Many people dream of owning a yacht and sailing off into the blue yonder. What boating skills should you have before you buy a yacht?
Handling a yacht requires a range of boating skills that enables a sailor to sail, navigate and berth a yacht safely. If you are thinking of buying, here are a few questions to consider before you make a purchase.
Boating skills questionnaire
- Am I familiar with how to sail and manoeuvre a sailing yacht?
- Do I know all about sail controls, winches and reefing systems?
- Can I sail a boat on all points of sail confidently?
- Am I ok with rope work and knot tying?
- Can I do an engine check?
- Could I spot a potential engine problem before it is too late?
- Do I know how to prepare a passage plan for a day trip?
- Can I plot a course to my next port of call?
- Can I manoeuvre my boat out of a crowded marina with a strong tide running?
- Do I know the meanings of all the channel markers?
- What does a North Cardinal mark look like and what does it mean?
- What is the significance of a buoy with a yellow light?
- Do I know the collision regs?
- Do I have a VHF Short Range Certificate (SRC) ?
- What channel should I be monitoring for the Coastguard?
- Do I know how to convert a magnetic compass course to true?
- Can I plot an estimated position if my GPS fails?
- How are my meteorological skills – do I know how to read a pressure chart?
- How much chain will I to need to let out when anchoring in 5 metres of depth?
- A crew member falls seriously ill when I am out at sea, what do I do?
- What training have I had?
Should you be unsure about any of these questions and topics, then it would be wise to get some training to improve your boating skills before you commit to buying. The usual way to do this is to sign up for a liveaboard sailing course. Ideally, it is best to chose a location close to where you plan to sail most.
A good place to start searching for a sailing course in the USA is the American Sailing Association (ASA) website https://asa.com
The RYA sail cruising courses
RYA sail cruising courses prepare sailors for anything from getting started in sailing to living on board, cruising down the coast or venturing further offshore. Below is a brief summary of what training courses are on offer if you want to improve your boating skills.
RYA Day Skipper
RYA Day Skipper courses consist of a shore based theory course followed by a practical course at sea with a minimum duration of 4 days.
The theory course is taught over 40 hours and covers coastal navigation, pilotage, chart work, weather forecasting, collision regulations, safety procedures and more. This course can be done either online or in a training school classroom. Either way, it requires students to put in a fair amount of homework and fitting this in to an already busy schedule can be quite challenging. There are two exams at the end of the course.
Once you have passed the theory course, then you will be ready to move on to the Day Skipper practical course out on the water. The aim of the course is to learn navigation, pilotage and boat handling up to the level required to skipper a yacht by day safely. This really is the minimum skill level you should be aiming for as a skipper of a small yacht.
RYA Coastal Skipper
RYA Coastal Skipper is a more demanding practical course to consider once you can handle a boat with confidence close to the shore. This course will stretch your abilities and covers more advanced pilotage, boat handling and how to deal with emergency situations.
You will also learn how to prepare a detailed pilotage plan by day and night, advanced weather forecasting, how to handle a yacht in heavy weather and strong winds.
VHF Radio Short Range Certificate (SRC)
Anyone who operates a VHF radio is required by law to have a Short Range Certificate. The RYA administer one day courses which includes a practical and written exam.
This course covers radio operation, use of frequencies and channels, emergency procedures, Digital Selective Calling (DSC), Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), Emergency Position indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) and Search and Rescue (SART).
Sailing is a tremendous pastime and building your sailing knowledge and experience is all part of the fun. It is wise to spend as much time as it takes to master your boating skills before you commit to buying.
- If you have limited boating experience, personal skill advancement is critical
- Research boat training schemes and book yourself onto a training course for your skill level
- Practise your boating skills on the water whenever you get a chance and be prepared to spend time studying ashore
- Make safety your top priority at sea
Check out a selection of RYA training schools in UK and Europe on Safe Skipper here.
Sailing & Motoring in Fog
You can only measure the visibility accurately if sailing & motoring in fog when you have another object in sight so assume that it is less than you think. It can take time to ‘see’ another vessel as you may not be looking directly at it when it first appears.
