How to cruise under sail

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.



9 Responses to “How to cruise under sail”

  1. Ray Heap Says:

    Hi all, nice to see something from you again. I have read and re-read your site again and again and it had kept me company for quite some years now.
    Keep it up
    Greetings Ray

  2. Rico Torriani Says:

    Hi Ni&Ni, i also read all your adventures, thank you, enjoyed it. I hope you two are well and still together. My name is Rico, I live in Mombasa, try to sell my house and buy a boat with part of the money, the spirit willing. What i was thinking about today is a comment you made on your safari, that you met two elderly couples in the caribbees who regularly went to sleep together at sunset and got up at sunrise. You didnt elaborate more, but found it strange. I was pondering this issue of going to sleep safely and having what security to warn you. I didnt see any comments in the internet about that. Or, how much sleep is possible and still be safe. – Thank you again, include me in your prayers and sail down this side soon. Greetings. Rico

    • Nigel Says:

      Hi Rico. Lovely to hear from you – good luck with your cruising plans. This issue of sleep is indeed an important one at sea. Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll write a new post here about it in the next few days. I just need to let it rattle around in my head for a while to get it all straight. ‘Sleep on it’, as my dad used to say about tricky problems! Thanks, and, yes, keep safe.

  3. Mark Muller Says:

    Hi Nigel. Firstly, let me congratulate you on both the blog and the cruising website, I have trawled through both with great interest (there’s one other transatlantic account which I also really liked – authors and boat name escape me at this point!). I really like your style of writing and approach to the subject. Whether this is my perception, or not, I feel the sailing world is quite closed to landlubbers and you have opened it right up by answering questions I, for one, would be too timid to ask.
    I am a South African living in the Isle of Man (for 12 yrs). I have been sailing dinghies since childhood and I think I have saltwater in my blood (well I do, but you know what I mean!), having always been messing around in boats and spending 6 years in the SA Navy (in ships and submarines). I’ve also completed 2 long distance passages (ships), one from SA to Europe and one from SA to Chile. I have suddenly (midlife crisis??) got an increased urge to go cruising. My current safety net is finances! Otherwise I’d be away!
    My dream is to build a sturdy, over-engineered 30 footer, coastal cruise down to Lisbon-ish (majority time in Channel Isles and Vendee coast), make passage to Canaries via Madeira and cross atlantic to coincide with an ARC (but not as an entrant). In other words to basically follow your 99/2000 route.
    Your site has been fantastic in highlighting stuff I would never have thought of. My view on this type of escapade is that, although I’m no stranger to austerity, it must be as enjoyable as possible, so sleep is a big issue. Therefore I have decided on a total compliment of at least 3, to have 4 on, 8 off watches (I also quite like dog watches between 1800 to 2200, from my Navy experience).
    I would never have thought of self-steering being important (dinghies, you see!). I see, now, it’s a necessity. I’ve now designed a V-vane system loosely based on your Schwing Pilot. I have a few unresolved issues such as adjustment. Question: If strongly enough designed and engineered, do you think a DIY system is advisable for ocean passage? (I find, like yourself, that I end up re-engineering production stuff anyway!) The other biggie for me is radar – would never have dreamt of it! If on a tight budget, would you buy radar, or spend the money elsewhere, say additional/more expensive safety equipment?
    Another grey area for me is celestial nav. On my SA to Europe Navy trip, the purpose was practical celestial nav and passage planning. Unfortunately, that was a quarter of a century ago and, anyway, I stupidly treated it as more of a jolly than useful (I was young, what can I say). My point is, I never got the hang of heavenly body identification, swinging the sextant, navigating the almanacs and plotting my position, in the first place! And that was on a stupid-thousand-ton container vessel, we may as well have been ashore, it was so stable. Does it get any easier with age/when the mind is more focussed? Or is GPS reliable enough these days (assuming no power supply/equip failure issues)?
    As I said, I’m at the dream stage so far, but I tend to put dreams to paper and plan them down to what’s for tea on day 28! Sometimes the dreams are fulfilled, sometimes not. This one will come to pass, I just don’t know when – I’ve decided! It would be great to hear back from you. If not, that’s ok too.
    I look forward to the day I berth alongside Rusalka Mist (or her successor) and pick your brains for my imminent passage (or compare notes about my completed one!).
    Kind regards,

  4. Mark Muller Says:

    P.S. Further to my opening comments (the bracketed part), the boat, as it happens was also a Vancouver (a 32), called Gabriola and the couple were Peter and Sarah Sedman.

  5. Nigel Says:

    Hi Mark

    Lovely to hear from you. I don’t get much feedback about or this blog, but what I do get is so positive that it makes me feel it’s worth keeping them up (in both senses – keeping the old site up on the web, and keeping up with adding to this one as and when). Thank you for your comments, and I’m glad to be able to help if i can.

    I think ‘a sturdy, over-engineered 30 footer’ is the ideal thing for 2 – 3 people. It is unfortunate that nature made us form deep emotional bonds with *one* other person (at a time), but need *two* other people to get enough sleep on a 24-hr watch system! If you can solve that problem some way, good luck. For Nicky and I, the year-long holiday was a kind of extended and belated honeymoon and bonding time; other people I know fly out yacht-club friends and/or family to crew large boats on long passages, then go back to just ‘les deux’ for coastal cruising and island hopping. Looking back, for us, being holed up together and weathering come-what-may by ourselves was some kind of pair-bonding catharsis that made sense to us at the time, I guess.

