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10 Seamanship Skills Every Skipper Should Master

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The 10 common mistakes... and how to avoid them. We ask the experts about the skills every good skipper should have in their armoury.

By Toby Heppell - Yachting Monthly

Originally Published April 22, 2020

It’s easy to get into bad habits when we go sailing and equally easy to lose sight of some of the ways we might wish to progress our sailing skills.

To an extent, for the cruising sailor, when we are able to passage plan safely and sail from A to B then any impetus to continue developing our skills can slowly leech away.

We spoke to the RYA’s Richard Falk, weather guru Chris Tibbs, rigger Gordon Bonney and sail-trim expert from North Sails, Bill Gladstone about the areas they feel get overlooked.

1. Rigging Checks

It’s good practice to have someone up the mast every couple of years to check the rigging

Though there is no need to check over every single part of a boat before heading out, a regular check of rigging and systems is important. This is especially true if you are going any significant distance.

‘I’m always surprised by the number of people who don’t really check out their rigging before they set off,’ says Gordon Bonney, director of Performance Rigging.

‘To me, there are certain things that need to be checked regularly. Some people have a list, but I think it’s best to just look around your boat during the normal course of sailing her. If you’re getting the anchor out of the locker, check the windlass drum under the deck to make sure it’s working correctly.’

Some elements, particularly on standing rigging need checking more thoroughly. ‘For the most part, to be covered by insurance you need to have standing rigging checked every 10 years, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Lots of things can effect both wire and rod rigging that will cause it to be a hazard earlier. Similarly it might last longer. As a rule of thumb I would like to see people having someone up the mast every two to three years depending on miles at sea.’

This variability in how long your standing rigging is going to last makes it difficult to draw a solid conclusion about whether you need yours checked or not.

‘Lots of things can affect standing rigging. We see a lot of boats that have spent time in the Med or in other hot places that need their rigging replaced more regularly. That is almost certainly because salt water and salt-water spray gets onto the rigging and dries quickly in the warmer weather. There is usually much less rain compared to the UK to wash the rigging down regularly.’

He adds that other factors contribute to degradation of rigging: if the boat is berthed downwind of a factory this can have an impact over time too, as trace chemicals in the air from the factory can degrade rigging over time.

The one thing Gordon’s team deal with the most, however, is furling kit. ‘Servicing furling gear is pretty important, I would say. Making sure it is installed correctly is key and making sure it turns easily, particularly the swivel at the top of the sail.

‘Typically the swivel experiences two different loads, vertical and lateral. After a while they tend to succumb to this strain and just give up. We pretty regularly have to service furling gear where this has happened and owners have just carried on but used a winch to furl and unfurl, making the problem worse and worse.’

Remember: Checking rigging is not a function of a specific amount of time, rather the real-world conditions your boat has experienced.

2. Playbook of Manoeuvers

Please credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Having a ‘playbook’ for all manoeuvres saves effort and improves safety. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

In the racing world most sailing teams have a ‘playbook’, which is shorthand for a series of processes for every manoeuvre.

This is done to ensure that mark roundings, spinnaker hoist and drops and so on can all be done with efficiency.

Usually a quick, efficient drop of a spinnaker is something that is, hopefully, rarely required when cruising, but it still makes sense to have a list of processes involved in manoeuvres.

Not only does writing out a list help to get the process into memory but it also means it is easy to share with friends or any unfamiliar crew.

Going about things in the wrong order can be needlessly tiring for the crew and turn a relatively simple task into an arduous one.

Putting in a reef is a relatively common procedure for most sailors but it can be surprising how many people do it slightly differently each time.

An order of: kicker off; mainsheet eased; slack taken in the reefing lines; lower the halyard; and take up the reefing lines, tension the halyard, sheet and kicker is fairly standard, but make this into a defined, repeatable process.

Doing it slightly differently each time or not being clear on the process from the outset makes a simple task much more difficult, at a time when simplicity is at a premium.

Remember: Have a repeatable system for manoeuvres from reefing to mooring, which makes life easier and less stressful.