Speed in fog
You should be able to stop in half the distance of the visibility because a conflicting vessel will need a similar distance to stop. Slow speed is demanded.
Keeping a lookout in fog at sea
Post a crew member to keep a visual lookout, preferably stationed outside as you will be monitoring the radar and the chart plotter as well as trying to keep a lookout.
Using radar at sea
Radar is an important aid in fog but don’t expect it to pick up all the vessels around you particularly when the sea may be lively and wave clutter obstructs the centre of the display, obscuring small vessels.
Using the autopilot
The autopilot can be vital in fog as it avoids you having to concentrate on the steering and allows you to focus on the navigation. Make sure you know where the disconnect button is in case you need manual steering in a hurry.
Navigation in fog
You will not get many visual clues in fog so you will be heavily reliant on the chart plotter and/or the radar. Use both to check each other as well as the depth sounder.
Types of fog
Radiation fog is the one you get in the early morning mainly in harbours and it should clear when the sun warms things up. Advection fog is found at sea when warm moist air flows over a cold sea and needs a change of wind or sea temperature before clearing.
Sailing in fog
Ideally you should not be under sail in fog. You may not be able to manoeuvre quickly, the sail can obstruct visibility and white sails do not show up in fog.
Allow larger safety margins in fog particularly for making a landfall. Moderate your speed so you can stop or take avoiding action in good time.
Make your boat more visible
Have the navigation lights on even in daylight and if you have a searchlight have that one as well facing forward. The radar reflector should be up and working.
About the author:
Dag Pike began his career as a merchant captain, went on to test lifeboats, and took up fast boat navigation, winning a string of trophies for powerboat races around the world, including navigating Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Challenger on the record-breaking fastest Atlantic crossing by powerboat.
He is now a navigation and powerboat journalist in demand all round the world.
There are many ways to communicate with others at sea. What makes the VHF DSC radio the best form of short range communication and why is it recommended?
The controls of a basic VHF DSC radio
There are many ways to communicate with others at sea, ranging from signal flags to satellite phones. While it is not a legal requirement in most countries, leisure vessels are strongly encouraged to use VHF DSC (Digital Selective Calling) radio as their primary means of communication, since this is used by the rescue authorities and commercial shipping. VHF has a maximum range of up to about 30 nautical miles, but for ocean cruising SSB radio is the preferred option as it has a much better range than VHF.
Is VHF DSC radio really necessary for inshore sailing?
It is a mistake to believe that a mobile phone is all that is required for inshore sailing. Mobile phones are a useful back up means of communication but cannot be relied on, as even when close to the shore signal can easily be lost.
VHF DSC radio features
A VHF DSC radio allows users:
- to communicate with shore-based VHF users such as the Coastguard, harbour masters, lock-keepers and marinas
- to dial up other vessels by using a unique identity number
- to have one to one conversations with other vessels
- to send distress alerts at the touch of a button
- to automatically send your vessel’s identification number and position to others
Anyone who uses a VHF DSC radio must have an operator’s licence, the Short Range Certificate. In an emergency, any crew member can use the radio, but it is advisable for those who sail regularly to do the one day course and get their own certificate, so that if for any reason the skipper is unable to use the radio, there are others aboard who know the correct radio procedure and can act quickly if the need arises.
A VHF DSC radio that is linked to a vessel’s GPS shows its position on the display screen, as well as the current time
Fixed radios vs handheld
VHF DSC radios are available as fixed radios attached to a vessel or as handheld, personal radios. It is a good idea to have both types aboard. Fixed radios are generally more powerful and have a better range than handheld radios. The fixed radio’s range is greatly improved when its antenna is fixed to the top of a tall mast. Handheld radios are smaller, portable, most are waterproof and can be very useful in an emergency.
When a VHF DSC radio is turned on it automatically monitors Channel 70 for emergency calls. If another vessel transmits a digital alert then this is picked up by the receiver and causes a high pitched audio alarm to sound. The position of the vessel in distress and the time of the signal are given in text format. Voice communications can continue on Channel 16 as with a standard VHF radio.
