Do It Under Sail! be ready for when the engine lets you down

Anchoring Under Sail

Do it under sail because it has all been done before. It only takes a bit of thought and preparation. My previous articles in this series have been very analytical. In this final article I become a little anecdotal to make the point.

About 30 years ago as a member of a Clyde based yacht club, I was attending a social function. I had recently returned from my first visit to St.Kilda as a crewmember on a large yacht. I was very animated recalling the highlights of my visit while a quiet and unassuming man in the company prompted me with a few questions. I realised that he must have had his own St.Kilda experience and later that evening as the numbers in the clubhouse diminished, I was able to ask him some questions.

“When were you last there?”

“A very long time ago.”

“Where did you leave from?”

“The Sound of Harris”

“How many of you were there on board?”

“Just me”

His reply to my last question left me speechless: “What size was your yacht?”

“Oh, it was just my 16 foot Wayfarer. I had to hang about a while for a weather window but it was fabulous fun!”

About 25 years ago as a novice skipper on my first sailing holiday in the Med we were the last boat to leave our lunchtime anchorage. It was day one and we were about to pay the price for over running the lunchtime swim and siesta. As the rest of the fleet headed into the distance I realised that we could become the classic last arrival entertainment, prior to the evening meal ashore. The flotilla skipper had briefed us that very morning about Mediterranean mooring and the lead boat gave a perfect 2 handed demonstration. The stern anchor was dropped 3 boat lengths from the jetty by the flotilla hostess and with one hand on the tiller and one hand on the anchor warp the flotilla engineer brought the boat to a stop as the hostess calmly stepped 12 inches from bow to jetty with the shore lines. With the engine running slow ahead the engineer strolled from cockpit to foredeck to adjust the inboard end of the mooring lines as the hostess made them fast ashore. The flotilla skipper had told us not to worry if we didn’t get it right first time. The lead boat would be there ahead of us to guide us through the process.

I started the engine to depart our lunchtime anchorage and one of my 3 crew prepared to lift the hook but something odd was happening, or rather, not happening. It took a while to figure out that the prop was not turning. I called the lead boat on the VHF. The flotilla skipper consulted the flotilla engineer and we were asked to sail towards our evening destination and give them another call when we were a mile off. We had not dug the anchor in very well as it was a short stop so it came up with 2 of us heaving on the cable. We managed to set sail before we drifted ashore and headed off in pursuit of the rest of the fleet. About 2 hours later we called again requesting a tow into the tiny harbour so that we could safely join the rest of the fleet all tied up at the shoreside restaurant. The reply was that the engineer had been called away on personal business and we should keep sailing towards the harbour entrance and await further instructions. We were to roll away the furling headsail and drop the mainsail outside the harbour and have another attempt at starting the engine. The engine duly started but the prop still refused to turn. We were now instructed to prepare an anchor on the bow, unroll half of the headsail and slowly drift into the harbour in the light onshore wind that was blowing. We were asked if we could see the flotilla hostess waving at us at the end of the row of berthed boats. She had some cold beers in one hand and was pointing at a very small parking space with the other hand. The rest of the fleet were of course sitting in comfortable chairs well into their second round of drinks outside the restaurant. “On my command turn into the wind and roll the headsail away. When the boat comes to a stop drop the anchor.” As we came abeam of the flotilla hostess we got the command and did as we were told. The yacht was now at anchor about 4 or 5 boat lengths off the jetty with the stern pointing at the hostess. We were about to get into the dinghy and row ashore to collect the beers but the flotilla skipper had other plans. “Get the fenders on starboard side. Get mooring lines ready on stern. Let out the anchor cable.” We did all that and stopped one boat length short of the jetty. “Tie a mooring line onto the bitter end of the anchor cable and let out again.” As we slid backwards into our berth we got a round of applause from the rest of the fleet. The next morning the engineer fixed the cable linkage which had come adrift at the gearbox. As a novice skipper that was a very eventful day one. The rest of the week was plain sailing.

About 10 years ago I ran an “over the top” RYA Course from the Western Isles to Inverness via the Orkney Isles. At the time I thought it was adventurous and that was what my trainees had signed up for. While tied up in Stromness Harbour I noticed a single hander slowly tack his 27 foot yacht all the way into the inner harbour. I took his lines and helped him tie up alongside Westbound Adventurer. My first question was “Engine failure I assume?” The reply came back “Don’t have one to fail.” My second question was “Where from?” The reply came back “Oslo.”