3. Forward planning

Check you have tried various sail combinations to understand what is the best in any given conditions

‘If you are going further afield, doing your basic checks is really a must. We see people all the time setting off without having done sufficient checks,’ the RYA’s Director of Training and Qualifications, Richard Falk says.

‘Lots of people step on board, assume all is well and off they go. If you are just hopping from Cowes to Lymington this might be a very different set of checks to planning an overnight sail but it is still worth checking you have everything.

‘A real key though is checking your sails and boat more generally are ready for all weather. Often people will have had a mainsail repaired or taken off over winter and then put back on and then set sail without the reefing lines being set up.

‘In terms of the weather, it can be very changeable in the UK throughout the year so it is worth considering if you have a good idea of what the weather is supposed to be doing near the end of your planned sail.

‘Is the wind forecast to swing from a reach to a headwind? That would have an effect on sea state and wind chill. Have you taken seasickness tablets in advance of leaving if this is possible, as you are likely to then spend more time below?’

Falk adds that there are a surprising number of people who have not sailed their boats in reasonably benign conditions with their sails reefed as they would in heavy weather.

This is key for understanding how balanced your boat is when significantly reefed. If you reduce the mainsail without furling enough headsail it may give a lot of lee helm.

To understand this, it is vital to have sailed with your boat in a number of configurations before it is needed.

As with having a playbook for manoeuvres it is worth knowing what setup gives the best performance and easiest handling in a variety of conditions.

Remember: Go sailing in moderate wind and try a variety of rig setups that you would use in heavy weather, to get an idea of what sail setup provides the best feel and balance.

4. Know your crew’s experience

Qualifications are a useful skill guide but you need to find out potential crew’s capabilities in the real world

‘Obviously we think the RYA qualifications are the best way to ensure you are sailing safely, but experience is also a very important factor,’ 
says Falk.

‘I had thousands of miles under my belt before I did any qualifications and I did one mostly to be working in a commercial vein, but that experience was vital.’

Ultimately qualifications are great as a learning experience for many, but it is not the be-all and end-all.

Understanding the real-world skills of any potential crew before you plan any significant trip with them is important.

Make sure you have been sailing with them and don’t just rely on either qualifications or talk of experience.

On this latter point, clearly 1,000nm as a skipper could be very different to 1,000nm as a member of a crew.

It’s particularly important to have a thorough understanding of the skills of your crew before setting off as you will need to build a watch rota around those onboard.

A standard two hours on, four hours off system for three only works if all crew are equally capable.

Remember: Always sail with crew and asses their abilities for yourself, miles at sea or qualifications can’t do this for you.

5. Understanding forecasts

Comparing weather forecasts from different models, like here on Windguru, will help differentiate a reliable forecast from an uncertain one

Checking the weather forecast before putting to sea is one of our obligations under SOLAS regulations. It is also advisable to cross reference a number of weather sources.

‘I think a lot of people are too reliant on spot forecasts.’ says meteorologist and sailor, Chris Tibbs. ‘In part that comes from the availability of some good apps and websites, which are useful but there is a tendency to say, for example, that Portland Bill is going to be 20 knots and leave it at that, but unless we look at the big picture then we don’t know the accuracy of that forecast.

‘To get the feel of the weather, a straight forecast doesn’t tell us the variables we are describing. Today on the Isle of Wight we have a lot of cloud and showers because there are the remains of a front coming though. That means we are going to see lots of variability in the forecast with rain, sun and different wind strengths. Spot forecasts don’t reveal details, just a broad view.

‘We need the big picture and the pattern of the weather. A week or so out from a journey, I would always look at the synoptic charts from a few different sources to see the pattern of the weather and look at whether there are fronts moving in and that sort of thing, checking their reliability against each other.

‘Then I would be looking at the Shipping Forecast to give a general pattern and broad trends, then finally I would look at the inshore forecast to get a view of what the coastal conditions are likely to be. For many that might seem like a basic checklist and for myself, I would also be looking at GRIB files too.