- In an emergency anyone may use a VHF DSC radio to call for help on Channel 16.
- A VHF DSC radio may be operated by a non-qualified user under the supervision of a qualified operator
For a complete guide to VHF DSC radio operation, see the Reeds VHF DSC Handbook app:http://safe-skipper.com/reeds_vhf_dsc_handbook/
Essential yacht tender safety – the dangers inherent in using a dinghy to get ashore from a moored or anchored yacht are all too easily underestimated.
A recent experience caused me to have a serious think about essential yacht tender safety. Recently I faced the prospect of coming ashore from my mooring in the pitch dark, in wet, breezy conditions with a strong tide running, over a distance of about 300 metres. I was by myself and it prompted me to ask myself before setting off whether it would be unsafe to use the tender or should I spend the night on board?
Consider your options
Yes, the driest and safest option would have been to stay on board, but I had my wet weather gear and a lifejacket, I hadn’t been drinking and I was confident that my little Zodiac inflatable was up to the job. OK, if the outboard packed up then it would be a challenging row against the fast running tide. However the tide was coming in so I wouldn’t be swept out to sea and, with wind against tide, there were going to be sharp little waves to contend with.
I decided to go for it and quickly got completely soaked by the spray, as did the gear. Finding my way through the boats on their swinging moorings in the pitch darkness was a challenge. I was greatly reassured to have my truly excellent Exposure Marine X2 torch. I would urge all those who use a tender to buy one – expensive but worth every penny. They are waterproof, lightweight and incredibly powerful. For details see here .
There are inherent risks in most boating activities and this includes using a yacht tender to get ashore from a mooring or anchorage. After last week’s soaking, I have compiled some hints and tips about essential yacht tender safety – see below.
Essential yacht tender safety :
- Plan ahead and make notes of the tide state and weather forecast for when you set out and expect to return from a trip.
- Wear lifejackets, even for short trips.
- Wear a killcord, even for short trips.
- Carry oars as back up in case the outboard fails.
- Carry a means of communication – mobile phone in a waterproof cover or a handheld VHF.
- Carry a lightweight, powerful, waterproof torch (see above).
- Don’t overload the dinghy – follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
- Carry a foot pump.
Essential yacht tender safety – other considerations:
- Use bow and stern lines to secure the dinghy alongside – much easier to get on and off.
- Always check you have enough fuel – you can easily be caught out.
- Keep a puncture repair kit ashore and on the yacht – otherwise you can guarantee when you need it it will be in the wrong place.
- Keep spare killcords ashore and on the yacht – they have a habit of disappearing.
- Keep spare valves for tube inflation points.
Essential yacht tender safety – outboard care:
- Make sure your outboard complies with dinghy manufacturer’s recommendations.
- Service the engine every season.
- Attach a lanyard to prevent the outboard going over the side (I didn’t in the past – very costly).
- Flush the engine in fresh water after use in salt water.
- Keep spares including a spare spark plug, shear pins (essential) and kill cord.
Essential yacht tender safety – choosing an inflatable dinghy:
- Storage is a big issue, especially on a yacht. Check weight and dimensions before buying.
- Consider how easy or difficult it will be to lift an inflated dinghy aboard.
- Storage will most likely affect capacity. 2 or 3 person inflatables are usually adequate.
- There are many types to choose from. Check what works best for your yacht.
- Consider different types of floor – slatted or inflated. Solid floors make standing up easier and are better for carrying gear.
- Solid transoms are best for outboards, but bulkier.
- Check the inflatable has well designed oar rowlocks – not all do.
- Hypalon coated tubes are more expensive and better quality than PVC coated nylon.
