Archive for the ‘Manoeuvring’ Category

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.

How to manoeuvre under power

16 November 2009

I have made a point of recommending a long-keeled underwater form, particularly because of its inherent directional stability when at sea. It took me years to get confident about overcoming that directional stability and getting the thing to behave predictably in the tight spaces of a modern marina.

There are a number of things that, if you keep them in mind, will definitely help when trying to get a boat into or out of a tight space. First, forget all about the way you drive your car around a car park. If you want a road analogy, it’s more like reversing a bus around, in a sloping car park, on ice. Even if you stop, you’ll carry on sliding down the ice until you hit something.

Lee shore

The first thing is to work out where your ‘lee shore’ is. That is the row of boats, or whatever it is, that you will drift down onto if anything goes wrong and the wind takes command. Once you know where it is, avoid it totally – motor down the other side of the passageway. If you have to approach the lee shore, make sure you do so end-on with a clear plan for motoring cleanly away again as soon as possible, or with enough way on that you know the boat will answer the helm and turn away when you ask.

Under power you can move very easily forwards and backwards. It is harder to turn sharply, and it is impossible to make the boat move sideways. Therefore, don’t worry at all about going close to something ahead or astern (briefly), we will look at using the wind, prop-walk and prop-wash off the rudder to help with turns, but on no account let the boat drift sideways into that lee shore – especially if it consists of a shroud-tangling series of dinghy davits, rudders, pulpits, bow-rollers and other people’s expensive self-steering gears.

Never throw a boat engine straight from high revs forward into reverse, or vice versa. It is possible by so doing to jam it into the new gear with such force that you cannot disengage it again, which could ruin your plan. That’s the trick: have a plan. If you know you are going to need reverse soon, disengage forward gear and let her carry her way for a few seconds, then slip into reverse. And, of course, vice versa. In fact keeping reverse gear engaged is usually enough to stop Rusalka turning one way in reverse at all, due to prop walk. Slipping her into neutral really helps.

Prop walk

For the boat you want to turn, you need to know which way the stern will kick when you put the engine astern. To find this out on a strange boat, before untying from the pontoon (or out in the open sea, but stop the boat somewhere calm first), put the engine in astern and watch the water either side, between the stern and midships. One side or the other, you will see disturbed water coming up from the prop. If the disturbance appears on the starboard side, the stern will kick to port in astern, and vice versa. Remember this, or write it down; write it in the log – it is important. Remember the phrase, ‘stern kicks to port in astern’ or ‘stern kicks to starboard in astern’. Don’t use left or right: port and starboard don’t change when you face the other way, and when you’re reversing, you probably will face the other way. Don’t try to remember which way that stern-kick will make the boat turn, that depends which way you’re actually going before you engage reverse gear, and you use reverse gear in both directions.

There are exceptions. If the disturbed water appeared equally on both sides, your boat may not kick either way. If your prop-shaft is off-centre, for example on a converted engine-less classic, anything could happen – you will have to learn your boat on your own. If you have an outboard mounted on the transom, aft of the rudder, then you have all the problems that I had with Liza, the boat I had before Rusalka – more on this configuration later.

Distinguish prop walk and stern kick, which refer to the same sideways thing, from prop wash, which just refers to the stream of water moved by the propeller. I use all these terms from here on.

Turning on a windless day

So, on a windless day, you’re coming up a narrow fairway and want to make a sharp turn, for example into a finger berth. The first thing to do in this case is take her out of gear and slow right down in good time. On a calm day I would slow down to between one and two knots for this bit. Then, before you put the rudder over to turn, put her back into forward gear and, even on lowish revs, the prop-wash against the rudder will give it much more effect than you would expect from your speed through the water. By having slowed down first, this use of forward gear won’t accelerate you too much, but none the less, you will have to stop very soon. So, engage reverse once the boat is turning nicely. One of two things will happen: either the prop kick will help the turn or it will hinder the turn. If you have done your homework as above, you will know in advance which will happen.

