Skipper’s Tip – SHIPS!

We’ve all watched as they slink slowly and silently across the bay.  Some of them are a few hundred feet long and others over 1,000 feet and for the most part small boaters stay out of the way.  Some never give them a thought; others are curious about what is happening on the bridge, where they came from and where they are going.  Maybe a few of us wish we could be aboard.  By now you have surmised that I’m talking about the ships that decorate the San Francisco bay.

A dream came true for me recently as I was given the opportunity to observe the San Francisco Bar Pilots in operation.  The assignment was to meet the Bar Pilot at 0600 at pier 58 in Oakland for a 0730 departure.   The trip from Oakland 58 would take us out to the pilot boat approximately 10 miles off shore.  Climb the ladder down to the pilot vessel and wait for another ship that would arrive at the sea buoy at 1430 and ride it back into Oakland 58.  Waiting on the event to take place, I was like a kid anticipating the arrival of Christmas.

Before going further I must thank everyone involved with helping set this up and this includes personnel at the USCG Regional Exam Center in Oakland, CA as well as the San Francisco Bar Pilots and staff involved.  A special thanks to pilots Captain John Carlier and Captain David Pate.  This trip was related to my USCG Auxiliary duties at the Regional Exam Center [REC].

My work at the REC had given me an insight on the experience and knowledge required to be accepted to the Bar Pilot training program. I had an appreciation for their skills and professionalism that had been previously observed.  However, I must admit that I was blown away with the courtesy they gave me, the professionalism I saw firsthand, the ever real and present dangers they accept as just part of the job.

Greetings were exchanged in the parking lot of Oakland 58 and port security gave the pilot and me a ride to the ship.  Pulling alongside the MSC Vittoria, a 1065 feet container ship, we departed the van and the action started.  The pilot quickly ascended the ships ladder to the first deck. As soon as his foot hit the deck one of the mates radioed the bridge “pilots aboard” and we moved almost at a run through sections of the ship to an elevator that was the size of a phone booth.  The pilot, mate and I squeezed into the elevator and were lifted to the 5th floor [deck].  Down a hallway and up two flights of stairs and entered the bridge where the captain immediately greeted the pilot.  The pilot explained my presence.

My first impressions were that there was no chitchat, very friendly but professional, and the bridge was spotless clean.  The captain welcomed us aboard and offered to provide us water, coffee, or tea.  We passed on his offer and then the pilot and captain began a pre departure dialog and exchanged paperwork.  My other impression was the cleanliness of the bridge area.  Boarding the ship we moved so quickly I never had time to look around but now the pace for me slowed and I had time to observe my surroundings; there was not a smudge anywhere on a window, no marks on the floor, no dust anywhere.  Looking at the massive control panels they were spotless.

From the time we arrived on the bridge the helms person was at the helm waiting on orders.  The helm for the ship is the size on my Subaru Outback, about 18 inches in diameter.

The pilot set up his navigational instrument and walked out on the wing overlooking the water.  Picking up his radio called the tugs [Sandra Hugh and Revolution] on channel 13 and advised them that the working channel would be 11 and asked them to connect up to specific positions on the ship.  He then switched channels to the Vessel Traffic Service, channel 14, and advised that the MSC Vittoria was preparing at Oakland 58, turning at Schnitzer’s, intending to take the Delta Echo span of the bay bridge and west bound after departure.  Traffic acknowledged his transmission and advised that our traffic was a tug and barge operating in the area of the bridge.

The pilot asked the captain if the bow thruster was operational and could it be operated at 100 % power.  An assurance was given by the captain that it and all equipment was completely functional.  The pilot asked the tugs to start pulling at specific power settings and he slowly increased the speed of the bow thruster.  Very slowly we inched off the dock and the ship slid out from under the massive cranes on the.

When the pilot was satisfied with our position in the channel, Oakland Estuary, he requested the helm amid ship and dead slow ahead and immediately the pitch of the engine noise changed and the mate responded with “dead slow ahead”.  The helmsman responded “rudder amid ship”.  Each command by the pilot is repeated by the person receiving the request and repeated again when completed.  The pilot thanks them after each acknowledgement.

MSC Vittoria was now heading up the estuary toward Jack London square as it was port side to the dock.  This means it will go to an area known as Schnitzer’s turning basin. As we enter the area there were tugs and ships moored on either side of the area that reduces the operational area.   The ship is 1065 feet long and the turning basin not wide enough for the ship to make a perfect 360 degree turn so as she comes around the pilot has to direct the tugs and helms person on repositioning the stern and bow to miss all obstacles.  As the bow is almost around the bow lookout radios that it looks like we will hit a moored vessel and the captain relays this to the pilot.  The captain advised that he thinks we will miss by “x” number of feet and the pilot agrees; however, the pilot gives orders that repositions the ship for extra clearance.  The ship is now pointed down the channel and underway making way towards the bay bridge.

The pilot releases the tugs and thanks them for their outstanding work.

With a slight pause in the action I ask how much visibility is lost off the bow of the ship since she is loaded and how much effect does the wind have on him. He explains that he has a ¼ mile blind spot in front of the vessel and that wind has a large effect on the vessel.  He goes on to explain that of course the tidal current has a huge effect on the ship but since the ships now days are so long and deep in the water [our draft was 42 feet] the ships act as a dam across the channel.  Because the turning of the ship takes a while water pressure builds on one side of the ship and decreases on the other side because of the damming action.  So all the time the vessel is turning he is using his experience and “mariner’s eye” to keep track of several visual ranges to make sure he is always in control.  He also keeps a lookout for other traffic especially pleasure boaters that think they have room to pass in the tight areas.

