SAIL's Tip of the Week
Check back here each week for a new sailing tip from our editors, presented by
Letting go the Sheet
Releasing a loaded-up sheet from a winch when a boat tacks can be just cause for nervousness. Sailors who have just moved up to big keelboats often underestimate the loads on a sheet. On a boat up to 40 feet or so, the safest way is to first ease off a few inches, keeping the flat of one hand pressed against the turns as they surge round the winch drum. Now take off a turn or two, always leaving a couple on the drum for safety, and wait for the sail to begin to lift at the luff. As soon as this happens, pull the turns positively upward off the drum, keeping your grip directly above the axis of the winch. The turns will whip off cleanly, they will never foul, and your hands will be safe.
There are a number of ways to mark your anchor chain, including using paint or plastic-wire ties. I prefer to use strips of nylon spinnaker cloth.
First lay out the entire chain on the dock and flake it in even lengths. Choose a length that is appropriate to the depth of the waters you’ll be cruising in. I use 25-foot lengths. Then tie one of those easy to see pieces of cloth through the links that start each end of the designated length. I wrap the nylon strip through the link twice and tie it with an overhand knot.
We bought spinnaker-cloth tapes from our sailmaker in 2-inch wide rolls, in red, green and white. We cut the tapes into 30-inch lengths and marked each with a felt-tip marker to indicate the number of feet of chain that have been put out.
The colors let the foredeck crew know how much chain is going out even though they can’t see the actual numbers. I’ve tied green tapes on all the 25-foot marks (25, 75, 125, 175), red tapes on the 50-foot marks (50, 150, 250), and white tapes on the 100-foot marks (100, 200).
The colors are easy to see, the nylon cloth goes through the windlass easily, and the cloth last longer than paint.
Cut the Cheese
A line end that’s neatly done up into a Flemish coil, or “cheese,” looks very salty, especially on the gleaming cabintop of a classic boat, but it’s not a good way to treat a line that might have to be free in a hurry. Cheese lines are prone to kinking and need to be thoroughly shaken out before you get underway, or there’s a good chance they’ll snarl up just when you least want them to. Cheese lines are also great dirt traps, as you’ll find out if you’ve left one on your cabintop for a few days.
When 200 pounds of force is applied to the top of a 30-inch stanchion, as much as 3 tons of pull can be exerted on the stanchion’s base. That is more than enough to rip poorly mounted bolts up through the deck. Make sure all stanchion bases have oversized metal backing plates (not just shoulder washers), and check all the bases periodically for distortion. If the base socket holds the stanchions in place with set screws, replace them with bolts that pass through the stanchion wall.
When a lifeline fails, the cause is usually corrosion. Although coated wire is popular for lifelines, the plastic that covers the wire can hide the corrosion. That is why 1 X 19 stainless-steel rigging wire is superior. If you’re still using coated wire, examine it carefully for the telltale brown stains that cast doubt on its reliability. Gate hardware is also susceptible to failure. If you eliminate it, your lifelines will be strengthened; the downside is that it might be harder to get onboard.
Lifelines must never become slack. If the turnbuckles have lock nuts, secure them with Loctite and replace the copper pins. Spread open the ends of the pins and then cover them with tape.
It is well known that three times the depth of the water is a good starting point for determining the scope you need when anchoring with a chain. This rule is not cast in stone, however, and you might safely opt for less scope if space is tight, so long as your anchor seems well set, conditions are not extreme, and you will be aboard at high water. This can be particularly useful when swinging room is tight and the tide is due to fall during the night, because you know that your scope will increase for some hours before it begins to decrease once more. If your anchor is holding at bedtime, it should hang on until morning light.
Flashing white lights are far more noticeable than fixed ones and can be much brighter for the same average power drain. However, it’s dangerous and illegal to show anything that can be confused with a navigational aid, so flashing lights of any color mustn’t be used anywhere in coastal waters. The situation on the high seas, where there are no navigational aids, is not well defined. The International Rules state that the use of flashing lights for drawing attention to a vessel should be “avoided.” But if a vessel also carries the required lights, and if the flashing light does not interfere with them being seen or with the watchkeeper’s vision, their use isn’t actually prohibited. Unofficially, slow-flashing white strobes are used for various eye-catching purposes– on scientific and fishing drift buoys, for example. Masthead strobes are more likely to be noticed than ordinary navigational lights, and at a much greater range, so it’s understandable that singlehanders sometimes use them on the high seas, in addition to the regulation lights.
