Look out for ferries

June 5th, 2012

On Saturday we met a man who is one of Sydney’s ferry captains. But he’s also a yachtsman, so he understands the sort of people who sail – from the very experienced to the first-timers, from the serious racers to the party boaters. And he also knows that all of these can make poor decisions and put their yachts at risk of being run down by a ferry.

Interestingly, he has offered to take several sailing instructors on one of his ferry runs to show them his view of the traffic, from the height of the bridge. Those instructors will then be well placed to explain how to avoid the dangers faced by yachts that stray too close:

  • Being run down
  • Losing wind and losing way
  • Being swamped by the bow wave

It’s timely to remember that ferries carrying an orange diamond on Sydney Harbour have right of way, as does commercial shipping.

Ferry showing orange diamond signifying right of way
Ferry showing orange diamond signifying right of way. (Image from Boating Handbook 2011-2012, NSW Transport Maritime)

So when you’re out on the water, don’t just look out for other yachts, make sure you keep an eye out for ferries – not all captains have the yachting experience of our new friend.

Sensible safety upgrades

January 3rd, 2012

Many of you may have read about the near disaster of the yacht Rambler 100 when its keel dropped off shortly after rounding the Fastnet lighthouse in this year’s Fastnet yacht race.

The yacht promptly turned upside down. This led to two major problems.

The first was the liferafts became inaccessible. The second was that there was no back up emergency communication that the crew could use for contact with yachts nearby and/or rescuers.

The Australian yacht, Wild Oats XI, which will start in this year’s Hobart race on Boxing Day, has used the knowledge of Rambler 100 incident to improve several safety features on board at no great expense.

The paramount one is to shift the liferafts into the boat’s cockpit, which means that in the event of a capsize they could be launched through the stern.

The boat now carries two life jackets for every crew member, one standard and the other a light weight one to sleep in.

Aboard Wild Oats XI, which is favoured to get line honours in the race, is a light foam surfboard for use in rescuing anybody overboard.

Last and not least, the boat has a second high frequency radio after an incident during last year’s race in which the officials claimed the vessel had not radioed in at the start of its crossing of Bass Strait. An international jury dismissed a protest by the officials.

For those who wish to read either of the reports in full, click the relevant link:

* Wild Oats XI – safety refit
* Rambler 100 Capsize safety review

Giant wave

January 3rd, 2012

Normally we don’t discuss wave height – particularly in a bar – because there is hardly ever any real proof of what is usually a subjective statement.

However, this wave is well-documented by respected authorities.

Here’s where you can read more about the 67 foot (20.4 metre) wave off Ireland.

I know a fair proportion of our readers sail only in protected waters. We’re not trying to frighten those who go to sea but as you’ll see this is what can happen out there.

Getting out of irons

November 21st, 2011

In our last newsletter we mentioned that if you tack too slowly and lose momentum you may end up in irons (stalled).

The rudder can only work when the boat is moving so the boat needs to be travelling at a reasonable speed before you begin to tack.

When sailing in a light breeze you may need to ease the sails, including the main’s outhaul, slightly to deepen the curve and gain the necessary speed.

Sometimes waves will cause a boat to become stuck in irons, particularly when there is not enough wind to carry the boat through.

Another thing to avoid is centering the tiller too early. Unless the boat has passed head to wind, there’s a risk of stalling.

Remember: Don’t release the headsail until the boat is past head to wind. That should ensure the boat is safe on the new tack.

So there are a few ideas to help you avoid getting stuck, but how do you get unstuck?

If you can’t get on to the new tack or back on the previous one and the rudder doesn’t seem to be working, it’s likely that you are sailing backwards, in which case the rudder will be working in reverse.

Immediately you decide the rudder is taking you backwards in the ‘wrong’ direction, you should reverse the wheel, or tiller, so that it makes the bow fall in the direction you want to tack.

If this still doesn’t work, act as you would if completely becalmed. Get your crew to hold the boom on the new tack and get their weight on the leeward side of the boat.

