Julia Jones, Yachting Monthly's literary reviewer discusses Practical Skipper by Bill Johnson: an aide memoire for the techniques that one may have learned quite comfortably when in the care of an instructor.
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Bill Johnson’s title Practical Skipper doesn’t suggest that anyone might expect to be im-practical when assuming responsibility for a yacht and her crew; it merely signposts that this volume is intended as a back-up to the practical sections of the RYA Day Skipper and Yachtmaster qualifications rather than the in-the-classroom sessions.
There’s no meteorology for instance, just an expectation that you’ll have checked the forecast before you set out and you’ll reflect weather possibilities in your passage plan.
It’s intended also as an aide memoire for the techniques that one may have learned quite comfortably when in the care of an instructor.
Setting out unsupported in one’s own yacht, possibly with a family crew, may feel as suddenly daunting as the day after passing one’s driving test.
Checklists are a feature of Johnson’s approach and many people may decide to adopt his suggestion of downloading the app from Aztec Sailing which gives the checklists in an accessible form on a smart phone.
That said, I went to the Aztec Sailing website but couldn’t obviously see them.
I had wondered whether to what extent the app allowed for modifications by skippers/owners whose yacht doesn’t quite fit the conventional format.
Perhaps you are leaving your yacht on a swinging mooring rather than alongside a pontoon: perhaps you tow a dinghy, sail a ketch, a gaffer or own a multi-hull; maybe you use an outboard, not an inboard engine.
Sailing school yachts used for RYA training courses operating out of marinas may have set a standard of homogeneity which needs occasionally to be disturbed by ripples of diversity.
It may be true that the majority of modern yachts the majority of yachts are GRP, mono-hulled, sloop-rigged, marina-dwellers with inboard engines. But not all.
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Bill Johnson recognises that sailing can’t truly be learned from books and does assert the rich variety on-the-water experience.
He includes some especially valuable sections in this book encouraging manoeuvres under sail alone and urging the skipper to listen to the boat and feel the dynamics of the tide.
Describing the approach to mooring under sail, Johnson actually advocates holding the sheet in one’s hand while controlling the yacht’s speed by ‘filling and backing’ for instance.
It’s astonishing how rare such advice has become in ‘sailing’ manuals.
I’d have liked him to take this a stage further and hint how technique might be need to be modified in a vessel with maybe two headsails – or two hulls.
An easy way to introduce the concept of yacht-diversity might have been to make more creative use of illustrations.
The double-page photos taken by Dave Saunders are lovely to look at but seem purely ornamental.
They’re not obviously integrated with the text and don’t add anything beyond visual pleasure.
To summarise: this is a useful book for its stated, somewhat limited, purpose.
It’s clearly written – the tips in the margins are especially valuable – and Johnson offers good advice on the human aspects of taking care of oneself so as to be better able to take responsibility for others.
As the author himself says ‘the fascination of yachting is that it is so open-ended and it’s all about experience.’
Mentally we all need to move on and begin to articulate our own check lists and top tips for our individual vessels and diverse circumstances.
This book provides a good start.
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