sheet until the luff just fills and goes quiet. If it’s already full and quiet, then let it out slightly until the sail just luffs and then pull it in again, just enough, as above. Work your way aft doing the same with each sail and you are then making the best possible progress on this course. If you want to prove that, head the boat up slightly into the wind and, within a few degrees, both or all three sails should begin to luff at the same time, most of their way up their height, together.

Why do I say ‘both or all three’? Many cruising yachts were designed to fly more than just a main and a jib. This is because designers considered keeping the size of each individual sail down to something that is manageable by one person on deck in a gale. They also wanted to keep mast height down, to make oversized standing rigging more feasible for the height supported. Modern ‘cruiser-racer’ designs do not always follow these considerations, as there is no doubt that each extra luff, let alone extra mast, presents considerable windage that reduces the up-wind efficiency of the rig. Roller reefing foresails and in-mast furling mainsails (or lazyjacks and self-stowing mains) are also meant to reduce the effort involved in handling big sails, although I don’t really like these things – they add to the weight and clutter aloft and can jam up terribly when you really don’t want them to. Rusalka Mist is a cutter, which means she has a jib at the bow, a staysail that attaches aft on the foredeck, and a mainsail. There are many cruising ketches around that have a jib, a main and a mizzen mast for the third sail.

Every sail works by deflecting the air, and that is why I suggested starting with trimming the fore-most sail – it is slicing into clean air. Every sail behind it is slicing into air that has already been deflected by the sail(s) in front. When all your sails are trimmed, you should see that each one’s sheet is hardened in a little more than the one in front of it. This is correct, and is another factor that limits the upwind performance of a three-sailed boat – at some point the aft-most sail becomes so hardened in that it effectively prevents you pointing higher into the wind than if it wasn’t there.

Sail twist

I mentioned above that, when luffing, each sail should luff uniformly up its height. This is slightly unrealistic as no sail is cut so perfectly, but if it is clear that a sail luffs at the bottom way before the top, or vice versa, then the sail twist can be adjusted.

For a foresail, changing the sheeting angle by moving the sheeting car will do this. Move it forward to pull in the top of the sail relative to the bottom, and aft for the opposite effect. On the mainsail, once the boom angle is set, pulling down on the boom will reduce sail twist and letting it up increases it. You can adjust the downforce on the boom either with the kicking strap or by changing the sheeting angle by moving the mainsheet car. Putting the sheet car under the boom increases the downforce, putting it away to windward reduces the downforce.

Some sail twist is usually required and the reason is that the boat is sailing in a relative wind, created by a combination of the actual wind and a wind effectively generated by the boat’s motion. Now, the real wind is all blowing in the same direction, but there is usually a noticeable speed-gradient in it, with the wind nearest the water going a little slower than the wind at mast-top height, due the drag on the water slowing it down. The wind generated by the boat’s motion is in a different direction and has no such gradient – the deck is going at exactly the same speed as the mast-top. When you combine these two ‘vector fields’ you end up with an apparent wind that is slightly more on the bow at deck-height than it is at the masthead. That’s why we need a little twist in each sail, to make the most of each part of the wind gradient. The top of the sail is held slightly further off the wind than the bottom. Exactly how much can only be found by trial and error. When the sail luffs all the way up at the same time, or at least in the middle, we have it right.

Sail shape

When sailing upwind, it is important to have the luffs of the sails tight. Any flapping or bellying of the luff will make the sail much less efficient. But there is slightly more to it than that. Sails are not flat pieces of cloth, and they are not cut with their threads parallel with the luff either. The sail has a three-dimensional shape, that can be altered by tightening or slightly easing the halyard, to stretch or relax the cloth in the luff.

Looking up, you can see the curvature of the sail along each fore and aft line. Some sails even have dark tapes sewn into them to make this curve more apparent from below. Where is the point of maximum curvature? We do not want to see the front half of the sail only gently curved with the maximum curvature aft of the centreline and the last bit of sail hooked around. If this is the case, get a winch handle and tighten the luff, stretch the cloth ‘on the bias’ and pull that point of maximum curvature forward, at least to the centre of the sail and preferably to a point about one third from the front of the sail. It may be necessary to de-power the sail by releasing the sheet until the luff shakes free, or by rounding up into the wind, to do this in any kind of breeze.

