The joys and adventure of sailing in winter. Top tips for making the most out of your winter.

Winter is time for… Sailing!!??

Why not? For many, the arrival of winter comes with a sad lift out of their beloved boats. A long wait for the next season then follows. Unless you leave in the tropics, this is likely to be your story. But, does it really have to be like this? Many people don’t think so. Here are several reasons and tips for you to keep sailing in winter.

Why sailing in winter?

If you ask yourself this question, then you should have a go and ask the opposite one. Why should you only sail for a few months when you can have great sailing all over the year? Ok, I will not deny some of the evident reasons – freezing cold, rainy, overcast and short days. Sailing in winter is clearly not the same as in summer. But it doesn’t mean it’s not fun. You just need to change your mind-set and think that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘bad’. In fact, winter sailing can give you some of the most intense experiences you’ve ever had. And believe me or not, some of the world’s most stunning corners are even more especial in winter.

Let’s start with light. It is true that the sun doesn’t shine that often in winter. However, when it decides to show up, the colours it produces are beautiful. These differences are explained by astronomy. The earth’s axis of rotation is tilted on its vertical axis. In winter, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, while in summer it is tilted towards the Sun. This changes the angle of incidence of Sun rays. Put simply, the sun shines directly overhead in summer but the rays are at an angle in winter, producing long shadows and a beautiful golden light. Also, as it is rarely sunny in winter, you will also learn to appreciate those sunny cold days more intensely.

Winter light

Wildlife sighting is another good reason for sailing in winter. Many bird species migrate seasonally, so the population you see in winter can be surprisingly different from what you usually observe in summer. The UK receives millions of winter bird visitors every year. These birds migrate thousands of miles from the north to escape from the harsher weather conditions of the Artic and Scandinavia.  Many bird sanctuaries are located along the coast, so as a sailor you are in a privileged position to watch them.

oystercatcher

Are you tired of busy marinas and crowded anchorages? Then, welcome to winter sailing paradise. Many popular sailing destinations are so crowded in summer that it is simply not fun to visit them anymore. However, as soon as the peak tourism season finishes and autumn comes, everything becomes much quieter. And this is not only about having free space to anchor or avoiding packed marinas. It’s all about enjoying the authenticity of the places you visit. Think, for example of popular destinations in the Mediterranean. If you happen to be there in summer, most of what you see is fake. Things are specifically arranged to make tourists spend their euros. Essentially, there are tourist traps everywhere. Luckily, most of these traps close during winter, giving you a unique opportunity to see things as they are in the absence of mass tourism.  

Winter will also give you a unique touch of adventure to your cruising experience. Yes, weather and sea conditions can be harsh in winter. But it is probably this mix of risk and accomplishment that makes it so especial. So, be prepared to reduce risks, but maximise fun!

Of course, beware of the weather

Winter is usually the time of the year when the highest wind speeds and sea states occur. However, the difference between winter and summer weather is not the same everywhere. Namely, this difference is much more pronounced in the Northern than in the Southern hemisphere. This is particularly true in the North Atlantic, where wind speeds can increase by a factor of two or more from summer to winter. For example, in Southern England the maximum gust speed is about 40kts in July but climbs to almost 80kts in January. In contrast, in some regions of the Southern hemisphere, the increase in wind speed is less than 10%. And it’s not only speed that matters. Cold air is also denser than warm air, so the same wind speed will knock your boat a lot stronger in winter than in summer. This means for the same wind speed you will need to have less sail area in winter. Changes in weather can also be more abrupt and less predictable in winter. Summarising, be prepared to reef early (more about reefing here).  

Light, or the lack of it

Winter is also the time of the year when days are shorter, so you will need to adapt your cruising plans accordingly. In general, plan for short passages. Planning is indeed crucial to avoid sailing under difficult conditions of darkness, cold, and potentially fog. If you need to set off with the right tide and it happens to occur too early in the morning, you may have to sail for a few hours before the sun rises. Anchoring will also mean a long evening aboard.

night sailing

Keep warm

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. Whether or not you agree with this statement, it should both motivate and remind you to prepare for your adventure. Indeed, the right clothing is among the most important things that you will need to think about before embarking on a winter sailing adventure. Technically speaking, even dinghy sailing is possible with the right clothing. But let’s have a look at yacht sailing only.

In a changing weather, it is wise to wear multiple layers that you can quickly pull on and off. When you are working on deck you may not realise that despite the freezing temperatures, you are actually sweating. Hence, it’s not a bad idea to wear breathable clothes and to keep hydrated. Have at least a couple of spare clothes dry in the cabin. You will need them if you get wet. For the outer layer, it is important to invest in high-quality waterproof gear. Sailing jackets are usually very good at keeping you dry. Salopettes are the best mid layer as they will prevent splashes from going under your jacket and trousers. Other accessories can also make a big difference when you are exposed to the elements. Gloves, a warm beanie and even a balaclava, will make your journey much more comfortable.

In winter the risk of a cold shock and hypothermia are extremely high in the event of a man overboard. Although high-end drysuits will reduce these risks, they are very expensive and a bit awkward. In any case, it’s always best to take all possible precautions to ensure that you will stay on the boat and not in the water. This means staying clipped in the cockpit and deck, even when a man overboard is unlikely. Experienced cold weather sailors have their own tricks to keep warm. For example, minimalist sailor Roger Taylor –well known for sailing many long passages in the North Sea– recommends staying in the cabin as much as possible. Most of the time a cup of tea and a few minutes in the warmth of the cabin will be enough to recharge your batteries. So it’s important to split watches and steering in order to minimise exposure. Self-steering devices such as an auto-pilot or wind-vane are also extremely valuable for this purpose.