A turning boat has angular momentum, so will tend to continue to turn anyway and the prop walk may be advantageous or not. Luckily, even in these last few yards, you have three options open to you and so you still have the situation under control. The boat is still moving forwards (even with the propeller turning in reverse) so the rudder still works. You can tighten the turn or unwind it a bit with the rudder. If neither of these work, or if they’re not going to have the desired effect in time, just increase the revs in astern and stop, and maybe reverse a bit. Even on a calm day, the boat may turn considerably in reverse (helpfully or not) as the prop kick or prop walk really takes effect, but you may get another go to complete your manoeuvre.

Even if it all goes wrong, on a calm day you can always turn around, go back out, or go up to the end of the aisle and turn to come back, whichever is easiest, and try again. Turning around in a confined space is only really possible if you work with the prop walk, so choose your turn direction in advance. Go ahead with the rudder hard over, pushing the stern in the direction the prop walk will kick it in reverse, then swap to reverse and reduce the forward momentum, while continuing to increase the turning momentum. Reverse back as far as space allows, then put the rudder back to hard over and power ahead again.

Turning in a wind

In a wind, the bow will always try to blow off down-wind. It is hard to make the bow come up into the wind, and trying to do so can lead to considerable side-slip too. As you throw the boat around in a blow, the most important thing is to be aware of the lee shore at all times. Remember, you may approach it, but only end-on so that you can power away again. This is made harder in a cross-wind as, as you approach the lee shore, stop, and power away again, the wind will be weather-cocking the bow around, and the prop walk will kick the stern in its favourite direction too, if you engage reverse. It’s a bit like a snooker player not only potting the ball, but planning where things are going to end up for the next two or three balls too. Don’t despair; it is possible; just practice.

You need a little more speed if you intend to throw the bow up into the wind. Once the bow is through the wind, sometimes you just need to hold the boat in place with forward thrust while the wind completes the turn for you. Even if barely moving, if forward gear is sending prop wash across the rudder, it will have a useful effect on the position of the stern, just don’t expect it to have much influence over the position of the bow – the wind will do that. You have to do the planning so that the wind will put the bow where you want it in the end.

When manoeuvring in a wind, you will need to use blasts of plenty of power. You only need these high revs for short bursts, when changing direction (forward to astern) and when pushing water over the rudder in forward gear. Drop back to lower power as soon as possible to keep the boat speed from building up in a confined space.

Sometimes, as you may expect, it is just not possible to make the turn you want to make – if the space is too limited, the wind is too strong and its direction completely unhelpful. Just continue to avoid lee shore embarrassment, using enough power to stay away from it. At some point it is time to give up. Put the engine into reverse and let the bow weather-cock completely downwind until you reach a stable state: with the stern to the wind and the engine in reverse, you can balance the wind force with engine revs and just stop. By adjusting the revs carefully, you can very gently approach whatever is behind you to windward. If it is a pontoon with traditional ‘horned’ cleats, you can drop a bight of mooring line over a cleat (be very careful not to drop it into the water and into the prop! Go out of gear just before you drop it). If it is another boat, you can slip a mooring line around some strong part of it, such as a pulpit, pushpit or cleat. As soon as you have done that and made off the line aboard, you can relax, and start thinking about using warps or lines to get from here to where you want to be.

One great trick with a line around someone else’s pulpit, that I have used in a full gale in a marina, is to walk from the cockpit slowly down the sidedeck, holding both parts of the slipped line. By the time I got to the shrouds, Rusalka had swung and was beam-on to the wind, facing the direction I wanted to go. I pulled in the line until I was inches from his boat, then slipped it and marched purposefully back to the cockpit and powered away with plenty of time to spare before drifting away to leeward.

Difficult rudder/prop configurations

If the propeller is not directly ahead of the rudder, then a lot of what I have described will not work. This can happen with an offset propeller and with an outboard on the transom, behind the rudder. In either case, you can have prop walk effects in both ahead and astern, and you never get the benefit of being able to amplify the effect of the rudder by putting prop wash over it while you turn. The only way to control the boat is to have enough speed that the rudder can be relied upon in the normal way. That amount of speed can be dangerous in a confined space, and it never builds up instantaneously; until it does you are at the mercy of prop walk and the wind. I know the problems and I never found a solution. I sold the boat.

