the basics of sailing
yacht rigs
hoisting sail
points of the wind
apparent wind
first time yacht cruising
getting into crewing
docking without tears
docking broadside to wind
line handling
sailing knots
anchoring tips
how to kedge

get into crewing

by John de Frayssinet

Perhaps one day you will buy a boat of your own — but until then - you can learn and enjoy the sport in another person's craft, says John de Frayssinet, (editor of Yachting Life), who looks into the excitement and fun of yacht racing

You don't have to be rich to go yacht racing. And it is not always necessary to have years of experience. Offer yourself as crew, and provided you show yourself sufficiently keen, even the more experienced yachtsmen will take the time and trouble to show you the ropes. Perhaps one day you will buy a boat of your own, but don’t think that this is essential to really enjoy the sport. Remember, as crew, you don’t have to buy the boat and worry about its upkeep and mooring fees.

Before you rush off to the nearest club and offer your services, you would do well to realize that racing a yacht will take a good deal of your spare time. Most racing takes place at the weekends, but you must expect to reserve at least one week of your holiday to sail in one of the regattas held around the country.

There are more skippers of racing yachts than good crew. Some will be only too pleased to teach you how to sail, provided you are prepared to justify their investment in time by crewing for them on a regular basis for at least one season.

Do not expect to crew for the rich and famous, at least for the time being. Good crew join winning yachts, leaving the less successful boats short­handed. It will be on these that you may have an opportunity to learn.

It is not difficult to contact owners of these yachts. If you live near a yachting centre, approach the secretaries of the local clubs. They will be pleased to pass your name and contact details to racing skippers known to be short handed. You can find the contacts for clubs using the internet.

It is very important to understand some of the basic techniques used in sailing before heading for the water. Many good  books have been written, covering the subject from first principles and of course the internet has rich pickings.

At first sight nautical language seems designed to confuse the beginner.  Barber haulers, guys, runners, clews and leach lines, are words continually used by the experienced. During your first sail, you will be bombarded with seemingly meaningless orders such as, ‘Harden up the Cunningham, ease off the Genny and get that - - - - tweaker off.’

Do not be discouraged by the language of your skipper. It is quite inevitable that he will shout at you, and it is important that you don’t shout back. By the time you are back on dry land on your second pint, all will be forgiven and forgotten.

Depending upon your interests and the time you have available you may decide to race in the larger offshore yachts, or in smaller keelboats and dinghies inshore.

The term 'ocean racing' may be slightly misleading, as for much of the time you will be in sight of land, but you must expect to continue even in extreme conditions. These yachts are often the most sophisticated and expensive sailing craft of their size. Some require up to a dozen crewmen, but on average carry about four or five, depending on their size. Adequate accommodation is provided, and in the larger yachts this can be quite palatial. Even though the yacht may appear roomy when on its moorings, it will rapidly appear to diminish in size once under way and is filled with supplies and the crews' kit.

Offshore racing can appear very attractive, and in fact is for many the ultimate form of sailing. You will have an opportunity to sail abroad and if you grow to love the sea, sailing in a finely tuned ocean greyhound can be one of the most satisfying experiences.

However, ocean racing is by far the most demanding in time and effort. Races very often take all week starting well before the dawn chorus and finishing at unearthly hours of the night. Often the races finish at a different location to the start point and you will have to find your way back to your car parked many many miles away. Sometimes the skipper may allow the crew four hours sleep, and then insist that the yacht be sailed back to its home port, to catch the morning tide.

your car can be parked many miles away

You can expect long periods of inactivity while the yacht sails on one leg of the race. At night it can be very cold even in mid-summer, and probably you will be soaked through. On these occasions that one must possess a cast iron constitution and plenty of good clothing. During rough weather seasickness may take its toll. Few people are completely un­affected by this dreadful affliction. Pills or patches can help although some tend to make one drowsy.

Most offshore yacht racing is based on an international handicap system. Yachts of different designs and sizes will race against each other. Each one is carefully measured for hull shape and size, and sail area. From this information the handicap is calculated. In theory this system will give every yacht a fair chance to win, regardless of its size. The finishing times of all yachts have to be recorded and their final positions calculated before the result of the race is known. It can be very frustrating for both skipper and crew to discover a yacht that finished well behind has, in fact, beaten you.

The gear on offshore yachts can be very heavy. Sails have to be set and tensioned by means of winches and considerable strength and stamina is often required. Relatively few women take an active part in this sport although there are some female super-stars.

As you continue to crew on offshore yachts you will have an opportunity to specialize in your duties on board. It is essential that you are able to work in any position, but expertise in a particular field will ensure a continued place on board.

