August 14, 2011

Handling your boat

A REGULAR READER called Nikolay has asked for “suggestions for exercises that can be done in more open water that would prepare one for a possibility of an engine-less pass through a crowded anchorage or marina.”

Well, I’m sure we’ve all experienced that feeling, Nikolay, as we’re approaching a marina or anchorage: What happens if the engine won’t start?

Now, some marinas won’t let you sail within their boundaries, but in an emergency they can hardly prevent you from doing so. I wouldn’t let that worry me.

The first thing to consider is whether you know what faces you inside the marina? Have you been there before? Do you at least have a large-scale chart? If not, you should probably call the harbormaster on VHF 16 or “Any yacht in X harbor” for a tow in, or at least some instructions. In you get no reply, consider anchoring outside, if possible, until someone comes along.

The next things to consider are whether there’s enough room inside the marina to tack, if you have to beat to windward, and which way the wind is likely to be blowing in there. Quite often the winds come in puffs from various directions and there may be large gaps of calms.
Ideally, you need the smallest amount of easily managed sail area that will get you to windward if necessary. If the wind is against you in a sloop, a reasonably large genoa should do the job, or possibly a reefed mainsail only, but not both. Get the main down and furled well in advance. For a ketch or yawl, choose a close-reefed mainsail only.
If the wind is behind you, you should be able to roll up your genoa quickly to slow down, or else ease the sheets so that the headsail flies ahead without filling. If you’re operating downwind under mainsail only, make sure you can drop the sail very quickly, perhaps sheeting first in so that the battens don’t hang up on the shrouds.
If the wind is from ahead, you can slow down more easily by luffing up to a jetty or alongside another boat, and you can slow the boat further by putting the helm hard over, quickly and often, from side to side as you approach.
But before you get anywhere near the marina, place fenders all around. Make ready bow and stern lines to fling ashore, or loop them over the lifelines so they can easily be grabbed from ashore.
Don’t forget, in all this, that a dinghy and outboard makes a good tug that can maneuver your yacht with precision once in calm water, especially if you make it fast alongside on one or other quarter.
Perhaps most important of all, have small anchor ready to drop over the stern, one that will dig in quickly, such as a genuine Bruce or a Danforth. Drop it as soon as you find a suitable spot inside the marina, a place where you can collect your wits and start figuring out your next step. And use it, also, if you find yourself approaching a seawall or jetty too fast.
As far as exercises in open water go, it always pays to practice before you find yourself in an emergency. When you’re away from everything, throw a fender overboard and luff up to it under sail to find out how much way your boat carries. Run down onto it, too, and see how much you can slow your boat down by letting fly the foresail and waggling the rudder. Find some reasonably shallow water and experiment by casting out the stern anchor and slowing the boat by snubbing the rode gently.
See how your boat maneuvers under a reefed mainsail only. Judge how much sail you need to maintain steerage way inside a marina, and how tightly you can turn, and whether you can tack and jibe. Find a combination of sail that will allow your boat to sail slowly, but under control, and practice getting sail down as quickly as possible. Never mind the mess. Don’t bother to furl the main. Just get it down, because that’s what’s pushing you forward.
There may be other considerations if you’re singlehanded, or if there’s a current flowing through the marina, but what all this boils down to, of course, is small-boat handling, something many weekend sailors never even think to practice. It’s a very satisfying skill that will give you great confidence in your ability to dock, or anchor, your boat under sail.

Today’s Thought
Practice is the best of all instructors.
— Publilius Syrus, Sententiae

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #235
There are eight motions of a sailboat at sea, according to naval architect and author Francis S. Kinney:
Broaching: Accidentally swinging broadside to the wind and sea when running free.
Heaving: Rising and falling as a whole with the seas.
Pitching (and scending): Plunging so that the bow and stern rise and fall alternately.
Pitchpoling: Accidentally tumbling stern-over-bow in a half-forward somersault.
Rolling: Inclining rhythmically from side to side.
Surging: being accelerated and decelerated by overtaking swells.
Swaying: Moving bodily sideways.
Yawing: Lurching and changing direction to either side of the proper course.

If boiling point is 212 degrees and freezing point is 32 degrees, what’s squeezing point? Two in the shade, of course.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Aaron Headly said...

All excellent advice, and well said. Everyone should make note of the part about having an anchor handy - John put it in italics to help. He did that for a good reason.

All the sailing handbooks and manuals emphasize this too, and they go so far as to recommend always having an anchor ready in a marina or in busy seaways, even when the auxiliary is running fine.

You almost never see people heeding that advice, and I'll admit that I'm as guilty as the next guy. I promise to try harder.

The only thing I'd add to the discussion is that you can learn a lot right in a marina by observing the tension on your lines caused by the wind even when your sails are down. Windage is a huge factor, especially at slow speeds.

You can't really 'brake' a sailboat without an anchor or an auxiliary, but you sure can break one.