Skippering a novice crew and sailing with friends and family isn’t always easy, but get it right and they might want to come again, says Rachael Sprot
They say that relationships formed at sea can founder on shore, but sit back with a glass of wine in a busy marina and you’ll find evidence of the reverse in action too.
There’s no shortage of couples taking their relationships afloat with varying degrees of success. It’s not long before you hear the familiar phrases: ‘I thought you put a fender there’, ‘Why didn’t you get off?’ and the well-deserved, ‘Just do it yourself then.’
Berthing Bingo is a cruel spectator sport, which I would never condone, but it helps to take note occasionally, if only to remind yourself of the pitfalls we’re all susceptible to. I’m ashamed to admit that until recently I’d never taken my university friends sailing. However, after buying my boat, a Luders 36, Nimrod, last summer, I thought it was time to remedy this.
When sailing as an instructor there’s an invisible student-teacher dynamic, which makes the relationship on board much easier. Your seniority as a sailor and a professional demeanour forms the bedrock of the crew’s trust. How I interact with my family and friends is totally different, however, and taking them to sea was a far more daunting prospect.
These are the people who tried to save me from my terrible fashion sense, terrible cooking and terrible romantic partners. They then stuck around to pick up the pieces when their efforts inevitably failed. Friendship and shared history? Yes. Professionalism and seniority? Somewhat less in evidence.
So how would I cope without my instructor’s hat on? Where would I score on the Berthing Bingo scale? There was only one way to find out.
Sally, Julia, Helen and I met at university. Whilst they landed in London in their twenties and have careers in the arts, PR and fashion, I went to sea. Our socialising has moved on from the days of sweaty clubs to long walks and pubs, which we’re all quite relieved about.
Planning Choosing the right route and destination is essential to a successful trip. The aim shouldn’t be for you to see new places or push your skillset, but to leave everyone wanting more. Even though I know this, I was sorely tempted to plan the weekend around one of my favourite places rather than what would make for a good all-round trip.
Nimrod was on the Hamble at the time and I’d have loved to go to Yarmouth – it’s got such a great atmosphere. But I knew it would add time pressure and with my sensible instructor’s hat on we opted for Cowes instead. The 6-mile trip still took all day. It still amazes me how much longer everything takes when you’re instructing. You need to factor in plenty of extra time so that everyone has time to learn and make mistakes.
If you’re on a deadline or trying to beat to windward you’ll find yourself stepping in in order to make faster progress, but it’s demoralising if the skipper constantly takes over. The time on the water needs to be short and sweet: 3-4 hours is plenty for your crew’s first experience of sailing, and for your first time as instructor.
Identify a sheltered route with easy sailing angles, favourable tides and a harbour that’s easy to approach. I’m aware you could wait a month of Sundays for that, but do prioritise the sheltered route and straightforward navigation. The last thing you want to be doing with new crew is sneaking into a small creek with 0.2m under the keel: your attention needs to be on them.
Non-sailors won’t understand how cold and wet it can be on the water until it’s too late. It’s your responsibility to ensure that this doesn’t form their overriding impression of sailing. Even in the summer the wind chill can turn a comfortable day onshore into a bracing one on the water.
Make sure that everyone packs enough warm layers and ideally a set of waterproofs and boots. People are often under the misapprehension that they need to pack light so let them know that there’s plenty of space for extra jackets and jumpers.
Sally, Helen and Julia didn’t have sailing-specific gear but they did have kit from other outdoor pursuits which worked just as well. If you’re going to lend guests waterproofs, don’t give them ones so old they are next to useless, but make sure they are properly waterproof and are the right size.
The scariest thing about sailing for many people isn’t the prospect of big waves and strong winds but going to the loo. It’s one of the first things you need to address when they come on board.
Explain exactly what can and can’t go down the bowl and don’t mince your words: most people are grateful for a Germanic, no-nonsense approach. The only time I’ve ever had negative feedback on a loo briefing was when I took a new boyfriend sailing. He interrupted me halfway through: ‘I thought I was coming on a romantic weekend away,’ he said looking crestfallen, ‘and you’ve just explained in graphic detail what happens if I don’t do 20 pumps.’ To his credit he soon got into the spirit of things and even cleared up a diesel spillage.
‘How do I get a cup of tea around here?’ asked Julia shortly after the loo briefing at the start of our recent weekend. It may sound a bit old school, but the sooner everyone knows how to make a cup of tea the better.
This isn’t so that you can have breakfast in bed (although if this happens, please let me know the trick), but because it gives them agency over the normal rhythms of life. Showing everyone how to use the stove and where things are in the galley will not only reduce your workload but make them feel more at home too. Teas and pees are your priority for the first half hour.