Keep the boat warm. And dry!

Needless to say that during winter temperatures plummet after sunset. So you will need to be prepared to heat your boat for the long night that follows. And this usually translates into a lot of energy required.  If you are in a marina with shore power, warming the boat is not much of a problem. Most heaters used for homes will do the job. If you are at anchor, you will probably need special heating systems. Most marine heaters burn diesel, but there are also heaters that work with kerosene or even wood. A good heater will not only keep your boat warm and cosy but will also reduce the second matter of your concern, condensation. Again, if you have on shore power, you can avoid condensation by running an electric dehumidifier. But if power is not readily available, then you will have to find other solutions. Some of the most popular ones include ventilation (vents with solar cells are becoming particularly popular) and calcium chloride (a salt that collects moisture from the air).

Winter North means summer South!

Well, if you are still unconvinced about fighting the elements on a sailboat, you still have the whole other half of the world to explore. So how about chartering a boat somewhere else and enjoying a couple of weeks of hot weather? Destinations abound, so do your homework and compare what each place has to offer.  The Caribbean is probably the most popular destination, especially because the Northern Hemisphere winter coincides with the Hurricane off-season. However, the world is large and there are obviously many other alternatives. Eastern Africa is home to a number of such extraordinary places, including the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius, to mention only a few. Thailand is also becoming more and more popular, with many charters operating in Phuket. If you live in Europe and want to escape from the winter, the Canary Islands may be a good candidate. Average January temperatures in the Islands are around 18 degrees, which will feel like a hot summer for many Northern Europeans. Read more about these and other interesting destinations on the links below:

classic-sailing

zizoo

tropical beach

Last chance

If all the above doesn’t sound appealing to you, then I have one last suggestion for you to keep the fire burning. Aha! Have you thought about that long boat maintenance list? Whether you will keep your boat at storage or afloat, winter might be the ideal time to get those jobs done and have her ready for the next season. Enjoy your winter boat repair!

How To Prevent Seasickness and Enjoy Sailing

Raise your hand if you’ve never been seasick. If you lifted your arm, then chances are that you a) are extremely lucky, b) don’t have much sailing experience, c) are very likely to be seasick one day in the future or d) are simply a liar. Seasickness –or more generically motion sickness– is a condition that affects both professional sailors and people that are new at sea. Actually, you don’t need to be at sea to experience it. Many people get seasick with the motion of cars, buses or even trains! Its symptoms –typically nausea, vomiting and dizziness– can really turn a lovely day into a truly terrible experience. Even more important, if you play a central role onboard (for example, if you are the skipper), being seasick can pose serious threats to the safety of the of the crew (and obviously yours!).

seasick cat

Research states that at least 90% of sailors have suffered from seasickness. Yet, these seafarers still voyage on into the rarely calm waters. So what? Maybe you're thinking of going for a vacation, or you're probably learning how to sail. But, how do you deal with the motion sickness that keeps ruining your plans?

Before we look into that, let us deal with the root cause of seasickness. Seasickness occurs when there is a mismatch between your senses. In other words, motion sickness occurs when part of your senses, such as your ears, sense that you are moving. However,  the other senses, such as your eyes, do not sense that movement, hence the mismatch.

Seasickness is what most people term as an old age affliction. In other words, the condition has been troubling humans since the beginning of our race. Yet, it is safe to say that there are a few tips that are really helpful to prevent motion sickness. Let’s take a look at some of them.

What To Eat

This is a preventive remedy that many sailors can swear by. Ginger has proven its effectiveness through the ages of sailing. Also, ginger adds a few complimentary and healthy minerals to the body. Recent studies indicated that ginger does contribute to the reduction of seasickness. Available in so many forms (such as raw, biscuits, crystalised sweets, pills, tablets, capsules or even soft drinks), ginger is usually one of the preferred remedies for seasickness. And if it doesn’t work for you, at least you can enjoy its lovely flavour!

Ginger

Coke, grapefruit juice and lime juice are also said to be great remedies as well but don’t quote me on that, as I have never tried them. Stock up on chewing gum, which helps combat both sea- and carsickness. Many will not like this advice, but you should avoid drinking alcohol, especially the night before departure or sailing practice.

A friend of mine who is particularly prone to seasickness once told me that eating and drinking water before departure really helps prevent his seasickness. However, avoid greasy food, as they may cause indigestion, hence exacebating the already nasty symptoms of seasickness.

A Breath of Fresh Air

The importance of fresh air cannot be underestimated. Strong smells such as spices or perfume will have your head over a bucket in minutes. Ensure that you get constant air circulation on your face for freshness.

Stay on deck and breathe in the fresh air, and focus on the horizon. This way, your sensory nerves will not have a mismatch. Your ears will recognize the motion, and so will your eyes.

Stay Busy

When I say stay busy, I mean anything other than reading a book. For some reason, reading or doing anything that requires near-focus observation only makes things worse. Try and concentrate on something that will keep your mind off seasickness.

This is what helps sailors deal with seasickness. They are always busy on deck to even notice the troubling weather or unsettling motions. So keep yourself busy and make yourself useful on deck. Even if it means helping out with the steering. Steering while seasick may at first sound like a challenge to be avoided, but it is in fact one of the best remedies for seasickness. We call it the helm doctor!

