Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hang on to the Mainsheet

Continuing my series of posts of Tillerman's Top Five Tips For Making Sure I Don't Die on my Laser, my third tip is... if you fall out of the boat for any reason, Hang on to the Mainsheet.

I guess this piece of advice is really just a means to following that instruction given to all beginning dinghy sailors: Stay With the Boat. I used to drum that into my little Opti students right from the first day on the water. If the boat capsizes or you fall out of the boat, stay with the boat. Do not under any circumstances try and swim to the shore. From my coach boat I can see an Optimist in trouble a mile away. I may not see a little head in the water 50 yards away if it's choppy. Also your boat floats so hang on to it.

Where was I? Oh yes, how to stay alive on a Laser. Or rather off a Laser.

In most capsizes it's not too difficult to maintain contact with the boat...

The best of all is the so-called "dry" capsize. The boat goes over to leeward; you step over the windward rail on the daggerboard; you right the boat and step back into the cockpit without ever getting your feet wet. The youngsters do this on about 90% of capsizes; with my slow reactions I do this on about 0.05% of capsizes.

Next best is when the boat goes over and you fall in the water next to the boat. You can swim round to the daggerboard while still in contact with the hull. No problem.

But there will be times when the boat decides to eject you in a way that will initially leave you some distance from the boat.

One method the boat uses to achieve this is when you have just completed a perfect tack to lee-bow "that guy" and as you hike out on the new windward side you realize (too late) that the boat has tricked you into not putting either of your feet under the hiking strap and so you fall backwards headfirst out of the boat and everyone around including "that guy" laughs their socks off.

Another favorite way for your Laser to eject you is the famous "death roll". This is a windward capsize when heading downwind which can happen so fast that you don't even know it's happened until you notice that you are totally underwater and the boat is sailing off without you.

It's occasions like these that you need to hang on to the mainsheet. Your Laser probably won't sail very far away without you in it, but some days it can go even faster without your 200+lbs of weight slowing it down. In particular, a Laser that has done one of those pretty death rolls where the boom stays sticking up in the air can sail surprisingly quickly downwind in a good blow.

So it's important to hang on to something that connects you to the boat. Now, of course you are already holding two things that connect you to the boat: the mainsheet and the tiller extension. For many beginners the instinct is to hang on to the tiller extension. Do not follow this instinct. When your body weight levers the tiller extension against the gunwhale of the boat as you fall in the water, only two things can happen, both of them bad: the tiller extension can bend (if made of aluminum) or it can break (if you have one of those fancy schmancy ones made of carbon fiber.) Either way it's going to be expensive, and either way you probably aren't going to be able to sail very well with it in its altered form. Worst case you are suddenly floating around on your own holding half of an expensive carbon-fiber tiller extension with a nasty jagged end while your boat runs away downwind on its own at a rate of knots.

So hang on to the frigging mainsheet. Say this mantra to yourself ten times every night before you go to bed.

Even if you do hang on to the mainsheet your troubles may not be entirely over. Nine times out of ten the boat will round up, capsize if hasn't done so already, or just generally behave itself while you reel it in and regain contact with the hull. I do recall one day though when I fell out of the boat (don't ask how -- some stupid mistake or other) and as I hung on to the mainsheet the boat carried on sailing downwind at great speed... dragging me along underwater as it did so. That was a fun ride I can tell you. It wasn't so much fun when I surfaced and realised that my involuntary underwater speed swim was so fast it had sucked my expensive prescription sunglasses (which were of course secured by a croakie) right off my head and they were now sinking into the depths of Lake Ontario and I was now as blind as a bat. There are days when I wish I wore contact lenses.

Anyway hang on to the mainsheet. I do pretty much all the time these days... except when I forget to, or when I am too busy using both hands to try and disentangle myself from the mainsheet of some other dude who is trying to strangle me.

14 comments:

B.J. Porter said...

Very timely advice. I am expecting my first near drowning on my Laser any day now.

Zen said...

Thanks for reminding me why I started on a keelboat.

Contact Lenses said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tillerman said...

Thank you for that suggestion Mr. or Ms. Lenses. What an unusual name you have for someone in your line of work.

Sam Chapin said...

Revealed is the big boat sailor sailing a Laser---where does this mainsheet thing come from?

