by Ralph Roberts
There is a world of difference between being a good sailor, and having a good sense of seamanship. Being a good sailor generally means being able to sail a boat to its optimum performance. Having a good sense of seamanship means being aware of the conditions around you at sea (the wind, sea state, and tide), the level of your of sailing ability and experience in dealing with the current (and future) conditions, and ultimately, always having the greatest respect for the power of the sea. This usually involves building up experience over a number of years, and gaining as much knowledge and information as possible from others with sea sailing experience.
It is poor seamanship (no matter what your sailing ability):
1. To set out in a boat with any known weakness with regard to its seaworthiness, or in a boat that has not been thoroughly checked over with regard to its fittings and rigging.
2. To set out without having the appropriate gear and equipment (e.g. compass, charts, anchors, oars/outboard, tools and spares, etc.) that might be needed on any sea cruise.
3. To set out on any sea cruise in winds at the top end of anyone’s sailing ability or experience, including the crew’s, or without regard to the possibility of the wind strength increasing.
4. To set out on any sea cruise that is above the crew’s competence to be able to take over the helm at any time.
5. Not to reef or reduce the sails early in strengthening wind conditions. You should always sail with a safety factor in hand with regard to the wind strength to ensure that any sudden gust or freak wave does not overwhelm the boat.
6. To set out without regard to the time that might be needed to complete the cruise, either before a change in direction of the tide, or before a certain time or date. Never be too ambitious to achieve a considerable distance in too little time.
7. To set out without any bolt-holes to run to, should the conditions deteriorate and make it unwise to continue.
The wind is king, and the sea is the ultimate master. It is better to be on land, wishing you were at sea, than to be out at sea, wishing you were on land.
There are a good number of very experienced cruisers within the Wayfarer organisation. Anyone relatively new to cruising can gain valuable knowledge at Wayfarer rallies, the Tidal Training weekend, or the annual Cruising Conference. It is far safer to learn from the experience of others, than to learn the hard way from first hand experience – and mistakes!* The Wayfarer Log Library can also be used to find the names of experienced cruisers who have made trips similar to the one a newcomer might be planning – these sailors are generally willing to pass on any advice and experience they can. (Refer to the Wayfarer News, or the UKWA web site > Cruising > About Cruising Logs or Library)
*On a serious note, there can certainly be a very real danger when undertaking a sea cruise. I am not aware of any fatalities having occurred on Wayfarer sea cruises, but there have been a few serious ‘incidents’, which could have resulted in a fatality. If you are fortunate to survive any potentially serious difficulty, then do make sure you learn from the experience for it not to be repeated again, and preferably write about it under the ‘lessons learned’ theme, for others to benefit from your experience. I have personally made some horrendous errors of judgment in seamanship on my many sea cruises over the years, and can only assume that someone up above has (thankfully) been keeping a watchful eye on me. But I have always added these mistakes to my experience – and make sure I never repeat them! An example of learning from such a situation is given on the web.
Never set out to sea in a forecast of F.5 or above. The UKWA stipulates that Wayfarer Rallies should not be attempted in winds at this strength because even the most experienced sailor can always be caught by a freak gust or wave. This is not to say that at some point, you won’t be caught at sea by winds stronger than F.5, but you should learn to sail in these conditions in more protected environments, and where there is more likely to be help at hand.
Probably the most common mistake made by all, even the more experienced cruisers (and I plead as guilty as anyone), is to rush the preparation because of too tight a schedule – which is often running later than planned. Rushing to set off can give rise to an essential item of equipment not being where it should be, and, if you can’t put your hands on a particular item when you urgently need it, you might never need it again!!
A fatality from acute hypothermia is far more likely than drowning when sailing at sea around the UK. It is essential to be wearing sufficient weatherproof clothing for the trip being undertaken. Dry suits are not always the most comfortable item of clothing for a longer cruise. Another option is dry suit bottoms, which provide waterproof protection to chest level; an inshore (or offshore) outer sailing jacket, and neck towelling; combined with suitable thermal underlayers. These can be equally efficient at keeping you warm and dry, and are possibly more comfortable than a full dry suit.
Remember that what keeps you warm on land won’t be likely to keep you warm in wet conditions out at sea in a Wayfarer. Even when properly dressed for open sea sailing, always carry spare dry clothing in watertight ‘drybags’ to ensure that should you ever become cold and wet, you will always have something dry to change into.
Boat and Equipment:
Always check the boat and all the fittings thoroughly before setting off on any sea cruise. This should preferably be done before setting off to your proposed launch site, when you have the time to actually correct anything that is not 100%, rather than saying “that doesn’t look quite right, I’ll need to get around to fixing that sometime”. It is essential that all the gear on the boat work efficiently – and particularly so when conditions start to worsen. It must be possible to reduce the size of mainsail, quickly and easily. The same applies to taking both sails down. Always reef early, before the wind really starts to pick up. The minute you start thinking that it might be a good idea to put in a reef is the very time to do it. Practice reefing afloat so that it can be done as a smooth routine. Make sure your mainsail reefing system is so efficient that it takes only 2 minutes or less to put in any reef. (Matt Sharman currently holds the record at 50 secs)! A video of this is available on You Tube.
Never sail to windward with a reefed main and a genoa, which is a totally unbalanced sail configuration. It is better to furl the genoa completely and sail on reefed main only, though any serious cruiser should always be carrying a jib, or have the ability to reef the genoa. Should the wind become so strong that it is necessary to run for shelter, then it is best to take the main down and use just the jib or genoa. In this instance, if the genoa has been furled securely, and the sail is wet, a section can be unfurled to provide you with a storm jib (but this only works downwind, where the pressure on the jib sheet is minimal, and the wet material of the sail increases its friction to keep the sail from unfurling at the top – which is what happens when you pull on the jib sheet of a furled genoa, if you try using it to sail to windward).
