Sailing with skeleton crew: some tips
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
Recently, a combination of factors created a real explosion of the practice of sailing in pairs or in small families that sail on boats of some importance.
This factors are mostly three: first of all there is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has lead – personal situation and rules allowing – many boaters to moving as far away as possible from the danger of contagion “auto isolating” at sea with the family.
Another factor is the design trend of newer yachts that improves the manoeuvrability and develop some specific layout features, making the navigation easier with skeleton crew.
The third one is the rapid growth of technology and supporting equipment: bow and stern thrusters can “lock” a yacht at the pier while the ropes are being dropped. Kedging winches can transform the average boater into an Olympic weight lifter when the time comes to end the mooring at the quay. A second set of rudder controls or remote controls can give the skipper full control of the boat from, basically, any point on board.
Having the right boat and equipment is only the start to live a great cruising experience. A skeleton crew must be prepared and the best way to do it in small steps. Start smaller. A night cruise to a nearby destination, or even practice entering and exiting the house port in various conditions, will give a reduced crew the safety necessary to go further.
As these plans evolve and a cruise plan takes shape, preparation is fundamental.
Entering the port and mooring is probably the most challenging test bench for a skeleton crew: hence, let’s prepare well in advance every mooring lines that we consider necessary. Keep an additional line ready and a spring, since it can save even the most expert skipper during an enlivened mooring.
Check the dock (especially if you do not know it) before ending the mooring. If we fear undertow we do not hesitate to hang some extra fender, both horizontally and vertically for a complete protection of the boat and a quieter sleep.
Do not wait to be at the entrance of an unknown port to look at charts: study them in advance. Just like a car racer memorizing the turns on a track, a good skipper – particularly if he can count on a skeleton crew – will study the destination, learn where to dock and will notice potential danger.
Those who practice this type of long-standing navigation fill a notebook for each destination, to have suggestions at hand for the next arrival. Having a map of the port printed or displayed on the tablet will help when the navy radio will give instructions to moor at the pier F7.
Helmsmen cannot always choose water and calm winds when they dock. Therefore, before entering an unknown anchorage, wise skippers stop and drift for some moments before assess how the wind and current will affect the approach. This will help to have a clear understanding of how conditions may require a change of program in the management of the anchor.
Another key for short-hand is talking about every possible scenario. For example, which is the Key docking line to be protected first? What happens if the husband misses to pick up a buoy while the wife is at the helm? How you handle an anchor that plows?
When two people are on board, tasks must be very clear to avoid “I thought you were doing it” moments.
Ideally, headphones and microphones noise-cancelling can help, all of us witnessed couples yelling at each other as they docked, but today’s communications technology can solve this problem. Several manufacturers offer one-ear headphones (that allow regular listening through the other ear) and a microphone for communications in all weather conditions. To stay a bit more in the “traditional” we can rely on the agreed manual signals and tested in advance.
Speaking of equipment, most navigators in pairs (or with an extremely reduced crew) also have a basic rule: never leave the cockpit without wearing a life jacket. If the weather is bad, the life jacket should be with a harness to attach to a jack line that runs along the entire deck for a higher security.
Special precautions should also be taken during night navigation.
First thing first, you need to decide on a schedule of guards that must be respected.
Some crew members prefer three and three (three hours on, three hours off), while others prefer (especially in case of bad weather) two and two. Boats in regattas sometimes use four to four at night, then six and six during the day, when it is easier to be alert.
Whatever the choice is, the second person on board must always be available. If the person off guard falls asleep deeply, the change of guard must include a report of the current situation. This includes talking about the boat route, weather conditions and every unusual thing, such as a merchant ship in the distance, strange lights at the horizon, VHF conversation. Everything.
In addition to that, pay attention to preserve night vision. It is necessary to maintain a low light around the helm since full night vision can take hours to return. Use flashlights as last resort.
I know a skipper who used to wear a pirate style bandage on an eye, using only the other eye when entering an illuminated cabin for a coffee or anything else and then removed the bandage when was back in the dark to keep night vision in at least one eye.
Even the galley requires a different organization during the cruise with reduced crew: do not think of spending hours cooking meals when sailing. Prepare in advance the meals and make them easy to eat, instead. Sandwiches are a very versatile food, such as soups or stews poured from a thermos near the helm in a heating cup.
You will consume snacks all night long, but stay away from sugar with all the effects it creates. Better to give priority to fruit bars, bowls of nuts or parmesan cheese prepared to “pieces”. Needless to say, alcohol is completely to banish when sailing in skeleton crew, reserving the pleasure of a beer or a glass of wine to the moments of stop in port or roadstead.
During the day, there is more time and calm to devote to the kitchen, it would still be preferable – if possible – to prepare precooked and packaged meals at home (or at anchor) that can be heated by microwave or immersed in hot water for quick heating.
However, if conditions allow to, the smell of coffee preparation or scrambled eggs can be the perfect end of a long night guard and the good start of a morning in a delightful anchor with few other boats around.
An indisputable advantage is to be able to use the bow thruster during docking, so you can nail the boat along the pier while you calmly take the ropes. Those are a great advantage, beyond compare.
Always in phase of mooring, it is very useful to keep a rope with a “messenger” with a monkey fist at the end, ready to throw it on the pier, provided that the aspiring helpers appear to have a minimum of line management experience.
Otherwise, if the situation allows to, it would be better to draw the end of the rope top of a docking line and drop it on a cleat. With practice, anyone can use this method, allowing the crew to gain a mooring line and save an embarrassing situation.
Some broker I know always recommends his clients to “choose the smallest boat that is large enough to achieve your sailing goals”. You do not need a yacht with transoceanic autonomy if your destinations are isles ten miles from the coast.
Nothing particularly complicated as you can see, only some more foresight, a hundred eyes and ears open and the good habit to look “three steps forward”. In exchange for this little extra effort, we will have the undoubted pleasure of a pleasant navigation, in perfect harmony with our life partners who will also be perfect “boat mates” for the occasion. What else could you ask for?
Fair wind, see you at sea.
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