Do seasickness wristbands work?

This is a rather controversial topic. Some manufacturers say they are clinically tested, but it is unclear what exactly this means. Some health institutions such as the UK’s NHS state that there is little scientific evidence to prove their effectiveness. Many people will swear by wristbands’ ability to ward off seasickness. Others will dismiss it as a complete rip-off. In between the two extremes, there are, well… most of us who are not completely convinced but will use them anyway, just in case. As they are inexpensive and have no side effects, they are worth a try.

Motion sickness wristbands are based on the principle of acupressure/acupuncture. Inside the band, a small element applies a constant pressure to a particular acupressure point. This arguably disrupts the neural signal responsible for seasickness.

The Use of Medications

Before purchasing any form of drug to help deal with seasickness, consult your doctor first. If he/she gives you a green light, there a few drugs or medications to consider.

seasickness pills

Over the counter drugs such as Dramamine is common in preventing seasickness. I have taken Stugeron (Cinnarizine) a few times and never got seasick when I took it. But I might not be the best example as I rarely actually get seasick anyway. However, my wife –who is very prone to seasickness—had incredible results with Stugeron.

Also,  consider getting the Scopolamine Skin patches medication. This form of medication is usually placed behind the ear and is said to last for at least 3 days straight.

There are many other forms of medications that can be used. Consider the side effects as well, before purchasing any. You should not drive under certain medications, as they can cause drowsiness, reduce reaction speed and severely affect your ability to drive safely. 

Book review: Sailing Alone Around the World, by Joshua Slocum

We live in times when crossing oceans and cruising the world have become almost ordinary undertakings. Each year, more and more people flood the Internet with stories and videos about their challenging voyages. Some of these are by conscious, well trained, seasoned sailors, while others are simply from naïve beginners who take excessive risks. However, there will always be a glorious merit in being the first. And this is the very difference between other sailing narratives and Joshua Slocum’s account, Sailing Alone Around the World. This is the story of the first man to circumnavigate the globe alone and under sail. And he did it in the 1890’s on his 36-ft engineless sloop, the Spray, a boat that Slocum rebuilt completely from an abandoned hull that he was given.

The Spray
Joshua Slocum's sloop, the Spray.

Slocum departed alone from Boston in April 1895 to cross the Atlantic, with the initial plan of sailing through the Mediterranean and then the Suez Canal (then only 26 years from first opening). But after a creepy incident off the coast of Gibraltar, he decided to change his circumnavigation. Instead of heading east, he crossed the Atlantic once again, this time reaching Brazil. After sailing south and through the Strait of Magellan, Slocum continued west across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to the Cape of Good Hope. From there he finally sailed across the Atlantic for the third time on his way back home. He reached Rhode Island more than three years after his departure, in June 1898. The account of this fantastic journey, Sailing Alone Around the World, was published in 1899 and received widespread acclaim by reviewers throughout the English-speaking world.

Sailing Alone Around the World
Sailing Alone Around the World front cover

It is fascinating to look at the ingredients that made this pioneering voyage possible. From the technical side, one of them was Slocum’s realisation that the Spray would hold its course with the helm lashed. Yet simple, this observation not only made his voyage possible but opened a new episode of maritime history. One may even argue that this was one of the precursors of the first self-steering systems that emerged in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He cruised 2,000 miles across the Pacific without touching the helm! On the personal front, Slocum was the perfect man for the voyage. A confident man who had the skills, nerves and more importantly the love for adventure that are needed for such a feat. As for his reasons, as he describes it in his own words, he did it ‘for the love of adventure’ and because he had ‘nothing else to do’. Indeed, Slocum’s life prior to this voyage was no less adventurous or interesting than the solo circumnavigation, so Sailing Alone Around the World is nothing but another special chapter of this man’s fantastic life.

Slocum voyage
Joshua Slocum's voyage around the world

Slocum was born on 20 February 1844 in Nova Scotia, Canada. His journey to become a ship commander started at the age of fourteen when he joined a fishing schooner to escape from the demanding work regime in his father’s the boot-making business. From that point, Slocum rapidly worked his way up and became the commander of a number of vessels. In 1874, he worked in ship building in the Philippines, where he became the owner of his first boat, the Pato (‘duck’ in Spanish). After that, the Slocum family acquired and sold a few other boats. Their fourth boat, the Aquidneck, was wrecked in Brazil in 1887. As an example of Slocum’s resilience, he recovered from the loss by building a new boat, the Liberdade (‘freedom’ in Portuguese) using local materials and workers. Launched on 13 May 1888, the same day when Brazil abolished slavery, the 35-ft long Liberdade sailed the Slocum family for over 5,500 miles from Brazil to the United States. Financially ruined but now a celebrity, Slocum wrote his first book, Voyage of the Liberdade. But the book was not as successful as the voyage. In 1891 a whaling master offered the Spray (or the ruins of it) to Slocum, an offer that would change the history of modern sailing. Slocum clung to the opportunity and worked during 13 months to turn the rotten hull into a fast and seaworthy sloop. The Spray was finally launched in 1893.  

