Archive for June, 2010

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.