SAIL's Tip of the Week

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I was powering at low rpm when my wife asked, “What is that high-pitched sound?” I thought it was a belt, but when I went below and looked in the engine box all seemed fine. The noise seemed to be coming from behind the engine, so I lifted the small hatch over the PSS (Packless Sealing System) unit and found that the shaft, boot, and clamps were too hot for me to touch.

I immediately knew what had happened. I had been diving to change the shaft zinc and clean the hull, and I had spent a lot of time around the shaft. Some of my air bubbles had traveled up the grooves in the Cutless bearing into the stern tube. The rising air displaced the water there and air instead of water had filled the bellows hose and shaft collar of the shaft seal. With no water lubricating the rotating bearing, things inevitably got hot. To solve the problem, I gently pulled and compressed the rubber bellows boot to break the air seal. A gush of water came in and cooled down the parts.

If you have this system, remember this when you go back into the water after a haulout, or if a diver spends a lot of time near the prop and shaft. If you have an older setup, as I do, always “burp” the bellows on the shaft seal to make sure it is filled with water. PYI ( has installed a hose nipple on all PSS units built after 2002 that can either vent the air or inject water from the engine.



SEAMANSHIP: Snatch and Release 

If you anchor out a lot, as I do, eventually you will be in a situation where the flukes get snagged on something: a rock ledge or an abandoned cable are typical culprits. You’ll know you are hooked when you shorten up on the anchor rode and it will not break out, even when you power ahead over it. To retrieve the anchor you need to reverse the digging-in process and back the hook out the same way it went in. To do this, I use a 1/2 in nylon retrieval line and a length of chain 18in to 24in long, with links between 3/16 n and 1/4 in, formed into a loop at the end. The length of the line can vary, but a good rule of thumb is to have one at least twice the water depth.

First, slide the chain and retrieval line down to the crown of the fouled anchor and then take a gentle strain. If the rode is all-chain, make it as vertical as possible before sliding the retrieval loop down to the anchor crown. This will help keep it from getting hung up.

Always pull from the direction the wind was blowing from when you anchored. If the wind was northeast, for example, take the strain when you are heading in a northeasterly direction. For maximum maneuverability, detach the anchor rode from the boat, tie its bitter end to a good-sized docking fender and put it in the water. Never run the engine at more than half speed. Finesse rather than brute strength seems to work best. Start with the engine in gear at idle speed. If nothing happens go to quarter speed and, if necessary, half speed.

Some crews like to attach a trip line to the anchor before they set it. My view is that the freestanding retrieval line does the same thing, and avoids having multiple lines and buoys. However, if you use a fisherman’s anchor, a preset trip line might be a good idea because its stock will prevent a retrieval chain loop from moving up the shank to the crown.


According to veteran ocean cruiser and racer Don Street, every sailor who considers himself competent should also be an MBLU (Master of the Bastard Lash-Up), an accreditation he first learned to appreciate when he was a young crewmember aboard a Navy submarine.

As an example, Street likes to tell about a delivery he made aboard a 40-foot ketch sailing from North Carolina to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. After several days at sea, the wind dropped completely and in order to keep to his schedule, Street turned on the gasoline auxiliary. But six hours later the engine’s water pump packed up and there was no replacement on board.

But there were several five-gallon jerry cans of fuel on deck and that was all Street needed for an MBLU solution. After emptying the contents of one jerry can into the main fuel tank, he cut off its bottom, turned it upside down and lashed it into the shrouds, making sure it was low enough that the shortest crewmember aboard could pour a bucket of water into it.

Next, Street collected all unused hoses and hooked them together to make one long hose running from the spout of the can to the engine’s salt-water intake. With three other crewmembers on board, Street then established a schedule: one hour on watch steering—and pouring a bucket of seawater into the jerrycan every minute—and three hours off. With the engine running at 1500 RPM, the system worked fine until the wind finally returned and he could hoist the sails again. Street concedes this might not work with some of today’s engines. But that’s not his main point. Every problem has a solution—just as long as there’s an MBLU on board.

Coastal Cruising: Reel length

Having a long length of line ready to use at short notice is always a good idea when cruising. You never know when you may have to run out a long mooring warp or set a kedge anchor. The trouble is that such a seldom-used line often ends up under piles of gear in the cockpit locker. This is a bad arrangement, because when you want a long line you often need it right now. You don’t want to waste precious time burrowing for it.

This sailor has probably learned that lesson the hard way, which is why he has installed this spool of strong webbing on the stern rail and has made sure that it is ready for instant deployment.


Radar Piloting

The most accurate tool for estimating your distance to a solid target is radar. When you have to traverse a narrow channel close to the shore with off-lying dangers and you can’t line up two objects to see you through, select the most appropriate range setting, then set the variable range marker (VRM) to a safe distance from whichever shore seems likely to offer the best radar target. You can then sail or motor along and be sure of your distance off. Double-check everything, make sure you have a bailout plan in case the radar goes on the blink, then forge ahead while keeping the VRM just touching the echo of the shore.