Joshua Slocum
Joshua Slocum

On his way around the globe, Slocum visited some of the remotest corners of the world and met the full breadth of cultures of his time. His journey was sprinkled with a number of tough episodes, including encounters with pirates off the coast of Gibraltar and with unfriendly Fuegians in Tierra del Fuego. To add to this prowess, the first man to sail the world alone --like many others of his time-- did not know how to swim! Yet, his narrative is simple and unassuming. Slocum’s unpretentious writing style even gives the impression that he had an easy ride. But let’s not be fooled by Slocum’s modesty. His feat has often been compared to those of the greatest adventurers in the history of mankind. More than fifty years after Slocum’s death, the renowned French sailor Bernard Moitessier named his 39-ft ketch ‘Joshua’, in honour of Slocum.

Enjoy reading this epic story written by the man who, more than a century later, keeps reminding us that the impossible is a construct waiting to be shattered. Or as he put it in his own words, after a group of ladies wished to know how one could sail around the world alone he said:

“It will come to that yet if we men-folk keep saying we ‘can’t’”.

Top 8 tips to start sailing

Unless you were born in a sailing environment, you are unlikely to have access to a sailing boat when you start toying with the idea of sailing. You may love the idea of cruising the world without having ever stepped on a sailboat. But is this really for you? Many people begin with the question of how they should to start sailing, but unfortunately abandon the idea under the impression that it is too difficult or expensive. Fortunately, the Internet now provides a wealth of information, and more and more people are finding their way through the winding path towards learning to sail.

Indeed, advice available online is so ample that it can cause some confusion. Some will say that you should start gradually, possibly taking dinghy lessons first before doing a more comprehensive skipper course. Others will argue for a shock-therapy, such as the ‘go and get into trouble’ attitude. The truth is that there is no single ‘best’ choice that fits everybody’s lifestyle. If you live near the coast or a lake, you will have much more opportunities than someone in the middle of the Sahara. Personal finances, family and career restrictions can also determine your choice. But these difficulties should not deter you from pursuing your dream. Instead, all you need is to find an alternative that works best for you. Here are a few tips on how you can start sailing. And more importantly, have a lot of fun!

1 Have you considered dinghy sailing?

Dinghy sailing is an excellent choice for getting hands-on sailing experience. Essentially, a dinghy is a small yacht without a cabin or an engine. The principles of dinghy sailing are, in general terms, the same as those that you need to sail a large cruiser.

There are however a few advantages in learning to sail with a dinghy. The main one is that they are much more responsive than cruisers. Under good wind conditions, you will only need to move the tiller gently to feel the boat change course immediately. This quick response is really helpful to understand how things work and to get used to reacting quickly. Dinghies also give a great sense of how sails interact with the wind and how to trim them for performance. The boat’s response to heeling is also evident in dinghies. The fact that dinghies don’t have a heavy keel means that you will have to learn how to balance the boat and avoid excessive heeling. You may need to capsize a few times before you understand how to avoid it, but as long as you are capable of holding your breadth for a few seconds, it should be fun. Dinghy sailing is also much cheaper than cruising.

dinghy sailing

It is true that you will need to learn a lot more things before sailing a yacht, but most of the skills that you learn with dinghies are directly transferrable to yacht sailing. Finally, you won’t cruise the world on a dinghy, but some people have done incredible adventures on dinghies:

http://www.dinghycruising.org.uk/

2 Take a taster sailing session

Wondering whether you or your family will really enjoy it? I’m sure you will, but just in case you aren’t sure, take a taster sail session. Many sailing schools offer one- or half-day taster sessions that will introduce you to sailing. These are a great ways of getting started with the basics of sailing without investing much time or money. A few hours aboard with an experienced instructor will give you the chance to clarify all the questions that you may have initially. Instructors usually cover a few topics that are taught in more comprehensive courses, giving you the opportunity to understand what these courses would involve were you to take your training further.

3 Sailing holidays

Still not convinced or you would like a longer cruising life experience? Try a week long sailing holiday. Sailboat charters offer the opportunity of experiencing the cruising life without much hassle. Charters can be either ‘bareboat’ or ‘skippered’. The former is for people who can already skipper a sailboat, while the latter includes an on-board skipper. While the skipper can in theory do all the work for you, you may volunteer to help and ask them to teach you while you are cruising. Charters are available in some of the most beautiful waters in the world. Simply pick your perfect destination and enjoy it! If you’d like to socialise with other sailors, you may consider joining a flotilla. Flotillas are basically a bunch of yachts sailing together and supported by a lead boat.

shipwreck beach

4 Introductory courses

If you’d like to start with a bit more formal training, then you may consider an entry level sailing course. The Royal Yacht Association (RYA) offers a course called ‘Competent Crew’ that is 100% practical. The course usually runs during five consecutive days aboard, although you can split it into two or three weekends. If you can, I particularly recommend the five consecutive days option, which will give you a true live-aboard experience. The course covers the basics of crewing such as ropework, helming and handling sails. This also gives you a ‘RYA Competent Crew Certificate’, which is the first certificate of RYA’s Offshore Cruising Scheme. The entry level course offered by the American Sailing Association (ASA 101, ‘Basic Keelboat Sailing’) would be another alternative. ASA 101 is usually delivered in two days and has a mix of theory and practical work.

ropework

5 Volunteer to crew other people’s boats

Have you got friends who own yachts? If you have, that’s great, but unfortunately most beginners are not that lucky. Not a problem, there are many people looking for extra hands on deck.

