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

Skipper’s tips

What if…?

Skipper's tips

Would you know what action to take if your engine suddenly failed here?

Auxiliary engine failures are rare these days, so it’s understandable that skippers place blind reliance on the assumption that they won’t break down. Not long ago, I was motoring past this pile of bricks lying uncomfortably close to leeward when I realised I was instinctively doing what I’ve done ever since those far-off days when motors couldn’t be trusted to keep running. I found myself working out a contingency plan for dealing with an unwanted sudden silence. The danger lay to starboard and I had Force 5 on my port bow. If I lost power and vacillated long enough for the keel to stall, the yacht would fall off the wind directly toward the danger. The critical action would be to get the bow through the wind immediately so as to bring the breeze onto the safe side.

With the wind blowing my bow away from the horrors, I’d be able to unroll some genoa and cruise away with a smile on my face. Trying to do that with the wind on the wrong bow and way falling off fast could end up with me being shoved onto the rocks by my own headsail. If the engine had stopped, my instinctive reaction was therefore to steer hard to weather while I still had enough way on.

Some examiners deliberately shut engines down at critical moments in exams. I tend just to ask, ‘What will you do now if…..?’ An instant response indicates that the candidate already knows the answer. If he hesitates, he doesn’t, and you can guess the rest.

Dead ahead, please

Skipper's tips

Line up with a large target to adjust your radar if it’s ever out by a few degrees

Most modern yacht radars have the built-in wherewithal to adjust the scanner angle in relation to the ship’s head. My Raymarine unit has this embedded in the deepest menu of the radar setup, under the heading of ‘Advanced’. Ideally, the setup is made with the helmsman keeping the bow on a distant but unmistakable target such as a large navigation buoy. The radar operator peers at the screen and identifies the buoy, which should be bang on the head-up line in the ‘head-up relative motion’ mode. If it is a few degrees out (and it usually is on most units), hit the button, then adjust the relevant knob round and watch as the target comes into line.

If there’s a sea running, or you can’t find a suitable object, you can make a fist at the job by activating the radar chart overlay, then winding the knob until the radar trace lines up with a suitable piece of coast. I’ve found the latter option to be less reliable, but it’s better than just assuming everything is OK.

Pump her in

Skipper's tips

In this case, the crew could have simply ground the boat alongside by winding the big sheet winch, but the point is made all the same

When you’ve a big job on to persuade a boat to snuggle up close to a berth, grabbing the end of the rope and pulling is a good route to internal damage and no result. It’s infinitely more effective to secure the dock end, have a crew member hang onto the boat end with a turn around the cleat, then take hold of the bight (the middle of the rope between the two secure points) and heave up on it at right-angles. You’ll be surprised at how much you get for your money. When you run out of gains, let go quickly and have your crew snap up the slack. The boat walks in as though she’s on a steam winch.