Now, how deep is that belly? If it is too deep and baggy on the mainsail, you may be able to tighten the outhaul on the boom to flatten things out. Generally speaking, the stronger the wind, the flatter you want your sails; you can afford to have them bag in a gentle zephyr, but that will make you heel too much and slow you down in a blow. Think Wright-brother wings or fighter-jet wings depending on the conditions. Racing sailors will also tighten the standing rigging to bend the mast to reduce this bagginess on their craft. Hopefully your long-distance cruising mast is way too stiff for you to do this, and hopefully no-one has rigged you any lines to try it with either. In the end, too much bag, in main or foresails, might mean that the sails have reached the end of their life and it’s time to fork out on new ones. I recently reached this point in this, Rusalka‘s twentieth year afloat, and I can vouch for the better shape in new sails than in twenty-year-old ones. That’s not to say the old ones didn’t work, of course, but there comes a time…

The last adjustment for sail shape is the leech-cords. These come into use if you hear a steady machine-gun noise from a sail that turns out to be caused by the leech (the trailing edge) fluttering in the wind even though everything else is right. A gentle pull on the cord should stop this, give everybody some peace and stop that flutter from slowing the boat down with a steady stream of turbulence being left behind. Over-tensioning these cords will cause the leech of the sail to ‘hook’ which severely disrupts the airflow as it leaves the sail and should be avoided. Again, just tight enough and no more.


Sailing into or across the wind with too much sail up leads to too much heel. There is never any point in sailing at more than about 20 degrees of heel. If you don’t have an inclinometer built into the compass, then fit a separate one, they’re very cheap and simple. I fitted one down below anyway, as that is where I spend most of my time these days when under sail (more on such tactics in another article). If you have just spent the last few weeks living aboard, seeing your whole home tilt at even 10 degrees can be alarming at first, so it’s worth having a impartial gauge to consult when in doubt.

Learning when to reef the sails was one of the biggest single step-changes I made during my early sailing adventures. (Learning to follow transits was another, but that goes elsewhere too.) “The time to put in a reef is when you first think about it. If you’re thinking of taking one out, have a cup of tea first,” I was told by some instructional video that I had at the time.

A boat with too much sail up heels over too far for comfort or for safety when walking about on deck or down below. Heeling also increases weather helm, which reduces your ability to manoeuvre, or even to maintain the course you want. Not only that, but the increased rudder angle under water increases drag and slows the boat down. The sails, when the mast is angled over too far, present less effective area to the wind and so also become less efficient, which slows the boat down. The increased white water and sense of urgency on deck is caused less by increased speed and is more due to pushing wrong-shaped parts of the hull under water and by dragging a deeply angled and inefficient keel sideways with the increased leeway.

Put your harness on, clip on securely and get up there. Put a reef in the main; change to a smaller jib; if you have three or more sails, lower one altogether. The peace and calm will astound you. Life can resume. Then check the GPS – you’re probably going no slower and may even be making a better VMG towards your waypoint than you were before. And you can think; and you feel in control again; and you can put the kettle on too, and maybe make a sandwich.

Notice I didn’t say, roll some of the main away and roll up half the jib. These two actions, if possible, will also destroy your sail shapes and lead to only a fraction of the improvements that could have been gained from what I suggested. Understanding this may lead to saving you a lot of money, or to you regretting having spent it as you convert your rig back to more traditional lines.

It is possible to reduce sail too much. Look at the bow of your boat, look at the mast and all its rigging. All of this is exposed to the wind too. Expecting a postage-stamp of sail to pull all that windage upwind off a lee shore on a stormy night is unrealistic. Sailing at 15 to 20 degrees of heel will not hurt you or the boat and is sometimes just the thing to do. Even sailing with the side decks under, heeling 30 or 40 degrees, won’t hurt the boat. Just be aware that it’s never necessary, but don’t panic if it happens. Clip on, adjust the sails, alter the course or reef and reduce sail and all will be well. Those tonnes of lead in the keel will bring you back up – never let yourself or any of your crew worry that, ‘We’re going to tip over!’ – it’s not like that. Not in a fully decked, well-found and properly ballasted yacht.

Wind aft of the beam

If the wind is aft of the beam, the sails are stalled and do not need careful trimming. There are a few things to look out for, though. The most important issue is safety from an unexpected gybe. If the boom comes across the boat and somebody is hit by it, or by any part of the mainsheet, they can be killed. Simple as that. If it comes across hard enough, it can bring down the mast too. In any blow with some part of the passage possibly off the wind, I always rig preventers before leaving. There are several designs of boom brakes and other gizmoes, but I haven’t seen anything better than the simplest approach.