A Good Night’s Sleep

I’ve spent months anchored in places where wakes and wave conditions can make life a misery for the unprepared. But this simple stopper device that you can build in less than an hour from scrap materials will stop your boat from rolling and make the experience a pleasant one no matter what the conditions are. Here’s what you need.

•Two 18in x 12in pieces of plywood with a thickness of 3/8 or 1/2in. Aluminum plate is better, but more expensive.

• 20ft of 5/16 or 3/8in non-stretch line

•A weight (heavy belt or mushroom anchor) to hang below the flopper stopper to hold it down.

•A drill and 7/16 or 1/2in bit.

•Some seizing twine or light cord.

Drill bridle holes in each piece of plywood that are big enough to receive the line you will use. Place the holes about two inches above the centerline of the plywood. Drill three more holes in the bottom of each piece of plywood about 1 1/2in from the bottom. Put a hole at each end and put the third in the center of the piece. The two outer holes are used for the hinges. Next loosely tie the two bottom edges together so they form a hinge. Make sure they will hinge open and shut smoothly. Make the bridles by cutting two pieces of line 6ft long. Mark the center of each and then run the two ends of the line through the bridle holes; pass the line through the holes from the outside to the inside of the plywood and put a strong knot in the ends. Make a small eye in the middle of each bridle line and tape it. Whip the two eyes together and your bridle is ready.

To deploy the stopper, hang the weight from the holes in the center of the stopper’s bottom edge and then tie an 8- to 10-foot piece of line from the end of your boom to the bridle eye. Use a preventer to wing out the boom perpendicular to the boat as you ease the mainsheet. Be sure your topping lift is strong enough to absorb the energy of the flopper-stopper: attach the main halyard to the end of your boom to back up the topping lift if necessary.

When the boat rolls up, the device will hinge open and check the boat’s roll. When the boat sinks down the hinges will close. The next upswing will open it again. You’ll be amazed how easy to use and how effective this device is.

Evaporation is Cool

When I heard the skipper of a 42ft powerboat complaining that one of his five air conditioners had failed I wasn’t terribly sympathetic. Many sailboats, even in Florida, don’t have air conditioning. Our boat has a single unit that keeps us comfortable, but there’s little spare capacity.

To help cool the boat down quickly on a hot day, I regularly spray water on the deck. It’s not the water temperature that cools the boat, but rather the heat that is removed by evaporation. On a typical summer afternoon much of the heat load comes from solar radiation. Because of the sun’s angle, most of this radiation is through the deck. My dark blue hull will be close to ambient temperature, but the white areas on the deck will be hot, and the sand colored anti-skid areas even hotter. Even on a 90-degree afternoon in Florida, the difference between the air temperature and the dew point will be large enough so that water will evaporate quickly. If you aren’t convinced, spray some water on your deck and see. Of course, spraying water will not cool down your boat’s interior, but the evaporation will reduce the heat load, which will help your air conditioner cool down the interior temperature. 

Line Items

Whether it’s an official range that is marked on a chart or just two sticks in the sand that you have set up yourself to help get your dinghy through a narrow cut in a reef, a range is an important tool for the sailor. A range works because the two vertical poles or objects are aligned to create an unmovable line of position. Ranges work best when the aftermost stick, tree, church steeple or whatever, is taller than the marker that is in front of it. In a pinch, though, any two fixed vertical objects along a line of position will do.

When we are cruising we find ourselves constantly using ranges and have developed a rule that has served us well over the years: chasing the marker that is closest to us. For example, if the closer marker—generally also the shorter one—moves to the left of the taller marker behind it, we will “chase” it by altering course to port until we again have both markers in alignment. If, on the other hand, the closer marker is to the right of the marker that is farther away we turn to starboard until both markers are aligned again.

At anchor, many cruisers will take bearings on both the port and starboard side of the boat to check if they are dragging. This method is fine for estimating your location, but you could move as much as 100 feet and still not really notice. The system we use at anchor can tell us if we have moved as little as 10 feet. Here’s how it works:

First, we note the boat’s most frequent heading. Then we find two objects ashore abeam of us and on the same side of the boat that are lined up when the boat is on that heading. Any stationary objects, trees, rocks, radio towers, the top of a hill, will do. If possible, we prefer to choose two lit objects, because they can be used at night. For example, when we anchored recently in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, during a gale, the range we used was a streetlight and the window of a house.

When we are sure the boat is on the same heading used when we established the range, we look at our range and note whether the closer range marker has moved forward of the one behind it. If it has, we know that either the rode has straightened out or we are dragging anchor. If we see that the closer marker has moved aft of the farther one, we know we have moved closer to our anchor, either because of current or possibly a decrease in wind velocity.

During that gale in Mexico, the wind was strong enough to keep a steady tension on all four of our anchors, and when the forward range began to move ahead of the one behind it we knew that at least one of the anchors had dragged. Fortunately, by walking forward on the deck until the two range markers were again aligned, we knew that we had moved back just 10 feet.

Always look for potential range markers around you and practice using them in all conditions. Doing so will improve your navigation skills and, when you are anchored, they will provide accurate information on where you are and whether you are staying in one place. 