To make a quick check whether you got a good bite after dropping the hook, look for a simple range—say a piling on a dock and a tree on shore, or a flag pole and a nav aid—that is roughly parallel to the wind or current. It will be readily apparent if your boat is still on the move, long before it might otherwise become apparent on a chart plotter. Assuming your anchor does hold, you can also this as one of your three ranges after taking a fix before settling down for good.
If you're on passage and expecting a blow, it not enough to secure things on deck and shorten sail. You need to also prepare your galley. Specifically, set aside a few meals that will be both nourishing and easy to consume, so that you won't have to go digging around in cupboards or the bottom of the fridge when the boat is thrashing about so that it feels like you're inside a washing machine. In terms of menu, think dog bowl food--pre-made items that can be easily reheated (nothing beats a nice hot meal when you're cold and wet!) and then eaten out of a single dish with a spoon.
Push Yourself a Little
All to many sailors fire up the auxiliary and head back to short as soon as the wind either dies or comes on stronger than they’re accustomed to—which is too bad. There’s nothing like battling through a calm or a bit of a blow for bolstering both your skills and your confidence. With that in mind, think about how your and boat would respond in more extreme conditions, give your boat a good going over to make sure it’s ready for a little more wind, in particular. And then the next time things get a little challenging, let things hand out a little. You might be surprised at how much fun you have.
Wash away a sticky track
Having trouble with a sticky mainsail luff track, but don’t have any fancy space-age lubricants to help the sail along its way. No worries, try a few drops of dish-washing liquid, applied the length of the groove, or along the sides of the slugs or under the cars. It will, of course, was off eventually. But as a short-term fix, it can’t be beat.
Reef Your Jib Leads
As you roll in some of a roller-furling jib to keep your boat on its feet during a blow, don't forget to move the jib-lead car as well; otherwise, the increasingly horizontal force that it imparts on the sail will allow the upper part of the leech to curve, or "twist," excessively off to leeward. Moving the lead forward will allow the sheet to continue pulling down on the sail as well as aft, controlling the amount of twist so that it will continue to parallel the amount of twist in the main and thereby provide maximum power and efficiency.
Boxing the Winch
To ensure you don't lose any of those tiny bits and pieces when servicing a winch, cut out a hole from the bottom of an appropriately sized box and then slip said box over the winch, securing it snugly around the base before disassembly. This is a good idea not just if your boat is in the water, but on the hard as well. It's amazing how cleverly a pawl or some other tiny but oh-so-vital part can get itself lost among the general detritus of a typical boatyard.
Racing sailors rarely if ever sail dead downwind, and neither should you, especially in light air. Not only will hardening up onto a broad reach and then zig-zagging downwind get you to your destination faster, the sailing itself will be more enjoyable as you harness the power of apparent wind to increase your speed through the water. Don't worry about "maximizing VMGs" or anything overly technical like that. Just harden up until the boat accelerates enough to create a pleasantly gurgling bow wave. Then as the angle to your ultimate destination approaches what you believe will your gybing angle on the opposite tack (or as you run out of sea room!) put the helm down. As you are doing so, don't forget to take a look back at the other boats that sailed a straight-line course and are now well astern gazing longingly at your transom!
Let Your Sails Breathe!
In light air, all too many sailors over trim their sails in an effort to eke out that last bit of power, a mistake that is exacerbated by the fact that taught sheets can create the illusion of lift. The correct approach, however, is to ease your sails out a bit to ensure there is nice, smooth, laminar flow over both the windward and leeward surfaces. Otherwise, the air flow will detach from the leeward side, causing speed-robbing turbulence. When in doubt, let 'em out! Your sails need to breathe!
