Rupert Holmes outlines the skills that mark out the good sailors from the 
great ones, with experience and reflective learning at the top of the list

The RYA’s Yachtmaster scheme does of superb job of accelerating learning and understanding where a candidate’s remaining weaknesses lie.

However, while anyone who takes a Yachtmaster course invariably learns a great deal, there are some aspects that can’t be absorbed in such a short time.

Maybe this explains why we’ve all met qualified Yachtmasters who haven’t yet mastered every aspect of skippering a yacht.

A yacht with a pink sail sailing

Sailing a variety of boats to their potential takes expertise. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

In any case, what really counts in producing a strong candidate is a combination of experience and reflective learning.

Early in my skippering days, one of the most useful pieces of advice I received was from John Chittenden when he was cruising secretary of the RYA and before he went on to skipper yachts in two round-the-world races.

‘A good sailor is someone who looks back at what they have just done and works out how to do it better.’

In other words, experience alone is not enough – you must also learn from that experience.

This concept applies to everyone who goes afloat, whether a competent crew or an aspiring Olympian.

A yachtmaster candidate helming a yacht

Truly learning from experiences will set you apart from your peers. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

It’s also the route that delivers the satisfaction you get when achieving mastery of a complex discipline.

The minimum requirements for taking the Yachtmaster (Offshore) are relatively modest at 2,500 miles and 50 days at sea, although historically most successful candidates have an average closer to 7,500 miles.

Those who employ Yachtmasters, including charter companies and delivery agencies, understand those who are newly qualified will be less knowledgeable and capable than a candidate with several years’ experience.

This is particularly true for those with the Yachtmaster (Coastal) qualification, which has a less strict experience requirement.

Put simply, the Yachtmaster can’t cover everything, especially as yacht design and technology has changed so much in the last 50 years.

However, some things remain true – an uncontrolled gybe is still dangerous, for instance.

1 Sail any boat with confidence

Yachtmaster candidates are expected to demonstrate their prowess at close-quarters boat handling, even if they are taking the exam on a boat that’s very different to their own.

By the end of a preparation course you should have got the measure of the boat in which the exam is taken, even if it’s only a week’s refresher.

A Victoria 34 under full sail

You may be confident in your own boat, but sailing other vessels will broaden your experience. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Nevertheless, successfully manoeuvring a whole gamut of boats of differing styles in a tight space requires knowledge that can’t be imparted as easily.

Granted, you can expect to get lots of expert pointers for assessing the relative influences of wind and tide to which all boats are subjected, but the only way to be able to successfully predict how boats of very different styles will respond is through direct experience of each one.

Practice: Go sailing on as many different boats as possible, whether through racing, chartering, or going along with other cruisers from your club. Ask for a turn on the helm when mooring. It’ll keep you on your toes, and sharpen your skills for your own boat.

2 Fine-tune your sail-handling sense

It’s easy to dismiss racing as the dark side – rowdy, pushy and impolite – and that it’s of no relevance to cruising.

However, the noisy boats are usually found towards the back of the fleet and, as with cruising, the best sailors know a calm and measured approach is the key to good outcomes.

A crew member trimming the sails

Paying attention to sail trim can reduce wear and improve comfort on board. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Cruisers rarely have time pressure and so can get on with sail handling and other deck work at their own pace, but that can lead to gross inefficiencies that make the task unnecessarily time consuming.

More seriously, this can also make it harder to dig yourself out of unexpected problems.

A successful race team analyses every action in detail, often down to the timing of individual hand movements, and has a plan for when things go wrong.

Applying similar principles to sail handling when cruising can reduce effort and minimise snags.

Practice: Go through each manoeuvre on board – setting sail, tacking, gybing, trimming – and work out the precise order required for maximum efficiency with your crew to minimise dancing around each other and reducing rope tangles. It’s also worth spending an afternoon playing with sail settings such as jib car and traveller position and halyard and outhaul tension, with an eye on your boat speed to get it moving properly.

3 Anchor with assurance (and know when not to)

While the RYA syllabus includes anchoring, candidates are unlikely to get enough of it to become accustomed to getting a solid night of stress-free slumber.

The only way to achieve this is experience and good ground tackle that’s well dug in, ideally with plenty of engine revs in reverse.

Yachts at anchor

Done well, anchoring is a joy; done badly and you won’t sleep. Credit: Rupert Holmes

To start with, choose a well-sheltered bay with good holding, plenty of space and a calm night or light offshore wind.

It may take a few nights before you sleep soundly, but the effort is time well spent – there are few things better than waking up in a stunning anchorage on a bright morning.

Another factor that helps a good night’s sleep is knowing when to worry.

Other boats anchored too close, iffy holdings and dodgy or changing weather are all worthy concerns that may warrant changing your plans.