When it comes to food it needs to be simple and quick to prepare. If you’re the only sailor on board you won’t be able to leave the deck for long enough to do much prep, so the more self-explanatory meals are, the better. Now is not the time for the beetroot salad with toasted walnuts.
In a training course there’d be a detailed safety briefing before setting off. However, despite it being an integral part of my working week, I felt awkward taking time out of our fun weekend to talk doom and gloom. It would have been easy to let this slide, but Sally, Julia and Helen were really receptive to it.
We expect high standards of health and safety in all other areas of our lives, so why not with our friends and family? It may seem formal but setting aside time for a proper safety briefing will inspire confidence.
Wearing lifejackets is increasingly the rule rather than the exception, and it’s particularly important for new sailors. It’s easy to forget what an alien environment the sea is for most people and that it takes a while to develop sea legs. Help everyone to fit them, explain how they work and what’s inside. Most importantly, lead by example and wear one yourself.
At the end of the briefing Sally tactfully pointed out an omission: ‘And what do we do if something happens to you, Rachael?’ She’s always had an impeccably polite way of cutting to the chase.
It’s the elephant in the saloon on a weekend like this. Ideally you’d have a second person on board who has enough experience to bring the boat back to port, but it isn’t always possible. The reality is that completely new sailors won’t be able to take command of the boat three hours in. What they could do, however, is raise the alarm and ask for help so you need to devote time to this.
Issuing a mayday
We discussed the Mayday and DSC procedure and I explained that if I wasn’t capable of making a Mayday call it was certainly time to issue one. The thing about a Mayday, rather than calling the coastguard on a mobile, is that it will alert other vessels nearby. In a busy waterway such as the Solent the other sailors are a valuable resource, providing a safety net for each other.
What Sally, Julia and Helen would need if I was incapacitated would not just be medical assistance for me, but someone to take charge of the boat and keep them safe. They’d need to ask for this as the coastguard won’t know the level of experience of those on board.
On a sunny Saturday in the Solent there were probably dozens of experienced sailors in the vicinity who could help out in an emergency if requested.
On the water: Manoeuvring
Parking is often the most stressful part of a skipper’s day, and it’s even more acute with novice crew. The answer is not to leave the dock until you’re confident you can get back on it!
In practice this means giving a clear demonstration of what’s required of the crew for both mooring and unmooring. With the boat safely alongside, set up a spare mooring line and demonstrate stepping off from the shrouds and taking a turn around a cleat. You could even ask everyone to take turns doing this themselves.
We came off the midriver berth in the Hamble and rehearsed parking on an empty stretch of the dock further down the river. That way if we found ourselves in a tight spot later on, everyone was familiar with the process.
It’s important to instruct the crew to step off only when the boat is close to the pontoon and stopped alongside. I once witnessed someone take a flying leap with such vigour that they kept going and ended up in the water on the other side of the pontoon. There had been a sense of urgency from their partner on the helm. We helped fish them out but didn’t stay around for the debrief.
There are times when it’s useful for a crew member to take a line ashore whilst the boat’s still moving, but new sailors won’t have the experience to do so safely. The onus is on you to stop the boat in the right place.
Before coming alongside, take time to set everything up. You almost need to treat it as a solo sailing exercise. Rig the lines and fenders in relatively open water whilst someone else is helming.
I’m a devotee of the midships spring: it allows you to secure the boat with a single line. It’s not only useful on big boats but also when single-handing and with novice crew.
Her long keel means that Nimrod can be uncooperative under power, so I was quietly relieved to find that all the marinas in Cowes were full. We took a spot on a mid-river pontoon up the Medina instead.
It was right opposite the Folly Inn and the water taxi took care of the lift ashore, which meant we could all enjoy a glass of wine (or two). If manoeuvring in close quarters raises your cortisol levels, then pick an anchorage, mid-river pontoon or mooring buoy for the night.
Before you begin any deck work, you need to work out who’s driving whilst you’re handling lines. Helen turned out to be a natural helm and once we were out of the Hamble this freed me up to head to the foredeck.
Frustratingly, I’d taken the headsail down at the end of the previous trip so we needed to hoist it again. Although I wouldn’t have opted for this extra faff on day one, it proved to be valuable familiarisation time and eased everyone into the sailing at a gentler pace.
It’s worth taking the time to explain key deck skills such as how to use a winch, what a clutch does and how to hoist a sail from the mast. Sailing is all about the subtleties of technique rather than brute strength, and one of the reasons it’s so rewarding is that you don’t need to be the Incredible Hulk to sail a boat of considerable bulk.
