Once upon a time, it seemed fun to be on a plunging foredeck, with green seawater hitting you in the face, running through the gaps in your oilskins and down into your boots as you struggled to change sails. But there is a point at which you have to admit, even to yourself, that all that hard work is not very sensible any more, and certainly no longer enjoyable: oilskins wet inside are not very nice.
At any age, tiredness is among the most dangerous risks at sea; it is particularly so for what you might call slightly older than average sailors. Fatigue builds up during a passage and will be at its most acute when approaching the destination, just as decisions have to be made and manoeuvres undertaken in waters near shore that are likely to be close to dangers, and often unfamiliar.
So we focus on gear and procedures that reduce effort at sea to the absolute minimum compatible with good seamanship. Below is our list, but further suggestions are very welcome.
Roller headsail reefing (of course).
All mainsail reefing back to cockpit. If slab reefing, luff as well as leech lines led back, and the lines colour coded and rope clutches labelled. In mast reefing is the other option, of course.
All other lines that are regularly used led back to the cockpit, making a total of about a dozen in our boat.
Third reef lines permanently rigged, since they are only likely to be used when the going gets really tough, when working at the mast is the last thing you want to do.
Gybe preventers rigged semi-permanently. Ours are in two sections each side: a nylon pair to give shock resistance about 10 feet long run from the aft end of the boom to the forward end where they are tied when not in use; two long polypropylene lines run from a block at the aft end of the cockpit near the secondary winches through the spaces under the main foredeck cleat (to maximise friction) and back outside the shrouds. They are tied to the shrouds with a clove hitch when not in use, and undone then tied with a bowline to the eye splices on the nylon line on the boom when needed. Sailing downwind or on a broad reach when the waves get up, both preventers are kept rigged and ready.
We sail most of the time with the number 3 genoa and rarely get out the number 1. We bought a new No 3 with extra heavy cloth so that it will perform without too much distortion when half rolled up, which is not too far away from the size of the storm sail, which is notoriously hard work and time consuming to rig on a sloop without an inner forestay. The boat is an easily driven cruiser racer that in any case needs to be reefed early to sail reasonably upright, so we only really notice the absence of the number 1 genoa in winds of less than force 4. The smaller sail is far easier to tack and far more manageable when the going gets rough.
Other sails: we resist the temptation to use the spinnaker, which is extremely hard work for a short-handed crew. But we keep the spinnaker pole rigged with the pole lift on and the forward end tied down on the deck whenever there is likely to be downwind sailing, so it is ready with minimum effort if the genoa has to be poled out.
We talk about, but haven’t got round to because of the cost, a cruising chute with a snuffer instead of the spinnaker.
A good autopilot. Replacing an old and unreliable pilot with a new Raymarine wheelpilot has been one of the best labour saving investments we have made. It enormously reduces the workload on passage, because the new machine can cope with much tougher conditions. Steering by hand is for very rough weather when the autopilot is straining and also of course for those great times when it is real fun to do it and the crew is competing to take the helm.
Cockpit chartplotter. This is a huge saver of effort, as long as routes and strategies are planned in advance at the chart table on paper charts or a larger chartplotter, because the cockpit instrument screen is quite small, which can lead to mistakes when programmed in a hurry. Routes, once worked through, can be very quickly transferred. We have a laptop with a GPS as a backup plotter; the large and very clear laptop screen is easier than paper for route planning (though we still use paper as well).
In combination with a deck log ( just a small notebook) the cockpit plotter much reduces the number of visits to the chart table during a watch. With short-handed sailing, clambering up and down to the chart table to work every hour can be very tiring, especially in rough weather. All the essentials can be noted equally well from the plotter and cockpit instruments. The skipper will have the basic information required for the chart table if there is an electrical failure. We’re going to try a waterproof walkers’ notebook and pen from Rohan (£6.50). Work at the chart table will be needed, but much less often. We don’t usually mark up the paper charts as we go, but we have the information to switch to them quickly.
Windlass/anchor winch – a manual one is absolutely essential, even for a small boat, to protect backs from strain. For the moment we are doing without an electric windlass, but it would be even better, for obvious reasons. Problem we have not solved yet: best to have an arrangement that allows the windlass to pull the anchor inboard so it does not have to be lifted while leaning over the bow (the cause of a serious back injury to a 70-ish friend on a 30 footer – his back never recovered). We may have to modify the bow roller, which is too small.
Food for passages of up to 36 hours: meals are soup and ready made supermarket sandwiches and rolls in packets, which last longer. The only cooking is heating the soup.
Removable inner forestay to make rigging a storm sail easier.
New radar with cockpit display.