Archive for the ‘equipment’ Category

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 sail

12 November 2009

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

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

Wind ahead of the beam

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

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

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

Sail twist

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

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

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

Sail shape

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wind aft of the beam

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

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

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

Specialist sails

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

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


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

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

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

Sailing slowly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to spend your money

7 November 2009

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

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

Safety of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Life as we know it

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

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

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