Fire prevention on boats – common causes of fire:
• Smoking below decks
• Galley cookers
• Build-up of butane or propane gas in the bilges
• Faulty wiring
• Petrol/gasoline vapour in engine bay
• Flammable paints and solvents
Fire onboard a boat – fire prevention tips:
• No Smoking below decks
• Butane and propane gases are heavier than air and leaks will result in a build up of gas in the bilges. To clear gas, open hatches, head downwind to allow fresh air into cabin areas and pump the bilges
• Keep gas valves turned off at the bottle and cooker when not in use
• Fit gas and smoke detectors
• Regularly check butane and propane gas fittings and tubing for leaks
• Keep butane and propane gas bottles in cockpit lockers which drain overboard
• Stow all flammable liquids in well secured, upright containers in lockers that vent outboard
• Never leave naked cooker flames and frying pans unattended
• Always vent engine bays before starting inboard engines
• Have the wiring checked regularly
All crew should know the location of fire extinguishers and fire blankets on board and know how to operate them.
(info. from Safe Skipper app for iPhone, iPad & Android)
A skipper should know how their boat will cope with rough seas. By working within known limits and understanding the risks, then the chances of a capsize occurring are much reduced.
Safety is all about improving the odds. When considering the odds of a boat capsizing, knowing the limitations of its design and stability are critical. In order to do this, it helps to understand the basic principles of how a boat remains upright.
A boat remains upright because of the way its weight and buoyancy interact. The basic principle of buoyancy is that the upward buoyant force on a body immersed in fluid is equal and opposite to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces. The weight of the fluid displaced is known as displacement and the displaced water has an up thrust, or buoyancy, which is equal to the weight of the boat. The displaced water has a central point, or centre of buoyancy, which varies according to the shape of a boat’s hull and keel.
The centre of buoyancy is not to be mistaken for the centre of gravity. The weight of a boat is distributed along its length, pushing the entire vessel downwards. All the weight acts downwards through a central point, or centre of gravity, which is similar to the fulcrum or central point of a seesaw. All the structure and the distribution of weight aboard contribute to a boat’s centre of gravity.
To keep a boat stable in the water and prevent it from toppling over requires the centre of gravity to be low, which is greatly helped by having a deep, heavy keel and an engine below the waterline.
Angle of heel
If a sailing boat heels over in a strong gust of wind or is forced over by a big wave, then it will right itself once the gust or wave has passed. When a boat is upright then the force of gravity is directly opposed to the force of buoyancy. As the boat heels over the centre of buoyancy moves outwards and acts as a lever does, pushing upwards with an increasing force. This is fine up to a point, but eventually as the boat continues to heel the righting lever effect reduces and eventually is lost and then the boat will capsize and float upside down. This point is known as the Angle of Vanishing Stability (AVS).
Boats with a high AVS will resist becoming inverted and return to the upright position quickly in the event of a knockdown. These include narrow, heavy displacement boats with a deep draft which can heel to 120º or more. Once capsized, only a small amount of further rolling moves the hull into the positive righting area and the boat comes back upright. Boats with wide beams and shallow drafts tend to have high initial stability but may capsize at 90º of heel and will not always be self-righting.
Righting moment curve
Boat manufacturers publish righting moment curves of their yachts to show the stability characteristics of their designs. In Europe the Recreational Craft Directive (RCD) states that pleasure yachts between 2.5m and 24m must carry builders’ plates to categorize their boats in either Category A (Ocean), B (Offshore) or C (Inshore) and meet minimum standards of stability.
Rules and regulations are one thing, but the force of steep breaking waves can knock any yacht down in coastal waters, especially if it is caught beam-on. Research has shown that the most significant factor in capsize is whether a wave is breaking or not. If the wave is greater in height than the beam of the boat, then it can easily knock the boat over. Tests carried out at Southampton University in England have shown that almost any boat can be capsized by a wave equal to 55% of the boat’s overall length. Such waves may occur where the seabed suddenly shelves towards the coast, or where wind is blowing against tide.
This research points to the fact that yachts seeking shelter often find themselves in greater danger when approaching harbours than when coping with a storm further out to sea.
