There are 10 key principles when it comes to boat handling under power, says Rachael Sprot, but it’s time to update them to reflect the latest tech and evolving features of modern boats
Mind your bows,’ said my mother in an increasingly high-pitched voice, ‘bit more to port…don’t clip the stern!’ I was 17 and we were in Tesco’s car park in our old Vauxhall estate doing ‘circuits and bumps’. When it came to handling our wooden race-yacht-turned-family-cruiser, Polar Bear, she was less generous with the driver’s seat.
In fact, it wasn’t until I took my Yachtmaster exam that she finally relented and handed over the tiller. ‘I hand-sanded and hand-painted those topsides,’ she warned, ‘don’t you dare scratch them.’ I did not. I mastered the art of parking with a two-foot air gap between the boat and the pontoon and hoped my younger sister would make it ashore before the examiner noticed. She did. I passed the exam and avoided a long stint in purgatory with the 120-grit. I didn’t pass my driving test first time, but that’s another story.
When power handling is done well it’s like a black art. It wasn’t until I became an instructor that I realised it could be broken down into a few key concepts. I called them the 10 Golden Rules of Boat Handling. However, when I wrote them it was largely from the perspective of a heavy-displacement yacht with a shaft drive and fine ends. Most of the boats I’ve sailed in the past 10 years, including my own boat, Nimrod, matched this profile.
Recently though I’ve begun to wonder whether they need updating. Yacht design has moved on considerably: sail drives, full-length waterlines, bow thrusters and high topsides are now the norm and twin rudders are increasingly commonplace.
I teamed up with Flexisail, which operates a fleet of modern cruisers, to refresh my rules. It was an Arctic day on the Hamble just before Christmas when training director, Grenville Houser, handed me the keys to Varvassi, a Hanse 418. She was less than a year old, which made the prospect of power handling even more daunting. The air temperature was -5°C and the decks were covered in ice – the only people mad enough to crew for me were my parents. ‘This boat is immaculate,’ my mother helpfully pointed out, ‘you’d better not scratch the topsides.’
Rule 1: Slow is pro
The number one rule of boat handling, especially on large yachts, is that if it’s all going wrong, go wrong slowly. You’re unlikely to do much damage at one knot.
At 3 knots things become expensive. There are times when a burst of power is necessary and, carefully applied, this is an important tool. However, panic revs can cause more problems than they solve. If in doubt, step away from the throttle and pick up a fender.
The update: Use throttle to maintain slow control
Keeping speed to a minimum is essential on a heavy boat which carries its way. Once moving, many manoeuvres can be done in neutral. However, Varvassi didn’t hold her way as much as I expected. Although the 10-tonne displacement seems reasonable for her LOA, her waterline length and volume are high so there’s a lot of boat crammed into it. The result was I had to be more assertive on the throttle, both to keep her moving and to stop her.
Rule 2: Maintain Steerage
The counterpoint to Rule 1 is that you always need steerage. Steerage is created when water flows over the rudder. There are two ways of achieving it which I call Type 1 and Type 2 steerage.
Type 1 is what you experience when you’re actively propelled through the water, either by the engine or the wind. It’s easy to forget that the wind can still be used for propulsion even without sails up. If you’re doing a downwind park (perhaps it’s into the tide) then you might not need the engine in gear to achieve Type 1 steerage.
Type 2 steerage is generated when a burst of prop wash flows over the rudder while the boat is stationary. This is an effective tool for tight turns when you
need to control the direction without covering any distance.
The Update: Type 1 steerage is more effective than Type 2
Under way, Varvassi’s high-aspect spade rudder was extremely efficient. She was responsive in both forwards and astern. However, there was less response from a power burst. This is probably due to the saildrive, which positions the propeller further from the rudder and creates a delay between action and reaction.
I suspect also that the high aspect profile rudder, though powerful when making way, can’t ‘catch’ as much of the jet created by the propeller. I’m no hydrodynamicist, but a big barn door of a rudder such as Nimrod’s seems to make better use of this thrust. It felt like Type 1 steerage was much more effective than Type 2 steerage in this newer boat.