If the main does get back-winded with a preventer rigged, you will want the preventer to have maximum possible mechanical advantage to prevent damage to the boom and to allow you the strength to sort it out safely. So, there is no point in attaching anything to the middle of the boom, you want a line running forward from the boom end. I say forward as, in the interests of mechanical advantage, there is no point in this line attaching amidships or anywhere near the mast (the pivot point). I have two hefty U-bolts on the foredeck that hold the forward ends of the jackstays, and that I can also clip my harness onto directly when I’m up there at sea. To begin with, I used to pass the preventers through these and lead them back along the sidedecks to the cockpit. Nowadays I have splashed out on a pair of snatch-blocks and attach these to the U-bolts first to reduce friction on the lines. With preventers rigged, you can relax as the boat rolls and the wind dies too.

There is a limit to how far you want to let out the foresails too. The rule I use is never to let out the sheet so that the sail leaves the stay headed in a forward direction. The luff of the sail should be at right angles to the centreline, no more. The reason for this is that I once read about the mechanics of a ‘rolling engine’ that you can establish with the top part of the sail sagging off forward. As the boat rolls to windward, the top of the sail un-stalls, becomes laminar and efficient and reduces the pull to leeward. At the peak of the roll it stalls again and the extra drag pulls you back into the roll to leeward. Something like that. I don’t know if its true, but we roll badly enough on a broad reach in a blow that I’ve never wanted to find out. Right-angled luffs are good enough for me as they look effective too. Sail twist in the main can lead to the same effect at the top and tension in the kicking strap pulls everything back into shape there too.

Specialist sails

I have a whisker pole and have occasionally poled out the genoa. I use a downhaul to the foredeck to keep it under control. We also have a MPS or cruising chute, a ‘nylon diesel’, that I have used in the English Channel, but it was never needed further afield. People in the past have sworn by ‘twins’, two matching jibs hoisted on the same stay and poled out in opposite directions. I have never tried them, but the theory is good. I made sure that the new rolling furling foil for the jib had two slots just in case I ever do. While in Santa Cruz de Tenerife we watched another yacht in the harbour testing the hoisting and rigging of a square sail and yard in preparation for their trade wind Atlantic crossing. It looked rather large to me, but I never heard from them to find out how it went.

Specialist downwind sails including spinnakers and square sails usually work in a slightly different way to stalled fore-and-aft sails off the wind. They can act in a laminar-flow, non-stalled way with the top edge(s) acting as leading edge(s) and significant airflow down the sail from top to bottom. This provides vertical lift as well as drive. The vertical lift keeps the bow from digging in and the lack of turbulence due to not being stalled can reduce rolling and other unpredictable behaviours.


With the wind fair a man is master of his boat and has the power to drive her as hard as he wishes – even to the point of destruction. In a contrary wind a well found yacht is master. She has more stamina to windward than any man by himself…

So wrote Frank Mulville in his excellent book Single-handed Sailing in 1981. While on the wind we look at the inclinometer to decide when to reduce sail; off the wind we look at the log. The speed of the boat must be kept under control. For Rusalka, I limit the downwind speed at six knots, but the figure depends on waterline length, sea conditions, wind strength and self-steering efficiency. Too fast and you put excess stress on the steering gear and the rudder can end up biting into nothing but foam.

Reducing sail downwind in a blow can be problematic. If the sails cannot be pulled down on the downwind course, due to friction in the mast track or problems on the foredeck, then rounding up by passing beam-on through heavy seas can be quite daunting. Nothing beats getting a good forecast of wind to come and getting the sails down or reefed before the forces build up. This is where earlier comments about smaller sails on cruising boats begin to make more sense.

Sailing slowly

Another problem a lot of cruising converts have is in learning when and how not to sail at the maximum capability of the boat and the rig. Most of my comments above have been about tweaking the sails for maximum effectiveness, but that is where most tutorials end with no mention of how to slow down for the night, in the harbour, when sailing up to a buoy, or to a man overboard.

Practicing manoeuvres under sail, when there is no need to, is good practice. You never know when the engine will fail, a rope or net will foul the prop or some other need may arise. Being familiar with how your boat behaves under sail is invaluable when you need it. It’s so satisfying too. In harbour, I usually have the engine ticking over out of gear anyway while I’m messing around under sail, just in case I misjudge something or the unexpected arrives around the pierhead.

