Basic Seamanship under Sail

If you were looking for a definition of seamanship, you could say that it is the art of making the sailor's skills look easy.

It is tempting to imagine that a simple task like winding a sheet in on a cockpit winch will be much the same under any skipper, or that heaving down a reef is a nuisance whoever is driving the boat. In fact, neither proposition is true. One master may soak a foredeck crew while they arc changing a headsail; another will go out of his way to keep them dry and safe. The task of setting up a yacht for a long run downwind can be soft and gentle, or it can be a dice with death at the wrong end of a 10 ft booming-out pole. It all depends on the captain.

The two basic rules are to keep all the gear under control so that nothing can be strained or broken, and never to put a crew member in the position of having to tackle an item which is not well within the person's physical capabilities. It is rarely necessary to fight the boat or her equipment. Handled properly they can usually be made to turn their strength in your favour.


In my years as a Yachtmaster Examiner I have perched on the sterns of numerous craft to watch their crews put them about. In a protracted short-tacking session, such as occurs when beating up a river, a poor helmsman can exhaust the winch-winders after a few turns. The way he does it is this: as the river-bank comes galloping up he bawls, 'Ready about . . . lee-ho,' in his saltiest voice, then he jams the helm hard over. The boat flips through the wind with the crew struggling to clear a jammed sheet. The boat is allowed to go on turning until she is well below a closehauled course on the new tack. The crew haven't even begun to wind in the sheet, so they are now left with a genoa full of wind. By the time they have laboriously ground it in, the skipper is singing out again, 'Ready about'. They groan, and the sloppy proceedings arc repeated over and over until Hadrian on the port winch feels a bad twinge in his thoracic region.

'I say, skipper,' he mutinies, already blue in the face, 'if we don't start motoring shortly you'll be hearing from my executors.' The mistake, of course, is that the boat is not being creatively steered. It isn't

Basic Seamanship
You'll winch more effectively if you move your weight so as to keep your head over the barrel.

enough just to bang her over from one tack to the next. The helmsman should sail her as quickly as possible from full on one tack, through the wind and begin bearing away, but he should stop her turning a degree or two before she fills on the new tack. On all but the largest vessels the crew can then whip most of the sheet in using the winch as no more than a snubbing device. The last foot or two is wound home as the helmsman bears away on to his course.

Tacking like this requires little energy and loses far less ground than the other method, but it does need a thinking person on the helm. Watch the crew, encourage them to hit the sheet at just the right moment, and don't let the yacht slowdown too much. If you do, she'll stall, and you'll end up with the deaded lee helm until she's worked up enough pace to slot back into the groove.

It shouldn't be necessary to back a headsail in a normal tack on a well-designed boat. Doing so slows her down and usually makes sheeting-in more like hard work as well. The technique should only be employed as a last resort, or when to miss stays would have such truly catastrophic results that you need to be a hundred per cent certain of getting her round.


Gybing has a bad reputation. Some people will even turn through 270° to avoid it. The reasons for this are obvious, yet so long as the manoeuvre is decently executed, they need carry no weight. In a modern yacht, a gybe should be an innocuous affair.

There is an essential difference between gybing from one tack to the other and going about to achieve a similar end. In the gybe the stern passes through the eye of the wind. Since a fore-and-aft rigged mainsail will not 'feather' with the wind aft, it must be full throughout the manoeuvre. At some point, it changes instantaneously from being full on one side to being full on the other. At this moment, if it is uncontrolled, it will fly across the boat, carrying its boom with it. There arc three possible consequences of this, and none arc desirable. The least damaging is that no harm comes to the ship, but the crews' nerves are shredded. The middle ground, depending on your point of view, is that some part of the vessel - usually the boom, the gooseneck, or a running backstay - carries away. The greatest horror is that the boom cracks a skull which it finds in its path; very likely it will complete the job by dunking its victim overboard. The bigger the vessel, the greater the dangers accruing from an unintentional gybe - unintentional, mark you, and therefore uncontrolled.