Later that evening over a wee dram he explained that he was a schoolteacher from Norway on a sabbatical year and was sailing from Oslo to the Med via the Orkneys and hoped to take in the Western Isles on his way south. He pulled out some small scale charts of the Western Isles and asked me if I could recommend any good anchorages. His philosophy was that he was not in a hurry and that installing an engine would give him too many headaches.

About 5 years ago we motored into Puilladobhrain and dropped anchor several times to give the Comp Crew trainees a turn at the sharp end and the Day Skipper trainees a turn at making decisions from the helm. By the time we finished an hour or so of manouvres the anchorage was starting to fill up as it does in the summer months. We had just settled down to drinks in the cockpit when one of my trainees pointed to a yacht “Sailing through that narrow gap!” I explained to my trainees that the yacht was coming in on a safe beam reach at slow speed and that the skipper would probably have been here on previous occasions. What happened next was a lesson for us all.

As the Rival 32 came closer we could see that the anchor was already hanging from the bow roller but there was no crew on the foredeck. As the yacht entered the main pool the headsail was furled away and the yacht manoeuvred through the anchorage under main only. As the bow was brought head to wind the person on the helm walked slowly from cockpit to foredeck. The timing was perfect. As he reached the anchor cable the boat was dead in the water. Down went the hook and the cable was slowly paid out and snubbed off several times. This single handed yachtsman had obviously done it all before. It was another 20 minutes or so before he dropped the main. He sat in the cockpit puffing on his pipe checking that the boat was holding. It was a great lesson in preparation.

If you havn’t dropped anchor under sail before here is the analytical bit:

When preparing candidates for the 8 hour Yachtmaster Offshore Examination I explain that they will have to demonstrate their ability to handle the boat under sail in a close quarter situation. The examiner may request a particular context for this or may give the candidate a choice. I tell people that dropping anchor under sail is easier than doing a MOB under sail or picking up a mooring under sail. In the second and third context you need to stop the boat close to the MOB or within a boat hooks length of the mooring buoy. When dropping anchor under sail there is usually a much wider spot in which you can drop the hook.

The single hander in Puilladobhrain did a “reach and point” to kill the boat speed and got it spot on because he knew his own boat so well. A more controlled way of making the final approach to the spot where you want to drop the hook is by spilling and filling the main with the boat at 60 degrees to the apparent wind. If you have a fully battened mainsail you might need a final luff up to kill the speed or you could try scandalising the main. Remember to release the kicker and mainsheet fully before pulling hard on the topping lift if you are going to scandalise. Whatever method you use the hook goes down when the boat is dead in the water and the cable is gradually let out and snubbed off as outlined in my April article. Don’t drop the main until you are happy that the anchor is holding. To dig it in walk forward of the kicking strap and pull the main towards the shrouds. This may have to be done several times on alternate sides of the boat. As you back the main watch the anchor cable to see if it comes under tension.

If you havn’t tried sailing the anchor out give the following a try and see how it works:

  • Hoist the main but keep the sheet and kicker loose and warn everyone that the boom may be swinging about.
  • If the wind is very light and you have one or 2 crew who want some exercise you could haul on the anchor cable until it breaks out then sail away. If the anchor needs a nudge to break out try backing a bit of headsail.
  • If the wind is anything more than very light try short tacking towards the anchor but tell the person or persons at the sharp end not to haul in the slack on the cable until after each tack.
  • To short tack towards the anchor you will usually need some headsail but keep the headsail small as a large one will foul with the foredeck crew and they will not be happy!
  • If you are trying this for the first time it makes sense to do it in a spot where there is plenty of searoom.

The accompanying photo was taken on 25 July this year. The Clyde Cruising Club were at a high point in their Centenary Celebrations in Vatersay Bay. 100 years ago the visiting herring fleet would come here in May or June each year. They had no engines, no GPS or chart plotter. They sailed of course and would hove-too in safe water until a local boat came to pilot them in. The anchor would be dropped and lifted under sail as readily as we start and stop our inboard diesel engine.