Planning for failure

As in so many things afloat, always consider the options in case of failure: Never be one more cock-up from a disaster. It is a good idea to have the sails ready to hoist before casting off. If the engine fails at a good time, you can always hoist a sail and regain some control over the boat. This is more likely to be possible if you have been regularly practising manoeuvring under sail when it didn’t matter and the engine was ticking over nicely in neutral as a reserve.

Of course, if the engine stalls as you go from forward to reverse heading for a solid pontoon, there will not be time to do anything about that. I increased the tick-over revs slightly after Rusalka did that to me once – she has never done it again.

Having the anchor ready to drop is also recommendable, especially in a river where currents add to the fun and excitement. Be aware too that it is perfectly OK to use an anchor, especially in an emergency, in a harbour or even a marina.

Always enter a marina with fenders ‘all round’, not just on the expected side – you never know when they will save your blushes. Same with ropes – one on each corner, I say. It’s easy enough to re-purpose those on the wrong side as springs on the right side later, but you never know where you might end up if things start to go wrong. Having fenders and ropes ready all round is just a seaman-like way to proceed into a tricky, confined space, I think.

Warping the boat

As hinted above, there are many ways that ropes and lines can be used to make manoeuvres easier and less risky. Trust your fenders too. It is perfectly acceptable to lean against another moored boat, with fenders, while you warp into a space.

Coming into a finger berth singlehanded, with a wind blowing off the finger, has often left me blown against the boat next door before I had a chance to step onto the finger, with then a four-foot jump to it. Don’t even try it. Put some temporary lines onto the other boat, cut the engine and throw a couple more lines across the finger (including a spring or two, depending on the exact wind direction). Climb aboard your new neighbour, walk around, make the finger lines fast onto the finger, walk back aboard and warp yourself across, loosening the lines to the neighbour and tightening those to the finger until you’re there. Everything under control and only an extra 5 – 10 minutes passed, doing pleasant and satisfying boat work in safety.

I have warped from the leeward berth between fingers to the empty windward one in a rising gale. I used a primary sheet winch to pull the stern across. It was fine. Nicky and I have walked Rusalka around empty pontoons like walking a dog, one with a bow rope and one with a stern. Pull with the stern rope and use the bow rope to steer. Put a turn around a cleat to stop her.We’ve also moved deserted rafted boats from outside of us to outside of someone else in order to leave alongside raft-ups.

If the wind is pinning you into place and you have to leave, there is usually something off to windward that you can get a slipped line to, to pull the boat off, to get moving. Be very careful when slipping the line once you are under way: pull very slowly around the time when the loose end is getting short and just about to whip free from the distant object. Just at that time, a line is quite capable of flicking a turn around itself, sometimes tying you firmly with an unreachable half-hitch or worse.  This can be a major embarrassment and really mess up your smooth departure just after you thought everything had gone so well. Once the rope is in the water, pull it in very fast to keep it away from the prop. If something goes wrong and this is not possible, shout to the helmsman to go out of gear till you get the rope out of the water.

Be careful about standing holding a rope and pulling a boat around with it. You are usually facing the open water at the time and the boat is quite capable of pulling you straight in, for example in a gust. I know I have done this, I mentioned walking down the sidedeck holding a rope that held the whole boat in a gale above. I haven’t been pulled in ever, but it’s not recommended. The safe way to hold a boat by a rope is to pass the rope under a cleat at your feet then hold a rope that is pulling you down into the pontoon or the deck, not away into the sea.

Coming and going

When I bought Rusalka I inherited a set of heavy docklines, shackled and chained to the marina cleats, with eyes spliced in the other ends for the cleats aboard. I hated them and quickly changed over to using the normal mooring warps permanently in the home berth, winter and summer. I thought they would quickly wear out and that I would replace them as necessary. Well, 18 years have passed, and I haven’t had to replace a single one yet.