Let the sails out as if you were on a very broad reach. When you get the slightest hint of a breeze, tighten the sails ever so slightly and sail in whatever direction that takes you until you get enough way up to go on the course you want.

Next time you tack, don’t be afraid to broaden the attack so that you have good speed, then be constantly aware of where the rudder is until safely on the new course.

Good luck!

E.B. White

November 21st, 2011

If a man is to be obsessed by something, I suppose a boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most.

I must say I puzzled over the connection between sailing and the man who edited and updated William Strunk’s well-known American handbook of grammar, The Elements of Style. Some of you, however, may be more familiar with White’s children’s books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, both now made into films.

I believe the connection was through his son, Joel White, a naval architect and boat builder.

Elwyn Brooks White was born in 1899 graduated from Cornell University in 1923 after completing his military service. In 1929 he married Katharine Angell, literary editor at The New Yorker, who had got him a job at the magazine in 1927, just two years after it was founded. He remained a contributor for the next 60 years.

In 1978 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize: A Special Award and Citation – Letters: “For his letters, essays and the full body his work.”

White died on 1 October 1985 from Alzheimer’s disease, a sad fate for a writer.

Pete Culler

October 26th, 2011

To be successful at sea we must keep things simple.

Captain R. D. ‘Pete’ Culler was an American naval architect. He designed a wide range of vessels, as the contents of John Burke’s book, Peter Culler’s Boats: The Complete Design Catalog show:
* Round -Bilged Open Craft for Sail and Oar
* Vee-and Flat-Bottomed Open Boats for Sail and Oar
* Power, Inboard and Outboard
* Cutters, Sloops, Yawls
* Ketches
* Schooners

Pete Culler also wrote about his design work in Skiffs and Schooners and Boats, Oars and Rowing. These two books were combined by John Burke into Pete Culler on Wooden Boats: The Master Craftsman’s Collected Teachings on Boat Design, Building, Repair, and Use.

R. Tucker Thompson, designed by Pete Culler

R. Tucker Thompson (photo courtesy Miso Beno)


Culler also wrote The Spray: Building and Sailing a Replica of Joshua Slocum’s Famous Vessel.

One of the schooners designed by Culler is the R. Tucker Thompson, a traditional gaff-rigged schooner owned and operated by the R. Tucker Thompson Sail Training Trust. She (it seems odd to call a ship a ‘she’ when it carries a male name, says Annie!) carries passengers for day sails and longer voyages, taking in New Zealand’s beautiful Bay of Islands.

A sad ending

Culler also designed several schooners for the Concordia Company of Massachusetts. Sadly, one, an 83 tonner named the John F. Leavitt, sank on her maiden voyage. She was built for Ned Ackerman and launched in 1979 – the first wind-powered cargo vessel built in the USA for 40 years. 97 ft long, with a shallow draft of just six and a half feet, she was designed to carry 6,441 sq ft of sail.

Fully laden with lumber and canning chemicals, the John F. Leavitt set sail for Haiti. During a heavy winter three-day gale near the Gulf Stream the cargo broke free and damaged the hull. She sank on 29 December 1979 and, fortunately, her crew were all rescued by helicopter.

Among the crew of nine was Jon Craig Cloutier, a filmmaker who had recorded the progress of the ship’s building over four years. He was lucky to rescue from the foundering vessel 3,600 ft of film taken of the voyage although was unable to save another US$50,000 worth of camera equipment that was on board. In 1981 he released a film, Coaster: The Adventures of the John F. Leavitt. It had been edited from over 100,000 ft of film into a 90 minute documentary feature.

The ship was planned as the first of three and wholly financed by Ned Ackerman. She was valued at US$350,000. Her loss was the end of the project.

You can read more about the John F. Leavitt in a Time magazine article from Sept 1979, In Maine: A Bold Launching into the Past and a report of the rescue.