There’s nothing like a few inches of yarn tied or taped to each shroud, say, seven feet above the deck, for keeping the person at the wheel in touch with what the wind is up to. In this day of electronic gadgets, it seems more and more sailors are forgoing installing these kinds of tried and true telltales, relying instead on their instruments to show them their apparent wind angles. But remember, sailing is about far more than just numbers. It’s about integrating a variety of different sensory input, and when it comes to apparent wind angle, there’s nothing like seeing the actual wind direction relative to your rig to give you an idea of how you and your boat are doing.
What Lies Beneath
When maneuvering under power or sailing at slow speed, don't forget that the current can be just as important as your heading and the wind direction. When aiming for a mooring, threading your way through a patch of fishing buoys or conning a well-marked channel, be sure to check to see if any of these fixed objects is leaving a "wake"—a sure sign the water in which they are sitting is on the move. If so, be aware that going "upstream" of this point may be a course fraught with hazard. Also, be sure to have an escape route in mind in the event you find at the last minute that clearing it won't be possible.
A Preventative Reef
There's an old adage that says as soon as you start thinking about possibly reefing, it's time to reef. But why wait even that long, especially when sailing with newbies? If things are looking at all puffy, why not throw in a reef at the same time you're hoisting your main, as opposed to waiting until that first knockdown? Doing so is simplicity itself, and if those possible puffs never materialize, shaking it back out again will be just as easy. Remember, there's absolutely nothing wrong with starting slow. Although the sounds or slatting Dacron and water rushing by may be music to your ears, they can be downright terrifying to someone who has never been sailing before. A preventative reef early on could very well mean the difference between your guests never, ever going out with you again or becoming a regular part of the crew.
The Second Time’s a Charm when Docking
There’s no law that says you have to make a dock on your first try, so if things start to look dicey, don’t hesitate to bail out and get yourself all lined up again and then start afresh. Marinas can be funny places, with odd wind shifts and quirky currents, thanks to the presence of the nearby shoreline and surrounding obstructions. Using the insights you've gained on your initial attempt can be especially helpful when conning your way into a new slip or dock for the first time. Whatever you do, don’t take a “damn the torpedoes” approach and try to jam yourself in no matter what. Although there’s no shame in a do-over, there will inevitably be plenty of shame to go around in the event things should go truly haywire!
Help out your Trimmers
Grinding in a big, overlapping headsail can be a real, well, grind—especially when short-tacking up a channel in heavy air. To help out your trimmers as they are getting in those last few inches of genoa sheet after coming around onto a new tack, try feathering up a few degrees to take some of the pressure off. Don’t alter course so much that you go back into irons or lose your headway completely. Just point the bow up enough to put a little backwind in the jib. Your crew will thank you for it, and you won’t has to listen to a bunch of mutinous grumbling next time you make the call of “ready about!”
A Hatch Headache Preventer
The sliding Plexiglas hatches over the companionways on some boats can truly be the bane of a sailor’s existence. Who among us hasn’t banged their head rushing topside without checking first to make sure the way was clear? To give you and your guests fair warning that they need to slide a hatch out of the way before going out into the cockpit, try tying a short length of line with a stopper knot in the end of it to the latch fitting at the end. That way, even if you have a cap on obstructing your vision upward, there will be an indicator right in front of your face as you start making your way up the companionway steps, warning you to beware.
Your Fellow Wind Indicators
When it comes to reading the wind close inshore, there are typically any number of indicators to choose from, including flags, smokestacks and waving tree limbs. Farther out, though, one of the best ways of seeing what the breeze is up to is to use the old racing trick of watching your “competitors.” Are the sails on the boats in a bight of land a quarter mile away all hanging limp? Probably best not to go there if you have any interest in going anywhere fast. Similarly, if you’re just drifting, but the boats to windward a half-mile off have started healing dramatically and are clearly sailing on their ear, better be alert and maybe even think about putting in a reef.
Heaving-to in bad weather offshore is something we all read about, but many of us will never do. Since it is such an easy maneuver it seems foolish not to practice in good conditions when nothing will get broken. Simply tack without releasing the jib, and keep the mainsail sheeted. Then put the tiller back over (as if to tack back again) and find the sweet spot that enables the boat to just forereach (crab to windward) with the jib backed. If the wind is up, reefing the main before the maneuver, or easing it slightly, might help. Heaving-to can be a restful point of sail offshore, useful when meals are served, some maintenance issue needs to be resolved, or you just need a rest. Practice makes perfect and knowing how your boat will behave in different situations is always beneficial.