Reducing sail is the obvious way to reduce speed. Significant speed reductions need significant changes, so whole sails come down on the way into harbour. Rusalka will handle on most points of sail under just the staysail, as it is near enough to midships, but this is relatively unusual. There is nothing to stop you putting a second or third reef into the main and rolling up two thirds of the jib to come slowly into a bay or a harbour to anchor. If you’re going to want to tack efficiently up wind, then maybe changing to a storm jib in good time is worth the effort before getting into confined waters.

There are other ways quickly and temporarily to slow a boat down under sail. Letting the jib sheets fly is well known but can lead to turning a big sail into a huge unruly flag with the downwind drag on the bow still significant. Slackening the sheets to spill wind is OK when manoeuvring, but is no substitute for reducing sail as a long-term response to a rising wind. The old gaffers used to ‘scandalise the main’ to reduce its drive. We can do something similar by slackening the kicking strap and mainsheet right off and pulling in several yards of topping lift. With the boom right up in the air, there is very little drive from the mainsail, even downwind. Mainsail drive can be reinstated in a moment just by dropping the boom again, which would not be so easy if the main had been dropped onto the deck.

With a reef or two in the main, even on a big yacht (36 – 40 ft) the main sheet can be man-handled in one piece just like a dinghy or windsurfer. This is useful when manoeuvring slowly up to a mark.

Don’t try to sail too close to the wind when underpowered or using makeshift slow rigs – 50 degrees off the wind will work, anything less may not. Keep enough speed to keep control via the rudder.

When sailing the open sea with no one on deck, even more so at night, it is impossible to say that there is not some floating tree or shipping container lurking in front, or a sleeping whale. The best defence against these possibilities is not to spend all night gripping the tiller and staring into the blackness, but to sail slowly. Hitting a steel shipping container at 4 knots will do a lot less damage than hitting it at 7 knots. The time to race is in the bay with all your friends around, not in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night with no one for hundreds of miles to come and help you. Take it easy.

How to read this blog

12 November 2009

Well, you can see that I am giving myself free-reign here to tell people what to do, and how to do it. All the posts are headed, ‘How to…’ and I hope you can see that there is an element of irony to all of this.  I can’t tell you what to do, and if I do, you still don’t have to do it.  I’m just putting all this down in a direct, simple way, without too much embellishment. You can take parts of it with you, or leave them behind.  Something else you can do is comment on any point I make – I would love to get into discussions here about the pros and cons of different approaches and mindsets to cruising under sail. If you have real-world experiences, books or articles that flatly contradict, or add something to, the advice I give anywhere here, I’d love to hear about them.  If you can convince me, I’ll change the articles themselves very willingly.

So, don’t be put of by any of my didactic, pedantic or opinionated statements – weigh them up, try them on, see if they fit. If you know more about it than me, or if you think I haven’t thought something through, let me know. Equally, if one or two of my ideas work for you, there’s nothing to stop you letting us know that too.  🙂

Happy sailing.

How to spend your money

7 November 2009

You would think that parting with money is one subject that few of us need any help with. Fitting out a cruising yacht can be a very expensive undertaking. In the bright lights of the chandlery, many shiny things can seem very attractive. You need some ways to classify your needs to help you separate the vital from the important, the essential from the necessary.

I wrote some time ago that, “A boat is not like a car, which comes from the manufacturer ready to use and fairly well complete. While a yacht may be sailed out of her manufacturers slip, she needs an lot of other fittings and work to be done before she becomes a long-distance cruiser and a home for her crew.”[1]

Safety of life

The highest priority purchases are those concerned with maintaining and possibly saving the lives of yourself, your loved ones and crew and possibly other people you may come across in your travels. No expense should be spared in this area and no compromises made.

Keeping the boat afloat is top priority, and involved in this is every single fitting that could fail and by so doing sink the boat. This includes the hatches, the lockers, the windows, the seacocks, the exhaust fittings, the prop shaft and its glands, the toilet etc. You may separate the ‘safety of life’ aspects of these things (like the doubled hose clamps on every toilet pipe) from the mundane (like the finish on the toilet seat), but safety of life items should be perfect in every way with no room for improvement. For me this included through-bolting the cabin window fittings rather than relying on self-tapping screws. Are the catches and hinges on the cockpit lockers up to ‘safety of life’ engineering standards? They need to be, as nothing will sink a boat much quicker than an open cockpit locker in a full gale while everybody is below decks feeling ill and perhaps injured, with the hatchboards bolted in place obscuring the view.