He explained how they have practiced on the simulator at Cal Maritime Academy in Vallejo trying to determine the best method of making this turn and developing their skill set.

As the pilot navigates the Vittoria out of the Oakland Estuary toward the bay bridge a passenger ferry passes us on the port side and completely disappears into our blind spot for what seems to be minutes.  The USCG cutter Hawksbill is also in-bound and overtaking us.  The Hawksbill radios to the pilot their intentions to pass on our starboard side and the pilot radios back that he agrees with starboard side.  [The Inland Navigational rules require intentions and agreement.]

Passing other container ships along the dock the pilot explains that until we clear the docks he will keep his speed below 5 knots because of suction from his ship would pull the other ships off the dock.  As a ship passes through the water the water is displaced with the hull of the ship and when the ship passes the void is immediately filled in with the displaced water.  On a fast moving ship this suction is enough to break the mooring lines of vessels.

Be extra careful when passing a ship in a narrow channel.  While working for Vessel Assist I had a boat under tow and had to pass a ship in Redwood Creek.  The pilot aboard radioed that he would slow as much possible for me but be careful as Redwood Creek is very narrow.  As I approached the stern of the ship my vessel and the towed vessel started to be pulled towards the stern and the water level dropped by 3 feet on the bank as the void was filled.

At the entrance to the Oakland Estuary is ATON’s 7 and 8.  The pilot radioed our position to the VTS and immediately ordered several degrees to starboard.  With this maneuver it looked as if he was going to pass the east side of Yerba Buena Island; however, he explained with the flood tide we were going to be pushed hard to port and he was setting up for the current.  Just as he said the current hit the boat and we started a slow turn to port that set him up to pass under the Delta Echo span of the bay bridge.  Perfection is beautiful to watch.  He explained how he was watching the center span of the bridge where it covered a point on the land and how if he kept this range in alignment he would pass comfortably under the bridge.

After leaving the Estuary our speed continued to build until 11 knots was established.  Our course was to take us through the Deep Water Traffic lane and out under the Golden Gate.  We had almost no traffic leaving until we passed Mile Rock where we passed a “small” tanker [only about 600 feet long].  Our speed was now 14 knots and we headed out to pilot boat Drake waiting on us near the sea buoy.

Drake is the newest pilot boat and is 104 long with two 1,100 hp diesels.  Last year there were approximately 4,500 transfers from ships to the pilot boat.  The boat’s station is near the sea buoy and remains on station for 6 days during the summer and 4 days during the winter.  At the end of the tour it is replaced by another pilot boat and crew for 6 or 4 days.  While on station the pilot boats provide a platform for the pilots to wait on the next vessel; this saves on another vessel having to follow each ship out to retrieve the pilots.  The boats are set up with sleeping berths and a fully functional galley with a chef.

If being on the pilot boat sounds like easy duty keep in mind when you are at home nice and warm in bed sleeping the crew can be dealing with 30 foot seas, rain and 50 knot winds.  Think about transferring from one ship to another at night in those conditions or even keeping your lunch down.

We are close to the Drake and I hear the radio call.  “MSC Vittoria this is pilot boat Drake on 13, over.”  “This is Vittoria, over.”  “Vittoria please rig you ladder at XX meters above the water starboard side, come to course xxx degrees and reduce your speed to 8 knots, over.” We swing to the new heading and the pilot is packing his bag, on with the float coat, shakes hands with the captain and turns to the exit and is gone.  I’m fast behind him; this seems like a race. I think to myself is he trying to leave me? We are led down the stairs, down the hall, down the elevator to a different floor to another hall to a catwalk and cross over the engine to the deck.

WOW…  That was a huge engine and dwarfed a person next to it.  Wish I had time to look around.

Out on deck the pilot disappeared down the ladder with me in trail.  For days prior I had thought about how to go down the ladder and how to make the transfer to the pilot boat, but we were moving so fast I forgot to think about the transfer from ship to pilot boat.  As I approached the pilot boat I heard the pilot say time your step across; I did and stepped over to the Drake.  Immediately we went inside as the captain of the Drake pulled us away from the ship.  I was home for the next 5 hours.

Aboard the Drake everyone came up to me and introduced themselves and let me know if I needed anything just ask.  From the wheelhouse I was lead to the pilot’s lounge.  After being introduced to the chef he handed me a menu and asked that I pick what I wanted for lunch and in the meantime to make myself comfortable and if I needed a snack to help myself to what he had prepared.

I told the chef that I could not decide between two choices and to surprise me.  He did, I was served both, beef stroganoff and corn beef and cabbage with sides.  The meal was fabulous.

This was the crew’s 5th day of their 6 day tour and they were looking forward to their 6 days off.  However, looking around the vessel did not look like it had been at sea for 5 days and the crew looked fresh and was busy performing their duties.  Not the way our school boat looks after a 3 day ASA Advance Coastal Cruising class.

During the next few hours I chatted with the pilots, taking notes and waiting on my ride back to Oakland.  For me this was not a joy ride, but a fact finding mission having to do with my activities in the Auxiliary. Nevertheless, it will take weeks for my grin to leave me.

While waiting I phoned my wife to let her know everything was going well.  She had been watching on the AIS online and told me that my ship/ride back to Oakland was at Half Moon Bay making 15 kts. North.

In a short time the container ship Chuanhe was spotted heading our way.  When the Chuanhe was 5 miles away one of the pilot boat’s crew came back to the lounge and advised the pilot of the ships position.  I watched the pilots looking for my queue to get my float coat on but they continued to chat.  Moments later I heard the captain on the pilot boat call the Chuanhe and advised the ship to steer a new course of xxx degrees true and a speed of 8 kts and which side to prepare for boarding.  About this time an iron cloud passed by our windows and the ship was here.  The pilot boat made a 180 degree turn and started picking up speed very quickly.  As our speed began to match the ship’s speed the pilot was out of his seat, float coat on and up to the wheelhouse.  I was in trail again.

