Knowing Your Boat: The thing nobody ever talks about

21 Jan

“Uh, how is the boat going to behave when that thing hits us?”

Contrary to all the focus on new boats, their features, and their performance, the captain’s knowledge and intimacy with said boat is probably more important. In fact, when it comes to heavy weather sailing, what resides in the captain’s head is probably the most important piece of safety gear aboard. What some might call “getting to know your boat” may accurately be called the most intimate relationship a human being can have with an inanimate object.

The Cliff Notes version of getting to know a boat is a shakedown cruise. You’ll learn more in a few days knocking around out there than in months at the dock, and usually come back for a whole round of repairs and improvements you never knew you needed before the shakedown. Long distance racers cram and rush this process, in as many types of weather as possible, usually with a very expensive RIB full of cameras and coaches chasing them around.

Joshua Slocum’s relationship with Spray is legendary, of course: the way he got her to sail herself and hold a course, most of the way around the world. On the flip side was Sir Francis Chichester’s Gipsy Moth IV, which was actually a very tender and squirrelly boat, as Charlie Doane pointed out. But at least Sir Francis figured it out, and knew not to push her too hard.

True familiarity with a vessel is a long process, necessitated by the time it takes to encounter all kinds of weather and all kinds of situations.

For me and my boat, this has been an eighteen year process, and it’s still a work in progress. A year or two into my circumnavigation I had occasion to sail under jib and jigger: My boat is a ketch, and dropping the mainsail completely and sailing under just a jib and the mizzen creates a reduced, balanced sail plan in high winds.

It wasn’t until many years into my circumnavigation that I confirmed what the old owner told me, that she ran beautifully under bare poles, with the windvane set a few degrees off of dead downwind.

And it wasn’t until we were caught in relentless Pomperos off the Patagonian coast that we confirmed that she heaves to perfectly under her mizzen alone. “Parking the car,” we came to call it, with a trail of slick water left to windward, killing the breaking seas. Here is a video, doing just that, with Commerson’s dolphins enjoying the ride. Note how calm it is right next to the boat, and it’s probably blowing thirty:

I have yet to deploy the sea anchor. I bought a very sturdy custom-made sea anchor in New Zealand, and I’ve got it fitted out with various rope, chain, a trip line, float, and chafe protection. I’ve gone as far as connecting it to the bow and running the tackle down the windward side of the boat with zipties, for easy deployment. The one time I was on the verge of deploying it, in the Arabian Sea in a tropical storm, I was worried about the current, which might have put us crossways with the wind, and made matters worse. Instead we ran under bare poles, which ended up putting us a couple hundred miles downwind and down current, but at least we didn’t get knocked down.

Someday I might have occasion to deploy the sea anchor, and I may discover she lies to it beautifully, or I may learn that she tries to sail off at oblique angles like a roped calf.

After all this time getting to know my boat I know she is “seakindly.” This is why I wouldn’t think of replacing my fifty-year-old boat that I’ve owned for eighteen: If I got a new boat I’d have to figure all that stuff out all over again, and when bad weather came I wouldn’t have that same warm fuzzy feeling I have with Condesa, knowing she’ll bob over it like a duck. I guess if I hadn’t come to know her as seakindly, I might be more open to getting another boat. Plus my familiarity with all of her machinery and systems is another well of knowledge I’d have to learn anew with a new boat.

Yes, delivery skippers, racers, and new owners often put to sea in new and untested boats…and a lot of bad things happen under these circumstances. A well known and well understood boat is a safe boat.

This article was syndicated from The Adventures of the Vessel Condesa


  1. Clark Beek

    Hi Nos, I spent about 1.5 years in Australia with my boat, and saw a few fine sister ships in Sydney. There’s a Yahoo Group for Salar 40s, and most of the owners are in Australia, NZ, or UK. I only know of one other in the US: we tied the two alongside each other a few years ago and took photos. Boat buying tip: find a proven design that isn’t well known in your home country to get a good deal…that’s how I found my boat. I happened to be reading Eric Hiscock’s Cruising Under Sail when I stumbled upon my boat, which had been on the market for six or 8 months with several price reductions. Hiscock devotes several pages to the Salar 40 and its predecessors, so I knew she had pedigree!

  2. Clark Beek

    Hove to the boat will blow downwind, ideally at a speed of about 1 knot, with the bow pointed 30 or 40 degrees off the wind. This should make it so the keel is being forced through the water semi-sideways, so the water on the uphill side, the windward side, is getting turbulent water flowing off the keel, and this turbulence creates the slick to windward…in an ideal world. On a sloop or cutter it usually takes a backwinded jib, as well as a reefed main, and some futzing the the rudder angle, to make the boat do this. I’ve heard that more modern designs, with higher performance bulb keels and the like, are much harder, or even impossible, to get to heave to.

  3. Brandt

    Totally agree with the premise–I’m also on my eighteenth year with S/V Priya. I’m confused, though, about how heaving to can creat a slick to windward. I’d have expected a slick in the boat’s lee. What am I missing?


    These were very inspiring words.
    I have a 47 year old bristol that my wife and i have been sailing for 24 years.
    I know this boat.
    I liked your characterization; the most intimate relationship a human being can have with an inanimate object.

  5. Bob Walton

    Nice article but… It actually highlights an example of your equipment that remains untested by you. As written; the article suggests you have never experimented with your sea anchor in heavy weather.

    I urge your readers to be thorough in testing all of the boats equipment in a variety of conditions.

  6. Jack

    “Knowing Your Boat:” That’s three words that say so much and a basis for giving priorities to work needed,upgrades and just about anything else related to your boat. Although,I’d preface that with two other words, “Know yourself “.

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