Archive for November, 2009

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.