First, you should assess your experience and knowledge of boating, whether it is sailing or power boating. Before you leave your comfort zone, you must be honest with yourself. Ask yourself some simple questions. How much do you know about your boat? For example, how does it handle in calm waters? How does it handle in “Gentle Breeze,” which is Force 3 (8-12) mph on the Beaufort Scale; or in Force 5 winds, which is 19-24 m.p.h. or more? This is very important. We are all aware of weather changes, when the wind quickly pipes up or stops altogether. Weather changes on a boat can and do come suddenly at times, not giving you much notice. You have to know what to expect so that you can react quickly enough.
One way you might try to see how your boat reacts is to take her out on Factory Bay or Robert’s Bay in different weather conditions. Here you could get a feel for your boat’s reaction to wind. Nothing is perfect. However, here in a safe environment, you can learn how to respond to the demands made by your boat and the wind. You, alone or with a partner, can practice putting up the sails or taking them down in a hurry. Also you have to move quickly. You should practice reducing sail when there is little wind. You do not want to learn or practice this in a hurry.
First, you should start your engine or outboard so that you will be able to move around quickly and douse the sails. If not, you run the risk of an accidental jibe which can cause the sail to rip in a strong blow. Second, if you are alone secure your tiller or wheel so you can attend to the sail. If you have a partner with you, it is much better. Instruct your partner to either keep the boat into the wind until you bring the sail in or lock the wheel into the wind yourself and have the other person stand at the ready in case she needs to hand steer the boat into the wind. Once down, gather your sail on the boom and secure it with tie wraps. If you have a built in sail cover, gather your sail and zip it up. Now is not the time to neatly fold the mainsail. When you are in port or it is calmer you can do it leisurely.
I’m sure most boaters are familiar with the Beaufort Scale. It is a scale that gives you the conditions of the wave height to the wind’s velocity and conditions of the water. For example, a Force 4 on the Beaufort Scale is 13-18 knots with small wave—half of which have whitecaps. Perhaps the most important thing to know is not how to sail your boat, but how to keep it in one place in all weather conditions. What I am talking about is anchoring. Anchoring is acquired from practice and experience. Probably the most important part of cruising is anchoring. Anchoring is a skill that you must master if are going to cruise in different places which have different bottoms such as a grassy bottom, sandy bottom, a marled bottom, or a rocky bottom. Probably, the most important part of anchoring is to use sufficient scope. Scope is the amount of anchor line that you use. It should be at least five times the distance from the top of the bow to the sea bed. More scope may be needed when the wind picks up. Next in importance is the type of anchor used relative to the bottom of water. No matter what anyone says about anchor types, there is always going to be a discussion. The best answer I can give you is to ask, ask, ask around. Ask people who have a similar hull shape as you. Ask people who have anchored in harbors of different bottom types. Ask about different anchor types: Bruce, Danforth and Plow, for example. Walk around marinas and check out the types of boats there and the types of anchor they have. Ask questions.
Until you and your partner feel confident and comfortable, practice hauling the sails up and taking them down in a hurry so you’re ready when the need comes. If you truly want to cruise in many different areas all over the coast as well as off islands, I can guarantee that you will experience many of the bottom types that I mentioned and various types of conditions from a gentle breeze, to a squall to an “Oh my God!”
Frances is a Commodore of the Seven Seas Cruising Association and a member of Sailing Association of Marco Island.