Do you need experience? Previous crewing experience or training usually helps, as skippers will in general prefer a skilled crew. However, many sailors are happy to take complete beginners as they learn the basics quickly. Start looking for easy recreational sailing, since experience is not critical in this case. It is also good for you to start simple, and gradually build up confidence before taking up new challenges. I met a guy whose first crewing experience was from the UK to Northern Spain across the Gulf of Biscay. He spent three days seasick because of rough weather in the gulf. As you build your sailing mileage, you can decide whether to join yachts for long passages. Skippers doing boat deliveries also actively look for crew.

Many Internet sailing forums have specific sections on crewing opportunities. There are also a number of dedicated websites for people searching for boats and skippers looking for crew.

https://www.crewseekers.net

http://www.sailingnetworks.com

https://www.findacrew.net/

6 Buy and read good introductory books on sailing

If you are a self-learner, then this may be a great starting point. There are hundreds of great books available that will teach you the basics of sailing. Our section on Basics also covers a few topics that are taught in entry-level sailing courses. Reading an introductory book will clarify many things before you even start sailing. Having a bit of theoretical background before you start will help you get the most out of your first sessions.

sailing books

7 Join a sailing club

Sailing clubs are a great way of dipping your toes into the sailing community. Most clubs have boats that can be used by members either for free or at low rates. They also organise events such as races, rallies, sailing holidays and social events. One of the great things about joining a club is that other members are often looking for crew, so you are likely to find crewing experience more easily. Participating in the club’s social events will give you the chance to meet like-minded people. Sailors usually like to talk about sailing and are keen to help beginners. Most clubs also provide training at lower prices for members.

Each sailing club has its own character. Some are more focused on dinghy racing and others on cruising. I even know one whose main focus on the bar! So it’s important that you look for information about your local clubs before joining the one that best fits you. Checking information available on the club’s website, such as events calendar, photos, etc is a good starting point. I also recommend that you visit the clubs during a weekend and talk to a couple of members to get an idea of what is available.

8 Purchase a boat and find someone to teach you

Last but not least, your own boat! Buying a boat is the most expensive of all the alternatives, so I left it to the end. While you can find true bargains on the second-hand market, the cost of owning a sailboat is in general high. People usually say that boats are holes in the water into which you throw money. It is also said that boat ownership gives you two intense pleasures: one on the day buy it, and the other when you sell it. The main costs are typically associated with mooring and maintenance. However, depending on your current lifestyle and future life plans, boat ownership can actually be your best choice. Financially, it is particularly appealing if you decide to live aboard. And if you are really decided to go cruising for a long time, then this is definitely for you.

Boat ownership is itself a subject of learning, and one that you will only master if you own a boat. Maintaining a sailboat requires good understanding all the systems aboard and the ability to fix them. Developing these skills takes time and patience, but there are good books and other resources available online to help. More importantly, seek advice from other boat owners who already know how to fix things.

If you buy a boat but cannot sail her, you will need someone to help you out, at least initially. Many sailing schools offer own-boat tuitions for new owners, but these can be expensive. If you are a member of a sailing club, you could find other members who are willing to help you in your first ventures. 

As a final tip, whatever works best for you, go and get started!

Ghosts, spirits and the weather helm

Everyone who has sailed a few times will have experienced it. You are having fun sailing relatively fast. The boat is heeled more than it should and you are pulling the tiller to keep her on course. Suddenly… a gust! And then other weird things start to happen. You are not heeling anymore but struggling to control the boat and not be thrown overboard. For some unknown reason, the boat is now possessed by an evil and disobedient spirit and not under your command anymore. She wants to turn into the wind no matter how hard you try to stop her.

ship wreck

If you have not yet experienced this apparition before, I’m sure ‘It’ will come to you one day. So, what kind of supernatural force is taking over? Let’s call it the omnipresent weather helm! This is the opposite of the lee helm, an attempt of extra-terrestrial forces to turn the boat away from the wind.

Why does it happen?

What is the origin of such a mysterious entity? Some will say that there is nothing supernatural in it, and that it is the pure result of simple physics. This is the story that they will tell you:

When a sailboat is not heeling too much and the mast is almost upright, the hull cuts the water in a nearly symmetrical way. This symmetry produces similar hydrodynamic forces on both sides, and therefore there is no strong tendency to turn it to any side. However, this symmetry is lost when the boat is heeled. This occurs because a heeled boat has a lot more of the lee side of the hull submerged than of the windward side, and this produces a turning moment that pulls her into the wind. More importantly, when the boat is heeling only slightly, the centre of the aerodynamic force pulling the sails (centre of effort, CE) is almost along the boat’s centreline (only slightly to the lee side). However, when the boat is heeling heavily, the sails are over the water. If you think that the centre of this force is somewhere between the foot of the sail and the head, then it is easy to see that the more she heels, the further to the lee side the force will go. The increase in the arm of the force results in a turning moment that will swing the boat into the wind. In addition, heeling will put the rudder in an awkward (non-vertical) and less efficient position, making it hard for you to steer the boat away from the wind.

Blah, blah, blah. Don’t listen to them! This is all about evil spirits trying to sink your boat.

Yacht heeling

How to avoid it?

There are few things that you can do to save you from the deep darkness of the weather helm. The most urgent action is to reduce heeling, and the best way to do it is to reef the main. Reef whenever you remotely suspect that you will need it. While on light racing yachts and dinghies heeling can be reduced by moving people to the windward side, this will make no significant effect on heavy cruising boats. In this case, the best salvation to the weather helm is: don’t let It come by having appropriate and well-balanced sail area. As soon as you start feeling ‘Its’ presence (you will feel the helm getting heavy, starting to be pulled by that invisible force), then it’s time to reef. Reefing will reduce the forces on the sails and heeling. It may sound counter-intuitive, but reefing an overly heeled boat can actually improve speed. This happens because heeling causes a lot of unnecessary drag that slows the boat down.

