Dinghy skills for cruis­ers

What can a lapsed cruis­ing sailor learn from a dinghy course? A lot, as Ali Wood dis­cov­ers when she re­turns to the wa­ter for her RYA Level 3

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

A lapsed cruis­ing sailor has a bap­tism of ice on a dinghy course

I’ve never cap­sized on a yacht. As crew, I’ve grounded on sand­banks, hit rocks, lost a chain­plate and Chi­nese-gybed on the Round the Is­land race, but I’ve al­ways man­aged to stay dry. Even on sun-drenched Greek beach­club hol­i­days, I rarely cap­sized the dinghies – and if I did... well it’s just like tak­ing a bath, isn’t it?

Not in Dorset in the mid­dle of win­ter, it isn’t. A bap­tism of ice, you might say.

Af­ter three chil­dren and an eight-year hia­tus from sail­ing, I was des­per­ate to get back on the wa­ter. I joined Hengist­bury Head Adults Sailors Club (HHASC) for a course run by the Hengist­bury Head Out­door Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre (HHOEC), an RYA Train­ing Es­tab­lish­ment near Christchurch. It’s on the shore of a beau­ti­ful har­bour; an Iron Age trad­ing port fringed by sandy beaches and wildlife­filled marshes.

For £12 an­nual mem­ber­ship and £10 pay-as-you-go sail­ing, it couldn’t have been bet­ter. My rusty Coastal Skip­per skills and race crew­ing ex­pe­ri­ence proved enough to get me round the cans so the se­nior in­struc­tor sug­gested I take the RYA Level 3 course. And they were run­ning it at a spe­cial pre-sea­son price too good to refuse. Level 3 is a pro­gres­sion from know­ing how to sail – some­thing you can fake on big boats with all the gad­gets – to sail­ing ef­fi­ciently. Dinghies, I dis­cov­ered, are un­for­giv­ing.

Chilly start

I woke to a Force 4, scraped the ice off my car, and drove to the club where the slip­way had been af­fected by the week­end’s snow­fall. But any hopes of can­cel­la­tion were dashed when Henry and Rob, our ebul­lient in­struc­tors, told us to get kit­ted up. Decked in thermals, a wet­suit, and a pair of pink Marigolds un­der my sail­ing gloves I helped rig the boats – a mix­ture of Hart­ley 12s, Way­far­ers and Quests.

To be­gin with, we sailed a tri­an­gu­lar course to demon­strate our abil­ity, and prac­tised the five essen­tials: course, set­ting, bal­ance, trim and dag­ger­board. Or, as some­one help­fully sug­gested, the mnemonic ‘chil­dren sail bet­ter than dads.’

I chose to sail a Quest with my friend Bri­ony. We were hav­ing a hoot blast­ing around in 20-knot gusts, when we cap­sized at the down­wind mark. Christchurch is a shal­low har­bour, so when Bri­ony fell on top of the sail, I was trapped un­der­neath it in 3ft of icy wa­ter. Aside from the pain of the cold, I could taste the wa­ter; brack­ish not salty, and was con­fused by the muf­fled scrab­bling above me. I could see the sky through the sail, but couldn’t reach it. I pushed up sev­eral times be­fore re­al­is­ing that 11sqm of Dacron with a per­son on top wasn’t go­ing to budge. There was noth­ing for it but to swim un­der­neath. It seems so ob­vi­ous now, but the shock of cold wa­ter can re­ally fud­dle your brain!

At the class­room de­brief, while hug­ging my cup of tea to my chest, I dis­cov­ered why we’d cap­sized.

“Cap­siz­ing on the gybe is a rookie er­ror,” said Henry. “In these winds you

want to keep a steady course through the gybe. It should be a nice, slow curv­ing ma­noeu­vre, so once out of the gybe you’ve al­ready had time to make your ad­just­ments.”

We learned that on the Quest and Hart­ley you can pull the falls to con­trol the gybe early with your hands – so the boom doesn’t just smash across. On a Way­farer you can do this with the kick­ing strap. Also, when sail­ing down­wind in strong gusts, by lift­ing the cen­tre­board three quar­ters, it won’t bite in and twitch, and will make the gybe smoother. You’ll skid like a car, rather than heel over.

“These things can be done at this stan­dard or Olympic stan­dard and ev­ery­thing in be­tween,” said

Rob. “The more men­tal ef­fort the less phys­i­cal ef­fort.”

Rob ex­plained the im­por­tance of the sit­ting po­si­tions, or ‘trim’. With two crew sit­ting fur­ther apart along the cen­tre­line, there was less rock­ing and more sta­bil­ity go­ing into the gybe.

