Six Reasons To Leave The Cockpit Often

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"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.

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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. Six Reasons To Leave The Cockpit Often
  2. Don’t Forget About The Sails
  3. Your Mainsail Is Your Friend
  4. Hoisting the Mainsail Made Easy—Simplicity in Action
  5. Reefs: How Many and How Deep
  6. Reefing Made Easy
  7. Reefing From The Cockpit 2.0—Thinking Things Through
  8. Reefing Questions and Answers
  9. A Dangerous Myth about Reefing
  10. Mainsail Handling Made Easy with Lazyjacks
  11. Topping Lift Tips and a Hack
  12. 12 Reasons The Cutter Is A Great Offshore Voyaging Rig
  13. Cutter Rig—Should You Buy or Convert?
  14. Cutter Rig—Optimizing and/or Converting
  15. Cruising Rigs—Sloop, Cutter, or Solent?
  16. Sailboat Deck Layouts
  17. The Case For Roller-Furling Headsails
  18. UV Protection For Roller Furling Sails
  19. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing—Convenience and Reliability
  20. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing —Performance, Cost and Safety
  21. The Case For Hank On Headsails
  22. Making Life Easier—Roller Reefing/Furling
  23. Making Life Easier—Storm Jib
  24. Gennaker Furlers Come Of Age
  25. Swept-Back Spreaders—We Just Don’t Get It!
  26. Q&A: Staysail Stay: Roller Furling And Fixed Vs Hanks And Removable
  27. Rigid Vangs
  28. Rigging a Proper Preventer, Part 1
  29. Rigging a Proper Preventer—Part 2
  30. Amidships “Preventers”—A Bad Idea That Can Kill
  31. Keeping The Boom Under Control—Boom Brakes
  32. Downwind Sailing, Tips and Tricks
  33. Downwind Sailing—Poling Out The Jib
  34. Setting and Striking a Spinnaker Made Easy and Safe
  35. Ten Tips To Fix Weather Helm
  36. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 1
  37. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 2
  38. Two Dangerous Rigging Mistakes
  39. Rig Tuning, Part 1—Preparation
  40. Rig Tuning, Part 2—Understanding Rake and Bend
  41. Rig Tuning, Part 3—6 Steps to a Great Tune
  42. Rig Tuning, Part 4—Mast Blocking, Stay Tension, and Spreaders
  43. Rig Tuning, Part 5—Sailing Tune
  44. 12 Great Rigging Hacks
  45. 9 Tips To Make Unstepping a Sailboat Mast Easier
  46. Cruising Sailboat Spar Inspection
  47. Cruising Sailboat Standing Rigging Inspection
  48. Cruising Sailboat Running Rigging Inspection
  49. Cruising Sailboat Rig Wiring and Lighting Inspection
  50. Cruising Sailboat Roller Furler and Track Inspection
  51. Download Cruising Sailboat Rig Checklist
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Ben Garvey

Couldn’t agree more. And another advantage- visibility off the boat when out of the cockpit.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve done exactly as you say – a turn around the deck at dusk, finished my rig-fiddling – and sighted a mark, a light, a ship, garbage, land features or flotsam etc that I previously hadn’t seen from the lower, more protected position in the cockpit. You simply see more, feel more, hear more and are a much better sailor when you’re out of the cockpit cocoon.

I grew up with no sailing instruments or dodger- we had one part-time, semi functioning depth sounder, and this on a 75′ gaffer drawing 10′. But by god we knew what the conditions were while on the helm. Now, I find myself so very comfortable behind our lovely dodger, watching our progress on the plotter, and seeing the numbers for angle and wind speed… but every 10 or 15 minutes at least I just HAVE to stick my head above or beside the dodger at least, if not actually venture out of the cockpit entirely. I wouldn’t give up the dodger, or the plotter or the wind instruments… but it’s too damn easy to get stuck in that comfy zone sometimes; and seamanship and safety rapidly decline as a result.

bg

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
A nice post with lots of good suggestions. The longer I sail, the more likely I am to just don boots and bibs (with the coat near at hand) as this allows me to go on deck without a second thought: easier now that I am not in warm water/warm air locations. I remember many times putting off a deck visit because I might get a splash, but whatever the chore was was not worth the effort of changing into full foul weather gear.
I remember arriving after an overnight sail in cold drizzly conditions. Shortly thereafter, another boat who had done the same passage came alongside and the skipper popped out of his enclosure in shorts and T-shirt and proudly shared that he had been warm and toasty inside his enclosure all night with the heat going (the watch being accomplished by radar and views through his rained on plastic windows). I struggled to find a way of expressing all the ways I thought that was poor seamanship, but just shut up in the end. What is the saying “teaching a pig to fly…”
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Virginia

I was just re reading one of Roger Taylor’s books, so this post is pretty timely for me. I agree with much that you have to say here, but I also agree with Taylor’s focus on the debilitating effects of exposure and exhaustion. As I am sure you know, he is a big proponent for staying inside the cabin virtually all of the journey. Obviously a very knowledgeable and accomplished sailor who ventures out into the far north as well.

