After a long break the skipper may need to knock the rust off a few skills, as well as getting the boat working, says James Stevens

Come spring, when most of us start sailing again, we suffer from a bit of skill fade, especially this year after being locked down for so long.

Theory knowledge which was red hot the day we took the test is probably not so near the mark.

Practical skills such as boat handling tend more towards ponderous than slick.

So it’s worth starting the season with your own refresher course.

Fortunately some knowledge and skills always stick.

A crew working while berthing a yacht

Shakedown skills don’t need to be a chore. Some basic manoeuvres will get your crew work going again. Credit: Graham Snook

You don’t normally have to revise how to put on a lifejacket, raise the mainsail or the basic sailing rules and buoyage.

What you might have forgotten is what is inside the lifejacket, how to prepare the sails for heavy weather and the less common Colregs.

Modern plotters have made pencils and plastic plotting instruments almost redundant, but a little revision on how to estimate a position or shape a course on a paper chart might make a big difference if the electrics fail.

On the chart it is not too important if you are unable to distinguish between a castle and a fort but it is more serious if you confuse a rock which is not a hazard with one that is.

As chartplotters and instruments gain ever more functions, knowing how to use them is an important part of navigation too.

A sailor doing chartwork on a yacht

It’s no bad habit to practise a paper fix and estimated position once in a while

Skills such as interrogating features on a vector chart, generating routes and setting alarms need to be revised, as well as more traditional skills such as how to plot a visual fix on screen or on paper, and knowing what isophase and occulting lights look like.

After such a long break, some boat handling practice is worth the effort and might save a fibreglass repair.

Practising manoeuvres is best done with a crew who get involved and have a go.

It is mind-numbingly boring to sit on a deck watching the helm miss buoys or MOB dummies, unless you know you’re next.

Whether sailing alone, as a couple or with a crew, you’ll get much more from your shakedown sail exercise by analysing what happened using the principle, Brief, Task, and Debrief.

A skipper doing a radio check on a boat

A radio check will set you up for the start of the season. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Choose a manoeuvre to practise, taking it in turns and providing feedback, starting with what went well, what didn’t and finally what to do to improve.

Credit should be given not just for technical skills, but also the artistic impression of handling the exercise without drama or shouting.

If the manoeuvre didn’t work, don’t worry.

Morale will be improved by practice and success.

Shakedown skills & drills: Navigation and electronics

Firstly, your charts should be up to date, and hopefully you’ll have done this over winter.

If not, plug your chart numbers into the publisher’s website to check for updates, and for electronic charts, check that you’ve downloaded the relevant updates, or automatic updates have been made, then check your local area; last year’s route might be this year’s sandbank.

If you don’t carry paper charts, you need a backup system for navigation, with correct charts and position-fixing capability.

Run through how to use your instruments' various functions as part of your shakedown skills and drills

Run through how to use your instruments’ various functions as part of your shakedown skills and drills

The same applies to your instruments; many yacht skippers sail for years without calibrating their depth, log and wind instruments.

The days of paper instruction manuals have gone, so before you leave home download or print the instructions for instruments and plotter.

While you are at it download the engine manual as well.

Spend half a day working out how to calibrate the depth, adjust the backlighting, correct the wind angle and a multitude of other untouched functions for which you’ve paid a fortune.

Some of the calibration has to be done at sea, for example, swinging the electronic compass to reduce deviation in the autopilot, calibrating the wind angle and speed through the water.

Remind yourself how to use gain, EBL and VRM on radar as part of your shakedown skills

Remind yourself how to use gain, EBL and VRM on radar. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Switch on the plotter, AIS and radar and practise using functions such as gain, EBL (Electronic Bearing Line) and VRM (Variable Range Marker) and relating the real world to the electronic world.

Toggle the various overlays to see the vessels which do not show up on AIS.

Shakedown skills before you head out

  • Conditions Don’t forget to check the tide times, heights and streams, and the weather forecast.
  • Engine Give the engine a good once-over – belts, fuel and oil levels, coolant and water filter.
    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

    Inspect for fuel bug or water in the fuel if possible. Open the raw water inlet and fire up the engine. Check for exhaust water and no more than a wisp of white smoke once she’s running. Leave her ticking over for a while to get warm. Engage the throttle in forward and astern to check rudder, prop and gearbox.