For­mula One tac­tics

For course ef­fi­ciency, Rob ad­vised: “Think like a For­mula One rac­ing car. Out wide, in tight. Don’t aim for the gybe mark,” he said, point­ing to a course drawn on the white­board. “The same ap­plies when you’re com­ing across the wind. Set your­self two boat-widths away from the buoy so you’ve al­ready tacked and hard­ened up as you pass it. It’s about pre-empt­ing the course. Tell the crew early be­cause by the time you do it, the helm’s stuck at the back with the main­sheet tied round their feet and the tiller stuck in their bot­tom!”

Back out­side, Henry showed us how to reef as the wind had in­creased fur­ther. “A tidy boat’s a happy boat,” he quipped, pop­ping the reef­ing line and hal­yards into the Quest sail pocket.

He demon­strated tack­ing us­ing the dag­ger grip, and how you can sail with the main­sheet be­hind your back un­til you’re ready to get into the nor­mal po­si­tion.

“See how Henry did two-handed pulling,” said Rob. “In heavy winds if you don’t get the sail in fast it starts flog­ging, the boat leans over and you lose con­trol.”

Back on the wa­ter

Donned in wet­suit num­ber two, which I as­pired to keep dry, I went back out on the wa­ter... and cap­sized again, this time on the up­wind mark. The tide had taken us so high of the buoy that in­stead of ap­proach­ing it close-hauled, we came in on a beam reach and had to change the an­gle by 80°, not 30°. Though we were primed for this and sheeted in fast – we didn’t turn quickly enough and be­came over­pow­ered on a close reach. We should have ei­ther sheeted in slower or headed up quicker. ‘In wide, out tight,’ echoed Rob’s words in my head as I clam­bered onto the dag­ger­board and pulled the boat up­right.

Later, we prac­tised ly­ing-to, some­thing I’d rarely done on a cruis­ing yacht. It’s a ba­sic tech­nique that dinghy sailors use a lot. We did hove-tos first (back­ing the jib, re­leas­ing the main­sail and push­ing the tiller away) and then moved on to ly­ing to. Whilst hov­ing-to takes a while to get out of, ly­ing-to is a quick way to stop, start and con­trol your speed when com­ing along­side a safety boat or do­ing ‘fol­low my leader’. It in­volves nudg­ing into the wind and re­leas­ing your sails on a close reach so they flap. It sounds easy but find­ing the close reach, then mov­ing into the ‘no go zone’ was harder than I re­alised.

“Don’t go into the no-go zone for too long, or you’ll get locked in irons,” called Henry. “But don’t go in too quickly ei­ther, or you’ll carve into the wind and straight back

out. You need to be head­ing into the wind for quite a while for it to slow your boat down.”

When it fi­nally clicked, I found it so sat­is­fy­ing to be hurtling along one minute then sim­ply come to a gen­tle stop, and speed up or slow down at my leisure, even in strong winds. To­mor­row we’d prac­tice man over­board drills when this new tech­nique would re­ally come into its own.

By 4pm we were pretty cold, so re­turned to the club house and warmed up with tea, cake and a de­brief. We dis­cussed how to find the close reach – when you let your sails out you stop, and when you pull them in you go. It’s the only point of sail­ing you can do this.

Rob drew a MOB on the white­board, in­di­cated the wind di­rec­tion, and showed us how to ap­proach the ca­su­alty.

“Why can’t you just ap­proach from any di­rec­tion and turn into the wind?” some­one asked.

“Be­cause that’s not good sea­man­ship,” he replied. “You’ll be go­ing far too fast. You need to be in con­trol and ap­proach slowly with your sails flap­ping. At no point should the boom be flap­ping as you’re not point­ing di­rectly into the wind.”

“Can’t you just hove-to?” asked an­other.

“No, be­cause you’ll go too quickly side­ways. You need to lie-to, not hove-to.”

Rob and Henry con­grat­u­lated us on the first day’s sail­ing. It’s not easy try­ing to learn new skills in Force 4-5. Hope­fully to­mor­row the wind would be lighter.

Light winds at last

The fol­low­ing day gave us glo­ri­ous sun­shine and not a breath of wind. It couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent. We started in the class­room, hop­ing the wind might fill in while we cov­ered some the­ory.

“Level 2 is about know­ing the five essen­tials,” said Rob. “Level 3 is about the skil­ful and ef­fi­cient use of them. In light winds, you need to do ev­ery­thing dif­fer­ently, but the good news is you’ll learn faster.” He talked us through them:

Mak­ing your course

Be es­pe­cially mind­ful of the tide, he ad­vised. In light winds, if you aim at the end goal you won’t get there. Point the boat high of the tide and sail a close-reach, drift­ing – or ‘ferry-glid­ing’ – to­wards the mark. Take a tran­sit such as a tree and a house be­hind it. If they drift apart you’re off course.


The good news is that the op­er­a­tion of the cen­tre­board does not change in light winds. Lift it up for down­wind sail­ing.


Trim was one of the big­gest changes we faced com­pared to the pre­vi­ous day’s con­di­tions.

