Expert yachtsmaster Bill Johnson outlines his five golden rules for manoeuvring

Expert yachtsmaster Bill Johnson releases his book Manoeuvring: At Close Quarters Under Power this week. We asked the long-distance sailor, who stopped logging miles somewhere around the 50,000 mark, for his five golden rules for manoeuvring under power.

Bill says: Picking out just five rules is a bit of a challenge but perhaps these are the top guidelines to remember:

1: Use the tide

Always arrive at, and depart from, the berth or mooring against the flow of the tide – if there is any tide at all.

If you go in the same direction as the tidal flow, while the yacht is moving forward it may nevertheless be stationary in the water – so completely unable to steer with the rudder. This is likely to make manoeuvring tricky.

If you go against the flow of the tide – and this may mean going astern, particularly when leaving a visitors’ pontoon – you will be in complete control with the helm all the time. You can also use the tide to your advantage: you can approach the berth or mooring as slowly as you like, or ‘ferry glide’ across the tide to get into (or out of) a tight berth sideways.

Manoeuvring: At Close Quarters Under Power is published by Adlard Coles Nautical. You can buy the book online for the discounted price of £13.49.

For more tips, click the pages below.

Go slowly

As a general rule, the slower you go the better – it gives you more time to think, and causes far less damage if it goes wrong. The good news is that 90% of the time you can go as slowly as you like, and keep the yacht under full control.

There are some situations when you need use a bit more speed during a manoeuvre, and these generally involve the wind. A touch more speed through the water will give you more steerage so you can stop the bows from being blown sideways.

Leaving a finger berth in a strong cross wind? Provided there aren’t any obstructions behind you, get the yacht out quickly, like a cork out of a bottle.

Take it calmly, don’t panic, and don’t try to show off

I know this is completely against some skippers’ natures, but it goes with the ‘take it slowly’ rule. It is particularly important if you ever want your crew to sail with you again. If they’re your family, for instance.

We’ve probably all seen examples yachts in marinas, roaring their engines as they accelerate forward, forced to use equal power to stop the yacht in its tracks before it collides with something else. The crew are rushing around with fenders in their hands and worried looks on their faces.

The panic, by the way, is signified by the skipper’s shouting. However imperious it sounds, it is a sure sign of naked fear.

And the showing off? Try flying a spinnaker up a crowded Hamble river and dropping it at the first bend. Then when the halyard jams and everyone rushes forward to sort it out, the guy at the helm starts the engine without noticing the sheets and guys trailing in the water…

Not everything is possible

People get in trouble by thinking they ‘ought’ to be able to achieve a particular manoeuvre, rather than trusting their own judgement if they think it’s too difficult.

The very first manoeuvre on my instructor exam was, naturally, leaving the marina. The unfortunate candidate who was picked to do it made the obvious assumption: ‘Surely this must be possible if the examiner has asked me to do it?’

But the wind and the yacht’s prop walk made the ‘obvious’ manoeuvre practically impossible. After the initial cock-up, the examiner suggested trying out different approaches to make the manoeuvre work, and we spent the next hour or so doing this. (The first guy passed, by the way.)

If you come back from a charter, and are faced with a blustery wind and strong ebb tide into your down-stream facing berth, then consider the option of parking on the hammer- head, walking up to the charter office and inviting them to have a go (they’ll probably leave it there till the next morning).

Try to do what the yacht ‘wants’ to do

Yachts are like people: it is much easier to get them to do what they want to do in the first place.

Very often there will be an easy way and a hard way to turn a yacht. The bows will tend to turn away from the wind, and prop walk will help in one direction and not in the other. Look at both options, and try to go with what the yacht ‘wants’ to do.

The corollary of this rule is ‘If the yacht is already doing what you want it to do, don’t interfere.’ If you are turning the way you want to, to get out of a tight spot, or drifting slowly away from a mooring buoy after slipping, simply wait. Don’t rush into gear and run over the mooring.

And finally…

The real key to manoeuvring a yacht under power is understanding what’s going on, and being able to anticipate how the yacht is going to behave. That’s why ‘Manoeuvring’ starts with a comprehensive chapter about ‘How a Yacht Behaves and Why’, before going into what you do in different circumstances.

So good luck and good yachting!

Manoeuvring: At Close Quarters Under Power is published by Adlard Coles Nautical. If you buy the book online you can get it for the discounted price of £13.49.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Go slowly
  3. 3. Take it calmly, don't panic, and don't try to show off
  4. 4. Not everything is possible
  5. 5. Try to do what the yacht 'wants' to do
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