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HSH Yacht Articles

5 Important skills to master
when learning to sail


Jeremy R. Hood

Those of us that love sailing and being on the water often wish that we had started to learn at an even earlier age. That we had been born into a sailing family, learning to row a boat before we could ride a bike; to reef before we could write. But the reality is that few of us are born to boating and have such opportunities. Though many of us have an atavistic desire to return to the sea, often the opportunity only arises later in life after we have spent our apprenticeship at college, developed a career and a family, and at last, find we have the time and money to take up sailing. But how then do we begin?

In this monthís column I will discuss the five most important skills that I believe need to be mastered (if that is ever possible in a lifetime) by those of us who want to sail and who either have a boat already or who plan to own their own boat in the future.

1. Docking and maneuvering under power

After joining a local sailing club in England and crewing aboard a racing dinghy for a season I took a sailing class and bought my own 15 foot dinghy. It was a proud moment as I launched the boat off its trailer, tied it up to the dock and readied it for my first sail aboard my own boat. Like most dinghies, it had no engine so I had to leave the dock under sail. I turned the boat into the wind, raised the mainsail and pushed off from the dock Ė I was away and sailing, but not for long. For some strange reason the boat would only sail sideways and after my first few moments of glory I hit the dock and scraped the side of the boat stopping only just before I hit another dinghy tied ahead. It was not a good start and it took a friend to point out my error of not putting the center board down as I set off.

Though this is not exactly the problem that most will encounter when they find themselves proud owners of their first boat, what is important is to learn how to leave the dock safely and return to it in a similar manner. Not only do you have a considerable sum of money tied up in your new boat, your dock neighbors have even more money tied up in their boats the most expensive of which are always docked right next to you or, worse still, across from you, so that you have to approach their boat perilously closely each time you enter or leave the slip!

The basic skills you will need to learn are as follow:

  • How your particular boat handles under power.
    Does the engine die every time you reduce the throttle or when you change gears from forward to reverse? Does it back easily or does it turn stubbornly in one particular way? How is it affected by the wind?

  • How to turn your boat in a tight circle
    Often when backing out of a slip you find that the boat ends up facing the wrong way leaving you the option of backing out of the marina (not easily done and something of an attention-getter) or of turning the vessel around in a relatively tight space

  • Reversing
    Most boats can be maneuvered in reverse though it is rarely easy for a beginner on any boat.

  • Stopping Sooner or later you
    will have to stop. But stopping a boat is not like stopping a car Ė there are no brakes. A boat will travel a long way because of its momentum and it often takes quite a lot of reverse power to bring it to a stop. And when you do begin to slow down the wind often takes over to create an interesting situation!

You can learn some of these skills by taking lessons before you buy your boat or you can employ an instructor to go with you aboard your own boat. However if you are planning to buy a used boat it is often a good idea to see if the previous owner will spend some time with you showing you how he has learned to cope with the particular vessel. If buying new, make it a part of the agreement with the dealer that some basic instruction is included in the deal.

2. Navigation

Once you have made it out of the slip, out of the marina, and out into open water where do you go? Here in Texas there are thousands of acres of water but many are too shallow to sail in. And of those that are deep enough there are well-heads, pipelines, oyster reefs and submerged shoals to avoid. In order to fully enjoy your sailing you need to be able to read a navigational chart, plot your position on it so that you can see really where you are. And then you need to be able to set a course so as to avoid any submerged dangers along the route that you have planned.

All of this requires some knowledge of navigation that can only be obtained by systematic study or by taking a class. But even after following one of these options it takes experience to navigate when out on the water. I made mistakes in navigation when I was first learning and there is every chance that you will too (have you ever made a mistake with your checkbook register?). With all of the shallow bays and channels that are around it will be rare for any sailor to gain much experience without going aground occasionally but some situations are much worse than others. Stirring up the soft mud in the channel to a marina is not usually anything to worry about, but going aground on the lee side of a channel with the wind blowing you into shallower water every minute is more serious and you will probably require assistance to get off. Worse still is going aground on the now sunken Redfish Island because of its proximity to the Houston Ship Channel. Once aground, the wake of passing ships will lift your boat up and drop it down almost always causing serious structural damage. And I have not yet mentioned the need to know the rules of the road as they relate to you and other vessels.