Buy the best jib/genoa furling (or reefing) system you can afford. Because the genoa will unfurl from the top (as explained above), it is not possible to reef the jib/genoa using even the best furling drum. This can only be done with a full genoa reefing system, (or the Helyar furling/reefing system). Even furling the jib/genoa can be a problem in strong winds when sailing to windward. This difficulty can be resolved by turning downwind for a few seconds to blanket the genoa with the main (being careful not to gybe), quickly furling in the genoa, and then turning back on course.
It is much easier to release the genoa halyard from a Muscle (or Magic) Box than a Highfield Lever, and the Muscle Box also makes it far easier to adjust the rig tension.
1. Always remember the philosophy statement made earlier: "The wind is king, and the sea is the ultimate master. It is better to be on land, wishing you were at sea, than to be out at sea, wishing you were on land." Always overestimate the severity of the sailing conditions, and underestimate your ability to sail in them. Even if you have been planning a particular cruise for months, and it has taken you many hours to drive to your launch destination, never hesitate to postpone the trip because of the conditions. Or choose a safer estuary or inland area to sail.
2. Never sail in conditions where the crew cannot take over complete control of the boat and sail it back to port safely on his/her own. A competent helm with a less experienced crew should never assume that nothing will ever happen that will make them totally incapacitated and unable to sail the boat.
3. Take time to rig the boat up methodically, and check every fitting (again!) thoroughly whilst doing so – this particularly applies to the hatches on the front and rear buoyancy tanks – it is essential that these tanks are watertight. Make sure any small problem is properly fixed, and if a more serious problem is discovered, then take whatever time is necessary to renew/replace/repair the defect, even if this means postponing the trip.
4. Use your own sailing trips, as well as the Wayfarer Rallies and Cruising Conference, to build up an inventory of items and equipment that are proven to be the most useful for sea cruising. Carry some basic tools to undertake simple repairs, and have spare shackles, rope, and wire, etc. for emergencies.
5. Always make sure everything on the boat is properly secured so that nothing aboard is lost in the event of a capsize. Ensure that you know where everything is stored on the boat so that you can immediately put your hand on any item of equipment needed. Be sure that everything aboard is stored ‘all ship-shape and Bristol fashion’. This can be just as important for dinghy cruising, as it was for the old square-riggers.
6. If your destination is upwind to any degree, always sail to a higher point than is actually necessary whenever possible. It is far better to approach upwind of your intended destination, and ease off the main for the final approach, than to ease the main for an apparent direct course to your destination, only to find that the wind has changed to head you, making the final approach a hard beat – which is what invariably tends to happen! ‘Ground to windward is dearly bought, but easily spent’ is another adage from the age of square-riggers that is just as valid today.
7. Always ‘heave to’* when there is a need to make any changes or alterations within the boat, such as opening the self-bailers or carrying out small repairs. With the tiller secured to keep the boat in this position, it is possible for both helm and crew to cease ‘sailing’ the boat, and concentrate solely on sorting out any problem – even in the worst of conditions – without there being any danger of the boat capsizing.
(Al's note: I can't in good conscience let this pass without pointing out that if the gust is nasty enough, you can capsize while hove to. You can however, add a considerable margin of safety by heaving to with the board full up - always provided you have ample "sea room" and don't mind drifting rapidly to leeward while hove to.)
(* ‘Heaving to’ is cleating the jib so that it is backed, and sheeting the main about half-way in, while securing the tiller to leeward to counteract the effect of the wind on the jib. Good examples of achieving this can be seen at Wayfarer cruising events.)
8. Practice re-righting the boat after a capsize, including an inversion, so that you are confident that you do so quickly, even in the most extreme conditions. The Wayfarer is a fantastically seaworthy boat, in which you can get away with many situations that would cause other dinghies to capsize, but even the Wayfarer can be pushed too far and capsize. If the boat cannot be righted reasonably quickly, then hypothermia and fatigue will soon start to set in, making the recovery ever more difficult. Should there be no other boat nearby to pluck you from the water, then there will only be one tragic result.
9. Expect it to take 5 years (or more), both to acquire the necessary experience to start undertaking more challenging sea cruising – particularly as a single boat with no one to come to your immediate assistance, and to get your boat set up so that everything works reasonably efficiently.
There is never a time when anyone becomes a complete ‘expert’ cruising helm. You never stop learning from experience (and the more experience you gain, the greater is the respect you have for the sea). Even after more than 25 years of Wayfarer cruising, I am still making slight modifications and changes to my boat fittings in order to get the cruising gear working just that little bit more efficiently.
I am as guilty as anyone at doing my first adventurous cruise (a North Sea crossing to Ostend) without first acquiring the relevant knowledge or experience for the trip. With hindsight, I am horrified by the naivety and foolhardiness of not having gained more experience first. My only defense is that I was unaware that there were experienced Wayfarer cruisers from whom I could have gained valuable knowledge and advice.
Enjoy the type of adventurous sailing that can be achieved in a Wayfarer, but please use the cruising expertise within the Wayfarer Association to gain the experience necessary to undertake trips in a seamanlike manner. The Wayfarer Rallies, Cruising Conference, and Training weekends are all voluntarily run by experienced cruisers for the benefit of newcomers. The Wayfarer web site forum can also be used to ask questions on any aspect of Wayfaring.
Please make best use of all the opportunities provided within the Association to make any Wayfarer sea cruise as safe as it is possible to make it.
Ralph Roberts (UKWA WIC Rep.)