When we got to the wheelhouse the captain had pulled alongside the ship, matched her speed precisely. A crew member had opened the wheelhouse door and was ready to give us assistance, if needed, as we crossed over to the ship.  No ladder this time, the ships crew had opened an access hatch in the side of the ship at “almost” our deck level.  I watched as the pilot timed his step across the 4 foot wide Grand Canyon with the Pacific Ocean passing underneath at 8 kts.  My turn, I heard someone say time your step with the wave action and go.  I did and I was aboard the ship.  At all times I felt safe in these activities.

The radio call went out “the pilot is aboard” and the race was on to the bridge.  This time we climbed up an inboard ladder through small hatches to another deck level.  This level had what I will describe as a tunnel, bow to stern, with exposed ship ribs and passage ways designed into them.  The openings were small enough that I had to step sideways in, duck my head and step through.  This process was repeated every 8 feet for about 100 feet and then up another ladder into a hallway, the elevator, hallway, a flight of stairs and onto the bridge.  Again, there was no time for sightseeing.

Greetings were exchanged between the pilot, captain and me.  Paperwork exchanged and the pilot asked if all systems were fully operational and was assured they were.  The pilot proceeded to ask for a course change, called VTS and advised we were inbound from the pilot’s station to Oakland 58 intending Delta Echo span of the bay bridge and east bound traffic lane.  By now his personal navigational system was operational and he asked for additional speed and a course change.

The captain had bottled water brought to us and asked if we wanted coffee or tea.

On the trip in I had the opportunity to ask about speed and small boat traffic on the bay. He advised that inside the bay they are limited to 15 kts. log speed and that most pilots keep the speed up to maintain better control of the vessel.  He also stated that with the new more environmental friendly fuel they are required to burn in shore they are having engine failure at lower boat speed so the speed has to be kept higher to avoid shutdowns.  He said that at times they will have a tug hooked to the stern of the ship and the tug running in reverse to slow the ship down so the ships engine could be operated at higher RPM to avoid engine failure also to help steerage.

I told him that in the past month I had heard several calls to traffic that a ship had lost power.  He advised that in the past month he had 5 engine failures.

Before I asked about the speed he had directed the captain to have an anchor watch set to immediately deploy the anchor on his command in the event of a failure.

I asked the pilot at what point does he [pilot] began to feel uneasy about a pleasure craft in front of him.

He smiled and stated he starts to get uncomfortable when he wakes up in the morning.  Pleasure boaters don’t take time to learn the ships patterns on the bay and don’t anticipate the speed at which they travel.  He compared it to watching a fighter plane land and then a 747; both are almost at the same speed but the 747 looks slower.

The pilot likened operating a ship on San Francisco Bay like driving a high speed ski boat on a small pond full of rowboats.

By now we are at the Golden Gate Bridge and there are two sailboats crossing our bow.  He points to the one on port just beginning to cross our bow and advised that the boat will probably tack out of our way anytime and as if the sailboat heard him the boat tacked.  The other boat continued in what the sailor thought might be the right course; however, the sailboat was heading straight into the east bound traffic lane in our path.  The pilot said that he had to turn the ship but he would do so as slow as possible to let the sailboat have time to move.  A few seconds later the sailboat started its engine and a visible wake started coming off the boat as it moved.  The pilot advised he would use the whistle but wanted to give the pleasure boats time to react.

As we approached the Bay Bridge we could see tugs Revolution and Liberty waiting on us just the other side.   On the south side of the bridge tug Revolution came up to us and was assigned to attach to the stern and drag [meaning out of gear and let the ship drag the tug to help slow us down] and Liberty attached to our bow.

Chuanhe continued underway toward Estuary 7 and 8 as the pilot adjusted the course to compensate for tidal currents and changes in the direction of the channel.  The ship slid in between 7 and 8 at 6 knots and the pilot ordered the stern tug to increase the drag and engines dead slow ahead.  He advised me that speeds above 4.5 knots will cause the docked ship to be pulled off their moorings from the water rushing to fill the void as our ship progressed.

Inside the Estuary, heading toward Jack London Square / Schnitzer’s turning basin, the channel makes a “dog-leg” to the left.  The pilot advised he was going to use bank suction to facilitate the turn in the channel. [Remember back when you were traveling along the freeway and a bus or semi-truck passed you.  Your vehicle was first shoved away from the front and then pulled back toward the passing vehicle.] Bank suction is the same principle.  When the ship’s bow gets close to a bank it is shoved away from the bank and as the stern passes close to the bank the stern is pulled toward the bank.

The ship was approaching ATON # 10 on the red side of the channel and the pilot ordered rudders amid ship.  Bank suction slowly started turning the ship to port.  At the right moment the pilot requested 10 degrees to starboard and the ship stopped the turn exactly mid-channel, perfection.

We were now at the Schnitzer’s turning basin and the pilot again made a difficult maneuver look simple.  By utilizing the tugs at appropriate times, the ship’s propulsion, and his “mariners eye” he made the bow and stern just miss the moored vessels on either side of the channel.  Half way through the turn an impatient pleasure boat decided to squeeze past us and the tug on our bow pushing.  The pleasure vessel completely lost control until the wash from the tug and our bow thruster shoved him into calmer water and coming very close to moored vessels.  Soon the pleasure boat was underway again and hopefully better educated and looking for clean shorts.