The good skipper lays all these nasties to rest by the simple expedient of hauling the mainsheet in before gybing. Put your best helmsman 011 duty and get him to run dead downwind. Now heave the sheet in until the boom is more or less amidships. Take a turn on the cleat, winch or, if the sheet is jammed off to a cam-cleat in its bottom block, make it fast with that. If the yacht has running backstays, make them both up, then let off the new leeward one. The helmsman now carefully brings the stern of the yacht through the wind so that the leech of the main flops across. As it does so the sheet is surged quickly away. The helmsman will do well to apply a momentary dose of weather helm the instant after the boom comes across, because the whole steering geometry of the boat will be reversing, and if he doesn't, the yacht will try to gripe up towards the wind. All boats do this, though some are much worse than others.

Once the boom is squared away, then, and only then, can you order up your new course. During the whole gybing process, the vessel should have deviated from a dead run only by the few degrees it took to bring the breeze from one side of the stern to the other.

One final warning about gybing: it's easy to become lazy about clearing off the mainsheet traveller, if you have one. When the boom comes across in a gvbc, the car will crash across the boat like a guillotine if its progress is not checked. Should anyone's fingers be in the way, there will be only the skipper to blame for the resulting amputation. Before you set up for a gybe, check the traveller.

If you have more than one sail set on a boom, as you would on a ketch, for example,

Watch the sail, not the winch, white you are trimming.

you should obviously deal with both sails as you would with the main on a sloop or cutter. What you elect to do with any headsails (except a spinnaker) is less critical, so long as you do not let them blow around the forestay. If you are short-handed, by far the best answer to a headsail which is not poled out (see below) is to do nothing with it at all until the mainsail is well and truly gybed. Once that is out of the way, you can attend to the genoa by passing it across the boat from sheet to sheet. By maintaining some tension on the old sheet until the new one has taken over, the whole business will pass so smoothly you'll wonder what all the fuss was about - and quite rightly too.

Poling out a genoa

One of the first things discovered by the neophyte sailor is that when a fore-and-aft rigged vessel is well off the wind, her headsail will no longer draw on the same side as the mainsail because the latter canvas robs it of its wind. You now have three choices. You can closchaul it behind the main to stop it banging around; you can drop it so as to put both the sail and the crew out of their misery; or you can pull it across to the windward side of the boat and fill it by goose-winging.

The bad news about goose-winging is that in any but the flattest of water the roll of the boat renders the headsail's state so unstable that it cannot be relied upon to remain full. Instead of banging about in the lee of the mainsail, it bangs around on the weather side of the foredeck, driving all hands frantic and wearing out your gear.

The answer is to stabilise the sail by rigging a pole between its clew and the mast. In tiny craft this can often be achieved by shoving the sail out with a boathook, or even a broom handle. In a yacht of any size at all, a proper pole must be used if both it and the crew arc to survive. Rigging the pole is easy if done in a seamanlike manner. Give the beast even an inkling that it could take charge, however, and you are exposing your foredeck people to hardship and real danger. Here's how to do it safely:

• Closchaul the genoa behind the mainsail to keep it quiet while you arc on the foredeck.

• Go forward and fix the heel of the pole to the mast fitting.

• Attach the pole topping lift and downhaul (or foreguy), with the lazy (windward) genoa sheet passing over and outboard of the topping lift.

• Pass the bight of the lazy sheet through the jaws at the outboard end of the pole.

• Hoist the pole until it is parallel with the deck (trial and error will determine the best subsequent overall height). Keep the outboard end to windward of the forestay.

• Lay aft and clear all personnel off the foredeck.

• Haul in on the lazy sheet, slacking away the lee sheet as you do so. In due course the sail will gybe and can be trimmed with what has now become the working sheet.

• Take up the slack on the downhaul to ensure that the pole does not 'sky'.

Poled Out Genoa
A genoa poled out on the run. Note topping lift and foreguy both rigged.

• If you have a long way to run, it pays to rig an after guy on the pole as well as the topping lift and the foreguy. The pole is then entirely independent of the sheets.

Notice that this has been achieved without anyone having to handle the pole with any weight on it. When gybing the sail off the pole again you should apply the same principles. There are one or two ways of succeeding. You can bring the boat up to a beam reach if the wind is not too strong. The headsail will come aback and can be eased through the forctriangle on to the lee sheet once more. Once the sail is off it, the pole can be brought down and stowed at your leisure.