What about all that more or less stuff.

Well anyway, I may drop the tiller extension in some tacks and practicing a 720, but I always try to hold on to the sheet, rope thing.. thanks for all the fun-- I even read the mainsheet around the neck one.

Tillerman said...



Not me mate. I've never been a big boat sailor. I took some lessons in a dinghy smaller than a Laser, and then basically taught myself how to sail properly (more or less) in a Laser.

My observation a few days ago of how some sailing schools prefer to start beginners in keelboats was just that: a comment on the real world as it is. Personally I think that the way I did it was best. But I guess sailing schools have to think about safety and efficiency and instructor/student ratios and how to get the maximum number of students through in the minimum amount of time.

Sorry if calling it the "mainsheet" offends your sensibilities Sam. I don't know why I use that word instead of sheet on a Laser. Because a lot of other folk do I suspect.

Actually in the original version of this post I did write a little riff on "why the hell do we call it a mainsheet when there's only one sail and only one sheet?" but I edited it our because the post is way too long as it is.

And so is this comment.

B.J. Porter said...

Good advice. I thought of it today when I was floating around in Greenwich Cove after my first capsize ever. So I swam around the front of the boat, found the bitter end of the sheet carried that back around the other side to hold onto while I righted it.

I REALLY wanted to just let the fool thing go and flip the boat, but thinking on it made me catch my breath, take my time and realize it wasn't all that cold or frightening. Better safe than sorry and I would have felt really stupid to have righted the boat and had it sail away on me.

Thanks.

Tillerman said...

Actually B.J. you don't really need to hold on to the sheet while doing the actual capsize recovery for two reasons...

1. You're unlikely to lose contact with the hull while doing the recovery. If you're agile you will simply step from the daggerboard into the cockpit as the boat is righted. Or if you're clumsy and slow like me you will end up in the water hanging on to the gunwhale and then climb into the boat. Either way you won't lose touch with the hull.

2. Even if you do lose contact with the boat during the capsize recovery it is unlikely the boat will sail away from you because the boat will normally end up pointing roughly head to wind after the recovery. Actually it's not a bad idea to swim the boat roughly head to wind before the recovery anyway. If the mast is pointing towards the wind before the recovery it will likely capsize again. If the mast is pointing away from the wind then the boat will round up during the recovery.

My advice to hang on to the sheet was really for those situations where the capsize itself throws you clear of the boat. But if it makes you feel safer to hold the sheet when doing the recovery it won't do any harm either.

B.J. Porter said...

I am not agile.

The boat did round up and was fairly easy to climb up on. Although it had more in common with a large sea lion beaching itself on the rocks than anything you might think of as agile.

Given it was my first Laser capsize I figured avoiding panic, getting back in the boat and keeping sailing afterwords instead of heading back in to settle my nerves were my major objectives.

Pat said...

You probably call it the mainsheet because of Ye Olde Nautical Tradition.

Keelboat sailors are used to having to specify which sail (and even which mast) with which a sheet or halyard is associated.

By giving a piece of rigging its full name, you satisfy old salts' expectations.

At least you don't have do deal with the part-time sheets. Pity the poor new keelboat sailor who forgets that a piece of line that was a sheet has suddenly turned into a guy without being counted as a member of the crew.

By the way, we do have one rope that seldom goes aboard one of our boats, but if and when it does, it remains a rope. Could you guess which rope that would be?
Hint: Fog

Tillerman said...

Hmmmm. Fog eh? Would it by any chance be the bell rope?

Sam Chapin said...

There is the bolt rope on really old sails -- Tillerman is not old enough for that.

Our 5 Year old Laser sailor, Alex, steers with the "stick" and holds on to "the rope". Maybe it makes more sense?

Pat said...

Yep, it was the bell rope.

Our mainsails actually do have bolt ropes... they're quite standard for Etchells.

Mark said...

Early in my Laser sailing life I had the privelage of capsizing to windward in 15 +/-. The boat was broadside to the wind and headed down the lake. I had fowl weather gear on and a PFD and I swam about as hard as ever, catching the boat in about 20 yards. Two lessons learned. Don't let go and NEVER sail without a PFD, especially if you are wearing Fowlies. Try it some time, it isn't easy.

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