You should always start by reefing the mainsail, because its centre of force is behind the centre of lateral resistance (CLR, see a short description below if you do not know what it means). As the CLR acts as a pivot point, and because the centre of effort of the mainsail is behind the CLR, reefing the main will (in addition to reducing heeling) reduce the tendency to turn into the wind. On the other hand, reefing the head sail would probably make things worse, as it actually helps reduce the weather helm by pushing the bow of the boat away from the wind. In fact, if the boat keeps trying to turn into the wind after you’ve reefed the main and heeling was reduced, increasing the area of the headsail (or any sails forward of the CLR) can reduce the weather helm. By fine-tuning the areas of main and head sails you can achieve a perfectly balanced sail, in which case the helm feels very light. If you have not reefed and are suddenly hit by a gust, the best you can do is to spill the wind --let go the main sheet and/or steer into the wind. Dinghy sailors do this so frequently that it becomes an automatic reaction. Dinghies are extremely light and in general very susceptible to heeling (and capsizing!), so this is one of the first lessons dinghy sailors learn.

If your boat shows a consistent tendency to sail into the wind, you might need to reduce the mast rake. If you have ever sailed a windsurf you will know that you can steer it without a rudder by simply moving the mast aft or forward. Moving the mast forward will bring the CE forward of the keel and this will turn the windsurf to leeward. Bringing the mast aft will take the CE back and turn it into the wind. On a sailboat, you can obtain the same effect by tuning the mast rake –the angle between the mast and the vertical. Reducing rake will bring the CE of the main sail forward, which helps reduce the weather helm.

Finally, a tiny bit of weather helm is actually welcomed and considered safe by many sailors. If, for example, you are sailing single-handed and fall overboard, a boat that is possessed by the weather helm will turn into the wind and gradually stop. When the helm is perfectly balanced (neither weather nor lee helm), you also loose the feel of the helm, which is uncomfortable to many people. So keep in mind that we all like a tiny bit of evil, but do not let it take control!

Centre of lateral resistance

The centre of lateral resistance of a hull is a theoretical point that helps us to understand many aspects of the behaviour of a boat. The idea is that it represents a pivot point about which the boat will rotate when pushed. For example, imagine that a boat is docked with all lines on board. If you push the bow of the boat, the stern will probably swing back onto the dock. Conversely, if you push the stern, it is the bow that will come to the dock. However, if you push the beam at a particular point (the centre of lateral resistance, CLR), the boat will move sideways, and bow and stern will be moving away from the dock at the same speed. For sailboats with a fin keel this point is typically located somewhere at the keel, but this location will, in general, depend on the shape of the hull and keel.

Single handed sailing and berthing

Think of all the possibilities that single handed sailing opens up to you. You can go sailing whenever you want to, and will never depend on your friends’ diaries. Or you can simply enjoy a bit of sailing time on your own. Even if sailing alone is not something that you really enjoy, just think of all those situations when you would need to do everything on your own: seasick crew, man overboard, etc. Whether or not you like the idea of being the skipper, first mate, crew and cook altogether, it is clear that being able to single hand a sailboat can be vital in the event of an emergency. Ok, all this may sound great, but then you think “Hang on, I can’t simply do everything on my own! How can I berth the boat without someone helping me out with the lines?”. Well, indeed, berthing is among the trickiest bits of sailing, but even more so when you are single handed. But let’s start with other things that you will need to learn in order to be a self-sufficient sailor.

Single handed sailing

Single handing a sailboat means that you will have to do everything that you normally delegate to your crew. Yet, you can’t be at two places at the same time –and especially– you can’t leave the helm unattended to do something else. So the first thing that you will need sort out is how to free yourself up from the helm’s slavery. I am assuming that you have a tiller, but there are similar alternatives for wheel steering. For simple manoeuvres like tacking and gybing, depending on the boat’s setup (for example, how far the sheet winches are from the tiller), you can simply steer with the tiller between your legs. Simple, but enough to free up your hands to winch the headsail sheets, etc. Another common alternative is to rig a rope between two aft cleats and around the tiller. Friction between the rope and the tiller is sufficient to temporarily hold the rudder during a tack or gybe. However, if you need to go to the deck or to the cabin and have to leave the helm for longer, then you will need an autopilot.

Electric tillerpilots are the most popular among day sailors and are tremendously useful for single handed sailing. They usually work by keeping a given course, although fancy ones will also steer to wind if they are connected to a wind transducer. Most tillerpilots will also have a tack function that basically shifts the steering course through a tack angle of 100 degrees. Among the disadvantages of tillerpilots, it is fair to say that they consume a great deal of battery. In general, they are also not strong enough to steer the boat under strong wind. In addition, steering to a fixed course may also result in accidental gybes if the wind changes direction. For these and other reasons, many sailors prefer mechanical systems (for example a wind vane), specially for long passages. However, for beginners venturing on short inland or coastal sailing, tillerpilots provide good value for money and will do the job. An autopilot will allow you to do most of the things that you need to do, like navigation, hoist or reef the sails, adjust a traveller, cook, go to the toilet, etc.

rope guardrail

Single handed sailing is also easier and safer if the boat is properly rigged for it. There are a few things that can make your life a lot easier, specially when the sea is rough and the wind strong. Having all ropes led back to the cockpit and a few stoppers will save you from a lot of hassle and risk, and allow you to do all sail trimming from the cockpit. Going to the deck with large waves hitting the boat can be risky, but even more so if there is no one else on board to recover you from a man overboard. For the same reason of avoiding the deck, a headsail with a roller furling system is also a must. The roller furling will enable you to reef (furl) a large Genoa in the blink of an eye and safely from the cockpit.