Coming into your own marina berth with the lines left behind on the dock is a nightmare – you either have to stand on the deck fishing around with a boathook while precious seconds slip away and the boat begins to drift, or you must jump ashore holding nothing attached to the boat, so it can drift away without you. You end up trying to pull it back in by the guard rails – another sure way to have it pull you into the water one day. Always have one or two people step ashore with ropes in their hands to get quick turns onto the shore cleats. This applies in distant harbours and marinas where you are a visitor, so why should you not practice the procedure every time you use the boat at home too? Again it is the seaman-like thing to do.

If you are single- or short-handed you have to decide as you come in, which is the most important rope to get on first? It is the one that will hold the boat roughly in place without any others. If the wind is from ahead, it’s the bow-rope, etc. If the wind is off the dock or blowing you forwards in a short finger berth, then a short midships spring may be the best bet. This one is not a normal part of the mooring plan, but is often temporarily invaluable when singlehanded. Rusalka has no midships cleat, so I run this line from a strong point on the cabin roof under the rails to a pontoon cleat whenever it may help coming in and often when about to leave too.

Once you have temporary hitches holding the boat in place, it is time to change over to final mooring knots. As you know, you really must keep all your tangles off the public pontoon and off your neighbour’s boat when rafting up. If you’re going again in just a few hours, then double some or all of your lines back as slips. If we’re staying overnight or longer, then we put a round-turn and a bowline through the middle of each cleat ashore. That is the most secure and tidy, and kindest on the rope too in terms of chafe.

When leaving, these lines will have to be removed one by one. Just one, or two, of them need to be kept as slips. Once again, I was taught that the sight of someone standing holding the boat by the guard rails waiting for the word, then shoving off and scrambling aboard at the last second was an unseaman-like, amateurish shambles that one day will surely go completely wrong. It will go wrong either with a bigger boat, a stronger wind, slippery shoes, a more rheumatic crewmember or – heaven forbid, singlehanded skipper – landing in the drink while the boat goes off without him or her.

So, with the lines, it’s back to choosing that single rope that will just hold her. If I’m singlehanded then one slipped line it has to be, sometimes the midships line or sometimes a bow or stern line that allows the boat to drift out at a slightly strange angle for a minute. When we’re both there, we often have two slipped lines, one each. The point is that, once all the ropes are removed except for one or two slips, everyone gets aboard and the casting off is done from there, being careful that the ends don’t whip themselves into knots. Foredeck people should shout, “Clear!” in a way that is audible at the helm. Slipping the lines in the right order, with a few seconds delay, can sometimes allow the boat to blow helpfully in the right direction before applying power.

I have tried the trick where you motor against a spring to bring the bow or stern out into the wind, then slip the spring. In the kind of on-shore wind where it matters, Rusalka usually drifts back in again before I have a chance to get away. I have seen very substantial fishing boats make it look easy in Weymouth, so maybe this says more about how underpowered Rusalka is under engine than anything else.

I spent a week in a finger berth in Brixham once, taking people out for sails around Torbay each day. The wind was a steady 20 – 25 knots all week (westerly, which is why we weren’t sailing to Ireland as planned). We found that rigging a slip from the bow back to the cleat on the end of the finger allowed us to motor out gently in reverse then wait for the wind to settle her to this bow line. Foredeck crew could then slip it and in a few seconds the bow blew off to the right direction to leave smoothly. This was much more preferable than a near disaster I managed in a windy Southampton marina once. I had left my own berth and reversed as far back as I could, upwind into the space of a few empty finger berths. Forward gear, rudder hard over and I began careering downwind straight into the sterns of several expensive yachts across the way. I was amazed how quickly the space began disappearing. Once you start, you quickly pass a point where you are committed. All I could do was pile on more power, keep the rudder over, and hope. Not good. In the end I escaped with a glancing blow against somebody’s scooped stern bathing platform, just above my waterline at who knows what stupid speed. Never again. Use ropes.