Practice: Next time you’re out cruising, commit to spending at least one night at anchor, rather than heading for the nearest marina. You’ll save some money and soon build confidence. Make sure your anchor is properly set and check with a transit, before setting your boat’s anchor depth and position alarms for peace of mind.

4 Streamline your reefing

On any yacht under around 45ft, it should be possible for one person, working alone, to tuck a reef into the mainsail in no more than 60-90 seconds.

Many yachts built in the 21st century are set up with single-line reefing to facilitate this for the first two reefs, but a different solution is usually needed for the third reef.

A man adjusting a sail

If reefing involves a battle with friction or multiple trips on deck, it’s time to re-evaluate your system. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

The easiest answer is often to rig a pennant from the third reef cringle on the luff of the sail and lead it back to the cockpit. Boats without single-line reefing can employ a similar system for the first two reefs as well.

It’s worth remembering that traditionally set up boats, with the main halyard and the reefing pennants handled at the mast, can also be reefed by one person more easily than those from the 1980s and 1990s
where some lines are led aft, but luff cringles need to be hooked over rams horns at the gooseneck.

Practice: Put a reef in and note how much you have to move between cockpit and mast. Refine the order of your actions, or adjust where lines are led to minimise risky journeys across the coachroof and back. It’ll also pay off to tackle friction in the system, particularly with single-line reefing.

5 Mastering midships springs

The simplest way to make any berthing operation easier is forgotten far too often, especially if you’ve become accustomed to sailing with lots of people on board.

I have a simple rule – rigging a midships line is the default mode and it’s only omitted if it’s really clear it won’t be needed.

Fenders on a yacht against a pontoon

A midships spring, led through a block or cleat, will hold the boat secure until you can sort other lines. Credit: Ruper Holmes

If I’m not sailing fully crewed this usually means no wind, no tidal stream and no other traffic.

Practice: If you don’t already use a midships spring as your first point of contact, find a cleat or even a spinnaker block to lead the line through. Once you’ve got this attached, the boat can’t go too far while you sort the rest. Lead one end back to a cockpit winch and have a loop in the other ready to drop over a pontoon cleat in order to further refine the process.

6 No roving fender?

If you spend plenty of time on sea school boats it’s also easy to become blasé about the benefit of there always being a spare person standing by with a roving fender – saving the day when a manoeuvre goes wrong.

However, if you’re two-handed that’s no longer the case.

A crew member tying on fenders

Time spent getting your fenders right in open water will take the stress out of shorthanded berthing. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Again my solution is simple: to festoon the boat from bow to stern with fenders.

It may look overly cautious, but eliminates worry about damaging an expensive paint job and, in any case, the additional fenders only take a few extra seconds to rig.

Practice: Make sure you have enough fenders on board, and while you’re alongside play around with exactly where your fenders should be attached to protect the hull, even if you don’t get the coming alongside perfect.

7 Healthy fear of engine failure

Today’s generally reliable marine diesel engines mean we are now far less likely to experience engine failure than a generation ago. But this can lead to complacency.

However reliable the motor itself, plastic bags still get sucked into cooling water intakes, ropes still wrap round props and contamination in the fuel tank still blocks filters.

During a Yachtmaster exam there’s a good chance the examiner will ask you to demonstrate action you would take if the engine failed.

A man at the bow of a yacht

Should your engine stop, having anchor and sails at a moment’s notice is good seamanship. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

This is even more likely if you have the boom cover firmly lashed in place and the anchor is in the bilge.

A Yachtmaster prep course will leave you equipped for this eventuality, but a short course is not enough to change ingrained habits.

Yet, as with the certainties of death and taxes, the engine will stop sooner or later if you spend enough time on the water.

It’s prudent to have a plan at every stage for how you would tackle engine failure in confined waters.

Some situations are very easy – if the wind is blowing out of a river you can slowly drift out into the safety of open water, for instance, but other situations will require a more complex response.

Initially having a viable plan at all times may feel like lots of brain work, but eventually it becomes second nature and something you do at a subconscious level.

The indication you’ve reached this stage is the occasions it stops being subconscious and you get a nagging worry that you’d be in big trouble if the engine stopped.

Practice: Think through what you would do in a number of scenarios should the engine fail. When you are out on the water, have a go at a few of these in a safe setting. Coming alongside or picking up a mooring under sail can be good practice.

8 Local knowledge

However experienced a skipper is, visiting a new port for the first time invariably requires a cautious approach, especially if there’s a lot of traffic, or if it’s a shallow harbour with a narrow and winding entrance channel.

Yachts on a drying anchorage

Don’t rely on your plotter, get to know the local channels and marks at all tides. Credit: Rupert Holmes

In your home waters, you should know more about your local area than the best qualified newcomer.