Hatch Screens

If you cruise where there are mosquitoes, you need to get serious about keeping them out of the boat. On our boat the hatches had wire-mesh screens that were too porous to be effective, and two of these were directly over our bed, so we knew we needed something better. Specifically, we needed an effective screen that wouldn’t interfere if we had to shut the hatches quickly in a sudden downpour. We also wanted devices that would stay put in a breeze when we were anchored and would be easy to stow when it was time for us to head to sea.

All our hatches open to a 45-degree angle, so we figured a set of wedge-shaped “tents” of screening would do the job nicely. We bought some mosquito netting (originally part of a hammock) and measured and cut the material so each tent fit rather loosely. We made the two seams that come down from the upper corner of each tent using sewn-on tape.

After that we sewed a sausage-like hem of marine canvas around the bottom of the netting to hold each tent in place once it was draped over the hatch. Using a funnel, we filled the hem with clean sand we had rinsed in fresh water.

It took us about an hour to make each hatch net, and they have worked out very well. The ventilation is first rate, the tents look smart, and they have done an excellent job of keeping insects out of our lives.

Waiting to Inhale

A decade ago, while thumbing through a cooking magazine, a photo of a bicycle pump caught my eye. It turned out to be a vacuum pump that could do the same thing as a big, boxy kitchen vacuum sealer costing more than $100. But it was small, hand-operated and cost just $20. I researched the Pump-N-Seal food saver online and then ordered one. It has been an inspired addition to our cruising galley.

Here’s how it works. First, use a push-pin (one is supplied with the pump) to puncture the center of the lid of any sealing jar; empty pickle jars are ideal. Next, cover the hole with a tiny Band-Aid-like seal (also supplied) to create a multi-use check valve. Positioning the suction-cup base of the pump over the tab, you push down on the spring-loaded plunger a few times to pump the air out of the closed jar. Simple as that.

Before the Pump-N-Seal, opening a container of nuts onboard committed us to gorging on them before they went stale. Now we eat or serve just what we like. As long as they’re stored in a metal-lid jar, we can simply close the lid and pump the air out when putting them away. Our boat spends hurricane season on the hard in the tropics, and we often leave “opened” cans of nuts in the galley while we’re away. We return to find them as fresh as ever.

Coffee lovers can also benefit by storing their ground coffee in a vacuum-sealed jar. Likewise, expensive spices maintain their potency when stored in a vacuum. Vacuum-packing flour, beans and pasta protects them from weevils and other insects. It protects meats and poultry from freezer burn, and keeps crackers, cookies and chips nice and crisp.

Engines: Full Notice

If you don’t have a self-bleeding diesel engine, here’s a suggestion that can save time and effort. Photocopy the instructions for bleeding the engine from its manual. Then blow up the type big enough so you can read it without glasses. Laminate the page(s) to waterproof them. With instructions in hand, bleed the engine’s fuel system and mark all the lines you have to break with a touch of red nail polish. Then put the laminated instructions and all the wrenches you need to bleed the lines into a sealable plastic bag. Next time you have to bleed the engine, you won’t have to search for anything

Get the weight off!

Don’t make your boat a storage shed. Develop and pursue a weight-reduction plan. New winches are nice. Now you should offload the old ones you’ve stored below, along with those pieces of pipe, broken winch handles, the old sun awning, the wrong-size propeller, and one of the two identical sets of socket wrenches. A few scraps of wood are useful for repairs, but unload the pile of lumber under the forepeak berths.

Is it really necessary to carry those extra jugs of diesel fuel? Do you really need five anchors? Think what your boat’s designer would say about carrying 2,000 pounds of extra weight.

GPS and Great-circle Courses for Ocean Navigators 

Most GPS receivers are capable of delivering the bearing to a waypoint as either a rhumb-line or a great-circle course. When sailing along the coast or making an offshore passage, the two are synonymous for all practical purposes. However, when making an east-west ocean passage well away from the equator, following a great-circle course—so far as wind and wave permit—could save a day or more. Thanks to your GPS, you need not immerse yourself in tortuous calculations involving spherical trigonometry or plot new courses repeatedly from a gnomonic chart. As long as you have specified great-circle course on the setup page, you have only to create a destination waypoint, hit the go-to button, and read off the course. The figure you get will be the great-circle heading from your current position.

Figure 8 Coils

The traditional way to coil a line is to make coils of equal length and drop them into the palm of your hand. Hold the end of the line in one hand and use the other hand to lay the coils, one on top of the other, into your palm. The problem is that unless the line is uncoiled very carefully, it often becomes tangled as it runs out; the smaller the line diameter, the greater the chance this will happen. Years ago I watched a friend coil a long umbilical cable for an experimental underwater vehicle in a figure 8 configuration that made it impossible for the line to become fouled. Since then I coil all my lines—from bow and stern lines to anchor rodes and jib-furling lines—that way. Here’s how to do it.