Learn in theory and practice how:

  • to read a chart
  • plot positions and calculate bearings
  • to interpret lights, shapes and sound signals
  • to obey the navigation rules

3. Sail trim

It doesnít take a lot of skill to raise the sails on a boat but from there onwards itís not so easy. With the sails up all you have to do is to tighten in on the sheets (pull the sails in) until they stop flapping and you will be sailing but to sail in the direction you want and to do so efficiently takes some knowledge of how sails work, skill in setting them correctly and an almost automatic sense of where the wind is blowing from. The theory can be learned from books but actually setting the sails taking practice and recognizing automatically where the wind is blowing from takes months or years to acquire. Sailing well cannot be learned solely from books though books can teach you a great deal. What it really amounts to is that sailing is a sport, an art, and a science. However long you sail you can still improve as I am still doing. You certainly cannot learn to sail on a 3-day class but you can learn some essentials which, with practice will enable you to sail well.

Reefing is an important part of sail trim. Not only do you need to set the sails in the appropriate way, you need to adjust the amount of sail that you use as the wind strength increases. Knowing how to reef (reduce the amount of sail that is set) takes practice in performing the maneuver and judgement in knowing when and how much to reef.

The basic skills you need to acquire are:

  • Feeling the wind direction automatically so that you know where the wind is blowing from without having to think about it

  • Knowing how to set the sails to make best use of the wind to head in the direction you wish

  • Being able to tack quickly and easily

  • Being able to jibe the boat without causing damage to the boat, the sails or the crew (not easy until you learn how)

  • Being able to heave-to

  • Knowing how and when to reef

4. Man-overboard recovery

One of the most anxiety provoking situations for many who are learning to sail is the risk of falling off the boat. And of course this anxiety is only heightened when the vessel begins to heel naturally when heading to windward. There are those who scoff at such worry and who make fun of crew who tense at every gust and cling on, white-knuckled, until the sails are eventually lowered. However such anxiety is justified as there is always a risk of someone falling overboard when at sea. Better to face this possibility and prepare for it well than to make light of it and then panic when it happens.

On a sailboat you need to learn quick and efficient procedures for reacting to a man-overboard situation, for getting the boat back to the person who is in the water and for recovering them aboard. Each of these procedures requires planning and practice. If you and your crew fail to react quickly when a person goes in the water then it is all to easy to lose sight of them; if you can see them but have trouble maneuvering the vessel you may never be able to get back to them; and if you do get back to them but cannot get them back aboard then you have a serious situation to cope with. Each of these errors has led to loss of life even in protected inland waters.

Before you get too far down the channel learning to sail, make sure that you learn how to:

  • Use safety harnesses and life vests appropriately

  • Prepare your crew for what is happening and avoid situations that could lead to someone falling overboard

  • Have a man-overboard plan that is known by all the crew

  • Learn and practice man-overboard recovery procedures such as the Quick Stop Maneuver (see Telltales Seamanship June 1995)

  • Fit a Lifesling or similar equipment and then practice using it to recover someone aboard

5. Having fun

What is the purpose of all this learning and practicing if you donít enjoy it! Sailing should be fun! Heading out with sails set, the vessel heeled, the bow cutting through the seas, the hiss of water as it streams down the side of the boat. And itís quiet. Just the sun and the sea and you. Heading for Double Bayou across Galveston Bay; or Offats Bayou at Galveston. Starting a passage to Corpus Christi, or Key West or, maybe, the Panama Canal. But to undertake these passages and to be relaxed at the same time takes knowledge and experience. So, build up your skills and stretch yourself a little each time you go out but donít bite off too much too soon. Sure it will get boring eventually if all you do is head out a couple of miles and then turn around and head on back. But the solution is not to go straight from this to a Gulf of Mexico crossing. Plan your trips, be prepared to change them if weather dictates and donít set yourself a tight schedule. This way you will enjoy a lifetime of fun out there sailing. See you on the water!

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