Then comes the question, if the boat is sinking, what next? I have a French kit that includes rubber gloves and some two-part underwater expanding foam that you’re meant to stuff into a major hull rupture. I have no idea if that would do any good, but there are some more sensible things to have. At least two manual bilge pumps, one operated from below decks and one from above is a wise suggestion. I added a large, high power electric pump too, but it would only fit alongside the engine so has never been wet for testing yet. Being able to re-use below-decks locker covers as nail-on replacements for broken windows probably only applies to wooden boats, but is worth a thought. Another on the same lines is having some long pieces of wood on board that can be used to brace back outwards a section of caved-in GRP below the waterline: Dinghy oars? Boat hook? etc. Of course, you know about rigging a sail under water against the hull from the outside to reduce leakage from such a dosh, don’t you?

So far, expenditure on keeping the boat afloat has been minimal, but I want to stress the importance of looking again at everyday things like hinges, toilets and exhaust pipes and maintaining, or ‘engineering’ them to the highest possible safety standards before spending money on nice-to-haves.

Clearly there are some things to buy for safety’s sake. A liferaft with excellent, accessible mountings is right up there, alongside a large and interesting first aid kit. We had three of those attache-case sized plastic boxes stuffed full by the time we left, with every advice taken from doctors, medical friends, books and magazines. Apart from normal everyday usage, we brought most of it back unused, thank goodness. One case-full remains on board for shorter local trips and still remains mostly pristine. On the back of the boat are the ‘yellow goods’: one or two horseshoe buoys with attached drogue, whistle, light and possible dan-buoy. We had a towable life-ring with floating rope and a weighted, throwable bag of floating line too. All of these things should be marked with the boat name; the horseshoe buoy is a good place to display the name where marina officials can actually see it to help them spell it correctly. The thought has sometimes crossed my mind as to the use of these things to a singlehanded sailor. It is true that once I am overboard, there will be no one left to throw anything to me. On the other hand, a singlehander is as likely as anyone else to be first on the scene when someone else is in the water, whether this is as a result of answering a mayday call or of following another boat into harbour.

Electronics saves lives too, especially VHF radios on channel 16 (carry a spare handheld and take it with you on dinghy trips ashore) and the satellite EPIRB. Make sure the EPIRB is properly registered, in-date and tested. Mount is sensibly in the cockpit and consider the extra expense of a mount that deploys automatically after the boat has sunk in case you forget it. Never put to sea, further than across the bay without it assembled, in its mount, and ready to deploy.

Jackstays, harness points, lifejackets with harness and crotch straps and tethers are all part of an essential system to keep everybody safely attached if they do go over the side. These, like the liferails around the boat, must all be full-strength, no-nonsense fittings, preferably bolted through backing plates behind the fixing points.

Apart from the things that could save your life, what about the things that might try to kill you? Rusalka Mist has oversized standing rigging on a short mast that we know has survived hitting the water in at least one knock down. You must decide what makes you believe that your mast won’t come down in a Force 8 – 10, as you cannot tell what may hit if you put to sea for days or weeks on end. If it does come down, you will need some wire cutters designed for stainless steel rigging to cut it free before it knocks a hole in the side of the boat. Remember, none of this will happen in a calm sea when you feel your best.

Fire on board is a very serious issue. What can catch fire? The cooker, the gas locker, the engine, the fuel tank. If you’re going to smoke in bed or light candles or oil lamps, the list just got longer. Over-equip yourself with fire extinguishers at all ends of the boat, including at least one automatic one in the engine space. Fit a gas alarm. Maybe a carbon monoxide alarm too. Oh, and a smoke alarm.

Electrics cause fires and also drive everyone nuts when they stop working at the crucial moment. There are two cures to these two problems: first do not connect anything to the electrics without a proper circuit breaker and the correct gauge wire, properly installed where it won’t chafe. Second, apply silicone grease to each wire in every electrical connection you make, from the masthead light to the chart light, from the anchor windlass to the starter motor. Grease is an electrical insulator, but you will tighten the connection hard enough that all the grease will be squeezed out from the metal-to-metal contact points, but then those points will be encapsulated in pure grease to keep the moisture, salt and humidity away from them for decades afloat.