Now let’s go back to the issue of single handed berthing. The general rules for berthing should all be taken into account, and become even more important when you are alone. It is particularly important to have a clear plan, and also a ‘plan B’ in case something goes wrong. Like many other sailing skills, berthing is learned through practice. The good news is that you don’t need to take any risk to practice single handed berthing, simply ask your crew to relax on the deck (but be prepared to jump when you start screaming), and do everything yourself.

As you’d normally do to berth, you first need to assess the wind and tide stream and guess what they will be doing to the boat. Get all lines ready and fenders well distributed from stern to bow (you never know where the hull will hit the dock exactly) well before you start to approach the berth. You will obviously have fenders on the side of the pontoon, but it’s not a bad idea to also have a couple of them on the opposite side just in case things do not end up as you thought they would. You also need to know which side the propwalk will swing your stern to when you reverse to slow the boat down.

Once you are ready, approach the pontoon slowly (but not too slowly, as you might loose steering control). When your beam touches the pontoon, reverse the engine quickly to slow the boat down, and then put it back to neutral. Always give the prop a bit of pause in neutral before reversing (the gearbox will appreciate it). Use your propwalk to keep the boat close to the pontoon. If your propwalk is to starboard, then it may be wise to approach the dock to starboard and vice-versa.

As for the lines, I find it handy to have one cleated amidships. If you do not have a cleat there, tie it to something strong enough to hold, like a headsail block or a sheet winch. Cleating this line first to ashore and keep it as short as possible. This should be enough to prevent the boat from swinging massively. It may be helpful to keep slight revolutions in forward, which will help to hold the boat nicely against the dock. If you reached this point, the situation is already under control and you can cleat the bow/stern lines and then the two spring lines.

Race to learn, but don’t learn to race

I’m not a racing person. I am not competitive and I don’t find any profound drive for sailing around buoys faster than others. Actually, I always felt that competing for the sake of it was the perfect way of wasting both energy and time together. Yes, I can have a fun playing football and other sports and may even get a kick of adrenaline sometimes. But I never had any serious motivation for winning a game or becoming a champion in any sport. Actually, things like hitting a ball more precisely than others never meant anything to me, let alone made me proud of it.

learn to sail racing

So here comes the obvious question. Why am I writing a post about racing sailboats? You may laugh about my completely ‘unbiased’ support of sailing races, but yes, I have to say that racing a sailboat is different. First, forget the America’s Cup. I am definitely not talking about anything near this level. Instead, think of small events organised by local clubs, where competitors will be more concerned about what brew to taste after the race than about beating other fellow racers. Obviously, there may always be one or two obsessive compulsive racing freaks even in this sort of environment, but this is not the rule. Second, racing a sailboat can have a purpose beyond instinctive competitiveness, for it is a great way to refine one’s sailing abilities. If you want to squeeze as much speed as possible out of a sailboat you will need to learn new tricks like trimming the sails, balancing the boat as well as different sailing tactics. These are fine skills that we would seldom pay much attention to when cruising (or at least not to a high degree), as tiny gains in speed do not substantially change our cruising experience. However, sometimes – especially during long passages– an extra knot can make a huge difference. Put simply, the ability to sail fastest when needed is very welcome on board, so why not work on it?

Sailing race Lymington 2017

So if you are learning to sail but like me are not an innate competitor, there is still a good motivation for joining sailing races. For there is no better way of learning to sail fast than racing with more experienced sailors. Racing will give you the opportunity to test your skills and observe how they translate into sailing performance, and this is as clear as it can be when you have lots of other boats around.  If you are starting to learn how to sail, joining a racing team as an inexperienced crew will also give you enough hours of sweat and sailing that you need in the beginning. And the good news is that if you enjoy sailing – as you obviously do– then racing will be fun!

But don’t become too obsessed about speed. What is magical about sailing is to enjoy the journey so don’t spoil a relaxed cruise and keep your eyes off the speedometer!

Saving tip: boat jumbles

Yes, starting to sail can be expensive. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be, and fortunately boat jumbles are around to help! If you are learning to sail and maybe thinking of one day owing a boat, you will need to buy gear that unfortunately is usually not cheap. Everything that carries the ‘marine’ tag attached tends to be a few times more expensive than the same item without the golden word. Foul weather jackets, marine engine maintenance, even sailing gloves are in general way overpriced compared to their ‘land’ counterparts. The marine industry understands that there is a good chunk of the sailing community who wouldn’t be particularly concerned to have an extra figure added to their bills, so they simply add it. But this is obviously not true for many of us ‘cost conscious’ sailors who just want to enjoy the simplicity of the sailing life without going bankrupt. Indeed, simplicity and lavishness will never be on the same page.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to save money when you need to buy gear. Purchasing semi-new second hand gear is an excellent example. However, we all agree that second hand sailing shops are not in every corner. In these days of Internet ruling, the web is an obvious alternative to save money. Sites like ebay or craiglist offer a great opportunity to find good quality second hand stuff for a fraction of the retail price. But then well… it’s the Internet, which means that you won’t have the chance to touch or try any product, and definitely won’t have a chat with sellers and learn about their adventures. If these things are important to you as I guess they are, then boat jumbles — the marine version of car boot sales— may be the solution.  

