Easy Upgrades for Safer Shorthanded Sailing


By Joe Cooper

As regular readers of my monthly column will know, the vast majority of yacht sailing is done by couples, primarily husband and wife crews. Such shorthanded sailing requires a much more developed sense of seamanship and increased ease (efficiency and speed) of using the equipment onboard than sailing with a boat full of people.

This “lifeline” termination is a disaster waiting to happen.

An issue that is an annoyance on a 40-foot race boat with 10 hands aboard has the makings of a serious problem on a 40-footer with only two aboard. So, just in time for Christmas here are a few thoughts on making next year’s sailing a tad easier, using some pretty straightforward and high value ideas I have thought of or pinched from others over the years. And my definition of value is: If solution “A” costs 10 bucks, and solution “B” is 20 bucks, then “B” needs to be at a minimum at least two times better at solving the problem than “A.”

In upcoming issues, we’ll look at several cost-effective improvements you can make to your boat’s sail control systems. In the meantime, what else can be done to make the life of the short-handed sailor easier and get him ahead of the curve when it hits the fan? Quite a few things…let’s list them.

This old lifeline is likely badly corroded under the white plastic cover and could break without warning.

Check stuff…all the time. This includes steering cables, thru-hulls (and the wooden emergency wood bungs, too) split pins in the rigging, and the security of the lifelines, especially if you have the white plastic coated ones. The wires corrode under the plastic and fail with no notice. I have landed on my stern on the dock due to this phenomenon. Checking the ease of using the manual bilge pumps (one on deck and one activated from below, right?) and conducting tests on how to steer the boat with the emergency tiller and to sail the boat with no rudder (lashing the wheel and using sail trim and warps is a good start) are some good things to do regularly. Make sure the other person knows as much, or at the bare minimum, enough, about the boat’s systems and standard operating procedures for things like engine start and stop, GPS ops including the MOB button, VHF and related emergency calling, sail handling in general and in particular how to get back to you if you go in the drink, the odds of which, by the way, are very long if my research is close to accurate. A pre-departure checklist is a great thing to have available, and having point-by-point methods to operate stuff on the boat is a good practice. First, the composition of such a document makes you and your mate think about outcomes, and it is good to have so one can refer to it for the less-used functions that might be a couple of months between use or when non-regular crew are sailing with you. I personally use a three-ring binder for this stuff.

Lifeline wire ought not be kinked like this.

Navigation issues. Back in the day, we used to roll out charts on the floor or dining room table and plan out the course for the cruise. This is as much an exercise in dreaming of the fun you will have as a process of planning. Recalling memories of ports past and visions of the new ones yet to be visited all conspire to add a certain zest to the process. Today of course, we just plug in a waypoint or two and off we go. Anything that can be done to plan the course, planned or unplanned stopover ports, and routes on a paper chart is a good thing in my mind.

Keep a log.
 A written one is my preferred version. True, I come from a long line of writers so I am more inclined to the written word. I find it a useful document to return to over the years to refresh myself on particulars of a passage. I do not know it as a fact, but it would surprise me if a log were not a required document aboard a documented vessel. Regardless, a log ought to have the following information: day/date, time, course, speed, wind speed/direction and your position, once in a while. This can go on one side of a notebook. On the other is notes and remarks concerning anything to do with the vessel or the passage: clouds, current anomalies, times of passing various navigational marks, and so on.

Guess I am showing my age, but I still plan passages on paper and use the GPS to make sure the satellites are in the right spot doing their thing. You can go for miles and miles with seemingly no problems using the GPS, but when it is not there the scene goes dark pretty quickly.

On one voyage I was making from Annapolis, MD to Charleston, SC it went dark, literally, when the battery cables to the recently installed batteries (on the freshly purchased boat) separated from the terminals to which they were improperly crimped. Even when I quickly looked at the batteries and cables (by flashlight) during this episode, it appeared that they were attached to the terminals. Only later at the dock did I determine that the crimp was poor and the cables had pulled back from the connection to the fitting but were still inside the fitting sleeve.

The redundancy of planning with paper charts offers peace of mind in the case of a power failure.

