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River Run Page 2

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issueHalf a century ago, sailing a full-sized boat up a tidal river was all in a day’s work. Today we rely on our diesel engines instead, but there is no gain without pain. Firing up an engine as a matter of course on entering a river is easy, but is hardly sporting. The skills needed to work up a narrow waterway under sail

No pinching—and keep way on: When staring down the gun-barrel of a tight tack it’s natural to try to win an extra yard or two by pinching. Unless you are huffling or lee-bowing (see below and next page), don’t do it. When a boat comes above close-hauled and her sails start luffing, she will slide sideways as soon as her speed drops below a critical level—typically around 2 or 3 knots. Although you are pointing to where you want to go, you are actually sliding to leeward.

There’s no help for it. You must be cruel to be kind. Head off, get the sails drawing and gather way. Once the boat is sailing positively, luff her gently but persistently and you’ll be amazed how high she’ll point. You can even shove her head-to-wind for a short time if need be, so long as you don’t lose momentum. If you sail too high from a standing start or at a slow speed, you’re a dead duck.

It takes confidence to steer downwind of something you really need to lay, even for only 10 or 20 seconds. Watch an expert, though, and you’ll note he’s doing just that, yet he ends up laying the mark against all the odds.

It is especially important to maintain steerage way when short-tacking. The worst-case scenario is that you don’t gain enough way to come about—then you’ve had it. Quickly regaining a useful speed after a tack is more important than pointing up straight away.

Lee-bowing: When beating against a contrary current (which we were not), you can sometimes contrive to steer so as to place the stream on your lee bow. The boat then begins drifting up to windward. The mysteries of geometry also free the apparent wind, so you win two ways up. Grabbing some lee-bow current when it’s offered can save whole tacks. Occasionally, it even repays the original sin of pinching. Conversely, if the current is on your weather bow you’ll be set to leeward.

Huffling: An old trick used by true river sailors is to “huffle” at the end of a tack. It often doesn’t work at sea because of the waves, but in flat water with plenty of way on you can often shoot head to wind for several boatlengths as you come about. This gains valuable distance, especially when sailing among moorings where the boat must be placed with great precision. The downside of huffling is that if you let her lose too much way, your boat will stall as she falls onto the new tack. You know this is happening if she develops lee helm as she falls away. This means you’ve over-cooked it. Don’t try so hard next time.

Watch natural ranges: Jeff, Dan and I had a good tide flowing under us as we beat up through the moorings, so we had to be doubly vigilant about where the boat was going. This, of course, was generally not where she was pointing. The only way of projecting your track for sure is to line up the moored boats with their background and be sure that both ends of any craft you’re approaching are moving in the same direction. If the stern’s gobbling up the background and the bow is spewing it out, you’re passing clear ahead. If the stern and bow are both eating background, you’re squared up for an insurance claim.

Keep an eye on your masthead: On a windy day with the boat heeling, make sure you don’t foul anyone else’s rig with your masthead. It’s easy to become obsessed with ranges at eye-level and neglect the main event aloft.

Think ahead: With a tide running, always be thinking one tack ahead—two is better, but don’t be over-ambitious.

Sometimes, a river favors the brave and makes it a breeze to sail up alongside a dock at the end of your trip. If the offer is made, it is rude to reject it. On this occasion, we were presented with a perfect set-up. The current was running along the ancient dock below the pub and the wind was blowing against it. We were in “Rule 1” territory.

Rule 1 for docking under sail states that with wind against current you won’t be able to stop under main, because you can’t spill wind from the mainsail with the wind abaft the beam, but you can’t stop down-tide either. The answer is to drop the mainsail, then approach the berth downwind, running into the current under jib alone.

As things panned out, we rolled up the genoa completely before luffing to stow the main(1). Bringing the boat head to wind, we let go the main halyard and the sail rattled down into its stack-pack. We steered across the breeze toward the dock carrying the last of our way, then unrolled a little genoa to bring her back under steerage (2). All that remained was to organize docklines and fenders, with emphasis on a stern line to stop her if need be. Then we trundled in, controlling our speed with the genoa furling line and the current instead of a throttle. As I rolled away the last of the canvas, she settled into her berth as neatly as my granddad used to sink into his rocker on the porch (3). All that remained was to stroll up to the bar and place our order.

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