For the second time today I was down bound from Schnitzer’s but this time we were docking at Oakland 58.  We are moving toward dock 58 at 2.5 kts. and observations indicated the line handlers and dock crew were set up for dock 57.  As we slipped past 58 toward 57 everyone on the dock quickly started driving toward 58.  The pilot ordered half astern on the engines and requested the tugs to start pulling back hard.  With all this force working it took the ship 1 and ½ times its length to stop and begin backing.

Back alongside 58, the pilot directed the tugs into position and they very slowly inched the ship up to the dock.  Ever so gently the ship kissed the dock and settled to rest.  The order is given and mooring lines are tossed ashore by way of heaving lines.  Once the lines are ashore they are hooked to the front of a pickup truck and pulled over to the bits [dock cleats] and attached.

Paperwork is again exchanged between the pilot and captain, pleasantries passed.  Quickly the ships Mate directed us to the exit from the bridge, down stairs, down the elevator, down hallways, across the top of the engine and out on deck.  We quickly descended the gangway and we were back on the dock.

Back at our cars I again thanked the pilot for all the information he had given me and allowing me to observe him in operation and I was underway home.

Bottom-line(s):  Skipper Tip

  1. Don’t get in the way of ships. They are moving fast and it takes them time and distance to react to an emergency.
  2. Pilots have blind spots in front of the ship and on the sides, especially when loaded.
  3. If you know you are going to cross shipping lanes, listen to VTS to get an idea of commercial traffic routes around you.
  4. Look at the charts for the area you will be in and learn where ship traffic will be operating.
  5. Watch ship traffic and learn their patterns/routes.
  6. Listening to channel 13 will give you a wealth of information on how commercial traffic communicates with each other and other valuable information.
  7. Listening to the pilot communicate with the tugs will give you good information on the operation.
  8. The pilots are highly skilled professionals, patient with pleasure boaters and have a huge responsibility to deliver the ships to a specific destination on time and without incident.
  9. If you need to communicate because of some emergency the best channel to reach the pilot is channel 13.  If you have listened to VTS on 14 you will know the pilots number already.   Be very succinct and precise in your communications.
  10. Oh yes:  Stay out of their way.

Maybe these ten items are a bit much just for a short sail on the Bay?  Consider Navigation Rules, Rule 2 (a) Nothing in these Rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner, master or crew thereof, from the consequences of any neglect to comply with these Rules or of the neglect of any precaution which may be required by the ordinary practice of seamen, or by the special circumstances of the case.

This statement does not address skippers or crew with exceptional skills, this rule applies to ordinary practices and applies to all of us.  In other words we need to know what is happening on the waters around us and apply our skills.

Submitted by Tradewinds instructor Bill Yawn

Posted in Skipper's Tip | Tagged | 7 Comments

Skipper’s Tip – Jib Furling

Furling the jib can be easy and painless, or it can be hard work and even dangerous, depending on how you approach it. Here’s a tip that will help you keep it calm, under control, and less of a workout!

Quite often, we ask our members for steps to jib furling and the first response they give us is “head into the wind”. We also observe this behavior on the water on a regular basis. If you head into a good, stiff summer breeze to furl the jib, it will take the wind pressure off, but it will also cause flogging. When the jib is flogging, we are reducing it’s life. Jib sheets are also flogging and can break dodger windows, are hard on blocks & rigging, and are a danger to crew. What if we did the opposite and furled the jib on a run?

Pick your time and place in advance. Don’t wait until you are in close quarters with no maneuvering room. Head down-wind, almost on a run. Have you ever tried to steer downwind and constantly found yourself heading back up to keep your jib from collapsing? This is because you are using the main to cover it, or blanket it from the wind. On this point of sail, the jib is collapsing because there is almost no wind getting past the main into it. You should be able to furl the jib with very little effort. Be sure to tail your sheets to keep them under control and furl the sail nice and tight. Remember, the helms-person must be focused on steering, it is easy to commit an accidental jibe on this point of sail with a lapse in concentration.

Happy Furling!

Posted in Skipper's Tip | Tagged | Leave a comment

Safe Boat Handling

Safe Docking

At Tradewinds, we like to stress handling lines from the boat, not the dock, whenever possible. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn how to properly step on and off a boat because not all line handling can be performed from the boat. Because of the discussion this topic always seems to generate with our instructors and members, we thought we’d address this topic as a Skipper’s Tip and share our official policy on the matter.

Can you dock a boat with one mid-ship spring line and some good helmsman-ship on the downwind side of a dock in 30 knots of wind – ALL from the boat? Yes, you can! Does everyone have the water-time and polished skill set to accomplish this on the first try? Absolutely not! Even for experienced skippers with experienced crew, this can be a challenge when it isn’t something you practice every day, and may take more than one pass. Would it be easier to cruise in and have your crew step off properly and grab a cleat so that you don’t miss? Definitely… but in our years of operating a sailing school, we’ve seen 3 broken ankles. None of them happened while people were handling lines from the boat.

At times, you will run into a situation where you have no choice. We can recall docking in a 30 knot cross-wind in a beat-up marina that had no cleats, only rings on the dock. In this case, you still have to be close to perfect at the helm AND you must safely put some crew on the dock to get you secured.

