This is the first of what
we hope will be a long line of insightful columns by Jeff
Williams. Jeff is the proprietor of Skycraft Sail and
Canvas - be sure to visit his website
When I went sailing last week,
I was surprised to see the large number of yachts put away for
the winter. I guess I'm in denial. Maybe it's the West Coast
sailing that I've done where waiting for a dry sunny day for
sailing was an exercise in futility. It's there that I learned
how to bundle up in woolies and fisherman's oilskins in order
to enjoy an afternoon out on the water. With a cabin heater
down below, you carry along a cozy berth where you can curl
up with a book at day's end. Although you could do this at home,
there is usually too much work to do, such as laundry, the lawn,
Anyhow, it was a glorious warm
fall afternoon, and it seemed irresponsible to do anything but
enjoy the outdoors. The boat was rigged in 15 minutes, and we
were away, my wife as crew and our son crawling around in the
bilge. I won't bore you with how we sailed here and there in
the harbour; most sailing stories are rather dull until you
get to the part where the storm or some other disaster threatens
Our 'disaster' began with our
toddler no longer enjoying himself, obviously needing a nap.
It would be a long slog home with a crying baby. To make matters
worse, the following waves were causing the boat to have an
awkward corkscrew motion, which was keeping us on our toes.
What we needed was to just stop the boat for a few minutes.
Most sailors know that this isn't
easy. With the sails up, a sailboat just wants to keep moving.
Even when you're pointing into the wind, the sails flog viciously
until the boat falls off to one side and starts sailing again.
With the sails down, the boat will bob and pitch uncomfortably,
and drift downwind, which in our case meant drifting into a
shallow river mouth where we would be stuck.
The answer is to heave to. This
sounds like a storm tactic that only deep-sea sailors use, but
it's easy, and works for boats of all sizes. All you have to
do is steer up towards the wind, and haul the jibsail over to
the windward or 'wrong' side of the boat. You then fiddle with
the mainsail and the tiller to make the boat balance. Usually
the mainsail is let out until it's flapping a bit, and you tie
the tiller so that it's steering upwind.
The change was dramatic. Instead
of the giddy roll, the bow of the boat rose and fell predictably
to the oncoming waves Steering only required that I keep my
knee against the tiller to keep us headed up into the wind.
We were moving ahead slowly, but wouldn't be near the far shore
for 20 minutes or more. It was so calm that we rocked our toddler
to sleep in a few minutes, and bedded him down on an extra lifejacket.
If we had needed to, we could have easily reduced sail, had
a snack or taken bearings. Since we were ready to continue,
we let the jibsail return to the downwind side of the boat and
continued on our way.
Heaving to is a tactic that is
often practiced on big boats and big water, but it's a handy
trick to have up your sleeve when sailing a small boat. Try
it out for the first time in relatively light winds so you can
get a feel for where the rudder and sails should be set.
Once you master this technique,
you'll start to use it for a variety of reasons, from having
a picnic to enduring strong wind and waves.