    We met a French single-hander called Gerald in Tenerife, and again in Dominica ( who did the whole trip with a homemade windvane steering system. In Tenerife he talked me through the design and works and was planning how and where to mount a low-power Autohelm to steer a compass course while still getting the benefit of the power-amplification that the water paddle gives. In my early career I was a sales engineer for electronic control equipment. Apart from being strong enough to take anything thrown at it, the only other design variable in a windvane steering system is the ‘loop gain’. This is, how much does it move the rudder for a given error in apparent wind direction. Everything contributes to this – the length of each lever, the amount of twist on the water paddle for a deflection of the wind vane, the attachment point on the tiller, etc. In the end if the gain is too high (too much correction), the feedback system will oscillate and the boat will weave either side of a straight course (over-correcting all the time), ‘hunting’ for the true course. If the gain is too low, corrections will be sluggish and slow. It doesn’t matter which leverage point you shorten or lengthen to adjust the gain (except you may over-stress one too-short lever when you might have been better off shortening a different one). You want to find the maximum gain without any ‘hunting’. The required gain is different at low speeds (when there’s not much power from the paddle) or low winds (not much from the vane) and worse for both (e.g. ghosting in light air). Any homemade system will need a lot of shakedown testing in various conditions, and after you have drilled 6 holes in one piece of metal to find the right place for the pivot, be prepared to throw that one away and make a nice clean one for actual long-distance use.

    When I was making and buying things for the boat, I thought a lot about *double use* and *backup*. Double-use is like re-using a locker cover as an occasional table between bunks, or using the same make of gooseneck lights everywhere so that the same spares and bulbs applied to reading lights, the light in the heads, and the chart light. Back-up is like having an electric and two manual bilge pumps; a fixed GPS, a portable GPS and a sextant; windvane and electronic steering. Then I started to include *us* in the backup plans: If all the pumps fail, you can still bail with a bucket; if all the steering fails you can always sit at the tiller (oh, I had a spare tiller too, but never broke the first). Radar came into a whole new category – it can ‘see’ things that no human and no other equipment can see. With guardzones and a calm-ish sea, it can keep watch while everybody sleeps (for 10 – 20 minutes at a time). It kept surprising me with how useful it was. AIS is a modern alternative or backup, but it’s not deployed universally enough to really trust yet, I don’t think.

    Celestial nav is a problem. It’s the last backup after a lightning strike has taken out all the electrics, or a semi-sinking has destroyed all the acid in the batteries, so yes, it is essential I think. But it’s so hard! I’m fairly good with maths and was fairly well prepared with home-made sight reduction forms etc, but the thought of adding morning, noon and dusk sight to every day, and doing all the arithmetic and geometry to reduce and plot all these down to one good daily fix… I can’t imagine adding that to the daily routine on a small, undermanned yacht. On the other hand, it’s amazing what you can do when your life depends on it, and I _can_ imagine doing just a noon sight every day and so following a line of latitude to find an island. I did just one random sunsight (i.e. not noon) in the ocean and it took me nearly a whole watch to turn that into a line of position on the chart, and I felt really sea-sick by the end of it. It crossed our GPS position very nicely, which was good, but I never bothered to do it again. But, our lives didn’t depend on it, so where was the motivation? I’d say get the books, the stopwatch, the chronometer-quality clock, and the sextant; practice and learn, but then put it all away and hope that it’s no more use than the spare tiller was for me. I don’t see any value in having all that and then relying on a computer for the calculations (and the GPS for the time!!!), because if all that still works, you probably won’t need to bother.

    Rusalka Mist is still in St Helier marina and you would be very welcome to come and chew the cud. You would be the third person to find her (and me) after reading the website, and then come aboard.

    It’s great to hear from you. Good luck with your plans, and thanks for getting in touch.

    Good sailing


  6. John Says:

    Hi Nigel
    Thanks for the really informative site. Yours was one of the sites that inspired me to buy my first yacht, a Vancouver 28 named Carina. I have now owned Carina for a year and have cruised the Solent area between Selsey and Weymouth. We also managed a visit to the Channel Islands in August last year with St Helier on the passage plan. In the end the weather held us in St Peter Port longer than planned. We then had a couple of days in Alderney before the crossing back to Chichester.
    Your cockpit tent looks to be a really useful design, I have been investigating buying a tent but do not really want all the additional metalwork of the commercial designs. Does your sailmaker still have the pattern?
    We are planning another visit to the Channel Islands in first two weeks of July 2012, Jersey is again on the plan so will keep an eye open for Rusalka Mist, assuming you are still the proud owner.
    In any case it would be nice to chew the cud.
    Keep up the good work.

    Best Regards

    • Nigel Says:

      Hi John,

      The sailmaker who made the tent is retired now, but I do still have the boat. If you make it to Jersey, look me up in the local phone directory and give me a ring. I’ll happily meet up.


    • Alex Rogers Says:

      Hi John,

      Is Carina hull 65? If so, it would be great to chat as I was the original owner. Perhaps Nigel can put us in touch?


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