Make it a double
Paint and varnish WILL spill at some point. A large plastic coffee can (empty of course) makes a perfect “holder” for the can or plastic container that is filled with paint. The double can contains any drips, is less prone to tipping over, and also provides a handy place to set down your brush. Plus, if you need to do so, a couple of holes poked in each side of the larger can and a string or coat hanger will allow for hanging off a ladder or rail. Purists might want to find a couple of them and use one for varnish and one for paint, but that is getting picky.
If you don’t carry a knife at all times, you are probably not alone. But you should have one handy in areas where something bad might happen. Stash one securely in the cockpit (somewhere it won’t affect the compass). And tape a sheath knife to the mast or the vang in an unobtrusive place, ready for action. The precious few seconds you save from searching for a blade may make a big difference in the outcome of a crisis.
Get your head out of the boat
We all have our own way of navigating, and no single way is always the best (despite some arguments). With today’s proliferation of electronic gizmos, handheld devices, displays, and autopilots, sometimes it is easy to forget that one’s eyes (and brain) are the best tools on board. And, using multiple sources of data, even from your eyes, is better than just relying on the screen to do the navigating. So, as often as possible, take a survey of the water, mentally checking off the landmarks and navigation aids, and then compare with the chart to see if it all makes sense. A quick look at the depth sounder completes the process. A paper chart is much easier for this purpose than a display screen, as you get a much fuller context of your sailing area. Plus, you can easily check ranges (two buoys or land objects lining up) and see what is coming up on your path without having to zoom out.
So your engine has failed and there’s not enough wind to sail. Your mooring is in sight, there’s no immediate danger, and you would rather not call for assistance. What now? The solution could be right behind you, if you’re towing your dinghy. Even a 2hp outboard can get a 10,000lb sailboat moving at 2 to 3 knots in flat water. Secure the dinghy alongside the boat’s aft quarter; you’ll need to rig bow, stern and spring lines, and find places on the dinghy to make these fast. Gradually give the outboard more throttle to get the boat moving; once it has some way on, it is quite easy to maintain it. Leave the mainsail up so you’ll be ready in case the wind comes up. You’ll need to judge your approach to the mooring carefully, because it’s hard to slow down by reversing the outboard.
On smaller boats—and on some bigger ones—changing the oil and filter can be a nightmare scenario. Sailboat engines are typically shoehorned into their bays and access to service points is seldom as good as it should be. I’ve found the best way to change oil is to run the engine till it’s warmed up, then use a hand-operated vacuum pump with its pickup tube inserted into the dipstick hole. You can get these from any marine store. Changing the filter can be a chore too, depending on how hard it is to reach. Even if you’ve just hand-tightened the filter as recommended, it can be devilishly difficult to loosen it, and often you can’t get a decent grip with a filter wrench. In that case, a large hose clamp tightened around the filter barrel will give the wrench something to bite on. Do not ever succumb to frustration and stick a screwdriver into the filter and attempt to use it as a lever—it won’t work, and you’ll make a hell of mess. Don ‘t ask how I know this. Which leads to another tip—a disposable diaper spread out beneath the filter makes a great oil catcher.
Cleaning au Naturel
Forget expensive and toxic cleaning products. If you have a jug of white vinegar and a box of baking soda on board, you’re covered for most scenarios. A paste of baking power and water will get rust off stainless steel and mildew off fiberglass and other non-porous surfaces. Just scrub and rinse. A 50:50 vinegar/water mix will clean varnished wood and fiberglass, and raw vinegar cuts through grime and is great for wiping down work surfaces. The smell quickly dissipates. Close the heads and galley sink drain seacocks and pour baking powder down them to clean and deodorize.
It doesn’t matter how scrupulous you are about keeping your heads compartment clean if you leave your intake hose and toilet bowl filled with seawater when you leave the boat. Microorganisms in the seawater will die and give off that nasty rotten-eggs hydrogen sulfide odor. If you first pump through plenty of salt water to make sure no waste is left trapped in the hose run, flushing a quart or two of freshwater through the toilet will take care of the toilet bowl and outlet hose, but what of the intake hose? “Headmistress” Peggy Hall suggests connecting the heads intake hose to the sink drain hose (if close enough) via T-fittings just upstream of the respective seacocks; before you leave the boat for more than a day or two, close both seacocks and then pump a sink full of freshwater through the toilet, which will rinse everything out. If you do this every time you leave the boat for more than a couple of days, you can kiss goodbye to stinky heads.