  • Electrics Switch on and go through the main systems – instruments, VHF radio (a start of season radio check is acceptable, but not every sail). Run the fridge, cabin lights and check navigation lights are all working too. Put your log transducer in, or if you’ve left it in, take it out for a quick clean with a soft plastic pan scourer. Have a sponge on hand to cover the through hull and mop up the water.
  • Water If you haven’t already, run the fresh water through and fill up with fresh. Check the water smells and tastes drinkable.
  • Safety Get lifejackets out and inspect the cylinders – cartridges showing green, no corrosion and screwed in tight – and make sure they still fit you after a winter as a landlubber. Check the tethers, hooks and jackstays are all in good condition and other safety gear is in good condition and properly mounted.
  • On deck Look up at your rig. Is the sacrificial strip attached to the genoa, are the halyards running free and not twisted? With a pair of binoculars, check the rigging, wind instruments and masthead sheaves all look in good order. Check your rigging terminals are all secure, with split pins in and the tension is roughly right. You can fine- tune this out on the water. With the echosounder on, drop a lead line (any rope with a weight will do) to check your actual depth.

Boat handling under power

A good maxim is to engage brain, helm and throttle in that order.

Every crew member should know how to start the engine and the basic controls including how to stop it.

Turning the boat in its own length or as near as you can is an essential skill to get out of a tight corner.

Practise without the bow thruster if fitted so you understand the forces and could cope if it fails.

As part of your shakedown drills, remind yourself which way your boat likes to turn in a tight spot.

As part of your shakedown drills, remind yourself which way your boat likes to turn in a tight spot. Credit: Graham Snook

Use the minimum necessary power; winding the revs up in the marina rarely ends well.

You need to find a reasonably enclosed space outside the channel; if there is some wind, even better.

The prop kick is key so turn whichever way uses it to pull the stern round.

The boat will turn most effectively when stopped with the helm hard over and with a burst of power ahead.

As soon as the yacht starts moving forward, go into neutral.

With limited crew, a midships line is the quickest way to secure the boat

With limited crew, a midships line is the quickest way to secure the boat. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

In a confined space you will have to engage astern.

As the yacht starts moving backwards you can reverse the helm to steer astern.

At this moment go into neutral again and give it a burst ahead.

When the boat is stationary and there is no pressure on the helm, put it right over and the yacht will turn.

If there is a breeze, use it to blow the bow off the wind.

You hardly need to touch the throttle, but the half-turn to bring the bow back into the wind will require more power.

Alongside berths

Marinas and harbourmasters are usually fine about allowing yachts to practise on a quiet pontoon away from anything expensive.

For inexperienced skippers the first and last 30m of the trip can be the most stressful.

When coming alongside hammerheads or mid-channel pontoons the tidal stream is your friend if you know how to use it.

Conversely it’s going to end in tears if you don’t.

Practise coming alongside into the stream ahead and astern.

A boat being moored in a marina

Offshore wind and boats either end requires a sharp angle of approach. Credit: Graham Snook

Start the approach from a good distance away and use minimum power.

No one minds if you take it slowly, least of all the yacht next to you.

The crew needs to be ready to step ashore from the part of the boat which will make contact first.

If going ahead and the pontoon is to windward this will be near the shrouds.

For a berth to leeward it is further aft.

Practice finger pontoons ahead and astern, both uptide and downwind as part of your shakedown skills.

Practice finger pontoons ahead and astern, both uptide and downwind as part of your shakedown skills. Credit: Colin Work

If there is only one crew, a central line secured quickly is the best plan, but the helm needs to identify a cleat and stop next to it.

It is not the crews’ job to stop the boat.

Practising on finger pontoons ahead and astern is time well spent and so is springing off a leeward berth.

If the berth is downtide, with the water flowing into the berth, it is sometimes preferable to approach astern because without a bow thruster you have more control when you engage ahead to stop.