When I was buying equipment for our long-distance travels, the process at times became like an interlocking 3-D jigsaw. First, everything important should have a backup, so the windvane steering does the same job as the electronic self steering and the old tiller pilot can replace the new one if needs be. But also, if possible, things should be dual purpose if it can be arranged, so the covers for the cave lockers behind the two main bunks double as bed-boards for the ‘centre bunk’ that makes those two into a double.[2] Extra safety-rails around the cockpit become mounting points for the solar panels.[3] The spare anchor rode with 60 m of nylon line also doubles as a potential towrope for the storm drogue. The rollers on the stern will reduce chafe when towing a drogue as well as when lying to dock ropes in a marina berth.

Very often, the backup option also involves more input from you, the human. If the electronic chart plotter fails, you will have to plot the positions on the paper chart. If the horn fails, you will have to blow into the manual fog-horn. Just make sure you also have the pencils, rulers, fog-horns, matches, sextant or whatever it takes to take over if important equipment fails.

There is one last class of equipment that stands outside of this – gear that does something you could not do if you didn’t have it. Nothing can see through fog like radar, for example. It used to be that nothing could pick up weather forecasts or allow you to speak half way across an ocean like HF radios (aka shortwave, SSB or worldband), but now there is satellite communication too. With these things you have to decide, if you need that, buy one, if you don’t then live without it. You can’t improvise one, or make something else double for one in an emergency. If you didn’t buy one, do without.

Life as we know it

Finally we get down to living aboard. This, don’t forget, is the whole point of cruising, but there is no point in having every comfort laid on for when you reach harbour, if you don’t get there in one piece. That said, we had all kinds of nice things on board from a television to nail files, from solar showers to a 12 V coolbox.

Life aboard in cold climates is made much more comfortable by Tilley lamps. They burn pressurised paraffin and provide plenty of heat as well as light on cold dark evenings. High-latitude summers have enough daylight for our two solar panels to power all our toys, day and night, under way and in port. Tropical days are much shorter, and the nights correspondingly longer, so that we were running out of electrical power when underway. The backup, of course, was to start the engine to provide charge, but I felt a lot happier after we bought the towed generator to provide extra charge at sea. I don’t have a wind powered generator aboard as, to me, they look very likely to turn into another ‘thing that is trying to kill you’ in a rising gale. They can also be noisy and transmit vibrations throughout the hull, so personally, I’d rather find room for more solar panels than fit one at the moment.

In addition, there is room aboard for hobbies. This, for us, includes books, cooking equipment, a laptop computer and, for me, tools. Really, I wonder if you’re really suited to the cruising life if your hobbies do not include making and mending things. I know people who cruise with a steady stream of local workmen coming aboard to fix and fit things. To me, doing those things myself is part of the joy. On the other hand, it is important to know your limitations: I am not a diesel engine expert, and sometimes the reliability of that engine is fairly essential, so I have people who have been on training courses and who have easy access to all the right spares parts look after that for me. My partner, Nicky, enjoyed sketching, pastels, water colours and even got into cross-stitching while we were away. Some people have a sewing machine on board and even make a bit of money from it. We found that skill-bartering worked well for us: my electronic skills helped me fix someone’s self-steering and their underwater dexterity meant that they could scrape our weedy bottom clean in half a day.

How to buy a boat

4 November 2009

The first step to a cruising life is to choose and buy your boat. Or maybe build it, but even if you’re planning to do that, you have to choose the design first too. Many sailors already have a boat, and so the advice for them is to look at it afresh and decide if it really is the one for you, and your companions, and for the lifestyle you have in mind.

The two main differences between local day sailing or day racing, and cruising is that you  spend many more hours on board, both sailing and anchored or tied up, and you may end up sailing in weather or sea conditions that you did not specifically choose.

Starting with the hull, the most important thing is that it is a seaworthy shape. Seaworthy is not the same as fast.

Plan form

If you look down on a yacht and it looks like the front half of a much bigger boat, then what you have may well be fast, it may even plane in a calm sea with a huge spinnaker up. The trouble is that when it heels, it will tilt bow-down. It will be a real handful in a blow, needing a skilled and alert hand on the helm. That wide aft-section has a huge buoyancy and when following seas come up under it, it will be picked up and swept to the side, again needing quick, agile and accurate actions from the helm to prevent broaching.

