For many people, the first time they skipper a yacht that’s new to them is a pivotal experience. It's hugely rewarding if it goes right, but it can also be the day that fatally wounds a family’s boating dreams. Fortunately there are ways of making this experience more relaxed and of maximising the chances of success.
The transition between the experience gained on other people’s boats, or sea school courses, and applying that knowledge on your own boat (or one you’re chartering for the first time) with your own crew can be a huge leap. The school boats are likely to have been fully crewed, with the back up of an instructor to make sure everything runs smoothly. In addition, you should have been comprehensively introduced to the boat, its systems and its idiosyncrasies by the instructor.
In contrast, on your own boat, or a charter yacht, your first few trips as skipper are likely to be with some of the most inexperienced crew you’ll ever sail with – in effect you have to rise to the double challenge of being both skipper and instructor. And if that crew is your own family there’s even more pressure and a lot at stake (Get your family boating in 7 steps might also be worth a read).
For this reason, it’s well worth considering asking a sea school to provide you with a few days of own-boat tuition. For a modest cost this will give you a chance to get accustomed to handling the vessel under the watchful eye of a guardian angel, while also giving the rest of your family the opportinity to learn how to be useful crew members in a relaxed and unpressured environment.
The skipper's role
Good skippers seem to have a knack of being able to constantly monitor and prioritise a multitude of factors both within the boat and externally, while remaining, at least outwardly, relaxed. How do they achieve this? Preparation of course is a key ingredient, but it’s also worth analysing what good skippers tend NOT to do:
1. Hog the helm. If you're steering you are fixed to one spot – you can't go forward to brief crew or help with deck work, nor are you free to solve other problems when they occur, or check on the navigation. The exception to this is close-quarters manoeuvring, once each crew member has been properly briefed as to their role.
2. Become distracted by deck work. If you're doing most of the crew work, it's very easy to become focussed solely on the task in hand, and fail to observe crucial developments – such as approaching shipping – taking place outside the boat.
3. Spend unnecessary time on navigation and pilotage. Time spent below with your head in the chart or almanac is time you’re not in tune with what’s happening on deck. As part of your planning make sure you have all the information you’re likely to need at your fingertips and if you do need to spend more than a handful of minutes consumed by navigation – maybe because of a change of plan – consider buying yourself the time to do so by heaving to.
Relaxed skippers think ahead and are prepared to slow the boat if things start to happen too fast and there’s a risk that events will overtake the rate at which they can cope with them. Having a variety of strategies to buy additional time when necessary is one of the most useful elements in a skipper’s armoury. Heaving to, furling (or partially furling) the headsail, or stemming the tide are prime examples.
The perfect location
It’s best to choose an area with which you are already familiar – this will make everything from pilotage to figuring out where to find visitors’ moorings easier. If you sail in a busy area, such as the Solent or parts of the West Country, try to choose a quiet time – you'll find midweek much easier than a weekend in peak season, when everyone's fighting for berths.
It also makes sense to choose a period with neap tides – the smaller the better – as this will make manoeuvring and pilotage easier, as well as smoothing out the sea state if there's a wind against tide chop. Another obvious factor is that you don’t want too much wind – even if your boat might comfortably deal with a Force 7 or more in expert hands, exercising caution your first few times out is a wise move.
Fully prepare the boat and crew for sea
The time to learn what the procedures are on your boat for shortening sail is not on passage in a rising wind and sea state. Identify the location and function of all the lines before setting sail. If possible, hoist the mainsail while moored to allow your crew to practice reefing. It’s also important to demonstrate the safe use of winches and anchoring procedures before setting sail.
Equally, everyone should be given a full safety briefing and at least one other person should know how to operate flares, send a distress call by VHF radio and understand the most important rules of the road. At the best of times a man overboard situation will test an experienced skipper and crew to the limits, so for starting out, wearing harness and lifejacket is particularly important.
Before leaving, brief everyone on your plan for leaving the berth. This is especially important if the wind and tide conditions are likely to make it a difficult manoeuvre. If tide is an issue, don’t forget that you can wait for it to change direction – or at least reduce in strength – before leaving.
Don’t be too ambitious
For the first few outings, a two or three hour trip, starting and finishing in your home port may be ample. Once underway engage all family members – even young children - in all aspects of sailing the boat, including looking out for navigation features and other traffic. Help them to be as involved as possible by talking through, or demonstrating, anything that's necessary. Above all, don’t let anyone feel as though they are merely a passenger – to do so is a recipe for discontent.
Sail gently – consider tucking in an extra reef for sailing upwind or on a reach. Even experienced skippers tend to reef too late, and the old adage 'when you think you need to reef, it's already too late’ is one to remember. Similarly it pays to be cautious when sailing with the wind aft of the beam, use a preventer on the main boom, or take the mainsail down to avoid the risk of an accidental gybe – being hit on the head by the boom or a mainsheet block is one of the biggest dangers.
When you reach your destination, choose an easy berth or mooring and allow plenty of time to rig warps and fenders. There should never be a rush to do this – stem the tide, or gently motor along the edge of the channel until the boat is fully set up – and you've been forward to check that everything needed is properly rigged. Whatever you do, don't spin round in lots of small circles. It may be a popular tactic, but it’s disorientating, confuses other traffic, and can be hugely stressful to everyone on board.
Push your boundaries
While knowing your limits and staying within them is crucial to effective and safe skippering, it’s also important to push your boundaries on occasion to learn new skills and refine old ones. To start with, you will be doing this just by getting yourself and other family members accustomed to an unfamiliar boat, but it won’t be long before you’re ready for bigger challenges – whether that’s sailing longer distances to different destinations, venturing out in stronger winds, or attempting night sailing for the first time as skipper.
For more ways to improve your cruising and skippering skills, see: Marina Berthing: 10 Tips For Perfection, The secret to fast and easy mooring: the midships spring or Eight ways to keep your boat fuel use to a minimum.