Continues below…

Either way it requires a positive manoeuvre if approaching from across the stream between a row of pontoons.

While the boat is going ahead in a confined space the crew can sit on the coachroof rather than stand by the rail in a line blocking the view like footballers defending a free kick.

If you want a challenge, the hardest berth is in slack tide to windward with large yachts each end, strong wind 45º off the bow and against the prop kick.

If you are thinking of trying it you need to know the stopping distance because it has to be done faster than normal with a very positive helm movement to steer away from the pontoon at the last moment to counteract the kick.

Shakedown skills: Sailing manoeuvres

Once the sails are up, a few tacks will remind the crew which way the sheets go round the winches and the importance of making up the lazy sheet for the new tack.

Any mistakes will be obvious.

Gybing is more hazardous on a windy day and some coordination is required.

Someone at the stern calling the manoeuvre will ensure that sheets are not wrapped around the windlass, the main is pulled in, heads are down and the helm is put over at the right moment for the gybe.


If you can find a mooring in reasonably clear water there are a number of boat-handling exercises which will help helm and crew work together.

First is approaching as if to moor under sail.

With wind and tide together this is done with the main up, approaching on a close reach, spilling and filling the main to adjust the speed.

Many boats also require the jib to provide enough power if there is a strong tidal stream running.

Mooring under sail, wind against tide, will give you a good feel for the various forces acting on the boat

Mooring under sail, wind against tide, will give you a good feel for the various forces acting on the boat. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

The skill here is judging the start point.

In a really strong tide the yacht will be almost abeam of the mooring to counteract the tide and at the moment of pick up the yacht is stationary over the ground but still has boat speed through the water.

To save time when practising simply get close enough for the crew on the bow to tap the buoy with the boat hook and hand over to the next helm.

A variation of this when handed the helm is to return to the buoy with one tack and one gybe in either order.

A man hooking a mooring buoy

With wind and tide together, pick a transit and sail to the buoy in a straight line without having to slam the brakes on at the end. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

This really concentrates the mind on wind awareness and identifying the approach point and gives plenty of crewing practice.

Wind against tide moorings are left and picked up under jib alone into the tide.

This is a much easier manoeuvre and a roller furling jib makes speeding up and slowing down very simple.

Sometimes even under bare poles the tide is too weak to slow the boat down, so zigzagging towards the buoy will put the keel across the stream and reduce the ground speed.

Shakedown skills: Underway

  • Check the instruments are showing boat speed and speed over ground.
  • Unfurl the genoa and hoist the main, looking out for snags. A spray of dry lubricant might help the main go up.
  • Head upwind and sheet in and give the sails a good visual inspection. Check if more rig tension is needed.
  • Check the genoa cars move freely, the winches work smoothly and all blocks are running free.
  • Set the downwind sails to check all is in good order.

Man overboard

Yachtmaster examiners love throwing buckets and fenders over the side to simulate a man overboard.

Not only does this put candidates in the position of thinking what they are going to do with a crew member in the water, it is also a good test of boat handling and wind awareness under pressure.

If you are practising, the bucket and fender can go in when the helm is ready.

Brief the crew beforehand and have someone whose sole job is to point at the MOB.

Under Sail

This is only going to work if the boat is stopped next to the bucket with the main flapping.

We’ve all watched boats sail past MOB dummies at several knots with the main drawing.

As soon as the MOB goes in the boat needs to be stopped by tacking into the heave to position and the dan buoy and lifebelt deployed.

In a real emergency, unless you are sure you are going to retrieve the MOB (or even if you’re sure) a distress call should be made.

Every member of the crew should understand how to use the VHF radio and a script of what to say should be displayed near the radio.

Practicing MOB as part of shakedown sailing skills

The classic bucket-and-fender MOB dummy. Make sure you are fully stopped beside it, rather than picking up on a fly-by. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Sail away with the wind just aft of the beam checking the wind indicator.

About seven or eight boat lengths away, tack.

You should be on a close reach and you may want to roll up the jib depending on how well the boat sails without it.

Point the boat at the man and free the main to check it will flap.

