How to manoeuvre under sail

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.


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