“In light airs the tran­som grips the wa­ter at the back of the boat – where the rud­der sits,” said Rob. “You see those beau­ti­ful Amer­ica’s Cup sloops where the back lifts off as much as the front? They scoop up to re­duce that grip. We can recre­ate that in our Quest or Hart­ley 12 by putting weight for­ward to lift it off the wa­ter. This can dou­ble your boat speed in light airs.”


If the wind doesn’t have enough strength to hold the sail, sit on the lee­ward side to tip the boat so the sail still hangs in a curve. At the first puff of wind, it will turn into an aero­dy­namic shape. As soon as you have enough wind, go back to hav­ing a flat boat.

“Think about whether you’re over- or un­der­pow­ered,” said Rob. “Get the crew to do the mov­ing while the helm stays in a sen­si­ble sail­ing po­si­tion.”

Sail set­ting

“You need to en­cour­age air­flow over the sails,” ex­plained Rob. “Too deep a curve and the air can’t get round; too flat it sim­ply won’t work. Ad­just the sail-con­trols – the main­sheet, kicker, Cun­ning­ham and out­haul.”

Henry added: “Also, use your tell-tales. When go­ing up­wind, as a gen­eral rule you want them straight 75% of the time and flick­er­ing around the back 25% (when you’re try­ing to get more out of your sail).”

Per­fect part­ners

By this time, there was a lovely light breeze. We went out­side and part­nered up. At HHASC I usu­ally pick a Laser Pico as I love sin­gle-hand­ing. How­ever, on the Level 3 course we had to share boats and swap part­ners. This was fun too.

No sooner had we launched, my first part­ner Dave men­tioned he was wear­ing hear­ing aids and would rather not cap­size. Thank good­ness we weren’t paired up yes­ter­day!

We did cen­tre­board­less sail­ing in the river, us­ing our weight for­ward to dig the bow in, and prac­tised pick­ing up a moor­ing. We then sailed to the Bite, my favourite lit­tle bay in the har­bour, shel­tered by the hilly penin­sula of Hengist­bury Head.

Our goal was to pick up a MOB (a life­jacket at­tached to a buoy). This was en­tirely dif­fer­ent to my cruis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. No ‘MOB’ but­ton on the GPS, or dan buoy, lifebuoy or en­gine to get me in the right di­rec­tion. In­stead, I had my crew shout ‘man over­board’ and point at the MOB whilst I turned onto a beam reach and sailed away. Af­ter about five boat lengths I tacked, aim­ing the lee­ward side of the Quest at the MOB and let out the head­sail and main­sail to see if they’d flap. If they didn’t I wasn’t yet on that mag­i­cal close reach, and had to bear away be­fore try­ing again. Get­ting on a close reach – so you could con­trol your speed by fill­ing and spilling the main­sail – was es­sen­tial. On fi­nally reach­ing the MOB, my crew picked ‘him’ up to lee­ward, aft of the mast.

Af­ter lunch it was race prac­tice time.

I was part­nered with Michelle on a Hart­ley 12, which is smaller than a Quest. Once we fig­ured out our op­ti­mum trim to get the boat flat, it sailed beau­ti­fully. We took turns to helm: we didn’t win any races but we had fun.

Like a lot of peo­ple in the club, shout­ing ‘star­board’ or ‘wa­ter at the mark’ doesn’t come nat­u­rally to me. I’m al­ways hes­i­tant in case some­how I’m in the wrong.

How­ever, Rob wanted to hear us call­ing, so that’s what we did. At one point there were four over­lap­ping boats at the mark and lots of shout­ing. The out­side boat ac­cel­er­ated and snuck past us all.

“The rules were re­ally well obeyed,” Rob said at the de­brief. “A cou­ple of peo­ple did the clas­sic thing of aim­ing too high at the up­wind mark.

“Re­mem­ber you’re rac­ing. It doesn’t mat­ter if you go wider, or tack more. You need to go as fast as you can. Gen­er­ally you’ll still get to the line quicker that way.”

It was time to get our log­books signed. I passed. Not all of us did, but Rob was keen to point out that it didn’t mat­ter. “What mat­ters is that your skill level has gone up. This course is about get­ting on the wa­ter and do­ing the best you can.”

It was so much fun that I’d hap­pily do the course again. Ev­ery­thing we did im­proved my sail­ing no-end. It was fun to do it with fel­low club-mem­bers (in­clud­ing some in­struc­tors who wanted to brush-up on teach­ing skills). Best of all, by be­long­ing to a club I can prac­tise these skills every week with­out even own­ing a boat. And when the kids are older and

I go back to cruis­ing, there’s a good chance I’ll be a much bet­ter sailor.

In­struc­tor rob talks through tack­ing and hold­ing the main­sheet

Class­room work – the five essen­tials

Learn­ing new dinghy skills is so­cia­ble as well as ed­u­ca­tional

Fun on a Quest – with a reefed main­sail

In­struc­tor Henry helps a stu­dent to rig the Quest

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