Boat Handling under Sail

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If you are a comparative newcomer to the world of sailing, you may think it odd that a chapter on handling under sail should precede one explaining how best to benefit from auxiliary power. Should you have come to cruising from dinghy sailing, however, it will seem entirely natural. There are even a few of us left who learned our sailing in cruisers without any power unit at all, save a sweep or a quant pole. In fact, sailing a yacht of moderate tonnage in close quarters can be as easy as motoring, so long as one or two rules are borne in mind.

No brakes

The most important elements of boat handling revolve around the various circumstances in which you may want to stop, or get under way.

The only thing that can stop a sailing vessel - other than the undesirable intervention of a rock, shoal or quay wall - is her own skin friction and air resistance. Acting against these are two forces which induce her to keep moving: the forward drive of her sails and her own momentum. You can shed the first of these easily enough if you think about what you are doing. Momentum depends upon such variables as how fast you are going when the power comes off, and how much air resistance is stacking up against it. It also depends upon the displacement and hull form of your vessel. For a given craft these latter two criteria are, of course, fixed. Their effects are predictable once you know her habits, and they are generally referred to as the manner in which she 'carries her way'.

An old-fashioned, heavy yacht seems to keep going for ever if she is luffed up to a lightish breeze from 5 or 6 knots. I have seen an Eight Metre carry her way, head-to-wind, for more than 100 yds (91 m). She finally stopped with her mooring right under her spoon bow. The bowman was lying on the forcdcck ready to stretch down, pick it up and secure it. At the other end of the scale come ultra-light trailer-sailers. I once luffed one of these up to a mooring in a strong breeze during a period of my life when I was usually sailing a 6 ton fin-keeler. I didn't expect the boat to go far, but she stopped dead miles short of the buoy so that I had to tack back up to it for my next try.

Clearly, judgement is required to bring your yacht to a standstill right where you want her. Fortunately for most of us who are blessed with a higher degree of mortality than my Eight Metre skipper, we can keep the judgement factor to a minimum by making sure that before we take the power off, by dropping the sails, easing the sheets, or luffing head-to-wind, we line up with rule number one: When manoeuvring under sail, always go as slowly as you possibly can without losing control.

However, we'll go into this in more detail later in this chapter. Before even beginning to think about the boat, you need to be aware of what is going on around her. You need an accurate lead on the wind direction, and you need to determine the relationship between this and any tidal stream or current. Get either of these wrong and you may as well have bought a motor boat. Happily, being right is just a matter of informed observation.

Wind awareness

We have seen in Chapter 3 that when the true wind is blowing across a moving boat, the apparent wind which results is affected not only in strength but also in direction. It always comes from forward of the true wind until the boat is on a dead run. With the wind well aft, the apparent wind speed will be less than the true wind. As it approaches a point just abaft the beam they may become similar, and as the true wind comes onto or forward of the beam, the force of the apparent wind will always exceed it.

It follows that if you want any accurate information about the true wind, it is no good looking at the burgee, the wind indicator or your instruments. You are sailing (or motoring for that matter) in the apparent wind which is being experienced by every item on board, from the ensign through your own senses right up to the fanciest electronic transducer. Other than a linked function computer, only your eyes can tell you what you want to know, which, when you consider that they didn't cost you a cent, represents remarkable value.

Where there is no current, moored yachts will be lying head-up to the true wind. If there is a flag ashore, you can check that, but a far more accurate device is available at all times when there is light to see it. As the wind blows on the face of the water, it marks it with tiny ripples which run at right angles to its direction. Don't use the waves to judge. They may be being bent by other forces. Just use the ripples. Train yourself to be aware of them at all times. They'll never let you down.

Tide awareness

When it comes to boat handling, the one thing you do not do if you want to gauge the tide is consult the tide tables. Look at any fixed object with water flowing past it, including a moored or anchored vessel, and you'll see a bow-wave. That tells you all you need to know.

If you are running up a river and there's nothing around that will indicate whether or not the tide has turned, you can often put the boat beam on to the direction of the river and sec which way she is being set by observing the bank dead ahead of you. The answer should be immediately obvious, even if you are turning in your own length. If it's not, you can only conclude that it is slack water.

Sailing slowly

Shortening sail

If you're going to sail into a crowded harbour, or up a narrow river on a breezy day, it will probably pay to shorten sail before you get there. Manoeuvrability is severely restricted by a large genoa, as is visibility. So get rid of it, either by rolling half of it away, or by changing it for a smaller, higher-cut sail. Reef the main if necessary, but have nothing to do with your genoa, except on the gentlest of days.

Although shortening down can be helpful, it doesn't pay to be overzealous. The wind may be lighter in the harbour than out at sea and a boat which is grossly undercanvassed can be a disappointment to handle. She may even let you down.

Dropping one sail altogether is often a winner if your rig will balance without it. A gaff cutter will sail slowly without her all-powerful staysail, so long as there is a jib on the end of the bowsprit. Ketches and yawls may go well enough with main or mizzen stowed, and so on. The only way to know is to experiment with the boat in question.

Spilling wind

So long as the wind is forward of the beam, you can control your speed perfectly by easing sheets until the sails spill wind. If you try this closehauled you'll go sideways as your speed drops, so be careful. When the breeze is on or abaft the beam, a conventional yacht can't lose any way with her mainsail set. The boom presses on the shrouds even with the sheet slacked right off, and the sail fills just the same. In marginal cases it helps to dump the kicking strap or boom vang, allowing the upper part of the leech to fall away. The result of this feature of mainsails is that if you ever need to stop with the wind from aft, you have no choice but to drop the mainsail and proceed under headsails, spilling wind as necessary. This becomes important when manoeuvring in tides.


As a temporary expedient in light or moderate airs, you can sometimes shed way by sheeting the sails in so hard that they lose all drive. This technique can be quite useful, but it must be treated with caution because it can play havoc with the balance of your helm.


Another way of ditching drive from a main or mizzen is to scandalise it. This shocks the sail into a state of refusal by doing something really horrible to it. Let the kicker or vang right off, overhaul the mainsheet to the knot, then drag the boom end skywards with the topping lift.

Mooring under sail

No tide

However slowly you approach the buoy, you'll usually have to come head to wind at the end to luff off the last of your way. A skilled skipper in a boat that is well known

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