With one end of the line in the palm of one hand, take a section of the line in the other hand and run it down behind the back of the opposite forearm—go from left to right—then under your elbow before coming back up the back of your forearm to cross over the top of your palm right to left. Go back down again under the elbow and continue (go slowly so you don’t forget which way to make the coil on the back of your forearm) until you’ve coiled up nearly all the line. Wrap the tail of the line around the middle where the eights cross; then bring the remaining line up in a loop, and pass the end of the line through the smaller loop you have just made. You can either stow the coil or hitch the end of the line over a cleat or hook.

No Snakes

When you get behind the wheel of a sailboat, you normally want to keep the boat sailing in a specific direction. Trouble is, you don’t do this the same way you steer a car down a highway—by turning the wheel one way and then the other to keep to the middle of the road. When a boat starts to stray off course, quickly turning the wheel to maintain a steady heading is called oversteering, and it will swing the bow past the desired heading to the other side of the course, requiring another turn of the wheel to bring the boat back in the right direction. The rudder movement will slow the boat, and your course will cut an irregular “S” pattern through the water.

It is best to get the boat on course and trim the sails properly; then relax and let the boat’s bow move gently from one side of the course to the other. This movement is perfectly natural, particularly when you’re sailing off the wind. To break the oversteering habit, pick out a landmark ahead of you and steer for it. Try to make as few helm movements as possible while keeping the boat heading for the target. Ignore slight wanderings of the bow. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you’ll develop the “feel” that every boat has. Keep in mind that the better the helmsman, the less the helm moves. 

Shirttail Nonsense

When I see a boat sailing with a jib that is not fully hoisted, I keep hoping that it’s like someone walking around without noticing his shirttail is hanging out. Surely, if a person knew the problem existed, he’d correct it right away. The problem, of course, is that a jib sits right out front of everyone on board, and everyone can see it. There’s really no excuse for not taking the time to get the sail fully hoisted.

Sailmakers and speed mavens can offer lots of advice on how much halyard tension is optimal in different wind conditions, and it’s all good stuff. But if your jib is hanked on, there should always be enough tension on the halyard to keep the luff from scalloping between the hanks when the jib is trimmed in on a close-hauled course. The sail will be more efficient, the boat will have more power, and perhaps most important, no one will be wondering why you insist on sailing around with your shirttail hanging out.


This anchor chain was seen on a charter boat I sailed some time ago. If your rode looks like this, give yourself a good kick in the backside. Not only does it look awful, but in our case the friction in the rusted links caused the chain to kink and hockle as it was hauled out of the chain locker. Usually, you can extend a chain’s life by having it re-galvanized. This chain was too far gone for that, as many of the links were wasted from rubbing against each other without the protection and lubricating effect of galvanizing. Note also the rust flakes surrounding the anchor roller—if you’ve ever tried to get rust stains out of gelcoat, you’ll know why that’s bad news.



Pilotage: Keep on track

For close piloting inshore, it is important to steer down a straight track from one navigation mark to the next. Merely aiming the boat will not be enough if there is any crosscurrent. As soon as you round a mark, line up the following one with some convenient object behind it. This will establish a natural range. As long as you stay on the range with the objects in line, you must be on the straightest track. Casual ranges are not always obvious, but anything at all will do—even a distant cloud if there isn’t much wind and the leg is a short one.

Cleat Cover 

Most well-equipped sailboats have mooring cleats located amidships. They’re great for spring lines and other items, but they can also snag a sail, a sheet or even someone’s foot. An easy fix calls for some foam, a marking pen, a measuring tape, a sharp knife, a saw and a drill.

First measure the length and height of the cleat’s horn and then cut a block of foam that is 6in wide and 4in longer and a 1/2 in taller than the cleat. Cut the block in half. With the pen, trace half the length of the cleat on top of each foam block; repeat on the bottom. To ensure a tight fit, make the width dimension just slightly wider than the actual width of the cleat horn.

Next cut out the inside of the block. The distance from the deck to the top of the cleat horn is the maximum amount you should cut. Also, be sure there’s a solid lip to hold the cleat horn when you slide the foam over it. Do the same thing with the second block and then test your work by sliding the pieces together over the cleat. Continue shaping until both pieces fit together snugly.

To hold the blocks together drill two holes through each of the blocks and then connect them with two lengths of bungee cord. When they are measured carefully and cut correctly the two blocks will fit snugly over the cleat and you won’t have to worry about it catching something you don’t want it to. Of course, you will have to do the same thing to the cleat on the other side of the boat. 



Keep on track

For close piloting inshore, it is important to steer down a straight track from one navigation mark to the next. Merely aiming the boat will not be enough if there is any crosscurrent. As soon as you round a mark, line up the following one with some convenient object behind it. This will establish a natural range. As long as you stay on the range with the objects in line, you must be on the straightest track. Casual ranges are not always obvious, but anything at all will do—even a distant cloud if there isn’t much wind and the leg is a short one.

Running Off

If something goes wrong on the foredeck, the natural instinct for many sailors is to luff up head-to-wind until the situation can be resolved. The problem with this course of action is that on most displacement boats it does no one on board any favors, putting a strain on the forestay when everything starts shaking, and increasing the apparent wind.

