It has occurred to me a good number of times over the last few years, that sailing around in boats is not always the relaxing, tranquil escape that it’s  perceived to be. Wherever I’ve been, either sailing myself or exploring/ nosing around the waterside on foot, there has usually been at least one skipper attempting some manoeuvre or other and having some degree of difficulty. There is nothing surprising about this, handling a floating object on moving water  at the mercy of the wind is a pretty tricky thing. Throw in a scattering of expensive, moored boats and an audience of holidaymakers and the mix starts to get volatile. However, there is usually a controlled way of attempting every complex manual task and boat handling is not an exception. Everyone who has ever been on one knows, sailing boats are not the fastest means of getting around. Indeed they can often be painfully, breathtakingly, slow.  Surprising then,  that a sailing boat can be moved about even more slowly than many people realize is possible. Good boat control is a bit like starting a large building project, the most important part is always the initial planning stages. If you don’t take time out to plan the order and routes you need for everything properly at the beginning, it’s all in everyone elses way and the whole thing can become an expensive nightmare. This is exactly the same as for sailing about in a boat, you need to give yourself time to plan manoeuvres.

When I first started out with Macavity in North Devon I was nearly always in a state of sweaty panic. There always seemed to be something streaking towards us to be avoided somehow (moored boats, sandbanks, bridges, dinghy sailors, rocks etc), and there always seemed to be an unmanageable amount of procedures to go through in order to change direction. The problem was of course a high level of incompetence combined with excessive, tide induced, boat speed. This state of near panic was bad enough when I was sailing on my own, I just got tired fairly quickly. The problem became a far worse inconvenience to others if I had a passenger on board. It seems that like many other sailors moving up in scale to a heavy cruising boat, my tendancy when confused by escalating levels of stuff to control was to delegate tasks loudly but never quite in time. The time it took my inexperienced brain to work out what was necessary to avoid that fast approaching jetty, combined with the time it took for my poor inexperienced minion to decipher my order, meant that we nearly always messed it up. If you mess up and hit something then it follows that you sometimes try to offset your own embarrassment at being so dreadfully shit at your chosen sport by shouting at someone. Hence the reason, I believe, we can generally rely on being entertained by normally polite couples shouting blame at one another for bloody ages on any given summers evening at moorings and pontoons around the world while they repeatedly zoom past their chosen spot gathering insurance claims. It was me….. until I did a bit more research…..


The very first things to get into your head when dealing with tidal waters.

You see, in the old days before Mr and Mrs Kubota started building wonderfully reliable diesel engines for boats, folk had to do everything in a slow controlled manner with no hope at all of being able to fight back against a strong wind or tide. People had a fair bit more space in the rivers and estuaries back then by all accounts but the same principles of safe handling can be useful nowadays. I learnt that if I could slow the speed at which everything was happening down to a crawl, then my poor brain could work out what to do and in what order fairly easily with no unnecessary sweating or shouting. There are many techniques to sailing or motoring slowly under full control, many are detailed in older books such as Peter Heatons “Sailing” or “The New Glenans Sailing Manual”. The key principle, it seems, is to work out which force is moving you with the most power, wind or tide? Realize that if you allow your boat to turn sideways to this force and present a large area to it, you will accelerate off somewhere fast, probably somewhere you don’t want to go. If you are moving slowly with the tide and have little water flow over the rudder, your control will be poor.  If on the other hand you can place your boat somewhere and use the winds force to ease you (ideally against the tides flow) slowly towards your destination, you will have fast water flowing over your rudder and hence good control. There are, of course, many combinations of conditions and possibilities, but slower speeds over ground with good water flow over the rudder and keel is the main aim. I try not to travel with a fast flowing tide behind me in confined waters now as the lack of control combined with higher speed over ground is asking for trouble. Far better to sail against a slight tide or wait until it eases for better control. I’ve dropped anchor or picked up a mooring in an uncrowded area loads of times just to plan things out or to row a long bow rope over to where I want to be. It’s the easiest thing to then just weigh anchor and haul on my bow rope to bring the boat slowly in to a  berth or even leave the anchor where it set and use it to slowly haul myself back out into free space later on. No drama, no shouting, nice.


Moored up at a sheltered little spot in Topsham for the weekend food and drink festival. Bow anchor out in the river, stern line back to the old wall. Drop stern line and haul in on anchor chain to get away and into clearer water under perfect control.