All power to the yacht, a J/44, went out. We were at the point in the lower Chesapeake Bay where one turns east to depart the bay. We had just elected to deviate from the route in the GPS and go into a marina in Hampton, VA. I had sketched out the new track on the chart, making note of all the necessary navigation information and committing it to a Wet Notes pad when the lights went out. After a minute or two of checking all the usual suspects, we elected to continue into Norfolk following my notes and using the marks, the paper chart, binoculars and hand bearing compass. This was the kind of classic situation where it would have been really easy to do something that would earn us some free coverage in the local press and WindCheck by getting us run aground, run into or sunk. It was in late October, cold, 0300, and we were all tired, having had little sleep blasting south down the Bay. It was blowing 20-30 knots from the north (hence the detour to wait it out prior to rounding Hatteras). We were aboard a new (to the owner) boat with lots of yard work just done, none of the three aboard had sailed on the boat before, and we had no emergency running lights and no power. Largely due to the planning and notes I had just made, we were able to negotiate our way into the marina we had selected with no other issues. We even managed to avoid the commercial traffic with which were surrounded. Punchline? Do not rely on only one source of information for navigation. And plan ahead.


Emergency steering. Hands up all those who have checked their emergency steering tiller? There are bonus points for actually navigating the boat with same. If you have not used the emergence tiller, do so before an emergency. I hold the opinion that the last two or three things thought of on most production boats before they go out the door are the location of the on deck bilge pump, the fabrication, fit and ease of use of the emergency steering and a place to stow the life raft. When you dig your emergency tiller from the dark musty recess where it lives, examine it with this scenario in mind.

With this boat’s helm seat removed, the emergency tiller is easily installed and ready to go.

It is dark and windy (stormy?), over 20 knots true, and the boat is power reaching with lots of load on the wheel. You are thinking about putting in a reef when the boat rounds up and does not respond to your turning of the wheel. After the couple of minutes of the boat going around in circles with no steering, you dig out the emergency tiller from its easy to-get- to dedicated spot near the top of the cockpit locker and jam it onto the rudderhead. With the headsail rolled up, the main deeply reefed to minimize rolling and maintain control and with the engine chugging away, you turn downwind to the nearest harbor which you had previously identified and worked out the plan B for getting to. Then the weld at the rudderhead end of the 18-inch long emergency tiller breaks. And off we go around in circles again.

This exact episode happened to me while doing a race on an old-style C&C 38. Major differences were we had the owner, his wife and two kids aboard, who were all admittedly pretty good hands. It was blowing 20 plus, and we were power reaching to the south across the Long Island Sound from New Haven, CT to Port Jefferson, NY with the kite up.

After we got the kite down and the mainsail under control, I peeked into the lazarette to see failed steering cables. Calling for the emergency tiller, I was presented with – once they found it – the original item from the early 1970s. It was a corroded aluminum tube about 18 inches long with a square piece welded onto the business end intended to fit over the corresponding square on the top of the rudder stock. I rigged it and sat on the cockpit floor to use it. It lasted about five minutes before the weld failed.

Calling for anything likely to work that I might use – a long crescent wrench for instance – I was somewhat sheepishly told by the elder son that he had taken all the heavy tools off the boat for the race. We had a chuckle. I had done lots of miles with him, so it was no surprise. In the meantime, younger son found a plumber’s pipe wrench tucked away somewhere the elder had missed. I fitted it to the rudderhead and wished it were 18 inches long and not 12, because it was really hard to steer an 18,000-pound boat of that design downwind in a 5-foot sea and 20-25 knots with a 12-inch long tiller. So, when you’re on your boat in the marina on a sunny day in July with no wind, examine your emergency tiller and contemplate how strong it will be in the situation described above.

Here is another preparation for the ‘what-if.’ On this O.S.T.A.R. boat, the ring buoy has a large amount of line that is quickly and easily dispensed from the spool in the event of a MOB.

In both these tales I can hear some mutterings from you about, “Well that’s OK – He’s a professional.” Well maybe, but just what does that mean? It is an approach to going “to sea” on a boat more than any particular skills. The rudder episode first happened to me as perhaps a 12- or 13-year-old in the late 1960s, sailing a 12-foot skiff in hard air on Sydney Harbor. We broke the rudder and had to sail the boat home without same. Doable, but we were wet cold and tired by the time we got there. One thing stands out in my mind as I write about these two episodes. And that is I was going to swim home before I issued a “Pan-Pan” call.