As long as you have sea room to leeward, it is a far better course of action to run off instead. Doing so shelters the headsail in the wind shadow of the mainsail. This in turn will collapse the headsail and leave it hanging. There’s no mind-jarring clattering about the deck because the apparent wind will magically drop as well. Getting the boat into this position makes dealing with a fouled headsail furler, subduing a cruising chute that has gone berserk or fixing anything else that might be shaking around much less stressful than trying to do the same thing while plunging directly into the wind and oncoming seas.

Know Your Racing Flags

Everyone knows the Answering Pennant (AP or “Cat in the Hat” flag) means racing has been postponed and that the “P” flag means a standard starting sequence. But what about the “M” flag, an “N” flag over an “A” flag, or an answering pennant flying above Pennant 2? 


Sail Saver 

If you have older Dacron sails, a good method of preserving them while improving their working ability is to treat them with a fabric spray (the type used for tents, shoes, or furniture). Most likely you will see a difference right away. During rainy weather the sails will shed water better, keeping them lighter and better shaped, and that can really make a difference in your boat’s heavy-weather performance. The fabric treatment also makes the sailcloth more pliable and easier to flake and fold. Several of my friends now regularly treat their sails and have commented that it is inexpensive for a couple of spray cans, and it is the most cost-effective performance enhancement they can lavish on their boats

A Cutter that Cuts It

For many cruisers, a cutter rig is the one that works best—so long as the staysail is cut for windward work, fairly flat with its draft well forward. A staysail also needs a good sheet lead. Sheet tracks and leads for many staysails seem to be placed more for convenience than effectiveness and often fail to take into account the staysail’s dual role.

On most cutters, the staysail is used with a larger headsail primarily when close reaching. When sheeted inside another headsail, the staysail must be trimmed more tightly than its companion, requiring a track fairly well inboard. However, when used by itself as a heavy-weather windward sail, a staysail may require a more open sheet lead, especially as few cruising boats are capable of pointing really high. At these times it is better for the track to be farther outboard.

The problem with staysails is that most are so small they are close to storm-jib size. If the inner forestay is attached to the mast at the upper spreaders, the sail may also have a short luff, and it is the luff of the sail that powers a boat to weather. For this reason, many cruisers have adopted what some call a Solent stay, which is attached to the mast and deck only a couple of feet behind the headstay. This allows for a staysail of sufficient size to power the boat upwind and in most cases does not require the running backstays used with most other cutter rigs. The downside is that you do have to change sails if you actually need a storm jib.

Karate Corner

Good communication between people on the bow and helm is very important when coming into a crowded anchorage or harbor. I used a system of hand signals for many years, and communications had been pretty successful other than the occasional confusing moment—for example, are your fingers pointing because that’s the direction to steer or because there is something in the water?

Then one day we watched a speedboat race on a TV sports channel. It wasn’t the standard dash around buoys, but a time trial in a narrow figure-eight channel that ran through a swamp. The boats were so fast that the driver could react quickly enough only if he followed hand signals given by the navigator next to him.

The navigator held his hand out ahead of him as though he were ready to make a karate chop on a board. When a course correction was needed, he would point his arm in the direction he wanted the driver to steer and then make a rapid chopping motion with his hand. We tried this on our next cruise to the North Channel of Lake Huron, and it worked very well. We use the chopping motion to indicate what direction to steer and simply point, without chopping, to indicate a hazard ahead. A clenched fist followed by a pointing finger indicates a rock or obstruction. When we’re pulling up the anchor, an arm pointed in a specific direction shows the general direction of the rode and anchor. A fore-and-aft chopping motion signals that the anchor is under the boat and it’s time to put the engine in reverse. Once your team knows the routine, you can start chopping and stop shouting.

Light line only

Many years ago an acquaintance was nearly strangled when his knife, which he wore on a strong lanyard around his neck, got tangled up in the anchor chain as he was easing a 45-pound hook over the bow roller. It could have ended badly had he been alone. It's certainly a good idea to attach lanyards to valuable items like flashlights, knives, shackle keys, and so on so that you don't lose them overboard, but make sure the line is weak enough so it will snap easily if whatever it's attached to gets caught up in a flailing sheet or anchor rode. One way to do this is to connect the implement to the lanyard with a plastic clip. Better to lose a knife than a hand or a life.

Will we collide?

To evaluate the risk of a collision, check whether the vessel in question is maintaining a steady bearing relative to you. Initially, you can do this by keeping your head still and seeing whether the other vessel remains in place over a particular stanchion, shroud, or other likely reference. If you’re not sure if the vessel is moving, take a bearing with a compass and keep checking as the range closes. You might even use the electronic bearing line on your radar. In confined waters, it is easier to tell whether the other craft appears stationary relative to its background. While difficult to prove mathematically, this old rule of thumb works every time unless the other craft is almost on the beach. If the other vessel stays in front of the same distant field or headland as you approach, you are on a collision heading, so watch out.