Tides must be calculated at all times, While the yacht sails against the tide the correct course, if possible, is close in­shore where the effect is least felt. When the tide runs with the yacht deep water must be found. Here its strength will be greatest and this will enable the yacht to go faster.

Wind is rarely consistent throughout a race, and can often disappear altogether. It is quite common to find one yacht completely becalmed and another, close by, moving well with sails filled simply due to local weather conditions. Sometimes good tactics will find the best wind. When becalmed, skippers tend to become irritable and very unreasonable.

It is the responsibility of the navigator to ensure that the yacht does not go aground. This happens often. As the fleet disappears over the horizon, and your crew look forward to a long wait, stuck on the putty, do not expect to be popular if you were the navigator!

One of the more exciting, if very wet, occupations on board is working on the foredeck. Usually less brute strength is required, but agility and balance are essential. Here you will be mostly concerned with changing sails at high speed. You will be in full view of the rest of the crew, and every mistake made will be greeted by a howl of rage from behind.

'tactics to get in front are very important'

Ocean racing is a very popular sport but while racing, you will wonder why, but by the next weekend you will again be as keen as ever.

For those who would rather sail for shorter lengths of time, racing a small keelboat or dinghy is the answer. As a general rule, keelboats do not turn over, dinghies do.

Usually sailing is confined to those times when the bar is closed. You will not have to go on board before a civilized hour in the morning and you will get home before dark. The average length of a race is two to four hours. A greater number of races are held each week and this will give you a wider choice as to which days you make available for sailing.

You will be sailing in sheltered waters, and never very far away from help. The design of inshore boats is therefore more extreme, as they are not intended to cope with very rough conditions. As races are short, no accommodation is needed. A bucket is provided for calls of nature in keelboats, but many dinghy sailors are not so lucky.

Most races are divided into ‘one design' classes. This means that within each class you will be sailing against boats exactly the same as your own. Racing can be very exciting, as the yachts remain much closer together and tactics to get in front are very important. Handicaps are unnecessary and the first yacht home is the winner. Many believe that this type of racing shows the capabilities of helmsman and crew best. If you lose, it is usually your fault, and not the design of the boat.

As boats become smaller, they generally become less complicated. There are a few notable exceptions such as ‘Dragons’. However, smaller boats are less stable, and things happen very quickly. This makes life harder for the novice, as he will not have much time to think which ‘string’ to pull. Dinghies do not rely on a heavy keel to keep upright. Instead, this is done by placing the crew, often at very awkward angles, in seemingly impossible positions to counterbalance the boat. This method does not always work, and at first you will never be at the right place at the right time. The penalty for a mistake usually involves a capsize and a good ducking.

'diminish in size'

Smaller boats require few hands. Keelboats race with one or two crew, and dinghies with two, or in some classes, only the helmsman. This means that as a novice you will probably have to accept more responsibility from the start.

Inshore racing is fast, highly competitive and very exciting. Everything always happens at once, and for your short time on the water you will be fully employed.

Racing is an extremely safe sport, provided those participating in it are sensible. Off­shore racing boats have very strict minimum safety standards enforced. Before each race some yachts may be chosen at random by the racing committee and inspected. The yacht will not be allowed to race if the standard has not been reached. Requirements include an inflatable life-raft to carry the entire crew, buoyancy aids and safety lines for each crew member, at least two life belts, a spare anchor and cable, spare compass, and a complete first aid kit.


DO wear buoyancy aids and life-lines, at night and in rough weather when sailing offshore.

DO offer to bring food for the ships stores when sailing in longer races. Bring sandwiches for day races.

DO what the skipper tells you at all times. He or she should know better than you.

DO concentrate at all times when given a job to do.

DO make sure you do not fall in. It is better to be a bit slower on the job than waste time fishing for swimming yachtsmen.

DO arrive well in time for the beginning of the race and make sure you know where to meet the skipper.

DO phone the skipper in good time should you be unable to get to a race. He will have to find another crew.

DO keep a watch at all times for other yachts or boats nearby. Often the helmsman’s vision is obscured by sails

DO make sure you bring adequate clothing for the race.

DO help to tidy up the yacht after racing.

DON'T argue with the skipper, even if you know he is wrong. Most decisions skippers make are wrong, but usually they own the boat.

DON'T remind the skipper of errors he has made that lost the race. He will be well aware of them already.

DON'T go on board a yacht wearing hard soled or dirty shoes. Always put deck shoes on first.

DON'T go to sleep on watch, or gossip when you are tending to a sail.

DON'T be sick unless it is in a bucket, or preferably over the leeward side.

DON'T block the sea toilet.

DON'T get drunk in the skippers favourite yacht club.


A good crew wins races.. and skippers usually lose them!