Tom Cunliffe has assessed hundreds of sailors for the RYA Yachtmaster exam – the gold standard of sailing qualifications. He shares a few skipper's tips with us...


1. Steer into the seas

In these days of autopilots and electronic routes, the natural mindset is always to make the shortest distance between two points. In heavy seas, however, particularly if they are on the beam, this policy can be uncomfortable or even dangerous. When the course puts you beam-on to a steep sea, the boat is classically at risk.
Even a modest knock-down can throw crew overboard. The answer lies with the helm and steering by hand. When you see, or feel, a nasty one coming, steer either up to take it on the shoulder, or down to run away from it to ensure the safety of all on board. Ploughing on like an automaton is no way to proceed.

Tom Cunliffe


2. Clash of spreaders

As yachts proliferate, we are asked more and more to raft up. We all take so much care over our lines and fenders that it’s easy to forget the oldest advice of all. Look aloft! If the spreaders are alongside a neighbour’s, shunt the boat forward or aft a few feet. The situation may look innocuous now, but when Pedro the Fisherman roars by at 0500 dragging half the harbour behind him for a wake, the yachts can sometimes shake hands via their spreaders. Urgh!

Clash of spreaders


3. Heave her clear

Earlier this summer I was obliged to leave my boat in a Plymouth marina for a week. Hurricane Bertha was powering along and locked-in Sutton Harbour was full. Despite paying top dollar, the berth that fell to my lot was clearly subject to surge, so the yacht was going to grind away at her fenders day after day. Bad news. The opposite berth was free so I was given dispensation to heave her clear of the pontoon with a couple of haul-off lines. Success.
A week later, the fenders still hadn’t touched the woodwork. If you find yourself making similar arrangements, be sure to dangle a rag off the outer line. An unwary nocturnal arrival might not see the rope, but he won’t miss the pensioned-off underpants.

If you've got the space, heaving off the pontoon can save fenders and topsides from a battering

If you’ve got the space, heaving off the pontoon can save fenders and topsides from a battering

4. Dump the jammer

The illustration is me coiling away my genoa furling line. You’ll note there is no jammer in sight. Instead, the line secures to a proper cleat on the coaming.
The lead from up forward is so clean that I don’t need a winch to furl the sail on my 44-footer. To reef, I heave in as much as I want, then secure. To unroll more sail, the whole thing is under perfect control with a turn or two on the cleat.
To put in a second roll, I just grab the bight forward of the cleat, roll it in, then secure on top of the first reef. Simple and effective. Rely on a jammer and you add complications, often involving bad leads which end up with the requirement for a winch, even on yachts much smaller than mine.

A simple cleat is better than a jammer for furling

A simple cleat is better than a jammer for furling


5. Keep up the skills

I’ve often been disappointed at how long some Yachtmaster students take to plan and plot a three-point fix. ‘Back in the day’, this routine chartwork took a couple of minutes.
If it requires more than five, I’d recommend having a look at your techniques, because the time may yet come when the old ways are needed. Part of the problem is lack of facility with the hand-bearing compass, and we’re all in the same boat.
I keep in trim by rattling off a few bearings every so often. To vary things, I sometimes plot them electronically. This won’t work on a bulkhead plotter because few of these allow more than one line to be left on the screen at a time. My PC, running Meridian software, lets me plot as many as I like, which means the charts are still 100% useful in the event of GPS meltdown.

Keep up the skills

Meridian chart software lets Tom plot fixes the old way, just for practice

6. Changing times, changing tides

I am writing these tips on board on the River Dart waiting for a break in bad weather to sail east. I must arrive at Portland Bill at the right time and by Sod’s Law this comes either soon after dark (not nice) or around lunchtime (better, but not popular as it means leaving at 0500). I’ve been stuck for a while so I’ve been expecting the tide to advance at the usual 40-45 minutes per day. Not a bit of it. It’s crawling ahead at 30 minutes only. Why? Because I’m on spring tides. So far as I know, the rule is not set in stone, but springs often advance more slowly than the average, leaving friendly old neaps to take up the slack. Looks like an early start tomorrow!

The time of HW advances slower at springs than neaps

The time of HW advances slower at springs than neaps