When you look down on a sea-kindly yacht it looks like a boat, tapering in nicely at both ends with the widest beam around midships.

It should not be too beamy either. I have seen a diagram that shows a normal ocean swell passing under three different boats from the on the beam. One is an old-fashioned design called a lead-mine, which was very narrow with a heavy lead keel very deep below (hence the name). Due to the circulation of water within every wave, this design actually leaned into the oncoming wave as it approached and then tilted its mast after it as it departed. A flat-bottomed racing, planing design sits flat on the water and is tilted in the opposite way by the approaching water bulge – away from the approaching wave, then away from it the other way as it departs. The third boat, nicely proportioned in a classical, boaty kind of way, just goes up and down vertically without leaning either way.

Now, real waves are not the exact right size or shape for any boat and if there is such a beam wave that does not make Rusalka roll at all, there are enough of them that do that I’ve never noticed one in a rough sea. None the less, I’m sure there is some truth in that diagram, and that beamy boats  feel much worse when wallowing in a big sea.

‘Wallowing in a big sea’, you say? Well, don’t sit there wallowing, get some sail up and get moving! When she’s planing along with a white wake behind, you won’t be wallowing, you’ll be skimming over the top of it all as she was designed to do. Well that’s thinking like a racer again. What about when there’s no wind for three days, just a big swell on the beam? What about when you’re cooking and eating, or when you and your partner are both tired and no one  wants to hand-steer? What about if one of you has just fallen down the companionway, or burnt your hand while cooking and first aid is required? When you’re cruising, you can’t just retire and head back to the clubhouse when something goes wrong, or radio the safety boat to come and take a crew member off. You need a boat that will look after itself and all on board all the time, no matter what happens. You need a seaworthy boat, and that’s one that’s boat-shaped.


There is no doubt that the best lift to drag ratios come from high aspect ratio foils. That means that a long, narrow wing is more efficient on an aircraft and that a deep, narrow keel and a similar rudder are more efficient underneath a racing yacht. This underwater layout is also very handy in a crowded marina – the boat will be instantly responsive to the helm and you will be able to turn sharply into any tucked-away berth. This design also goes with the beamy, bummy plan form described above. When she gets twitchy in a blow with the unbalanced hull causing you to veer off course with every wave or gust, then the highly efficient steering will allow the highly alert helmsman instantly to correct every twitch and veer.

Yeah.  Well you can see where this is going, can’t you?  What about when the helm is exhausted, or when the self-steering is not at its best? Do you just accept broaches and rounding up as par for the course? Of course not. You need a boat that has inherent directional stability. Stability is an interesting subject. A coin on a table is ‘stable’ no matter whether is sitting on its side or balanced on its edge, but it is much more stable lying on it’s side. Fighter jets with anhedralled wings (sloping down as they leave the fuselage) are inherently so unstable that a human cannot fly them straight and level without the aid of the fly-by-wire computer. On the other hand they can twist and turn in flight so sharply that they hope to out-manoeuver any adversary.

A long-keeled yacht has a large tendency to want to keep going in the same direction, for the same reasons as the flights on the back of a dart or an arrow keep it predictable in flight. This can be a nuisance in a crowded marina, but can be a life-saver in a storm with exhausted or injured crew, with no one on deck for hours at a time, in a big following sea, under electronic or windvane self steering, etc, etc. In short, when cruising.

Having the aft end of the long keel attached to the bottom of the rudder not only makes the rudder much stronger, but also helps keep ropes and other debris out of the propeller, and stops floating things getting between the keel and the rudder to ruin your day that way too.

Berths and accommodation

The first thing you’ll lose without that big back-end is the stately aft cabin. It’s useful when all your family or friends want to come and stay in a marina, but it’s no use at sea and quickly becomes a junk storage area when living aboard for any time. When people came to visit us in distant places we booked them in a local hotel and took them for day sails around the bay. Sea berths are easy to get in and out of, are narrow and they have lee cloths or lee boards to keep you in place whatever the boat does. Double bunks are nice in harbour. Design a liveaboard boat for the people who are going to live aboard, under way and at rest. Liveaboard yachts are not holiday clubs or floating hotels – booking a hotel room ashore helps the local economy and gives both you and your guests space to relax and enjoy the visit.