Rule 3: Gear then Steer
I once overheard a watersports instructor coaching teenagers in a RIB. ‘Steer then gear, Henry!’ he exclaimed, too late, as they drifted into a raft of dinghies. Henry looked rather crestfallen, but I saw in that moment that RIBs and other vessels steered by outboard are the other way round to how we in prop-and-rudder displacement boats have to operate – gear, then steer. In a tight spot every inch counts and there are gains to be made from following this simple rule of timing.
Change gear first but don’t change the way you’re steering until the boat has actually started moving the other way, or rather, until water is flowing over the rudder in the desired direction.
This is particularly important when switching from forward to reverse since it takes longer for the boat to stop and water flow to reverse over the rudder. From
astern to ahead the steerage switch is more immediate because the prop wash hits the rudder before the boat has started moving, negating the reverse flow sooner.
The Update: use the gears
Varvassi was quicker to regain steerage after a gear change than a heavier yacht. Although the power bursts were less effective, once moving, steerage was quickly established.
It gave me more confidence to change gear in a confined space which, in turn, changed the kinds of manoeuvres I might attempt.
Rule 4: Use your prop-walk
I’ve learned to love prop-walk over the years. The sideways push from a burst of reverse is like having a stern thruster, albeit in one direction. With a propeller shaft, the steeper the angle the greater the kick will be. Boats with skeg-hung rudders often have offset propeller shafts too, which induces even more kick one way or the other.
On a shaft drive boat I tend to think of it as being right or left-handed. A boat which kicks to port in reverse is right-handed and favours a turn to starboard. Many shaft-driven boats will turn in a boat length utilising a few short bursts of astern propulsion: enough to boost the stern around but not enough to get going in and establish reverse steerage.
This shapes your manoeuvres: in confined spaces a right-handed boat can be positioned on the port side. This creates an escape route by making room for a starboard hand turn. It would favour parking port side to, since the prop-walk draws it in that way. There are times when it’s thoroughly inconvenient, but if you plan your manoeuvres with prop-walk in mind it’s largely a blessing rather than a curse.
The update: use your bow thruster
Varvassi had very little prop-walk thanks to the saildrive which orients the propeller horizontally in the water and is located much further forward with very little leverage around the boat’s pivot point.
I made a left-handed turn in the fairway between two sets of finger pontoons. The gap was about a boat length and a half.
I tried to use a burst of astern to tighten the turn but it didn’t work. I ended up too close to the pontoon ahead, with the accompanying cries of ‘Bow thruster Rachael!’ and ‘Roving fender, Edward!’ from my mother. The traditional tight turn method isn’t effective on a saildrive yacht. Using a burst of reverse simply reduces Type 1 steerage without any gain from the prop-walk. It would be even more difficult on a twin rudder boat.
The alternatives are to use the bow thruster: ‘That’s what it’s there for!’ as my mother pointed out. Or keep the momentum and stay in forward gear if you have space for a wider turn. Or make a three-point turn by turning hard one way, then reversing back into the space you’ve come from, using the boat’s ability to establish steerage to bring the bow around in reverse.
Rule 5: Windage
Windage is a universal phenomenon. Yachts are generally lighter in the bow than the stern with less underwater to provide grip and more windage from the rig. The result is that the bow is disproportionately affected by the wind and blows off.
Keeping the bow up in strong winds requires power, even in heavy yachts.
It’s slowing down, changing gear or stopping when you are most vulnerable to this. If you’re being blown off, you need a steeper approach angle and to hold onto the angle for longer so that, as you slow down the bow isn’t lost too soon.
I put plenty of fenders forwards and aim for a bit of positive contact between the shoulder of the boat and the pontoon (unless you have hand-painted topsides). The crew need to secure the boat smartly as there’s nothing you can do from the helm to stay put. When being blown on I try to keep the bows off for as long as possible by making contact on the quarter first and attaching the stern line as a priority.