If you are well offshore in rough weather, consider your options. If needs be, heave to and ride out a storm as the boat will be more stable and comfortable, but check you have sufficient sea room to drift downwind and are not approaching a lee shore. Another option is to lie ahull, with no sail up and the helm tied to leeward. If conditions worsen then the next stage is to lie to a sea anchor or drogue, which will prevent the boat from meeting waves beam on and reduce the vessel’s drift rate.
Don’t automatically head for the nearest harbour or your intended destination. Check first what the conditions are likely to be there, by considering the state of the tide, wind direction and whether there are danger areas such as headlands and sand bars to contend with. Check out all the alternatives and be prepared to alter your plans in order to opt for a safe option.
Tips to prevent capsize:
- Know your boat’s limitations.
- Don’t overload the boat.
- Pump the bilges regularly.
- Keep a generous margin of safety.
- Know when it is best to yield to conditions, rather than fight them.
- Avoid areas known for overfalls and tide rips.
- Avoid being caught beam on to breaking waves.
ColRegs Rule 14: Head-on Situation
(a) When two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other. (b) Such a situation shall be deemed to exist when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she would see the mast head lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line and or both sidelights and by day she observes the corresponding aspect of the other vessel. (c) When a vessel is in any doubt as to whether such a situation exists she shall assume that it does exist and act accordingly.
(From Nautical Rules of the Road – ColRegs for power boating and sailing – a Safe-Skipper App)
Regular rig checks prevent the risk of mast and rigging failure at sea. This includes regular rig inspections of the spars, rigging and fittings, especially before a major passage at sea.
Most rig failures are caused by poor maintenance and breakage of the fittings and connectors, especially those that attach the shrouds to the mast, rather than the actual spars or rigging themselves failing. A quick visual rig check is sometimes all that it takes to deal with a potential problem. However, attention must also be given to reducing metal fatigue through correctly adjusting and tuning the rigging.
A more thorough inspection of a yacht’s spars and rigging should be carried out at regular intervals by a trained rigger, ideally on an annual basis, or as recommended by the manufacturer. It is also advisable to do an inspection before a major sea passage. The inspection will comprise a visual inspection, sometimes aided by ultrasound tools, where wear is recorded and monitored for future inspections. The inspection will look for items such as cracks in rigging components, misalignment of stays and corrosion. Rig tensions should be checked and adjusted as necessary. A written record should be completed listing existing or potential concerns.
Every 5 years or so, more thorough rig checks should be carried out, which involve disassembly of the rig. This may include Dye Testing or Liquid Penetration Inspections which reveal surface flaws not visible to the naked eye.
Here’s a useful checklist of things to look out for that we’ve put together with the help of the KZ Marine Group in Auckland, New Zealand:
- Deck check – split pins, adequacy of threaded fittings, chafe or breakage of stranded wires, rig cracking, rust streaking, condition of mast collar sheaves, halyard alignment, halyard chafe guards, forestay condition.
- Masthead – halyard sheaves rotate freely and are sound, bushes, split pins intact, electrical wires are clamped correctly and are chafe free, lights are operating, halyard shackles in good condition, Windex and wind gear operating correctly.
- Forestay – roller furling headstay, halyard leads at correct angle to swivel car, inspect halyards for wear on sheaves, fairleads and check swivel cars, mast tang pin hole, corrosion around mast tangs, threaded fittings, no broken strands of wire, signs of cracking or rust.
- Mast stay wires and mast fittings – no broken strands of wire, no visible signs of cracking along swage section, no signs of rust streaking, Tbar plates have retaining plugs or locking tabs, corrosion around mast tangs, fastenings secure, threaded fittings are sound, rigging screws locked.
- Spreaders – no visible signs of cracking , fastenings secure, no signs of rust streaking, broken wire strands, lights are working, wires clamped correctly, no chafe, no corrosion,
- Gooseneck, Vang and Knuckles – check for signs of corrosion, split pins are protected to safeguard sails, fastenings secure, excessive wear or elongation of fittings.
- Chainplates – check for excessive wear on spacers or bushes, signs of elongation in pin holes, alignment with stay angles, evidence of fracture at deck level, are fastened securely below deck to the hull.