Big, open spaces in a boat at sea are dangerous spaces. The narrower the walkway, the less far there is to fall. Falling into a something a foot away hurts, falling against something that is two or three meters away can easily break a bone, and a broken bone 800 miles from land can be a serious problem.

Other considerations

Apart from the main items discussed above, most of the rest a boat can be altered and adapted if they’re not quite right already. It’s worth thinking about a few points, though. If too much needs altering or adapting, it may alter the price you would like to pay for a given boat.

You’re going to want a big anchor, lots of heavy chain (or nylon rode) and a windlass to pull it all up with. Make sure that if these are not fitted already, there’s plenty of room for them, and not too fiddly to access and operate.
Guard rails
Nowhere is it written in stone that a yacht must have wire guard rails, but a power boat can have welded steel rails. I had a local stainless steel fabricator weld two 1″ tubes coming up off the top of the pushpit curving along beside the cockpit another 9 inches above the top wire and then curving down to replace the first stanchion, just ahead of the cockpit. These make the whole cockpit much more safe and secure, give me something to hold when standing staring out to sea, and gave me a place to mount a couple of solar panels, like solid dodgers.
The cooker must be on gimbals, so that it can be used at sea. There must be a bolt to stop it swinging around, for example when opening oven door, in port.
Windows and hatches
There is a story of one of the early ocean yachtsmen taking a hammer to the boatyard and smashing all the windows in his newly built yacht to prove to the builders that they weren’t strong enough. That’s probably over the top, but there is also a story here in Jersey of a powerboat coming back from France getting caught in overfalls where the tidal flow, the wind and the uneven seabed combine to cause large standing waves. It had the whole cabin top ripped off and sank in no time, losing all on board. I have seen yachts with very silly patio doors or french windows that didn’t look like they would stand the first boarding sea. Think in terms of wheelbarrow-fulls of water travelling at flying-through-the-air speeds. It certainly sounds like a hammer-blow when you are below.
Also think about securable hatch covers on the companionway and on all internal and cockpit lockers. You must not lose a companionway board in a storm and you do not want your woodwork tools all over the place inside after the first knockdown. I knew someone who cut 10-inch round holes on their cockpit coamings to fit big, weatherproof loudspeakers out there for the stereo. I don’t think those speaker cones are wheelbarrow-proof, and once ripped away, those 10-inch holes will sink the boat in a few hours. I hope he’s still OK.
You do not need a fridge on a boat. If you have one, providing it with power will come to dominate your life. Poor people living in hot countries – and that is a very large proportion of the whole human population – do not have fridges. Learn to shop and eat like they do. In the Caribbean we ended up going ashore about every other day. When ashore we treated ourselves to visits to cafes and bars. When shopping we had to discipline ourselves only to buy enough for the rest of today and for tomorrow. Anything fresh would be going off after that. We are used to milk in tea, but we soon got introduced to the joys of a kind of chai – tea bags, cinnamon bark and sugar all in a teapot and left to stew. Most meat we ate was in local eateries; afloat we made vegetable curries, lentil stews, ate fruit, and enjoyed the odd slices of ham or local cheese. It really wasn’t a hardship by any means. We have a fridge, but switching it on is a luxury, not a routine necessity.

In the end…

All of the above is not to say that perfectly successful long-distance cruises can’t take place in fast boats, or that people cannot live aboard boats with no guard rails or with huge aft cabins. These are just thoughts about the kind of things that may not be obvious, but that individually or collectively may make life a little more comfortable or a little safer in some circumstances.

How to cruise under sail

4 November 2009

Making landfall gently at St Aubin's Fort, Jersey, CII have been messing around in small boats since I was a kid. In 1999 – 2000, my partner Nicky and I took Rusalka Mist, my 28 ft sailboat from Jersey in the UK Channel Isles to the Caribbean and back. At the time I wrote and maintained a website describing the adventure and the steps that had led up to it at It’s still there and still gets a regular readership.

The purpose of this blog is to pass on and discuss some of the tips, tricks, techniques and gotchas that have come my way over the years.

Cruising and living aboard a sailing boat is different to racing it. A lot of what you read about sailing, and a lot of the advice you will receive at the average yacht club bar, is geared around racing. In my early days I found it very hard to develop a style and a mindset that suited cruising, life aboard, safety and self-sufficiency at sea. I hope that this blog makes a small contribution to solving that problem for some others.