Passive radar reflector

Wooden boats with wooden masts make poor radar targets; the same is true of fiberglass hulls with carbon-fiber masts. Even boats with aluminum spars are notoriously unreliable targets, which is why all sailboats should carry passive radar reflectors. Yet few boats have these permanently mounted. Instead, most rely on corner reflectors to reflect a radar signal directly back to the scanner that transmitted it. These work well on many navigation buoys, but size is important: a 12-inch corner reflector is theoretically less than 1 percent as effective as a 36-inch reflector.

How to be seen

We all hope the lookouts on those huge container ships will see our little sailboats in rain, mist, and low light. Should we find ourselves in trouble, we pray that our rescuers will be able to make us out in the breaking waves.

Some sailors have long recognized the value of being highly visible. Many ocean-racing boats have brightly colored hulls and decks. In New Zealand, sailors are strongly advised to sew bright orange stripes on their sails. Yet most cruising sailors own boats with white sails, white or blue hulls, and gray or white masts and so are difficult to see at sea.

It is very easy and inexpensive to dramatically improve your boat's visibility. Whether you're bluewater cruising or just daysailing around the coast or lakes, it's worth the effort. Painting the top few feet of your mast international orange will make the boat much more visible from a distance without affecting its aesthetics. I painted the top 4 feet of Hawk's masthead. It’s very visible in profile, but from the front and back, the mast section is much narrower and a 6-foot stripe would be better.

Fender Boards

When you go alongside a high dock or wall, you need to protect your fenders. This means having fender boards that are rugged enough to do the job and not just look nice. Always carry two fender boards, and if there is space I carry three. There is no need to make theses fancy; mine are 6-foot-long 2x6-inch planks. I’ve drilled two 1/2 –inch holes through the full width of the boards at each end. To hold the boards in place in front of the fenders I run tie lines through the drilled holes and then use figure-eight knots to secure the lines on the underside of the fender board.

Trip Lines

If you ever had your anchor catch under a rock or other obstruction, you’ll be glad you rigged a trip line. But if you ever have someone else’s anchor buoy and trip line wound around your propeller, you’ll curse trip lines and all who use them. In crowded anchorages, trip lines often cause more problems than they solve. It is not unheard of for a boat to swing over its own or someone else’s anchor buoy, getting the line caught around the rudder or propeller and tripping the anchor unintentionally.   If you absolutely must use a trip line, make it a long one; secure it to the anchor rode at intervals with a light, easy-to-snap string, and make it fast to one of the bow cleats. That way, the worst that can happen is that the trip line may get twisted around the anchor rode as the boat swings to a reversing current or wind shift. You may have a bit of fun sorting out the tangle when it’s time to leave, but that’s nothing compared to the joy of having your trip line wound around your own prop.

Beware of Buoys

“Just head for the buoy up ahead and make sure you leave it to the starboard.” An instruction like that is asking for trouble, especially if a novice is steering. All it takes is a bit of cross current and the boat will be gradually set off course, all the while pointing faithfully at the buoy; it may even be set onto the very hazard the buoy is marking. When you steer toward a buoy always note the compass heading and be ready to compensate for a cross current if the compass heading changes.

A “Burned” Impeller

Impellers for the engine’s raw-water pump don’t last forever. Even if they aren’t destroyed by having been run dry following a blockage in the raw-water line, they still deteriorate over the years. If you’ve never had to change one, try installing a new one when the boat is safe on it’s mooring, and then go out and buy a new spare. You might be surprised by what you discover.

• Some raw-water pumps require a fresh gasket each time the impeller is changed. Do you have a gasket on hand?

• Does your screwdriver fit the machine screws that attach the cover plate?

• Might you lose a screw in the bilge? It’s so easy to do. If so, can you reach it or should you carry a couple of spares?

• All this is vital knowledge when you have to do the job heeled over in rough seas on a dark night.

Ladder Line

A walk down any dock reveals numerous ways to secure boarding ladders. Most of them are improvised from bits of string, Velcro, and elastic straps, and many exhibit the use of knots that can be hard to untie in an emergency. A SAIL reader has come up with a safer way. He mounted a clamcleat on the stanchion and tied a short length of line around the handrail directly above it. He loops the line around the last rung of the ladder in the raised position and secures the free end in the cleat. The beauty of this simple solution is that the ladder can be dropped in a jiffy with a simple flick of the wrist.

The Towing Bridle

Some boats can’t tow directly from a cleat because of its self-steering. Other boats have difficulties with backstays. The answer is to rig a simple towing bridle. Even when the stern is unencumbered, using a bridle has the advantage of spreading the load between at least two points. Make it up so that one end can always be slipped when necessary, then secure the tow rope to the bridle with a bowline. The towed boat cleats it off so that the line can be released in an emergency. Take the strain gradually, and don’t let any dangling rope be sucked into your own propeller.


Snapshackles are suppose to stay closed, but unless they are specifically designed to lock shut, they can open unexpectedly. If you aren’t sure whether your snapshackle will stay closed—after all, the sudden opening of a spinmaker-haylard snapshackle can be very exciting—tape the shackle shut with electrical tape. When you want to open the shackle, cut the tape with a knife.