If it doesn’t, steer downwind slightly and check again.

A man overboard being recovered onto a yacht

In warmer weather, see if your MOB recovery plan actually works. Credit: Colin Work

Spill and fill and aim to pick up on the leeward side – you’ll drift away if you put the MOB to windward.

On a windy day you will have to aim upwind because as the boat slows it will make leeway.

Aim to pick up just aft of the shrouds but forward of the boom.

Under power

This is probably the quickest way of retrieving a MOB, and speed is essential in cold water.

Throw the MOB in. Heave to, roll up the jib, check for lines in the water and start the engine.

Sheet in the main and steer to the downwind position.

Mind the gybe.

Under engine position the boat slightly to windward so you don't drift away. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Under engine position the boat slightly to windward so you don’t drift away. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Motor upwind to the MOB with the main flapping.

It is easier to arrive slightly on the upwind side.

Keep the prop well clear of the MOB.

This is all fairly straightforward when practising but remember when it happens for real there will, by definition, be one less crew and a rope around the prop can be fatal.

The first action should be to stop the boat and heave to.

The first action should be to stop the boat and heave to. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

Every skipper should also have thought how to retrieve the MOB from the water.

Easy enough if they are fit enough to climb up a ladder, but really hard if the cold has sapped their strength.

It’s worth practising the recovery in a calm anchorage in summer, and make sure your plan works for a solo sailor if you sail as a couple.

It is far from easy to lift a waterlogged person from the water, however strong you are.


Before anchoring for the night it is important to ensure the yacht is going to stay afloat at low water.

This is a simple problem but a surprising number of people struggle with it by introducing the charted depth into the calculation.

Obviously the chart needs to be consulted before dropping the anchor to check the sea bed is suitable, but the information you need is: the amount the tide will drop to low water + the draft of the yacht + the clearance you would like.

Drop the anchor for a break, and to check the windlass and ground tackle is in good order as part of your shakedown skills

Drop the anchor for a break, and to check the windlass and ground tackle is in good order as part of your shakedown skills

Make sure you anchor somewhere where the depth at that time is greater than the sum of these three numbers.

The amount the tide will rise is only relevant for calculating how much chain to put out.

You have more choice where you stop when anchoring than mooring.

Under sail it’s straightforward under main alone or jib alone depending on the direction of the wind and tide.

Calibrate depth for worry-free anchoring

Calibrate depth for worry-free anchoring

For wind-with-tide with the main up, come to a halt by easing the mainsheet on a close reach and as soon as the anchor is over the bow drop the main before it draws.

Some skippers always anchor under jib alone to avoid this problem.


You can easily tear a sail if the crew is not coordinated when putting in a reef.

The most common mistake is forgetting to ease the kicker which is necessary because the boom is usually higher when the sail is reefed.

Traditional slab reefing requires a crew member at the mast, on the windward side.

A reefed main sail on a yacht

Even if you’re confident with reefing, practise putting them in to spot any problems. Credit: Theo Stocker

The mainsheet is eased to depower the sail, the kicker eased; topping lift raised and the main is lowered until the mast crew indicates the reef cringle is in line with the ram’s horn at the gooseneck.

The cringle is attached and the main halyard can then be tightened.

The reefing pennant is tensioned.

It’s important to hoist the sail before tensioning the clew.

Topping lift off and kicker on. Sheet in and secure the reef.

Shakedown skills: On the water

  • Break up the sail by dropping the hook to find out if the windlass is working as it should.
  • Turn on the gas, and put the kettle on to test the stove and a cup of tea will be welcome by now in any case.
  • Open the seacocks to the heads and give it a couple of flushes to make sure none of the valves have seized.
  • Now the engine has been on for a while, have you got hot water if a calorifier is fitted?

Shakedown skills: Back in harbour

  • Check your bilges are dry and there are no unexpected leaks.
  • Give the decks a wash down and have someone inside to check for leaks around hatches.

And don’t forget

These shakedown exercises don’t have to be a chore, you are allowed to smile and nailing them is satisfying – but more important it makes your cruising safer, and the better you are the more you relax and the more fun you have.

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