If it is windy and you don't fancy this manoeuvre, you can gybe the mainsail so that the genoa 'dies' in its lee. The pole can then be unhitched from the mast and smartly tripped from the sheet. Alternatively, in modest conditions, you can just ease-away on the weather sheet and take up slack to leeward until the sail works its way over to the lee side. This method is simple, but often untidy, creating problems with the clew of the sail falling foul of the forestay.

When the sail is a roller furler, the skipper can make full use of its capacity for diminution, or even disappearance, on demand to make all these manoeuvres somewhat easier.

Painless sail reduction

Except during races, it is only in the rarest of circumstances that a good skipper sends anyone on to the foredeck of a yacht that is sailing hard to windward. Even on a close reach the deck can be a wet and dangerous place when travelling at speed. The first consideration before either reefing or changing down hcadsails must therefore be to slow the boat down, or even to stop her. Even if you don't like your crew, it pays to consider their feelings. They'll be worse company still if they are cold, wet and have had a fright.

Achieving your ends in this case is surprisingly little trouble. If you want to keep some way on the boat for tactical reasons, she will slow down dramatically yet remain under control if you steer somewhere between a close-reach and closehauled, easing your sheets so that the forward thrust of the sails is greatly diminished. By juggling helm and sheets you can now persuade her to go as slowly as the sea state will allow.

There is only one snag with using this method to keep the foredeck hands dry. It needs someone to steer the boat. An efficient autopilot can offer some sort of substitute for the real thing, but because it can neither feel the boat nor see the wave to which she must luff to retain equilibrium, it will never be as good at this particular skill as you are. If you are short-handed, or even if you aren't, there is always the option of heaving to.

Heaving to

When you heave to, you manoeuvre your boat so that she loses all way, yet keeps her sails full for most of the time. There are all sorts of misapprehensions about heaving to. Some boats do it more successfully than others, but the basic principles arc the same for any vessel. A sloop is brought to rest with the wind on whichever side is most expedient. Her headsail is sheeted aback and her mainsail is pinned well in to leeward. The headsail tries to push the bow off the wind while the main has an opposing effect. In a perfect world, the keel would balance one against the other so that equilibrium was attained. Unfortunately, life is not quite so simple.

Left entirely to her own devices a boat set up in this way will fall so far off the wind that the mainsail fills and begins to drive her ahead. If the rudder were left amidships she might gather enough way to be a nuisance, so the helm is lashed to leeward to ensure that if she makes any way at all, she will try to head up into the wind. As soon as she is close enough for the mainsail to begin spilling, the push of the backed head-sail stops any tendency to go ahead and she falls away until the main balances things up (Fig 4.1). The boat is now in a state of dynamic equilibrium and the helmsman can walk away from his job.

A yacht with a large mainsail, a small jib and a deep forefoot, such as a traditional gaff-rigged craft, will often heave to pointing 45° from the wind, and hence the seas. A short boom and a big genoa militate against such an ideal state of affairs, though by adjusting the sheets and understanding the effect each sail is likely to have, most boats can be persuaded to 'point up' tolerably well.

Although a vessel with no forefoot to speak of may not be able to use the manoeuvre as a heavy weather survival tactic, the practice of heaving to may still be helpful in shorthanded cruising, particularly if the boat is not fitted with an autopilot.

By now you'll probably be asking what possible use heaving to can be during a sail change, since the very act of reducing mainsail area, or even temporarily removing a headsail, will destroy the balance on which everything depends. In the case of changing jibs, things may go awry, but at least you won't need a helmsman and the

Opposite Hove to - helm a'lee, headsail sheeted to weather.

Seaman Ship

Fig 4.1 Heaving to. a Closehauled. b Tacking, with headsail held to weather (sheet is not released). c Hove to: boat drifts slowly to leeward but makes little headway.

boat will lose all her liveliness once the jib is down. While you are reefing the main, your vessel may tend to fall off the wind, but the security of knowing that she isn't under way can sometimes make up for this disadvantage.

Slab reefing has been in use for hundreds of years and hasn't ever been bettered. Today's gear has made what was a heavy task into a lightweight procedure which can, with practice, be executed in less than a minute (Fig 4.2). A method is the answer to getting it right. Fix the system in your mind and you'll reef like clockwork, even on a dark night.