Tacking – 8 steps to perfect your tack

October 24th, 2011

Yachts sailing to windwardThe way to develop the proper timing when tacking your boat is to practise. At first, start each phase slowly. You will be surprised how soon it becomes a slick operation. 

Here’s what you need to do:

1. While sailing upwind, the boat should always be ready to tack.

Why? Because at any time you may need to avoid other boats, ferries or shipping.

What does this mean? For the headsail, being ready to tack means that:

  • the lazy sheet has at least one turn around the winch
  • the working sheet is securely held with three or more turns around the winch and ready to be uncleated, its tail ready to run freely
  • any crew on the rail are ready to move across the boat, out of the way of the tacking headsail

For the main, being ready to tack means that:

  • the mainsheet is cleated and the traveller can be quickly pinned
  • the mainsheet trimmer is ready to move the traveller into position for the new tack

2. Helmsman should keep sailing close-hauled right up to the point of tacking

What I mean here is that while deciding when to tack – e.g. looking around for good, clean air, avoiding close encounters with other boats – don’t allow the boat to drop off the breeze on to a close reach. And don’t let yourself be distracted by crew preparations.

3. Helmsman decides to tack and calls ‘ready about’

Crew prepare for the tack:

The headsail trimmer takes sheet out of the cleat or self-tailer but ensures that trim is maintained without any easing. As already mentioned, the leeward sheet must be free to run when required.

Mainsheet hand ensures the traveller is locked and stands by ready to adjust the traveller for the new tack.

Crew call ‘ready’.

4. Helmsman calls ‘helm to lee’ or ‘tacking’ and turns the boat slowly, keeping as much speed as possible through the tack. If you turn too fast you will lose boat speed, if too slow you will lose momentum. If you lose too much momentum you may end up in irons (stalled).

5. As the headsail starts to back, the headsail trimmer releases the leeward sheet quickly so that the wind carries the sail across the foredeck in a single smooth motion.

6. Pull in new sheet hand over hand and then trim on using the winch handle, with a second crew member tailing to make it more efficient and prevent over-rides. (Make sure the new lazy sheet is free enough to allow this to be done without hindrance.)

7. Crew change sides of the boat.

8. Prepare the lazy headsail sheet for the next tack by reloading the winch with two turns – spinning the winch to ensure the turns are the right way around. Make sure there is no pressure on the sheet that could affect the shape of the headsail.

When you’re safely on the new tack, give the crew feedback and talk about how to improve the next tack. This instant replaying of the manoeuvre is a good way of developing your team. It’s a far better way of learning than having a chat back on the mooring at the end of the sail, when everyone is keen to get ashore.

“We’d be better prepared”

September 6th, 2011

I’ve just been reading an article about a couple who sailed from San Francisco to Oahu, Hawaii. The 2080 nm voyage really challenged them, for a number of reasons.

The first being that the skipper, Ray Schmahl, 58 was an experienced coastal and bay sailor but had never sailed in the open sea. His boat, You Never Know, a Baba 35 is, however, a good cruising boat – a double-ender with a full keel. 

As they left the Californian coast they saw one sailboat, then spent the next 25 days alone on the sea apart from a few freighters, thankfully in the distance. To ensure their safety, Ray or his partner, Catherine Zimney, 57 took turns on watch. But this led to them both becoming exhausted, only ever having four hours maximum for sleeping, plus change-over time, meals, etc.

For the first week there was no sunshine and they were relying on solar power to keep their batteries topped up. For my money, I’d want to have several ways and would install a wind generator. At the same time, it would be impractical to use the boat’s engine as you’d be unlikely to have sufficient fuel to do so.

As you’d expect during a voyage of this length, they also experienced a significant storm and were also becalmed for two days.

If you like, you can read the full story of their voyage.

A fortnight or so after their safe arrival in Oahu, Ray said: “I would do it again. We’d be better prepared and know more about how things work.” 

Skipper & Crew CD cover

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We have developed comprehensive checklists to  help you prepare for a voyage. You will find them in Skipper and Crew, Knots and The Language of the Sea.