Ready to Run

Where do you keep your kedge anchor and rode? Ten to one it’s all tanged up in the middle of the cockpit locker, and it will take at least ten minutes of fiddling and cursing to get it ready to deploy. If you’re sailing in waters where you might need to set a second anchor in a hurry, you should consider emulating this cruiser and keep a spool of strong webbing rigged on your stern pulpit. It can serve as a towline, a long mooring warp, or a kedge rode—just shackle on the anchor and a short length of chain. When you’re done with it, wind it back on its spool.

Fresh Water

Design a shade awning so that it is also efficient collecting rainwater. First shape the awning with a belly on each side where water can collect; a rope running along each side of the awning forms a gutter. A shallow funnel is sewn into the lowest part of each belly, and 1-inch plastic fittings provide the attachment points for drain hoses. The system is designed to handle the large volumes of water often produced by short, but very wet tropical rainsqualls. Small-reinforced canvas loops are sewn in place near the hose fittings and along the gutter. These serve as attachment points for tie-down lines and limit the amount of flapping.

The drain hoses slide into the inside of the tapered hose to ensure a tight fit, and both hoses are long enough to reach the water-tanks fills on either side of the boat. The long hoses allow the rainwater to route into one or both tanks.

Cleat Surrogate

If you think you need to tie up to a short pontoon, you’ll have to rethink your usual arrangement of dock lines. You’ll have to lead the stern line forward—which is far from ideal—and take a short spring line from a midships cleat to the same dock cleat as the stern line. Use two bow lines, if possible, to keep yawning to a minimum. If your boat doesn’t have a midship cleat, resist the temptation to tie the spring to a stanchion or shroud except as a very temporary measure (and never let a boatbuilder see you tie a dockline to a stanchion).  If you can, fasten a block or shackle to the toerail and make the springline fast to that.

Reef Untangler

We love our slab-reefing setup but constantly had problems with the reefing getting tangled up around the end of the boom. The solution was simple. We always carry a couple of spare battens inside the boom, and we discovered that leaving one poking out prevents this from happening.

Lasso the Buoy

In the course of our circumnavigation we’ve often encountered mooring buoys that don’t have pick up lines. We sail doublehanded, so these can be problematic, especially if it’s windy. Here’s how we deal with them. One of us stands near the bow with a long line that is lead outside the lifelines with one end secured to a bow cleat. We coil the line and divide the coil between both hands, with a bight of line hanging free between the hands. As the helmsman steers the boat slowly alongside the mooring buoy, the other throws the line neatly over it, effectively lassoing it with the bight. Keep hold of the unsecured end of the line, harden up on the line as much as possible, and then cleat it off. The boat will settle to the buoy, and you can rig another line through the eye on it at your leisure. You can always use this trick to snag a cleat when coming alongside a dock—for instance, if the wind is blowing the boat away from the dock and you don’t want to make a risky jump ashore.

River Anchorage

When anchoring in a river, take note of the prevailing and forecast wind directions. Will the wind at any time oppose the current? If it does, the boat will not lie well to its anchor. It might even sail around enough to pluck the hook out of the bottom. If at all possible, choose a section of the river where the prevailing wind is blowing across the current. The boat will tend to lie with its bow into the current and you’ll sleep more soundly.

Improve Off-wind Performance

If the wind comes forward of abeam, the genoa sheets’ lead will now be too far outboard. Ease the barber-hauler line and take up on the genoa sheet. This will pull the clew in to somewhere between the inboard and outboard positions, wherever the sail works best.

If the boat has a reaching strut, you can set it up on the leeward side of the mast and sheet the genoa through the jaw at the outboard end of the pole. This will get the jib clew farther outboard than the barber-hauler will, opening up the slot even more. Another alternative is to sheet the genoa to the end of the main boom. However you do it, getting the headsail’s sheet lead outboard will improve your off-wind performance.

How to Throw a Rope

You should be prepared to make contact with a MOB without special equipment: this means throwing a line as effectively as possible. Quickly form four or five small loops in your throwing hand. Then make four or five loops in your other hand; arrange the loops in the order on which they will leave your hand when the line is thrown. Throw the small bundle of loops first. They will pull the second group of loops from your stationary hand. A sideways throw can work well and improve accuracy.

Ease the Main

When maneuvering under mailsail alone, don’t expect your boat to sail properly upwind with the sheet trimmed in hard. You do this when flying a genoa to avoid backwinding the main, but without a headsail the main is cutting clean air. Close-hauled under main alone, it’s best to steer about 45 degrees of the true wind, then trim the main to the breeze as though you were reaching. The boat will end up pointing higher and sailing faster. It won’t be going sideways, either.