People of different ages, abilities and fitness often come together as a crew on yachts of 20ft to 120ft in a way that few other team sports can match. However, this does take sensitive management from the skipper to ensure no one’s left out. Try not to let people silo themselves into physical and non-physical roles as these become habits which are hard to break.
Demonstrating how to use bodyweight and positioning yourself for best advantage over a winch is easy to do and may be all that’s needed to help someone tackle more physical tasks. Fortunately for me, Helen, Julia and Sally were all keen to get stuck in, and true to form from their university years, they were very attentive students!
By the time you’ve got everyone kitted up, briefed, off the dock and the sails up, you’ve done the hard work. When the wind fills the sails an alchemy occurs and the boat works its magic. Helming is extremely difficult to teach well because it’s quite an intuitive skill. Less is more when it comes to doing it and coaching it.
Try to set the boat up so that there isn’t too much weather helm but there’s enough power to give some feel. You don’t want to be heeled over on your ear, but equally, a bit of pressure helps with orientation. No one enjoys backseat helming so give a clear briefing up front, ‘Aim for the chimney over there,’ and then explain how the helm should feel: ‘The boat is trying to turn up into the wind, and you need to resist it to keep tracking straight.’
Don’t expect perfection on day one: the wake may look like a slalom, but people tend to respond well to gentle guidance rather than being constantly corrected.
Keeping people safe is the primary concern of any skipper. You need to be hyper-aware of the hazards whilst under way: accidental gybes, the mainsheet and traveller areas, moving around the deck and line handling are the biggest things to watch out for. Having eyes for everyone else’s safety is tiring but necessary. Simple things such as keeping to a beam reach rather than running off down wind, or not using the mainsail if the planned course is quite broad, will take some of the thinking out of it.
Be careful how you phrase instructions, giving briefings rather than commands. Briefings are informative and will explain how and why a process needs to happen, before it happens; commands are usually reactive, often shouted, and encourage people to blindly follow orders. You’ll need to be thinking ahead at each stage to make sure you’ve briefed for what’s coming up.
It isn’t always sailing with novice friends and family that’s challenging. Sailing with other experienced sailors can also be tricky. There’s more than one way to skin cats. In March 2020 I was crossing the Pacific with my younger sister as first mate. We were sisters before we were sailors and it wasn’t always easy to negotiate this dynamic.
There was more than one heated debate about whether to drop the spinnaker before a squall hit and what to do about the weevils which were making their way through our limited dry stores. Usually we went with the more conservative option: even if it felt unnecessary to one of us, it was important to acknowledge each other’s anxiety.
Someone feeling uncomfortable is a good enough reason to take avoiding action. And as every sister knows, there are no sweeter words than ‘I told you so’, especially when the squall has safely passed you by.
As we left Cowes to head back to the Hamble there was a beautiful northerly breeze. ‘We could take a longer route back to Hamble,’ I offered, ‘it looks like there’s some racing going on, maybe we can catch the finish.’ Everyone was up for it, and we beat around the Bramble Bank and up towards Hill Head on the windward shore. ‘If there’s one thing we mustn’t do though,’ I said, ‘it’s get caught up in the race fleet.’
‘What happens if we do?’ Helen asked.
‘We’ll probably get shouted at. If I’ve really got it wrong they’ll be yelling “starboard” and expecting us to get out of the way.’ ‘That doesn’t sound very nice,’ Helen replied.
‘Is there anything we can shout back?’ To which I explained we would need to look sheepish and move aside.
We cautiously approached, keeping what looked like a finish line to one side. To my horror, after dropping their kites the fleet then started another lap and soon we were in their path. We tacked out of the way as best as we could, but it was slightly the wrong side of exciting for my liking. It wasn’t long before a bowman dressed head to toe in charcoal race gear boomed ‘Starboard’ at us. To which Helen joyfully replied, ‘BINGO!’
Tips for skippering novices
Don’t be too pedantic about the way you want things done; if they’ve grasped the principles you’ve done a great job.
Involve everyone in the planning as well as the more routine stuff. Getting out a chart and explaining the route, weather and tides opens up a whole new world of adventure.
If someone’s struggling with a particular task, do it with them rather than for them. Talking them through it as they do it is often the best way for them to learn.
Make sure that the mundane chores are equally divided.
Don’t allow one person to dominate on deck or in the galley.
Be calm and kind. I have a rule that there is never any shouting, from anyone. Aside from being unpleasant and putting people off sailing it makes people panic, slowing down their responses and having the opposite effect to the one you need.
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