So what’s the bottom line? As a skipper, you should have all of the tools available to you. Learn how to handle lines from the boat and teach your regular crew how as well. Learn how to properly step off a boat in as safe a manner as possible and be able to train your crew the same way. Learn to lasso cleats from 10′ away and learn to use the boat hook to hook a line on the cleat. Most importantly, work on your boat-handling skills so that the line handling is easy for the crew! Here are a couple of tips that will help you practice:

  1. During any docking maneuver, there should be a point where the boat is at a complete standstill – between the point where you are approaching the dock and the point that it’s going to be swept away by current or wind. This is when a line should be applied to a cleat by the crew. All of the slack should then be taken out of the line before the boat is put back in gear. The lines should never be used to stop the boat (except sailing into slips in an emergency and even then only as a backup to proper speed control).
  2. Once the line is on a cleat and the slack removed, power can be applied to maneuver the boat into position. Power should be the minimum needed for the maneuver and crew should be warned exactly how much it will be and whether it will be safe to hold the end of the line or whether it needs to be re-cleated back on the boat.
  3. The same rules apply when using spring lines to maneuver clear of the dock. Determine how much force you will be using and warn the crew appropriately. Never leave slack in a line before you apply power – only taut lines should be used to re-direct the engine force into leverage in the desired direction.
  4. If you are in a situation where the decision is to put crew on the dock to handle lines, make sure that there is a point in time when the boat is completely stopped next to the dock. When making the final approach, always scan the dock for any obstacles and discuss them before anyone steps off. Cleats, faucets, and seashells & wet surfaces can cause a trip or a slip.

What’s our official policy? The skipper should know what tools are available to him or her and judge based on the boat, the crew, and the conditions which tools to use. They should be properly trained to step on and off the boat the right way and properly trained to handle lines from the boat. We prefer to see the lines handled from the boat whenever possible, but we understand that in some cases it’s not the most comfortable or safe way to solve the problem at hand.

If you are headed to the pump-out dock or to your slip and we are available, we are happy to come down and give you some docking tips if it helps you to learn our favorite line-handling techniques. Just give us a call with a few minutes warning and if we are available, we’ll be there.

Be safe, keep your crew safe, and practice enough to take the stress out of the equation!

Posted in Skipper's Tip | Tagged | Leave a comment

Control Your Jib Sheets

Summer is almost here!  Our typical summer wind patterns are filling in, with their associated positive and negative sides.  To the positive, the sailing has been phenomenal!  If you haven’t gotten out on the water, GO!

Here is a big negative.  In the past month we have needed to replace several clear plastic dodger window panels!  The cause is simple.  Not controlling jib sheets during tacking, crew overboard practice, reefing, and furling operations.  High winds and luffing jibs cause sheets to flail wildly.  When this happens, bad things result.  I personally have seen a broken nose, black eyes, split lips, lost eye glasses, and a number of broken dodger windows.  Here’s how to avoid all of these problems.

*Note from Matt: Don’t forget the missing dorade covers that disappear off the decks for the same reason! It’s also been the cause of bent/broken deck hatches in the past – the lazy sheet can get caught under the lip of a hatch and ends up getting lifted with all of the force of the wind in the jib on the next tack.

While tacking, take the jib sheet out of the winch cleat, but do not release the wraps immediately.  Start the tack and wait until the jib begins to back-wind slightly before releasing it.  Trim immediately on the opposite side and the sheet will not have a chance to flail.

When reefing or furling in high winds, DO NOT try to furl while on a close haul or close reach.  Instead, bear away to a deep broad reach.  Ease the main and allow it to blanket the jib.  The process of rolling the jib up will now be easier and won’t involve any flailing sheets.

*Note from Matt: This should be S.O.P.! Practice it every time you furl a sail. You know that point on a run when you are steering down wind and it’s hard to keep the jib full of wind because you turned downwind just a little too far? That’s the main blocking the wind – and it’s the perfect time to furl the jib. There’s almost no wind in it, it’s not flogging, it should roll up easily and neatly with minimal effort!

If you are doing crew overboard practice, furl the jib first (while on a broad reach,) and practice on main alone.  No flailing jib sheets!

As an added benefit, luffing jibs and flailing sheets are very noisy.  Loud noises on a sailboat result in uncomfortable and/or fearful crew.  Control those sheets and your crew is going to have a much better time.

Posted in General, Skipper's Tip | 1 Comment

Brandy’s Chartering Tips – The first night…

Whenever possible, book your charter so that you are staying on the boat the first night at the marina you are departing from. The advantages are numerous.

Staying at the departure location the first night allows you to get settled in and unpacked without hurry. You will have time to get to know the layout of your boat and learn how your systems work. You can take the time to familiarize yourself with all of the switches, valves, and other equipment before you are out of reach of the support of the charter company.

If possible, try to use all of the systems of the boat before you get underway and out to that remote anchorage. By cooking, eating and showering on board the first night, you will discover any non-working equipment while you can still get help from the charter company to fix it before you go. We have some examples from our last two charters, none of which were any type of issue because they were fixed before we left the dock. Clogged shower drain filters, non-working fuel gauges, leaking fresh water systems – all of these things occur regularly on charter boats and the maintenance staff can’t possibly find everything unless it has been reported by the previous charterer.

Staying on the boat the night before you leave will also give you time to leisurely go through your provisioning and make any runs to the local markets without the pressure of getting the boat underway and getting to your first anchorage before night-fall.

Note: Since you did use the galley and the showers, be sure to top off your water again before you leave in the morning!

Posted in Chartering | Tagged | 1 Comment

A Captain’s Responsibilty

“I can handle anything that happens!”

Have you ever gotten a chill from something someone has said.  I heard this statement this morning, and I can honestly say the statement scared me more than I could have imagined.  The statement was made in response to Tradewinds “grounding the fleet” due to weather conditions.  The forecast, and the reason for grounding the fleet, was heavy rain, gale force winds, and thunderstorms.