• Ease the sheet and let off the kicking strap or boom vang.

• Take the weight of the boom on the topping lift.

• Ease the halyard and hook the luff reef cringle on to the reefing horn at the forward end of the boom. If there is no horn, lash the cringle down with a few turns of line. Some craft are even arranged so that the tack is secured remotely from the cockpit.

• Pull down the clew pennant so that the leech cringle is snugly down on the boom and the foot of the sail is well hauled out. Yachts of any size arc usually equipped with a winch for this job. It may be at the mast, on the boom, or in the cockpit (in which case the pennant will lead to it via a scries of turning blocks). Some older boats use a tackle. If the pull is too hard


Fig 4.2 Reefing, a Ease sheet, let off boom vang and heave up on topping lift, b Ease halyard, hook on reef tack cringle, then set up halyard again, c Crank down clew, with a winch if necessary, d Let off topping lift, set up boom vang and let the sail draw.

for comfort let the sheet right off for a few seconds so that the sail spills all its wind.

• Ease the topping lift, sheet in the sail, then set up the vang or kicker. You can now tie in the reef points if you feel it's necessary. On a short-boomed masthead sloop you could sail round the world without ever doing this. On a long-footed traditional mainsail, failure to tie in the points is not merely untidy and unsea-manlike, it may sometimes compromise the security of the boom itself. Generally speaking, points should not be tied around the boom. Under the foot of the sail is better, if the canvas is attached to the spar by using a track and slides. Many of today's craft carry the sail in a groove in the boom. If yours is one of these, you've no choice but to tie up the points around the whole affair. Just be doubly careful when shaking out your reef that you never release the pennant without first taking off the tics. If you do, the weight of the sail and boom will

Fig 4.3 Running off to change headsails.

Genoa is blanketed by main -it can be dropped while depowered on a much drier foredeck

Sail is changed while apparent wind is down

Back on course with new sail hoisted

come on to the eyelets of the reef points which were never designed for this purpose. They may survive if they are tied round the foot of the sail, but if they are round the boom the extra rigidity can damage the cloth.

• Never try to tie in points with the boom banging about; always sheet in first.

• Trim the jib (or let draw if you have been hove to) and sail on.

The process of reefing is carried out in about 20 seconds on a 38 ft (11.5 m) racing yacht. In a family cruiser it should not take more than a minute or so if you are not tying in the points.

Single-line reefing

This is slab-reefing refined by sophisticated gear inside the boom, so that by easing the halyard and winching down a single line in the cockpit, tack and clew are hove down together. Fine in theory and grand at its best, such arrangements are often let down by cheap rope and poor turning blocks, resulting in a no-win stretch binge that precludes a decent sail shape in high winds. Shaking reefs out can be akin to a session in the gym because the friction hinders the pennant running out of the boom end. Single-line reefing also leaves you with an unconscionable length of rope in the cockpit, and it usually means you can't have three reefs in the mainsail. Say no more...

Headsail changes

With the establishment of the roller reefing genoa, headsail changes are less of a daily chore than they used to be for most people. None the less, some sailors still prefer to keep a selection of well-setting jibs and genoas. Switching from one to the next is such a simple, logical process that no comment is required, except to reiterate the necessity for taking off way before venturing out of the cockpit and the desirability of changing down in good time.

If you have a large headsail set and you anticipate trouble in dropping it, the final solution is to run the boat downwind for a few seconds at the crucial moment (Fig 4.3):

• Bear away on to a broad-enough reach to place the genoa into the lee of the mainsail. This will neutralise all its homicidal tendencies.

• Sheet the genoa in hard behind the main to make certain that it cannot kick around and endanger the foredeck brigade.

• Go forward, drop the sail and secure it.

• You can now bring the boat back on course if you have a mind to. She won't go nearly so fast under mainsail only, and her motion will be considerably eased.

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How To Have A Perfect Boating Experience

How To Have A Perfect Boating Experience

Lets start by identifying what exactly certain boats are. Sometimes the terminology can get lost on beginners, so well look at some of the most common boats and what theyre called. These boats are exactly what the name implies. They are meant to be used for fishing. Most fishing boats are powered by outboard motors, and many also have a trolling motor mounted on the bow. Bass boats can be made of aluminium or fibreglass.

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