The Update: windage is an even greater factor
Modern yachts tend to be more voluminous so windage is significant with less below the water. Although there wasn’t much wind on the test sail, there was enough to have an effect. When I changed gear at the top of a fairway the momentary loss of steerage was enough to allow the bow to slide off to port in just a few knots of breeze. It took a boat length or so to correct. You could compensate for this in advance by angling the bow to windward before changing gear.
Rule 6: Pivot points
Understanding the location of the pivot point is important for any close quarters handling. However, the pivot point is hydrodynamic and changes with the direction of travel. Going ahead it’s just behind the mast; going astern it shifts aft to somewhere around the cockpit, and during acceleration it shifts even further to each extreme.
In forward gear we need to be aware of how much boat is behind the pivot point. In reverse it’s the bow we need to watch. It’s important to remember this when dodging an obstruction such as a pile you’re being set onto. Once the pivot point is past the obstruction you need to turn towards, and not away from it, to keep the rest of the boat clear.
The Update: it’s behind you!
Varvassi’s full-width stern means it’s a bit like manoeuvring with a pantomime bustle: the danger is not where you are looking, it’s behind you. To exit a berth I sprang the bow out and drove away with a straight rudder. It took much longer to get clear enough to turn the helm away than it would on a fine-ended yacht.
Rule 7: The three Ts: tide, tide and…tide
Like prop walk, the tide is an asset when well understood. Stemming a 2-knot stream gives excellent steerage because it creates water flow over the rudder, while keeping speed over ground (SOG) to a minimum. Parking downtide is like reversing downwind: good for marina morale, bad for yours. You need to be travelling faster than the current to maintain steerage so, in contravention of Rule 1, SOG will be high. It’s not for the faint-hearted. The instructor’s mantra in the Solent is: ‘Into the tide, into the tide, into the [expletive] tide.’
There can be large disparities in the water flow within marinas and it’s important to have a feel for what this powerful element is doing. I often walk to the end of a hammerhead to inspect the main channel before slipping and committing.
The Update: The tides, they aren’t a-changin’
The tides haven’t changed, and neither has this rule. The tide is uniquely egalitarian in its tyranny. Whether I’m on Nimrod, the QE2 or a Hanse 418 called Varvassi, we’re all in the same tide. Bow thruster or no bow thruster there are many berths in the tidal harbours of the UK which cannot be accessed when the tide is running hard. If there’s any tide running at all, it needs to be accounted for.
Rule 8: astern
Windage and pivot points combine to make reverse gear harder to master than forwards. With the pivot point at the back of the boat and windage on the bows, there’s a huge lever and the wind has all the advantage. The propeller and rudder also aren’t as effective in reverse as they are in forwards.
The easiest way to reverse is with the stern into wind. Sometimes called ‘feathering’ the wind, or weather cocking, it’s the most natural orientation for the boat in reverse. It’s a good way to hold station.
More challenging is reversing across the wind. It can be a constant battle to keep the bow up. The more wind, the more rudder and speed required to counteract it. Even with steerage established you’ll still make leeway and drift sideways, which needs accounting for by staying well to windward. Think of it as ferry gliding across the wind as you would with the tide.
Most challenging of all is reversing downwind. The wind inevitably catches the bow and you need lots of rudder to correct for it. If you succeed in bringing the bow up to the wind, it quickly swings the other way. The slalom that ensues isn’t pretty, but it does provide marina entertainment.
The Update: backwards is the new forwards
I’m usually reluctant to manoeuvre in reverse. With her long keel Nimrod does backwards on her own, somewhat opaque, terms. Varvassi, on the other hand, was a dream. In the benign conditions it took her less than a boat length to gain steerage and she turned beautifully on her deep keel and spade rudder. Approaching in astern gave better visibility of the widest part of the boat and, with the pivot point so far aft, the turn into short finger berths was easier than going in ahead.
Rule 9: Use Your Warps
Poetry, as they say, is the right words in the right order. The right ropes in the right order is poetry in motion. As my mother would say, ‘It’s all about the springs.’ Although my father would retort that it’s all about the fenders.
