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Effective crew briefings are a vital part of the good on-board communication that helps everything to run smoothly on a sailing vessel at sea, whether it is cruising or racing.

Involving everyone on board, including children, with sailing a boat will make the experience more satisfying for all and will also maximise the chances of remaining a motivated team if conditions start to get tough. This process starts with a safety briefing before departure, which is especially important for crew who have not sailed on the vessel before.

When underway it is also important to get into the habit of briefing everyone before each manoeuvre takes place. When hoisting the mainsail, if everything goes perfectly it may feel as though it’s easier to just get on with doing it yourself, however, it only takes a few moments to talk though the procedure first:

“Jo will take the sail ties off, working forwards from the back of the boom, and then stand at the mast ready to bump the halyard up. Once she’s there we will slow down, I’ll let off the mainsheet and Claire will turn the boat to point into the wind. When I give the signal, Jo will start hauling the sail up and Pete will tail the halyard at the companionway.”

This simple explanation gives even those with minimal sailing experience a clear vision of what’s going to happen and what their role will be. At the same time, you’re free to keep an eye open to spot any problems at an early stage.

Preparation and planning

Preparation and planning are key elements of effective skippering that help to identify potential hazards and reduce the time you will need to spend on navigation and pilotage. Time spent below with your head in the chart, pilot book or tide tables is time that you’re not in tune with what’s happening on deck, so as part of your planning make sure you have all the information you might need at your fingertips.

Even for a short day sail returning to initial home port you should have a clear understanding of the weather and tidal patterns for the day, as well as knowledge of any local regulations that may be in place. On a longer passage it’s also important to have a plan B that you can execute in the event that the it doesn’t go according to expectations. This plan should include ports of refuge accessible from your expected route.

Don’t let events overtake you

Relaxed skippers think ahead and are prepared for a wide range of eventualities. However, there may still be times at which things start to happen too fast, with a risk that events will overtake the rate at which the skipper can cope with them.

A common example of this is a tricky pilotage situation, potentially at night, when it’s critical to recognise times at which the boat is travelling faster than you can navigate. The obvious solution, slowing down, often does not come to mind in such situations, but reducing speed from say 5 knots to 4 knots gives a lot more thinking time than the 20 per cent difference in speed suggests. There may even be occasions in which it’s helpful to stop for a short while – so that you can catch up with events and get ahead.

A variety of strategies to buy additional time when necessary is therefore one of the most useful elements in a skipper’s armoury. Heaving to, furling (or partially furling) the headsail, and stemming the tide are prime examples.

All the above is not to say that good skippers don’t enjoy a stint on the helm, taking part in deck work when in open water or, for instance, preparing a meal under way, but it’s important to recognise that these tasks are secondary to their skippering role. However, if you’re sailing short handed, maybe with only one other crew member, then it is likely that all tasks will be shared equally, even if important decision making affecting the safety of the vessel and crew will always remain the responsibility of the skipper.

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