‘But it is something people don’t really do enough, especially for a relativity short day sail. Having a broad overview of what weather is doing on a macro level is the only way a spot forecast becomes useful, otherwise you are relying on incomplete data.’

‘Forecasts for 48 hours ahead are very accurate but you can never be 100 per cent sure,’ says Nicola Maxey of the UK’s Met Office. ‘Rain is particularly difficult as it is a bit like looking into a bowl of boiling water and trying to guess where the next bubble is going to come up.’

Remember: Build a picture with your forecasting, and use all the resources available. Modern forecasts may be more accurate but that is only useful if you have the full picture.

6. Local weather effects

Local wind effects can be bigger than you imagine and should feature in passage planning

‘The biggest misunderstanding I see from people when looking at the weather is that they don’t appreciate the effect of localised weather features,’ says Tibbs.

‘Everyone knows that there is going to be an increase in wind round a headland but people still get caught. If you look at a headland, the windspeed increase is around 10 knots and can be as much as 15 knots. If you think about that, you would happily leave a marina for a sail in 15 knots of breeze, but you might not in 30 knots.

‘When I am forecasting for a trip I always split it into two parts, the actual broad weather pattern, and potential land features and thermal effects. During a UK summer if the land is going to heat up and the gradient wind is in the right direction, blowing onshore, then the sea breeze is going to have a massive effect.’

Remember: Always include local weather effects in your passage planning and to build your own forecast. A strong sea breeze might be the difference between setting off or not.

7. Why sail trim matters

Twist, or how open the leech is, shown by the telltales, affects your boat’s pointing and its ability to power through choppy conditions

Get your sail trim right, and you won’t only sail faster, you’ll also heel less, point higher upwind and make less leeway. Twist is one of the key aspects of a well-trimmed sail be it a mainsail or headsail.

Too little twist, an over-tight leech and the wind will stall on the aerofoil. Too much twist and the sail will be spilling wind at the top and so losing power.

Most sailors understand that to be the case, but creating or reducing twist can be done in a number of different ways and each has a corresponding effect on a sail’s performance.

‘Put simply, adding twist spills power and reducing twist adds power,’ says Bill Gladstone, director of North U – North Sails’ education programme.

‘In addition, reducing twist improves pointing ability, so the less twist you have the higher you can point upwind. As a counter, though, the less twist you have the smaller groove you have to sail in, as the whole aerofoil section can easily stall.’

It is tempting to think of the mainsheet as the main twist control on a boat. After all, when we sheet a mainsheet all the way in, the boom is pulled down and the leech is hardened, reducing twist.

However, it can be much better to control twist and mainsail shape through the vang, leaving the mainsheet as an in/out control.

This means that mainsheet trimming is easier – as you are not having to sheet the sail in and down – and quicker. It also means you have more precise control of your boat.

If you have a traveller this effect is better achieved by using the mainsheet to pull tension in the leech and using the traveller as the in/out control.

Although the kicker does work to control the leech, because it also pulls the boom forward and into the mast it can cause some mast bend low down and so distort the shape of the sail lower down, flattening it.

‘It is worth noting, that many cruisers these days do not have adequate vang or traveller systems in place,’ notes Gladstone.

‘So for the most part twist is going to be controlled via the mainsheet, even though that might be an imperfect system.

‘Twist is correctly thought of as one of the three aspects of power – the other two being angle of attack and depth – but it should be considered for sea-state purposes too. If you are sailing in relatively flat water in medium wind, then you would sheet your mainsail in until the leech telltales are just flying, as this will give you the most power.

‘However, if you have the same wind conditions but there is some seaway then you would want to let the mainsail twist a bit more as this will give you a wider groove upwind and it improves acceleration too, so when the boat is being knocked around by the waves, you get back up to speed quicker and you are less likely to stall the sail.’

Remember: Twist is not only used for power but also to improve acceleration and help the boat stay on its feet in wavy conditions. Experiment with the three mainsail variables of twist, depth and angle of attack, and watch what impact it has on your angle to the wind, boat speed, and course over the ground and heel.