A few of the potential “things” that might happen on a day like that include:

  • An accidental jibe caused by the wind shifting during a gust.  You may not realize it, however, gusts do not come from the same direction as the prevailing winds, they rotate around and come from further to the right, which means if you are on a broad reach on a starboard tack, a strong gust can easily cause a jibe.
  • A broach.  A broach is a sudden change in direction caused by the forces on the sailing overcoming the ability of the hull to track a straight line.  An over trimmed mainsail can easily cause a broach in a gust.
  • Demasting.  A flaw in the rig can cause the mast to come down during gusty conditions.  I was listening to the VHF one day a few years back.  Two different boats were demasted, one a schooner with two masts.  Both came down.  The conditions that day were very similar to the forecast for today!
  • A lightning strike!  I don’t know about you, however, I don’t want to be sitting at the base of a fifty-foot-tall lightning rod in the middle of a thunderstorm.
  • Crew overboard.   Gale force gusty winds are going to result in very wavy conditions, with a great deal of erratic healing.  Add to that wet decks and you have the perfect recipe for a crew member going overboard, in conditions which will make it extremely difficult to effect a recovery.

Which brings me to the point of this skipper’s tip.  Legally and morally, a captain’s responsibility is the safety of crew and vessel.  Your skills may be strong  enough to control or lessen some of the above situations, however, you can not “handle” them all.  You do not have control over a lightning strike.  Your skills are not going to keep a crew member from falling overboard during a “freak combination of events”, and what happens if that crew member is you?  You are not going to keep a mast up if the fitting at the top of the shroud lets go or the spreader breaks under the pressure of a gust.  Even if your skills are outstanding, what is the skill level of your crew?  Can they “handle” whatever happens?

I personally average 3 to 4 days a week on the water.  I have a total of over a thousand days sailing.  I like to think I know what I am doing, however, more importantly, I have a pretty good idea of when I don’t know.  Today is one of those days!    There is no way I would go out today unless I had no other choice.  If you have been sailing for 5 years, averaging 1 day a month, you probably are getting pretty good.  Good enough that you shouldn’t be thinking “I can handle it”.  Instead, start thinking of the reasons why you might not be able to.  That is being a responsible captain!

Note from Matt: We don’t lightly make the decision to ground the fleet. We want you out on the water and sailing, that’s what makes the business run! When we do keep the boats in, it’s after watching the weather very closely, usually for several days, and even then we won’t make the final call until the evening before or morning of. If it looks like one of those days is coming up when you have a reservation, you’ll want to check in with us before you make the drive to the marina. Before you decide to argue with the staff about it, think about the fact that 90% of everyone has already made the decision to cancel on their own, and we are only talking to a select few – if this looks like your type of sailing conditions, perhaps it’s time to get your own boat to experience it on! Even if everything turns out just fine from your point of view, these kinds of conditions are extraordinarily hard on rigging, fittings, sails, rudder systems, and all kinds of other parts that you may or may not be able to think of! It’s really not fair to call this ‘wear and tear’ and bill a boar owner!

Posted in General, Skipper's Tip | 6 Comments

Downwind Slip Skipper’s Tip!

Got the blues leaving the downwind slips?

With the onset of summer and the steady winds, we’ve seen a few close calls in the fairway. This looks like a great time to publish a docking skipper’s tip!

When backing out of a downwind slip (wind is blowing into the slip), our Tradewinds acronym L.O.T. is absolutely critical.

Location – should be the far side of the fairway from your slip – as far upwind from the slip as you can safely be.

Orientation – the boat should be as close to perpendicular to the slip (bow is pointed down the fairway) as possible before we make our…

Transition – transition to forward motion (motion, not gear – the gear change happens while we are still moving backward, and we need to remember to steer based on the direction of motion, not the gear we are in!) should be accomplished with enough forward throttle and rudder adjustment to keep the boat pointed in the right direction. Stronger wind will require more throttle and/or rudder to accomplish this, while in light winds we can use very little of either and do fine.

Here are some diagrams to help with the explanation (click them for a larger view):

In this image, our Location is great – the safer, upwind side of the fairway. Unfortunately, our Orientation is not good (our bow is pointed at the docks). Since our boat steers from the stern, we can’t get our bow around before the wind takes us back to the other side of the fairway and into the docks. If we find ourself in position 3 above, we should consider driving back into the slip and starting over rather than trying to make the difficult Transition and turn against the wind forcing our bow down. In this image, our Orientation is good (bow pointed in the right direction), but we’ve already made a large mistake in our Location (the downwind side of the fairway). Making the Transition from postion 3 is a bad idea and will result in being blown back into the docks. If we are in this position, the safest way to attempt recovery is to continue to back with enough speed to steer to the upwind side of the fairway in reverse before making our Transition to forward motion. In this example, we are Located on the safe, upwind side of the fairway, our Orientation is in the correct direction, perpendicular to the docks (bow pointed down the fairway), and we have plenty of room and time to make a smooth Transition to forward motion and exit the docks. Well done!
Posted in Club, Skipper's Tip | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Fairway Turns – Plan Ahead

If you didn’t think about it 10 minutes ago you waited too long!

When it comes to fairway turns, you never get to select the timing, therefore, always be ready.  I had this reinforced in a Basic Coastal Cruising class yesterday.  We were exploring the limits of the BCC practice area including “destinations.”  While checking out the docks at Sam’s, a boat backed out of a slip in front of us.  In this case, we were able to just put it in reverse and back out, however, in another case a fairway turn might have been required.  Knowing ahead of time what to do “if” something happened prevented the need to make a snap, and possibly incorrect, judgement.  This time, We knew ahead of time we were in the middle of the fairway, with little wind, on a boat with minimal prop walk.  Just the right conditions to back out.  If any of these three factors had been different, a fairway turn probably would have been in order.  Always think about the situation when pulling into a fairway or for that matter, any close quarters situation.  It’s all part of the Location, Orientation, Transition process.  Plan out ahead of time what maneuver(s) you are need to do, and what options are available in the event of a problem.