Both these incidents were annoyances but well within the scope of an intelligent human with enough of what we are made of to get a boat out there in the first place. Yes, I had experienced (or frequently read about) situations like the rudder before and the J/44 incident was just the way I was raised around boats before any electronic anything. I take it as a source of pride in my seamanship to do everything I can to be self-sufficient when on a boat. Speaking of reading about seamanship, US Sailing has a veritable treasure trove of incident reports from the various casualties, groundings, capsizes, sinkings, man overboard situations and so on over the years. These incidents are catalogued at ussailing.org under “Hanson Medals.”

US Sailing also publishes reports of their investigations into non-Hanson events like, for instance, the three episodes on the West Coast last summer. These are particularly interesting reading for all sorts of reasons. The Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the organizer of the Sydney to Hobart Race, does the same for their races when there is a sinking, death or injury – not just for the Hobart Race but all races under their burgee. The Cruising Club of America also has a great online library of literature about safety at sea that is available to the public.

So, what other things can a regular sailor do to their boat to make it “better” to sail double-handed, or solo for that matter?

The reverse hatch and spray hood allow for ventilation underway – even if the weather isn’t exactly perfect.

Personal security aboard. These days, there are more and more electronic things coming available for sailors to be located after having gone in the drink. Regular readers will have noticed I wrote a piece earlier in 2013 about how to not go overboard in the first place. I much prefer wearing a safety harness over wearing a lifejacket. If you do go over the side, having a couple of things in your pocket to make it less difficult for the boat to find you is a big help. First and foremost in my mind is a flashlight. Something like a Pelican dive light; the yellow ones about 8 inches long work fine. If for some reason you have black foul weather gear, and I cannot for the life of me imagine why you would, look at the hood and top part of the coat and put more reflective tape on it. A whistle is up there with the flashlight. The small orange ones that Landfall sells are so cheap you could by a bag full and distribute them in every article of clothing you are likely to use on the boat. If you do wear a life jacket, tie a whistle onto it. Two, even, in case one gets ripped off as you go over the lifelines. Seamanship is all about looking forward to the “what ifs.”

Carbon pole. If your type and style of sailing uses a headsail on a whisker pole, you might consider switching to a carbon pole. There are many manufacturers of carbon tubes, and if you are remotely handy you can install the ends yourself. Yes, they’re more expensive than a telescoping or even regular kite pole, but so much stronger and lighter. Strength and lightness are two good things to have when bouncing around up on the bow.

Lashings: Personally I do not like or use the sail ties we all get with new sails. They are difficult to tie knots in so that they can be easily undone when needed, they get stiff with age and salt, and they are not particularly strong being made usually from nylon. I do not have them on my boat. In lieu of same I use lengths of 3/16” (or perhaps 1/4” if a bigger boat) double braid. The smaller ones are 6-8 feet long and the thicker ones can be 8-10 feet long. You can use different colors to separate the two if you choose both. If you heat set the ends with a hot knife or matches, wet your fingers and mold the ends into a point while the line is still somewhat molten. Do not burn yourself. You can also take some sailmaker’s twine and put a lashing of about an inch on the ends. This makes the end firm and stiff, ideal for poking through small holes like the reef grommets in the middle of the sail. Like the gimbaled table (see below), once you have half a dozen of them you will wonder how you ever did without them.

Telltales on the shrouds. If you come from a dinghy background you will know what I mean. Take some yarn, or the tape from one of the cassettes with which your attic is burdened, and tie a 12-15 inch length of it to the side stays at about 6 feet above the deck. They will give you a good idea of the apparent wind before it registers on the meters. Telltales are also great in light air, particularly for catching the varying direction of the puffs.

Lee cloths should be tied so that they are supported both vertically and horizontally. Additionally, the cloths should be strong enough to keep your biggest crew member safely snug in his bunk, even in the gnarliest conditions.