 

Boat jumbles
Boat jumble Solent 2017

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Solent’s boat jumble (Hampshire, UK) and it was great fun. There were people selling everything from ropes to engines and even tenders. There was even a nice wooden sailing dinghy for sale. While some of these people are dealers making an extra cash selling new and sometimes used stuff, most are simply people who for different reasons decided to get rid of their sailing gear.

If you know exactly what you need, then before going to a jumble you should have a good idea of its retail price. Although there are usually many bargains for sale, you can also sometimes find outrageously overpriced items. Even if you are not looking for anything in particular, you might still find useful stuff for your boat. And if you don’t buy anything, well –apart from saving your money– you may still enjoy a nice day out with other fellow sailors.

Why we should travel alone

This post —like many others on this blog— is not about sailing, but has a lot to do with the attitude towards travelling that is shared among ‘true’ sailors. I’ve recently read a comment on another blog from a 50-year old man who had not travelled abroad since he was 10, and who was about to go to Asia for a month-long solo trip (again, no sailing involved). He was, in his own words, ‘scared to death, but excited’. As I read the comment, I couldn’t stop thinking about this cult of safety that is so embedded in mainstream western thinking, and how this is creating extremely fearful individuals. I will call it the ‘routine dictatorship’. As a big fan of solo trips and of subversion, I decided to write this post to highlight all those things that I think are great about lonely travelling. I hope this will propel other people to leave their fat-building couches and explore new, exciting, real-life experiences.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that everybody should say ‘piss-off’ to friends and family and start wandering around the world. I agree that travelling with friends, partners and family is good fun. It is great to have people who can help us and with whom we can share these pleasurable moments. However, the experience of travelling alone is enriching and unique in many ways, so why not have a go if you can? Many people will need a bit of courage to do it, but the rewards are definitely worth it. And if in the end you find that this is not your cup of tea, at least you will have experienced it.

 
First, being on your own makes you more open to talking to other people (you either do it or will stay silent for a long time). Local people and other lonely travellers are also more likely to engage in conversation with someone who is alone than with a group. This type of casual encounters may only last for a few minutes, but they may remain alive in your memory for many years. In these days when the ultimate interaction between tourists and locals consists in ordering a meal, it never too much to emphasize how interesting meeting locals can be. Meeting other solo travellers is also great. There are many amazing travellers living very interesting lifestyles, and for some reason when you are on your own you just happen to bump into many of them. Learning about these lives can change the perspective you have about yours.

 
There is also a powerful sense of freedom in travelling alone. I particularly recommend departing with a very loose plan, and nothing pre-booked. If you don’t have a schedule to follow, deciding what you want to do next will depend only on how you feel at that moment. All decisions will be yours. There is no need to understand the needs or wishes of others. You simply do whatever you want, and whenever you want to do it! The feeling of accomplishment that you get from this experience is also very gratifying. Once you’ve done it, you know how many amazing things are capable of doing and experiencing on your own. And not having someone with you all the time gives time to think about you and about what (and who) is important for you. In other words, it’s a great way to know your self better.

 
But for me the most amazing thing about travelling alone is the sense of complete immersion into a different culture and environment. When you travel with other people, you always bring a substantial part of your culture/lifestyle with you. Not only your topics of conversation with a friend will be constantly reminding you of your everyday life, but also the sole presence of this person will be bombarding you with other distracting thoughts that will deviate your attention from where you are. When you are on your own, your attention is much more focused on observing and enjoying the place where you are. No frequent reminders about your life back home or about things that you need to do when back, simply living the moment, which is the essence of travelling.
Finally, it’s good to remember that you are never really alone if you enjoy your own company.

The hardest thing I never did

I recently read an article entitled “The hardest thing I ever did”. It wasn’t a particularly great one, and to be honest it only caught my attention because I misread the ‘ever’ as ‘never’. Luckily, that mistake made me think about the second, more interesting question. What was this toughest thing that I have never done, why have I not done it, and how could it have changed things today? I couldn’t single out the number-one thing, but a few memories started to emerge; memories of important moments when, for one reason or another, I decided to go for the easy or safe route. Where would the other paths have taken me?

 

 

We constantly make choices but never know the outcomes of the discarded alternatives, simply because they never happen. Oddly enough, we often ‘kind of know’ where our best choice will take us, and this is important. It is exactly this predictability that makes us pick these safe routes so often. Safety constantly pushes us to do many of the things we do, even when they lead to a dull live. That is how we are, most of the time, or at least most of us. But fortunately, the world is also full of risk takers who dare to challenge the safety bias, and dive into unknown territories. Some of the most interesting people that I met are in this group.

So, if you can but are still pondering over the possibility of hopping on a sailboat and cruising the world, don’t let a safe job stop you and don’t be overwhelmed by the challenge. Take that first step and keep walking!

“Time has two faces, Khayyam said to himself. It has two dimensions, its length is measured by the rhythm of the sun but is depth by the rhythm of passion.” (Amin Maalouf, in Samarkand). Follow your passion!