- Spinnaker pole ring – attachment points secure, signs of corrosion around mast tangs.
- Insulators – check for sunlight degradation of plastic insulators, aerial wire securely fastened and in good condition.
Weather charts, also known as surface pressure or synoptic charts, contain a lot of information that helps weather forecasters make predictions about the weather and sea conditions.
Before going to sea it is always a good idea to study weather charts and work out how the weather is likely to evolve in the area you plan to sail in. This sequence of four synoptic charts predicts the weather over a 36 hour period.
Isobars on a weather chart
The circular lines are isobars, similar to contour lines on a land map, and join areas of equal barometric pressure. Air moves from high to low pressure and when the difference in the pressure is greater, the airflow or wind will also be greater. Isobars that are close together indicate stronger winds. Isobars that are further apart indicate lighter winds. The wind scale inset in the top left of the chart helps you to forecast wind speed.
In terms of the wind direction, in the northern hemisphere air moves around high pressure in a clockwise direction and low pressure in an anticlockwise direction, so isobars on a weather map indicate the direction and speed of the wind as well as the pressure.
The lines with triangles and semi-circles represent fronts. Warm fronts on a weather map are shown with semi-circles and cold fronts with triangles. The way in which the semi-circles and triangles point shows the direction in which the front is moving.
Occluded fronts and troughs
Where a cold front and warm front meet an occluded front is created, shown by lines with overlapping semi-circles and triangles. Black lines with no semi-circles or triangles are troughs and show areas where the air is unstable and showers tend to form.
It is a good idea to print out the latest weather charts for your area before you set sail and refer to them on your trip.
Most weather forecasts present a general picture of what to expect in your area over a given period of time. We rely on such forecasts to provide basic information, but the actual weather and sea conditions we experience don’t always tally with the general view.
It is not necessarily the forecasters’ fault if the conditions we experience don’t tally with the forecast, as it is the local tides, topography and sea breezes that interact with the basic picture and give rise to the actual conditions we experience out on the water.
Before deciding whether it is safe for your vessel and crew to go afloat, it is a good idea to study all available forecasts. A major part of making that decision is done through observation and being able to assess where in the forecast weather pattern you actually lie. Has that predicted front passed through yet, what are the clouds telling you, what is the wind strength, how has it changed through the last few hours and what is the barometer doing? Study your charts and estimate when and where you can expect wind against tide. Are the elements going to clash severely and if so when is this going to happen? Will you need to avoid being in that area or will the conditions be manageable? Below are some weather forecasting tips to help you reach your decision.
Sources of weather forecasts
It is a good idea to gather as much reliable information as you can. Sources of weather forecasts include:
- National meteorological offices.
- Internet – good source for GRIB forecasts (Gridded Information in Binary files),eg UGrib, weather charts, web services eg Windguru also back-up to VHF, NAVTEX, INMARSAT-C and SSB radio.
- MSI (Marine Safety Information) broadcasts on VHF and SSB radio.
- Public service broadcasts on radio and tv.
- NAVTEX, Weatherfax and INMARSAT-C.
- Harbour and marina offices.
- Local knowledge -talking to locals in the know, for example fishermen, can help you decide.
With information gathered, compare a number of pressure charts to see how the weather patterns have been forecast to evolve in your area over a number of days. This will help you to judge when fronts will pass through, what local conditions will be as a result and how this tallies with your planned departure and route plan.
Before you go
Before departure, download forecasts to cover the anticipated length of your passage. Be prepared to delay your departure or change your destination if the weather forecast is unfavourable. Once committed to going, ensure that you have the means to get regular, reliable weather forecasts if you are at sea for any length of time. This will allow you to change your plans and head for a safe haven if the forecast is for stormy weather, and to take advantage of detailed weather information when planning your route.
- Study the Beaufort scale and use it to judge wind strengths.
- Practice how to interpret barometric pressure charts.
- The barometer is arguably the most useful forecasting tool. Keep a note in the log to monitor change in barometric pressure.
- Learn how to observe cloud formations to forecast the weather.