Springs are our launching and landing equipment. They help us claw our way to the pontoon when the wind has blown us off, or prise us away when we’re pinned on. A stern or bow spring creates a static pivot point at whichever end of the boat it’s set, allowing us to swing the opposite end out. A midships spring keeps the pivot point in the middle of the boat, helping to bring the boat alongside.
I used a stern spring to exit Varvassi’s home berth in the first manoeuvre, leading it as far aft as possible for the full effect. It doesn’t need to be overly long on shore: as long as it reaches a cleat forwards of the rudder post it will work. The partner line to a stern spring is the bow line. With the engine in astern and these two lines set to slip we can remove all the other lines and wait until we’re completely ready to leave.
Later I sprang the stern out into the flood tide by driving ahead against a bow spring. Here it pays to use a longer lever as a short bow spring isn’t as effective. With a single rudder the propwash in forward gives directional control, so turning the helm towards the pontoon helps maximise the angle. Remember to straighten the rudder before driving off though. Watch out for shore power posts which are vulnerable to a swipe from the anchor. You may need to walk the boat along the pontoon first to keep clear.
For singlehanded berthing I used the same technique I have on Nimrod: make a large bight in a midships line and lead it back to a primary winch by the helm. Approach as slowly as possible. As you arrive, leave the helm and lasso a cleat on the pontoon from the quarter. Pull in the slack around the winch, gently snubbing the motion. Drive forward against the line with the helm turned away from the pontoon to keep the stern alongside while you set other lines.
The topsides need plenty of protection up forwards because the shoulder inevitably pushes in. Draping the bow and stern line over the guardwires makes them easier for you, or someone on shore, to grab.
Good line handling is important. Novice crew need clear instructions if asked to take the midships line. Snubbing it rather than surging it could damage the deck fittings.
I avoid locking turns when manoeuvring. One in a hundred times a slip line snags just as you’re pulling away and the only solution is to let go of the boat end. If you’ve put a spliced eye or bowline on board it is impossible to remove in a hurry.
The update: square sterns and plumb bows make springing more difficult
If all things were equal, springing the stern in and bow out is by far my preferred departure method on Nimrod because setting off in forward gives immediate steerage. However, this is more difficult on a boat with a broad transom. In blown-on conditions a bow spring and reversing off will be the more effective method, probably with a little help from the bow thruster.
The midships line worked just as well on Varvassi as it does on Nimrod, despite the half-century age difference between the two. However, with her high topsides it was harder for the crew to get off and surge the line. They had to lasso the cleats instead.
Rule 10: Make a plan
The final rule of boat handling is to always have plan A, B and Z.
Plan A is what you want to happen: think through approach angles, gear changes and which lines you want to use first.
Plan B is your exit strategy: what could go wrong and how would you get out of it?
Plan Z happens when the exit strategy fails. There is always another option, even if it’s drifting onto another boat with a couple of fenders out or settling in the wrong berth. Plan Z is your defence against panic revs.
Remember, the plan is only complete once it’s communicated to your crew.
I was impressed with the Hanse 418’s handling capabilities, but as much as the evolutions in yacht design have solved some age-old problems, they’ve created new ones too. Most of the rules haven’t changed significantly, but their order of priority has shifted.
Gear changes and reversing are less problematic but tight turns are more so. In certain conditions windage may be a bigger factor than tide.
For a final manoeuvre I chose a tight finger berth with another yacht alongside. It was a ‘closed’ berth when approached from the main channel, meaning it was on the offside of the finger, and we would need to turn around the pontoon to come alongside.
Bearing in mind the pivot point and Varvassi’s beam, it would have been difficult in forwards. But by coming past it and reversing back into it, the approach could be opened.
On Nimrod I’d have done it in forwards: with her big rudder and port kick she’d have turned in sweetly despite the closed approach. On Varvassi it worked perfectly from the other direction.
A few days later I found a fender hanging on the gatepost in my parents’ drive. ‘Your mother was ambushed by a bollard in Tesco’s car park,’ my father explained, ‘and she’s scratched the topsides.’ He had a mischievous glint in his eye. ‘I’ve found her some sandpaper and instigated Rule 11.’
‘What’s that?’ I replied. ‘That you can never have too many fenders,’ he said.
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