Practice: Don’t always rely on electronics. When sailing in familiar waters, make an effort to note key buoys, leading marks, depths and tidal indicators so you can navigate confidently by eye. It’ll also make you more confident in new waters.

9 Getting the best from your autopilot

This is another key difference between a fully crewed sea school yacht and the realities for many boat owners, for whom using an autopilot for extended periods is standard practice.

On the plus side, a Yachtmaster prep course will identify and iron out any bad sail-trimming habits, which will make an autopilot’s job easier.

A cockpit

Adjusting your autopilot settings will make it easier to leave the helm. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

While basic pilots have only a very simple ‘gain’ or ‘response’ control that can be adjusted, more sophisticated units are in a different league in terms of what the user can do to improve performance by adjusting variables such as counter rudder.

Tweaking these settings can make a big difference – so much so that sailors in the solo offshore racing world give as much attention to ‘trimming’ their pilots as to sail trim.

Practice: Dig out the manual for your autopilot and find out what parameters you can control and how to do so. Time spent tweaking the settings can reduce power consumption and improve course holding.

10 Using spinnakers

I’m perennially disappointed that it’s possible to qualify as a Yachtmaster with barely any experience of using a spinnaker, whether a symmetric or asymmetric sail.

On a cruising yacht there’s arguably never a need to hang onto a kite in a rising breeze, but in light airs they can make the difference between a satisfying passage under sail and tediously burning diesel for hours on end.

A crew with a kite

Confidence with the kite can turn a tedious motor into a satisfying sail. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

To give an example, I’m writing this in Honfleur, after crossing the Channel in a light northerly that slowly swung to the south-west.

Only two log entries mention as much as a Force 3 breeze – the rest are Force 2 or less, yet we managed to sail the bulk of the distance thanks to a big symmetric downwind kite and a code zero for reaching.

Without those sails it would have been a boring 100-mile motor.

Practice: Dust off your spinnaker and pick a light wind day to refamiliarise yourself with how to set it. If you don’t have a snuffer, consider investing in one, or a new furling downwind sail for faster light-wind sailing.

11 How to prioritise

On the face of it this is straightforward – it’s always easy for observers to figure out what other skippers are doing wrong.

The cockpit of a contessa 32

With a crowded cockpit and lots going on, slow down to buy thinking time. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

But we all know there are times at which everything seems to happen at once, which can pile untold pressure onto the skipper.

These are the occasions in which it’s vital to be able to quickly differentiate core priorities, such as keeping clear of a lee shore or sand banks, from less crucial matters.

While the best sailors usually pre-empt most things that might go wrong, we are all capable of making mistakes.

A grounded yacht

We all make mistakes, but how you get out of them is the key thing. Credit: Lester McCarthy/YM

This is an area in which experience can be a big factor, but there’s also an element that can be learnt.

When everything seems to be happening too fast the single most important decision is often to slow down, or even stop, in order to buy more time.

Practice: If you’ve ever been caught speeding in a car and taken a speed awareness course, you’ll be familiar with the idea of defensive driving – looking ahead to pre-empt the unexpected. On a boat, it’s easy to potter contentedly along, but try to expand your bubble of awareness forwards in both distance – what hazards are coming up? – and time – what’s going to happen when…? When things happen too fast to think ahead, slow down.

12 Learning from errors

Rupert Holmes

Rupert Holmes has sailed over 80,000 miles, including from New Zealand to Uruguay via Cape Horn and racing around Britain

We’re all human and examiners appreciate that as much as anyone else.

Even if you make a mistake during the exam, you may still pass.

I didn’t know that when I took mine in the 1980s, so after putting the boat aground within a couple of minutes of leaving the mooring I figured I’d failed.

So I relaxed and set about enjoying a gentle sail.

It turns out that examiners learn a lot about a candidate by the way in which they dig themselves out of trouble.

In my case, the examiner passed me, and offered me an instructor’s job.

The Yachtmaster qualification doesn’t prevent you making mistakes but it should provide a host of proven techniques for getting out of sticky situations.

Refining shorthanded techniques

The purpose of the Yachtmaster scheme is to produce competent skippers – effective leaders who ensure everyone on board is well briefed about intended passages and manoeuvres, and that they are involved at an appropriate level in everything that’s happening.

As a consequence you’re likely to have plenty of crew at your disposal, both on a Yachtmaster prep course and in the exam itself.

As skipper you need to maintain an executive overview of everything that’s happening on board and around the boat.

If you become involved in deck work or steering it’s amazing how quickly you can get sucked into the task and become blind to the wider world. This is especially true if there’s an unexpected snag.

Training with a full crew inevitably means less attention is given to how to handle the boat when there’s only one other competent person on board.

A key challenge is maintaining that executive overview while also participating in steering and deck work, sail handling and berthing. Therefore, the quicker any tasks can be completed the better.