Coming alongside

Always approach so that you will stop more head-to-wind than not. Come in at about 45 degrees if your prop walk in astern will help pull the stern in (which is preferable) and as shallow an angle as possible if it won’t. If the prop walk is going to help, this is great fun. Use plenty of speed and take her out of forward gear early. Use the rudder to flick the bow away from the dock at the right moment, engage reverse and apply plenty of power. The boat will turn sideways and drift gently against the dock broadside on while you blast away in reverse gear until she stops. Judging the right moment to turn means that this manoeuvre is worth a little practice when the conditions are right and you have time on your hands. I have watched ferries on Lake Windermere doing exactly this with great aplomb as they came up to their passenger piers. I use it all the time when I row a dinghy up to Rusalka‘s stern ladder – row hard, flick the boat sideways, pull powerfully backwards once or twice, then whip one oar out of the rowlock quickly and bump gently against, broadside on. If the prop walk is not going to help you, do your best with the rudder, but be prepared for failure in an offshore blow. If you have a crew, don’t expect them to make super-human leaps across open water, just to save you from your mistakes, go round again and try it slower. In the end try reversing up and lassoing something or throwing a line to a passing helpful person. The bow can be warped in later.

I watched a helpful crewmember stood on the sidedeck of a boat coming into an alonside space recently. As the helmsman passed very close to the bow of the last boat before the space, the crew put out his foot and gave that boat a hefty shove away.  This completely messed up the approach and the helmsman could not get anywhere near the pontoon in the distance left. Keep your crew informed when you need their help and when you do not.


It is rarely a good idea to drive ahead down a narrow space where you will not be able to turn, as you may not be able to reverse out when the time comes. Much better to reverse in now, so that if you get there you will certainly be able to drive out. Reversing a long-keeled boat down a long narrow alley in a crosswind can seem impossible.

There are a few things that will help. First, face aft and hold the tiller or wheel very firmly, it can pull out of your hand as the rudder is quite unbalanced in reverse. Second, be aware that she will try to weather-cock stern-to-wind and be prepared to fight that. Third, be prepared to lose the fight not just once but several times in a few dozen yards.

If she starts to veer off towards the shore, be that other boats or a harbour wall, and increasing rudder angles are no longer preventing the veer, reverse the rudder and change gear to forwards. Two things will happen, both good. She will slow down and that averts the collision. Prop wash over the rudder (even though you are moving backwards) will push the stern around as directed by you via the rudder. This should also prevent any collision. Try not to stop entirely as that will really encourage the bow to blow off downwind and you could end up stopped against your lee shore (you did rig fenders and ropes all round for this, didn’t you?)

Sometimes, when doing this, Nicky has been up on the foredeck carefully wielding a boathook. By applying a carefully aimed push onto some strong part of a passing boat, or onto the harbour wall, from the bow, she has been able to keep the boat straighter for longer. Try not to smash their windows, bend their windvanes or scratch their classic topsides doing this, it’s not really essential as diligent blasts of forward thrust can save the day anyway. If you do stop and drift alongside something, either shove off again from midships with the boathook (carefully!), or give up and set about warping her the rest of the way.

Manoeuvring in a current

There is not much water movement in our home marina, but many do have river or tidal streams under the pontoons. Lézardrieux in northern France has ferocious currents in its marina. There are two ways to look at currents. Sometimes, such as when approaching a mooring buoy in a river like the Yealm, it is sufficient to think of it being towed through the water by a submarine: just chase after it and catch it up. Don’t forget that the cliffs, the shallows and the pier are all also being towed by the same huge submarine, so stay out of their way too.

The more seaman-like way to deal with currents (and strong cross-winds) is by transits. Forget where you are pointing the bow, the important thing is which way are you going? More to the point, are you going in the direction you want to go in? The only way to find out is to line two things up and keep them lined up. If you want to approach a berth, take note of whatever is in the background behind it and keep those things behind it as it gets closer. That’s the only way to be sure.

I have discussed what a friend called ‘transients’ too. This was his idea that if you have a nearby and more distant thing appearing to move past each other, then the direction of that movement tells you which side of the nearer thing you will pass. The concept is sound but I’ve since found that the correct nautical terminology is ‘opening’ and ‘closing’. When steering the boat into a boat hoist, make sure that the steelwork on both sides of it is opening for you, regardless of which way that means you have to point the bow. The same applies to harbour mouths you hope to enter and pierheads and moored boats you intend to go around.