April 10, 2013

Nautical Terms, Bareboat Sailing Made Simple

By Robert Cross

I often host charity fundraisers and corporate sailing days, taking aboard a crew of complete sailing novices keen to enjoy a day on the water and learn a little about sailing. After the initial introduction and safety brief, I usually attempt to lighten the mood by saying the following. "On this boat you will notice a lot of ropes, they each serve a purpose and respectively have their own names. There are head-sail sheets, main-sheets, lazy sheets, brace, down-haul, vang, topping-lift, tack, halyards, warps, reefing lines, painters, out hauls, cunningham, back-stays, fore-stays, shrouds, chords and of course lanyards. YOU WILL BE TESTED ON ALL OF THESE AT THE END OF THE DAY"

Vacant stares are returned, with few realising it was just a joke. If someone dares to question further, the inevitable question is "why do you need all these names for ropes?"

In modern times, colour-braided ropes suggest that perhaps we don't need such names. "Today I will be relaying commands by saying pull that red or yellow rope".  But somehow that just cheapens the experience, and undermines respect for the art of sailing that has built on the accumulated knowledge of millenia. 

On a boat, crew work is a symphony. Just as members of an orchestra bellow out individual notes to form a collective sound that is music to one's ears, the combined actions of many that involve the pulling of ropes propels a floating structure, powered only by the wind, at optimum speed under complete control. Sailing ships of old and modern racing boats have ropes for every concievable purpose, and terms that would have been familiar to Captain Cook are still used today. 

A racing yacht requires actions such as adjusting the back-stay, tightening the rig for better forestay tension and maintaining the design shape of the headsail when sailing on the wind, or conversely allowing the mast to flop forward when released downwind. Even more extreme, in the last America's Cup to be sailed in monohulls, the back-stay on Alinghi was used to bend the boat, in turn extending the depth of the keel, providing a higher righting moment and better windward performance.

However it is highly unlikely that you will need to adjust the rigging tension on your charter boat, which brings me to the main point of this blog. Charter boats have been simplified to the point that most ropes are largely redundant, allowing for short-handed sailing with ease and efficiency. 

Starting at the front of the boat, the anchor warp is now a chain driven by an electric capstan. The tack and the brace are ropes securing the lower corners of the spinnaker, a sail not supplied unless specifically requested. The topping lift holds up the spinnaker pole, which if supplied can also be used to pole the head-sail out to windward when sailing dead downwind - completely optional. Halyards, the ropes that lift the sails are not part of the furling sail system that is increasingly fitted on charter yachts. Out-hauls, chords and cunninghams are fine-tuning lines on the sails - fun to play with to adjust shape, but which make little difference to the recreational sailing experience. The vang holds the mainsail boom down, and as with back-stays is rare on charter boats. If rig adjustment is supplied, it will most likely be by means of an hydraulic ram. Then there are the lanyards, which have been completely replaced by steel shackles and clips on the modern sailboat.

The painter is the rope used to tow your tender, and hop[efully it's not going to create great confusion by just calling it the dinghy rope. But what about any other ropes on the dinghy? When securing the dinghy rope to your boat's stern cleat, just make sure the other end is tied to the bow of the dinghy! This example illustrates why it does pay to use the specific term whenver possible. Not only will you sound knowledgeable and command respect, as the captain or know-it-all first mate, but you may just avoid a misunderstanding. 

I always try to gauge the client's previous sailing experience and offer boat options that fit the expertise, providing a choice of higher performance if that's what the client wants and can handle. Increasingly however, charter clients don't care too much about performance. The main requirement when selecting a charter yacht is for comfort and ease of sailing - and that's just how it should be for a relaxing sailboat holiday. Nevertheless, in the interests of crew harmony and sailing pleasure, it is best to to know the important ropes and what their functions are. 

Mainsail and Headsail Sheets

Sheets are ropes used to pull in or let out the respective sails, and so adjust their settings relevant to the apparent wind. The mainsail has just one sheet, interestingly enough called the mainsheet. Control of the headsail is a bit more complicated given that this sail crosses in front of the mast when changing direction. There's a sheet on both sides of the boat, one in use at any given point in time but both needing coordinated action as the boat is manouvered across the wind. The sheet under load is referred to simply as the headsail sheet, while the other, laying idle but ready for use on the winch in the tack or gybe, is called the lazy (lazy headsail) sheet.

Reefing and Retrieval Lines

Reefing lines reduce the area of sail, providing a safe and manageable configuration when expected wind conditions change. In the case of furling sails, retrieval lines reef or stow the sail. Always try to anticipate the wind strength and hoist the recommended area of sail while still in port, taking note of information given in the skipper's briefing. It is always easlier to set a reef in the mainsail or adjust the headsail cars before getting under way, but of course the weather can later change. If the wind comes up while cruising and suddenly there is too much sail on for comfort, the decision can be made to reef the mainsail. When the wind drops back, it is easy to shake the reef out and contunue on under full sail. Another tip is to roll the headsail up while sailing off the wind. This is relatively easy to do with the main sheltering the headsail and taking the load off the retrieval line.

There is one more rope I will throw in for good measure. Always carry a spare piece of short rope. Charter boats normally lack anything that does not have a fixed purpose, and I miss a spare piece of rope so often that I now bring along my own. This spare rope is worthy of a blog all to itself. I am currently putting a charter pack together, which in future we will supply free with all charters booked through Sail Connections. This will contain a length of Dyvinicel rope core along with other basic items, must-haves for reasons I will explain in a later blog.

Charter sailing is not in the same realm as the highly rehearsed orchestra of competition. It is more a classic folk song sung along to pre-recorded music with Aunt Edwina playing the spoons. Simple and immensely enjoyable for those who want to have a go, but still built on the same sound traditional way of doing things. 

Your Comments

The Sail Connections Guarantee

One contact - every option - advice you can trust.

  • Matching any competitive offer 
  • Sourcing boats with discounts available
  • Personalising our proposal just for you
  • Qualifying the operator as well as the boat
  • Advising without bias based on 25+ years of experience

We will match any discount website offer on charter boat price, and still provide our customary high level of service. We do more than just book yachts!

Read our free charter guide for all you need to know about planning your sailing holiday.