“Deck sports, deck sports, all hands.” This was the yell that would come down the companionway when a sail change was required aboard a boat I sailed on back in my ocean racing days.
To the bow man, as I was then, this was the signal to roll out of the bunk, don full foul weather gear, and scramble on deck, usually for a headsail change that often (seemed like always) would be done while the boat was driving hard to windward with green water sweeping the foredeck as we hoisted the new jib alongside the old (twin groove foil) and then clawed down the old sail, flaked it, bagged it, and wrestled it below.
It was a point of pride with us “deck apes” that the boat remained trimmed and driving hard throughout the change, and that we were done and had our speed-crippling weight off the bow as soon as was humanly possible.
Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? But you know what? It was fun. And not only that, those sail changes, often a couple dozen of them in the course of a five day race, made us masters of the deck in any and all conditions.
Was this on some all-out ocean racing boat with a group of hard core professional sailors, you ask? Nope, the boat I’m referring to was a cruiser/racer, with the emphasis on the former, crewed by a bunch of weekend warriors. But, even so, and even when cruising, being out of the cockpit and on deck was the norm.
Contrast that with today’s cruising boats where the focus seems to be on configuring the gear and focusing on techniques that purport to allow the crew to never leave the cockpit:
- All roller furling sails.
- Every conceivable line lead aft, turning the deck into a trip hazard nightmare and culminating in a rope-spaghetti congested cockpit.
On top of that, many owners add a complete enclosure that isolates the crew from the weather and further increases the psychological and physical barriers to leaving the secure womb of the cockpit and venturing out on the wind and spray-swept deck.
And in reading many sailing authors, and on the forums, we often see it at least implied that having to leave the cockpit is some kind of seamanship failure.
This trend is, in my opinion, unseamanlike and potentially dangerous.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back to the days of jib changes for anything; in fact, Phyllis and I would simply not be able to sail Morgan’s Cloud without headsail roller furling. Further, although I don’t like the practice myself, there are plenty of sailors I respect that have their mainsail reefing lines lead back to the cockpit or have roller furling mainsails.
And here’s a deep, dark, shameful secret: after 25 years of sailing northern waters in an open cockpit, whispered discussions of cockpit enclosures have been heard aboard Morgan’s Cloud. I know, sad…but true.
But, having said all that, Phyllis and I make a point of getting out of the cockpit and working on deck as much as possible and in all conditions. We regard “deck sports” as part of the fun, not some dreaded and dangerous chore.
And, when the day comes, as it inevitably will, when age and infirmity, or even just disinclination, reduce our willingness to leave the cockpit, we will buy a motorboat, because we believe that sailing without leaving the cockpit regularly is not really sailing.
Let’s look at some of the advantages of being on-deck sailors.
#1 Simple Low Friction Systems
The inescapable mechanical fact is that leading lines back to the cockpit adds friction, and friction is the enemy of sail handling efficiency. So, if the crew are comfortable on deck and therefore at least some rigging systems terminate there, the overall rig will be both simpler and more efficient.
#2 Use Your Weight
I’m tall and lightly built…OK, scrawny. Let’s just say that upper body strength has never been my strong suit, and at age 64 that ain’t getting any better! I would guess that the maximum I can pull horizontally in the cockpit without risking my back is about 50 pounds. But at the mast I can still swing my full 180 pounds (3.5 x as much) on a halyard.
Don’t underestimate this advantage. For example, see Further Reading for how quick and easy it is to hoist our fully battened 600-square foot mainsail on Morgan’s Cloud, mainly because of this advantage and, to a lesser extent, #1 above.
#3 Do It Right
Confidence in leaving the cockpit frees Phyllis and I to do things right. For example, there is only one right way to control the boom off the wind, at least in big breeze and waves, and that is a proper end boom preventer. Even so, how many boats do you see rigged that way? Precious few.
But there is no temptation to compromise with a lesser system if you, as we do, think nothing of a quick excursion to the mast and are set up right.
Here is a video that shows just how fast and easy rigging an end boom preventer is when the crew is willing to leave the cockpit.
#4 Saves Money
Those who set out to sail their boats without leaving the cockpit spend more money than we do…way more money. Roller reefing/furling mainsails, more blocks, much more high tech expensive rope; this stuff really adds up quick-like.
I would venture to guess that making a typical 40-foot cruising boat sailable without leaving the cockpit can easily add US$ 30,000 to the price of the boat—think how much cruising we can do with that kind of money—and then all that stuff must be maintained and replaced regularly too.
#5 Less Fear
I have never tried to keep it a secret, but for those of you new to AAC, here’s a news flash. I’m a dyed in the wool Fraidy-Cat, a card carrying wimp.
Particularly early on in a passage, and when night is falling with the breeze building and black clouds on the horizon, my stomach knots with fear as I contemplate all the things that could go wrong. All I want to do is cower in the cockpit and make plans to buy a farm in Saskatchewan and move to it soon as I can get ashore.
But the good thing is that I also know that there is a simple antidote: Get out of the cockpit and do something.
- Tour the deck, from bow to stern,
- tighten a halyard,
- check a lashing;
it doesn’t matter what I actually do as long as I get out on deck. Facing the elements and my fears reminds me that I have the skills and experience to handle what may come our way in the dark of the night and I return to the cockpit with renewed confidence.
Now for the most important reason to be comfortable and regularly practice on deck.
Some years ago I was talking to our friend Michael, a serious adventurer. Prior to becoming a high latitude sailor Michael did some extreme private flying. We are talking tours of Greenland in a (relatively) small private plane and even a transit of the polar sea.
When I asked him how much he still flew, his answer was, “None, gave up my licence when I took up ocean sailing”. When I asked why, his answer was, “You should either fly a lot or not at all. People who only fly occasionally, kill themselves”.
The same applies in offshore sailing. No matter how wonderful a job we do on equipping our boats to be sailed from the cockpit, sooner or later (probably sooner) something will go wrong that requires getting out of the cockpit to fix. And Murphy, being the kind of guy he is, will make damned sure that this happens in the dark when it’s blowing stink.
For those who are used to deck work, and are set up with good person overboard prevention systems, this will, in all likelihood, be a trivial event.
But for those who rarely leave the cockpit, the exact same scenario will be a scary struggle, no fun at all, and could even be life threatening—practice may not make perfect, but it sure as hell helps a lot, particularly when the shit hits the fan.
What do you think about “deck sports”? Please leave a comment. If you have comments or questions on preventer or person overboard prevention systems as shown in the video, please make them to the appropriate posts below.
- Hoisting a big mainsail the easy way.
- Why you must be able to rig an end-boom preventer.
- How to make rigging an end boom preventer easy.
- Reefing at the mast.
- Reefing from the cockpit, done right.
- Much more on making sail handling easy and fun.
- Person overboard prevention.
- More on what a huge wimp I am, and how I deal with that.