Let’s say you are in the fairway approaching the slip you plan to dock in.  There are a number of things you should know before you need to.

  • Port prop walk vs. starboard prop walk?  Which direction will you most likely turn while executing a fairway turn?  Turning away from prop walk allows the prop walk to assist in the turn.  Turning the other way is possible if other conditions are there to assist.
  • Is the intended slip to port or starboard.  Turning into a slip located to port means you are most likely set up on the starboard side of the fairway.  If so, you may not have room to make a normal fairway turn to starboard.  Will the boat you are on and the conditions execute a fairway turn the opposite direction?
  • Where is the wind.  Wind from ahead generally helps a fairway turn.  Wind from astern hinders it.   With the wind coming from the side, turning towards the wind is generally easier than turning away from the wind.  When you start the turn, the momentum of the bow will help get the bow through the wind.  Once the bow is through the wind, the wind finishes the turn for you.  All you need to do is keep from blowing backwards.  Turning away from the wind pits several forces against you.  The momentum of the boat is downwind.  The wind blows the boat downwind.  When you think you are “almost done,” and shift into forward throttling up, the boat surges downwind!  As you make the turn trying to get back to the middle of the fairway from the lee side, the stern slides downwind.  There is only a certain about of room downwind before something hard is encountered!  The same problem happens when you back out of a downwind slip, and don’t get the bow oriented a bit to windward.  I personally have seen more collisions at that point of a slip departure or a fairway turn than all other reasons combined!
  • Are you looking for telltales a boat is about to move?  Coolant exhaust, crew at the ready handling dock lines, and a helms-person standing behind the wheel are all clues that something is about to change.

The moral of the story … “stuff” happens, plan ahead to avoid anxiety and possibly expensive damages.

Posted in General | Leave a comment

“Laws” of Close Quarters Boat Handling

We all recognize there are “laws of nature.”   Things like “what goes up, must come down.” Or, “spring follows winter.”  While watching a great number of docking maneuvers the past 10 years I have come to the conclusion there are also Laws of Close Quarters Boat Handling.  There are probably more, however, I think these sum up most of the “situations” I have seen.

  1. No matter what you have been told, it does not drive “just like a car!”
  2. Slow is pro … too slow won’t go!
  3. Given two or more options, a scared helms-person will nearly always pick the wrong choice!
  4. The first and last 100′ are always the most nerve wracking!
  5. Spring is a beautiful time of year … and spring lines are a beautiful things to use!

It’s not a car!  I enjoy teaching teenagers how to sail.  Teenagers young enough to have never driven a car.  They just seem to get it.  They have no expectations as to what the boat is going to do, so they just go with it.  I can’t tell you how many times I have seen an adult put the tiller over the wrong direction, and when the boat turns the wrong way, move it further the same direction. Don’t laugh.  I don’t think I have had more than ten students of all the Basic Keelboat students I have taught that did not do it at least once during class. If you put that same tiller into the hands of someone that has never driven, when the boat goes the wrong way they reverse the tiller, and the next time do it the correct direction.  I believe part of the confusion is boats do not handle like cars.  For example;

  • A car steers from the front while a boat steers from the stern.  If the stern moves to port, the bow moves to starboard.  We tend to look at the bow and think we are steering into the slip when actually, the stern is moving laterally, and the bow is just going along, in the opposite direction, for the ride.
  • With a car, the front end follows the back end.  A boat pivots on a point near the middle of the boat … and, that point moves.  The faster you go, the further forward the pivot point moves.  When stopped, the pivot point on every sailboat is different, however, generally just about the mast.  As a matter of fact, if you visualize the mast extending all the way through the boat and down into the mud your fairway turns will improve dramatically.  The goal of a fairway turn is to turn the boat in it’s own length.  It works on a boat because of the pivot point.  That will never happen in a car, where the best you can hope for is a “doughnut.”
  • By it’s very nature, a boat is never sitting completely still.  Even in a slip with dock lines secured a boat moves.  Take the dock lines off and the boat is at the mercy of wind, current, and momentum.  You might think you are stopped.  You are not.
  • A car has brakes.  The closest thing to a brake on a boat is shifting to the other direction, and when you do, the boat doesn’t just slow and stop.  The stern is going to do some lateral movement, with the bow moving the opposite direction.  As an example shift into reverse and as the boat slows its forward momentum, the stern will move the direction of the prop walk.  Shift into forward while turning and prop wash moves the stern away from the direction of the turn (tries to point you back the direction you came from.)

Enough of the examples … just remember … it’s not a car, never will be a car, and doesn’t handle like a car.

Slow is pro!  Don’t go any faster than you are willing to hit something, and don’t hit anything any harder then you are willing to sign a check for.  Sadly, there isn’t a hard fast “go XX knots” for every set of circumstances.  With no wind and current, it works great to bring the boat to a stop with the pivot point even with the center line of the slip and then “rotate” the boat 90 degrees to line up with the slip.  In that case, zero is a great speed.  Don’t ever try that in wind and current, it doesn’t work well, especially when turning to an upwind slip.  A bit of speed is needed to control the turn, all the while knowing that the faster you go, the faster things go wrong, and the more damage is done.