Rinse and Go
As turning blocks age their sheaves can become reluctant to spin freely. Sometimes this is due to wear, especially on plain-bearing blocks, but more often it’s due to buildups of dirt and salt clogging up the workings. These can harden to the extent that the usual perfunctory freshwater hose-down won’t shift them. Gently pour boiling water over the offending block. The heat should dissolve the salt build-up in no time.
Why Sailors should Motor
It’s a point of pride among many sailors to use their auxiliary engines as little as possible, maybe just to get on and off the mooring. The problem here is that your diesel scarcely has a chance to warm up, and diesels don’t like such treatment. Fuel doesn’t combust properly and you end up with carbon buildups in the combustion chambers and exhaust system. A couple of times a season, take your boat out under power and run it hard—about 80% of maximum RPM—for an hour or so to clean your engine out. It will be grateful.
Poling Out a Headsail
Here’s a fuss-free way to pole your headsail out to windward. Set your whisker pole up with a downhaul, topping lift and afterguy. Roll up the headsail and lead the weather sheet through the jaws of the pole; do not clip the pole through the sail’s clew ring. Secure the pole into position by tensioning its three lines, then unroll the headsail and harden up on the sheet. If it is blowing hard, leave a couple of rolls in the genoa so that it sets nice and flat.
Too much leeway?
When you’re under sail, your boat will not be traveling a straight line through the water but will drift slightly to leeward. The amount of “leeway” a sailboat makes is dependent on many factors—wind strength, hull shape, and current— but usually is not much less than 5 degrees if you are sailing hard on the wind. If you aim 5 to 10 degrees upwind of your destination, you won’t go far wrong.
When you have to make a docking line fast to a ring or bollard, a round turn and two half hitches is better than a bowline. Why? Because you can untie the round turn and two half hitches when the line is under load; try that with a bowline and you’ll soon be reaching for a knife. As a fringe benefit, the round turn also resists chafe.
Plastic cable ties are available in many colors and can be used to mark your anchor chain and/or rope so you know how much rode you are paying out: one tie at 20 feet, two at 40 feet, or whatever interval works for you. By all means color-code the ties, but leave the tails long so you can feel them in the dark. Thin ties go through a windlass easily.
Single-handed docking is greatly simplified if you use a midships spring line with a loop on its end. Make the spring line fast just abaft the boat’s pivot point; then as you slowly come alongside the dock, drop the loop over a dock cleat. If you leave the engine ticking over in forward gear, the boat will lie quietly alongside while you rig your other lines.
Believe it or not, one of the most useful items you can keep on your cruiser is a metal coathanger. Cut and straightened, it can be used to unblock a hose, snake an electrical wire through inaccessible parts of a boat, hook lost objects out of a bilge, and catch a loose halyard that swings just out of reach. Oh, and it will keep your coat nicely crease-free!
If you thought there already was too much “string” on your boat, think again. Keep a small bag full of odd lengths of 3/16in or 1/4in line—up to 6ft long—somewhere where you can find it in a hurry. You’ll be surprised how many uses you’ll find for short pieces of light line. There’s always something that needs to be lashed down or held up.
Salt and grime can make your acrylic hatches and portlights look dull so make sure you wash them down with soap and water often. Don't use glass cleaners like Windex, as they contain abrasives. Faded Lexan (polycarbonate) hatches can be at least partially restored with a gentle car wax compound and a buffer, or a proprietary product like Aurora's Clear View.
You don't want barnacles or slime affecting your propeller's efficiency, but it's notoriously difficult to make antifouling paint stick to your prop. Here's how: rough up the metal with some 80 grit sandpaper, then apply a couple of coats of zinc chromate primer. Then brush on your choice of bottom paint. The primer will adhere to the metal, the paint will adhere to the primer, and the barnacles won't adhere to the paint.