Headfoil Damper

Roller-furling extrusions tend to pump in high winds when the weight of the sail has been removed. Here is a wonderfully simple way to correct this problem. Make or buy a 2-foot length of luff tape with grommets on either end. With the genoa halyard at the top grommet and a line running from the bottom grommet to the base of the mast, insert the luff tape into the extrusion slot and raise it halfway up the headstay. Tension both lines as necessary. The first time we prepared for a hurricane we had to improvise a damper by tying a bowline in one end of a piece of line and clipping the halyard to it. We wrapped the line around the forestay once, and then twice more about 2 feet farther down. We raised the line about halfway up the headstay and then secured the halyard and the line. Our rig has never been as quiet as it was during that hurricane.

Wax your Bottom

We sail in the Pacific Northwest and use our inflatable dinghy year round. We had a real problem with marine growth on the dinghy’s bottom until we tried waxing it. We’ve found that waxing the bottom lets us keep the dinghy in the water for up to four weeks without problems. Then all we need to do is lift it out, wash it clean, and, after it dries, re-wax the bottom. I prefer to wax the bottom of my inflatable, in case I need to patch it, rather than paint it with anti-fouling. For longer-term wet storage, though, you might have to consider painting the bottom.

Beat the Blind Spots

I once saw a one-design racing sailboat sail directly into an anchored motorboat. The racer’s deck-sweeping genoa obscured the crew’s view of the powerboat until it was to late to avoid it. I’ve come close to taking out navigational marks for the same reason— they were hidden in the big blind spot created by my genoa. The solution to the problem is plain. If you’re on a racing boat, detail one of the crew to be the lookout. If you’re on a cruising boat, use a higher-clewed sail. There is another blind- spot to the windward when you’re close-hauled and steering from the leeward rail. Don’t forget to stick your head up every few minutes and have a look around.

Avoid Damage Aloft

One potential danger when sailboats lie alongside one another for a convivial night is that if they roll to a wash or begin to move in an unexpected sea, the spreaders can clash together and suffer catastrophic damage. Always look aloft when rafting up and make sure the masts are well out of line. Rafting bow to stern is a good way to prevent spars from clashing.

Who has the Right of Way?

A useful aide-memoire for crossing another vessel in daylight when both boats are under power–in a harbor, for example–is to ask yourself which sidelight you would be seeing if it were dark. If the answer is a red, or port, running light, you must take care and stay our of the other boat’s way. A green light would indicate that you are clear to go. So if you would see a green, or starboard, running light, you can continue carefully on your present course.

Chain Collar

If your anchor is hooked on an underwater cable or snagged under a rock, you may be able to free it with a chain collar. Loop a piece of chain about 12 inches long around the anchor rode and join the ends with a shackle. Harden up on the anchor cable until it's vertical and then slide the chain collar down it on a length of line. The aim is to get it over the shank of the anchor and down near the crown. If you ease off the anchor cable and heave up and down on the collar line, you may be able to pull the anchor clear of the obstruction. If it proves stubborn, try pulling on the retrieval line from the dinghy as the boat settles back on the rode; the change in angle maybe all that's needed to coax the anchor free.

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.

Marking Chain

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.

Stanchion Safety

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.

Sail Saver

If you have older Dacron sails, a good method of preserving them while improving their working ability is to treat them with a fabric spray (the type used for tents, shoes or furniture). Most likely you will see a difference right away. During rainy weather the sails will shed water better, keeping them lighter and better shaped, and that can really make a difference in your boat’s heavy-weather performance. The fabric treatment also makes the sailcloth more pliable and easier to flake and fold. It’s a cost-effective performance enhancement to lavish on your boat.
Signal Advantage
If you have an on-the-water emergency during the day, keep in mind that a mirror is a very effective signaling device. If the weather is clear and there is sunlight, the reflection from a mirror can be seen up to 100 miles away. While it does need sun, a mirror doesn’t depend on batteries, satellites, or the electronic watchkeeping of a potential rescuer. Reflecting sunlight into the eyes of a person on another boat or plane should get their attention. You could heliograph an SOS code, but simply keeping the beam on your target should quickly lead the person on the other end to conclude that the flash he is seeing is not a chance occurrence.
Specialized signal mirrors come with aiming devices, but any handheld mirror will work if you do the following: Hold two fingers in a “V” at arms length with your target inside it. Now hold the mirror against your cheek just below eye level and adjust the mirror angle so the reflected sunlight shines over your fingers. Turn the mirror so the sunlight plays back and forth across your fingers, and it will also move across the target inside the “V”. Keep at least two signaling mirrors on board. Put one in your ditch bag and the other on shelf near the companionway.
Anchoring: a Shorter Scope
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.
To Flash or Not

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.

Quick Anchor Ranges
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.  
Rig Your Galley for Heavy Weather

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. 

Dead Downwind is Slow

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!

Shroud Telltales

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.

Blade prep

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.

Tender Towing

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. 

Oil's Well

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. 

Heads Up

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.

Knotty problem

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.

Rode Markers

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. 

Spring Time

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.

Hanging Around

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!

String Theory

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.

Hatch Love

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. 

Prop Paint

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.





Signalling mirror

Instead of using a mirror for signalling try using a CD. It's highly reflective made of plastic and comes with an aiming hole in the middle.

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