Speaking of things going wrong, a scared helms-person will nearly always do the wrong thing, and often, that “thing” is more power when less is better.  You see it over and over.  During a fairway turn, the boat reaches a point where it is sideways to the fairway, and begins to blow to the lee side of the fairway, which also happens to be the direction the bow is headed.  The helms-person realizes there is a problem, but instead of just shifting into reverse and “pulling” the boat back to windward, he throttles up in forward trying to spin around before hitting the boats in front.  When that happens, wind and momentum are both pushing towards danger, not away, and unfortunately, even if the bow makes it around in time, the stern swings wide and impacts a boat or two and maybe a concrete post.  How do you overcome the tendency to do the wrong thing?  Plan ahead.  Location … Orientation … Transition.  Where do I want to be?  How should the boat be oriented?  What are the steps to my transition to whatever I am transitioning to?  Using the same example, the transition is from a fairway turn where the boat is rotating in place, to motoring in forward down the fairway.  When you start to transition you should be located on the windward side of the fairway.  You should be oriented straight down the fairway (or possibly with the bow a bit to windward).  Definitely not still pointed to the lee side!  When you have proper location and orientation, the transition is a simple as straighten the rudder, shift into forward, and throttle up.  The more planning you do and the more “this could happen” preparation you make, the more likely you will not get scared, and you will be much more likely to make the right decision under pressure.   As I write this, I am still wet from a small rain “squall” that came across during a docking class.  During the time is took to motor down the fairway between the dock and the rocks, turn into the correct fairway, and negotiate into the slip, the wind went from less than 10 knots from the SW to nearly 25 knots from the NW (right down the center of the fairway).  Ten minutes later, after the next student departed the slip with 22 knots on the beam, the wind shifted again.  Before we could get the boat turned around and back to her slip the wind was back from the SW at 2 knots.  In both cases, our original docking plans needed to be changed during the process.  Planning ahead made for a non issue.

The first and last 100 feet are the challenging part.  Always plan for the first and last 100 feet before actually getting into them.  Again, Location, Orientation, Transition.  Before leaving a slip, know what you are going to be doing every foot of the first 100 feet.  When docking, know what you are going to be doing every foot of the last 100 feet.  An adage to live by is, “if you didn’t think about it 10 minutes ago, you waited too long.”

A spring line is a wonderful thing!  I’m not sure how I handled docking and departing before learning how to use a spring line!  This isn’t the place for detailed instruction of use of a spring line, however, you should be proficient at each of the following spring line maneuvers.  In describing a spring line, aft and forward refer to the direction the line travels away from the boat.  Bow, waist, and stern refer to the boat’s cleat used.

Spring Line Departures:

  • Use an aft bow spring to spring out the stern.
  • Use a forward stern spring to spring out the bow.
  • Use an aft bow spring in a slip to control the tendency of the wind to push the bow to leeward while steerage speed is obtained.

Spring Line Docking:

  • Use an aft waist spring to “pull” the boat to a leeward side tie.
  • Use an aft bow spring and prop wash to bring the stern to the dock.
  • Use a bow/waist loop as a spring to bring the stern to the dock.  This is really two springs in one … a forward bow spring and a forward waist spring.

These are just the beginning … there are other great uses for a spring line. In a  situation where strong wind and prop walk are both “forcing” the bow the wrong direction during a slip departure, an aft waist spring (in the hands of qualified crew) running to a dock cleat at the end of the slip on the side opposite of wind and prop walk forces the boat to turn the correct direction.   The same spring line (again, in the hands of qualified crew) works the other way if backing into a challenging slip location (fender up … the boat will be rotating around the dock!)

Here is a sixth “law” to consider.  The person yelling the loudest is most likely the one that screwed up.  He is trying to get others to fix his mistake, all the while blaming someone else.

Keep these laws of close quarters boat handling in mind and your boat handling skills will improve!

Posted in General | 1 Comment

Leeward Docking at the Pump Out Station

Earlier, we looked at windward docking at the D dock pump out station.  In this installment, we explore docking to leeward of the same dock.  The choice of going to windward or leeward is entirely the skipper’s.  Docking to windward is very easy, however the departure requires some effort.  Docking to leeward can be challenging, but the departures are a piece of cake.

There are two basic techniques while going to leeward.  Interestingly, the boat handling process is nearly identical.  The only difference; with one the goal is to stop the boat parallel to the dock and with the other, try to stop with the bow almost touching and the stern a few feet out.  The primary difference is how the lines are set up and handled.  Both options require a dock line of about the same length as the length of the boat.

TurningTo begin either docking option, approach the dock in forward at an angle.  Depending upon circumstances, the angle can be anywhere from about 20 to 90 degrees.  As the boat nears the dock, start a turn with the goal of bringing the boat parallel to the dock.  To help me know when to turn, I use a simple visual trick.  When the boat visually “touches” the dock, I begin my turn.  When coming straight at the dock, this seems to be the spot that leaves just the right amount of space to complete a 90 degree turn without hitting the dock.  All that is left is figuring out how fast to turn.   Once the boat is along side the dock, option 1 or 2 below comes into play.

Aft Waist SpringOption 1:  Cleat hitch the line to a waist cleat.  Bring the boat to a stop parallel to the dock and get the line around a dock cleat more or less even with the transom.  Secure the line at the waist cleat (or a convent winch) and place the boat in forward at a low RPM.  The force of the propeller against the line moves the boat towards the dock. Slow the approach by turning away from the dock; speed the approach by turning toward the dock.

Bow Waist LoopOption 2:  This option only works when placing the “prop walk side of the boat” against the dock.  Tie a loose loop of line from the bow cleat to the waist cleat. Bring the bow as close to a dock cleat as possible and hold position.  Use a boat hook to place the loop around the cleat.  Reverse at a low RPM and let the prop walk bring the boat slowly to the dock.

Departures can’t be any easier.  Cast off the dock lines and let the wind blow you away.  Once cleat motor off.

My own personal choice is to dock to leeward whenever possible.  I find it easier to dock to leeward than depart to windward.  Your choice is yours, however, as you can see, the choice doesn’t involve “U turns” in close quarters situations.

Posted in General | 2 Comments