Practice things. Toss the fender or cushion overboard without telling anyone and yell, “Man overboard!” and see what happens. To improve on that, try sailing up to a mooring (or an actual man overboard). Find some water that is both not so deep – say from 20 to 30 feet or so – and with enough sea room for you to maneuver. Tie a fender to a dockline or two tied together and tie a weight on the bottom and drop the whole lot in the water. Now practice sailing up to it so you can position the boat alongside it or close enough so the hand on the bow can collect it with the boathook. Perhaps one day your engine will not start and you will feel so much better about yourself if you can sail into the harbor than being ignominiously towed in. And this drill will help in the event of a MOB situation, or even a hat or kid’s favorite toy. Practice putting reefs in and out so you know the flaws in your system before out need them. It’s much easier to practice such things in 10 knots of wind than 25. Turn off the instruments for a while and sail by feel and the telltales. Sail somewhere without the GPS and navigate for real. Take bearings, the log reading, compare the depth you are in with the chart’s readings, and do the tide vectors yourself.

Some nice touches to make sailing more pleasant. These are not strictly equipment upgrades in terms of improving the performance of the boat or ease of handling, but they sure make living on the boat while underway much more pleasant.

Hand holds. There cannot be too many hand holds in the cabin on a sailing boat. They make moving around the interior so much more pleasant when there is something to grab or to hold onto in the first place.

Ventilation. One of the precursors to feeling unwell on a boat is the lack of passage of air. Typically this happens when sailing upwind in waves with the hatches closed. One way to get more into the boat is to put a small cover over one hatch. Typically, hatches are installed to open facing forward so air can get in when at anchor. Take one of your hatches and rotate it 180 degrees so the hinge is forward. You can engage your favorite canvas fabricator to make you a small dodger that then goes over the hatch so there has to be a lot of water flying before any will get down the hatch.

Coffee thermos. Years ago, when racing on maxis with 16-22 hands the cook would prepare coffee in two largish thermoses that were secured in a suitable purpose-made location. It was then perfectly simple for the crew to go below one at a time and get that 0230 kick, especially when it is very light as night sailing on Long Island Sound often is.

This is the transom of Lora Ann, an Express 37 owned by highly successful shorthanded sailor Rich du Moulin. It shows du Moulin’s setup for offshore racing with the black exhaust tube to minimize breaking waves backing into the engine, a lanyard drooping down approximately 18 inches so a MOB has something to grab onto when they get to the transom. The long, skinny red rectangle is a webbing ladder that can be grabbed. du Moulin also attaches a spare tether to the backstay chainplate and leaves the clip on the lifeline wire. If the MOB grabs the loop, the clip can then be dropped down and affixed to his harness D-ring. This ensures that the MOB is safely secured to the boat and can’t drift away. A short sheet can then be passed down, clipped to the D-ring, and the MOB winched up the transom. These simple solutions to the “what-ifs” are what proper planning for short-handed sailing is all about.

Lee cloths. If you are serious about having people sleep in a berth, then the lee cloth needs to really work. Like much around a boat, this topic could be its own series of articles so I give the overview as follows: Material from which a lee cloth is made needs to be robust. The corner reinforcing needs to be more so. The security of the cloth under the berth needs to be part of the Not-Fail chain. Ideally there will be two lashings at each end. One line is to hold the cloth up and another to stretch it in the fore and aft plane so the sag is minimized. The eye straps to which the fore and aft lines are secured need to be through bolted with backing plates, the whole deal. The cloth itself need not be the full length of the berth but can stop 18 inches short at the head and the foot. Having a couple of pockets on the outside of the cloth in which to stow glasses, flashlight and so on while you dream is a good detail.

Gimbaled table. No, not the whole table (unless you want to), but something more modest. Something about 24 by 10-12 inches is suitable. Roughly 3/8” plywood is adequate for the table base. It ought to have serious fiddles around the edges, 3 inches minimum. Some non-skid surface is good too, and some kind of rubber matting works well. The table can be located anywhere you choose and it can be can be made to be moved (near the stove at sea and near the berths and guests at anchor), or removable as necessary. Its primary use is for placing cups of coffee or soup on while you get the next cup poured. I did a delivery from Japan to Los Angeles with such a device and it worked like a champ. The value of such a table will be apparent when you have one. There is nothing more frustrating than to return from some drama on deck to find the soup all over the lee berth and/or its occupant.

Next month: Upgrading your mainsail control systems.

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/ Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing. com, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.

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