James Stevens answers your questions of seamanship - this month, what would you do if you ran out of fuel in a busy, tidal river?


Annie is skipper of Ghoster, a Sigma 33 which she races regularly from her home port on the south coast.

Annie is a competent sailor and the crew are three friends who have sailed with her for years.

They are on their annual holiday in Brittany. Ghoster has a roller furling jib and cruising main.

They have had very light winds on the trip across from England, with lots of motoring.

On arrival at Bénodet, a pretty port and river in France, the fuel dock is shut but they reckon they have just enough diesel to motor up the 
river and back the next day.

Up the river the countryside opens up to farmland and there’s the added attraction of a riverbank chateau.

Annie is hoping to pick up a mooring and enjoy a quiet night in the rural surroundings.

There is a 2 knot ebb tide and a light breeze, about 5 knots blowing up the river. It’s not really enough to sail so the crew stow the main, put the cover on and start motoring up the river.

Continues below…

They are all pretty tired after a day at sea, so two go below for a rest leaving Annie and a helm on deck.

There are a huge number of moorings but most are taken and there is not much space between them.

After a mile or so there is a spluttering from the engine and it fails – no fuel.

Somewhere in the depths of the cockpit locker is some spare fuel, but Ghoster is slowing down against the strong tide and Annie is going 
to lose control soon.

She is surrounded by moored yachts.

A tired crew come up on deck. What should she do?


There is no time to find the fuel, decant it into the 
fuel tank, bleed the engine and start it.

Anchoring would normally be a solution but with so many moorings there is a good chance the anchor would foul on the numerous chains and mooring blocks on the river bed.

They are going to have to sail out of trouble.

James Stevens

James Stevens, author of the Yachtmaster Handbook, spent 10 of his 23 years at the RYA as Training Manager and Yachtmaster Chief Examiner

Getting the main up is going to take a while with the cover on. The best option is to unroll the jib.

The problem is 
that a jib is unlikely to provide enough power to create forward motion over the ground.

So Ghoster is going to end up going ahead through the water but astern over the ground.

The good news is that there is still steerage, but it takes some skill to steer, as
if you are going forward while looking astern as the yacht is swept down the river.

Annie has two options, either to set the fenders and come alongside another yacht, or steer on to a free mooring.

She will have to be careful on her approach to a mooring not to get the pick up buoy round the rudder or the prop.

Once she’s secured, it’s time to find the spare fuel and bleed the engine.