8. Understanding sail depth

Mast bend flattens a sail but moves the depth aft; downhaul counters this

Depth is the second key power control for a sail. ‘Broadly, the depth of a sail is controlled by outhaul and mast bend – though some boats will not be able to easily bend their mast,’ explains Gladstone.

‘When you are underpowered, adding depth increases power, so easing the outhaul in lighter winds is the best way to do this. As the wind increases you pull on more outhaul. If outhaul is all the way in and you still need to reduce power then you move on to bending the mast.

‘If you have a backstay this is the best way to induce mast bend, but remember, mast bend has several effects, not just flattening the sail. As you bend the mast several things happen. The sail gets flatter as the middle of mast goes forward.

‘Secondly, you increase twist in the sail as the top section of the leech no longer has as much tension and the third thing is that the draft moves aft. As you bend the mast to keep the same twist profile you might need to adjust the mainsheet and then pull on more halyard or downhaul.

‘The downhaul or halyard increase in tension both pull draft forward in a sail, so pulling on a bit more when the mast bends means that the draft of the sail moves to where it is designed to be, just forward of the middle of the sail.’

Remember: Bending the mast to flatten the sail moves draft aft so often needs to be countered with halyard tension or downhaul.

9. Headsail trim

Both mainsail and headsail should be trimmed together – it is easy to overtrim a headsail and close the slot, stalling the sails

‘As a pretty simple starting point for headsail trim, it should match the mainsail trim in both twist and angle of attack,’ says Gladstone. ‘An overtrimmed headsail is something we see all too often and I believe it is for several reasons.

‘Upwind, we learn to set the jib leads or cars so that the telltales break evenly. When they are too far back, the top telltale breaks before the bottom, when leads are set properly, then telltales break evenly.

‘However, when the jib leads are too far forward, the telltales still break evenly, so just seeing that our telltales are all flying does not tell us if we are overtrimmed, only that we’re not undertrimmed. To correctly control the twist in a headsail you need to move jib cars aft until the top telltale is just breaking and then move them a fraction forward.

‘Of course that all assumes that cars are able to be moved while the sail is trimmed in, which is often not the case on cruising boats so this can involve a bit of luffing to take the load out of the sheet and then moving the cars – or slowly getting there over a series of tacks.

‘If the jib is overtrimmed it has negative effects; it increases the depth of the sail, upsetting the balance of the boat and creating weather helm. It also stalls the air coming off the leech of the sail which spoils the flow over the leeward side of the mainsail.’

Gladstone adds that with both the mainsail and the headsail it is wise to consider what you are setting your boat up for. If you are sailing shorthanded, with only one or two onboard and are likely to be using the autopilot then sailing with more twist in both sails is important as it provides a wider groove for the boat to sail in.

The effect of this is it allows the boat to be hit by a gust with the autopilot on, but maintain decent pace and not trip up. ‘If you have too little twist in the headsail and mainsail then you reduce the ability of the autopilot to adjust the boat’s course and get back on track.’

Remember: Your jib telltales will not let you know if your leech is too tight as they will still stream. Move cars aft until telltales break and then move them forward fractionally. More twist will help keep the boat moving when the autopilot is steering.

10. Tide effects

Tidal gates are well understood but the effect tide has on apparent wind is now always fully considered. Credit: Ali Wood

Falk feels there is still a gap in many sailors’ knowledge when it comes to tides and properly anticipating their impact on sailing. Tibbs agrees this is often overlooked.

‘The basics of how apparent wind changes when the tide is under or against us is relatively simple. If there is 5 knots of wind blowing and 5 knots of tide running, if you are running with the tide the actual wind you experience would be close to zero as the tide is carrying you as fast as the wind.

‘We all know we are not going to go to Portland Bill wind against tide as there is signification seaway, but the tide changes your apparent so much too. Beating in a flood tide out of the Solent you’ll have 2-3 knots of tide under you. With a true windspeed of 20 knots, a few knots of tide can bring that to 23-24 and your total apparent wind speed is pretty quickly up to 28 knots!’

Remember: Tide affects how you experience wind in real terms. The wind effect should be considered in passage planning.

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