Of course, he is single handing and Mingming is a very different boat than Morgan’s Cloud. I wonder how much of the “correct” solution to going forward is based on individual differences in training, goals, crew, boat, rig, experience, etc. Would love to hear your thoughts on that.

Thanks so much for an interesting counterpoint to my current reading!

Marc Dacey

Horses for courses, John, I suppose. We just rerigged our mast and mastsail, and while we have a furling jib, we have no intention of putting a furler on the staysail, because the whole point of that particular wind weapon is to stay as uncomplicated as possible, particularly as it’s big enough to drive us at seven knots past 35 knots apparent. All halyards (and I just reeved four Dyneema-cored ones) are lead to the mast, which is a tabernacle with big winches and a mast pivot and is plenty large enough to clip onto and remedy most issues right there. It’s also a good place to terminate aft and forward jacklines. Granny bars are a “maybe” at this stage of the refit. Like many metal boat owners, we are shy of any holes in the deck, so maybe if I can have bases welded in…

I did like the idea that you simply knotted the preventer to an existing line round a block at the bow…it’s easier to find, say, two 40 foot lengths of half inch than to have a single (or two) 80 foot (or whatever) lengths. Of course, the right knot is far more logical! By the way, the video quality is excellent…your learning curve was worth it!

Our view on enclosures is equally simplistic: We have a pilothouse. That’s the enclosure. The “sailing helm” has weather cloths and a solar panel quasi-bimini, all aft of the boom. You get briefly exposed going down into the pilothouse. Big deal. We may put Sunbrella between the panels for shade and water collection and melanoma avoidance, but if we are “outside”, I want to feel the wind and have 360 degrees of horizon.

Good post.

Jim Patek

Hi John

Let’s Go! , a 2003 vintage OVNI 435 , has always been rigged with roller furling headsails and a full batten main. The main has three reefs and the reefing lines are led aft to the cockpit as is the main halyard, vang and outhaul. Given that the full batten main with its nice roach must clear the lazy jacks, I have the crew hoist the sail from the mast while tailing the line in the cockpit. If single handing, you just have to raise it from the cockpit. Of course, this has always been in modest sea conditions. Once the main is up, it never comes completely down. I am probably lucky but in all her miles, I have never had to drop the main beyond the third reef so I never had to try to get it back up in a big sea.

In seriously uncomfortable weather, having reefed down, we hang out in a modest enclosure zipped into the spray dodger and we have a zip window so that we can look forward but in the worst case, we may be down below operating on radar, AIS and AP remote if we know we are not in an area frequently traveled (there, I admitted it). But, there remain things that can only be done by visits out of the cockpit and onto the deck. I try to minimize the necessity for these visits by anticipating the requirements dictated by wind and sea conditions. For example, rig the preventer while the conditions are less demanding. Set your running backstay up for the tack you expect to be on should the need (as in gale) to reduce sail to the staysl occur. Similarly, rig the whisker pole if you anticipate a windshift that will force you below 140 deg apparent and just leave it there until you need it (ugly as it might be). Check your shackles, lines, turnbuckles and blocks while the sea conditions do not pose a threat.

Quite frankly, I hate to see crew go forward in rough weather. Not every crew is experienced, agile and fit and I simply need to be able to accommodate this reality in my cruising. Emergency, sure. But for routine stuff like reefing, I think not. Reefing from the cockpit means you reef early and often and similarly you can release the reef as soon as you feel conditions have improved knowing that it takes less than a minute to put it back in. No one will ever convince me otherwise.

No sailor hangs out in their enclosure all the time It is simply not practical. At the same time, let’s minimize those trips out of the cockpit when the going gets tough and enjoy them when it is safe . And, for Pete’s sake, close up that cockpit on Morgan’s Cloud if for no other reason than to enjoy the anchorage when the rain wants to chase you below.

All the best,

Jim

Erik Snel

I totally agree with your 6 reasons, and I can even add one. Having crossed out and back from Holland to the Azores this summer, with several quite stormy patches, I notice that when I leave the cockpit I see things on deck that are not in order. Like halyard ends uncoiled or not tight etc. These things are usually of no imidiate concern, but when left can seriously endanger things later on. So every time I’m on deck I check and if necessary replace, tighten etc. It leaves me feeling much more tidy and in control: the worse the weather, the more I want everything to be in order at its designated place.

Marc Dacey

I agree entirely. I may have mentioned this before, but when I was racing with a crew of which five of the six aboard were boat owners in their own right, it was comical to see them emerge at sunrise, one by one, and walk the entirety of the decks, looking both up and down, for suspicious things like bits of metal, fallen cotter pins/rings, signs of chafe or looseness in the gear, and so on. Every one of them did his own separate inspection, but none of them talked to the other, including me. I felt good about being on that boat where such seamanlike habits prevailed.

That doesn’t happen if you lurk in the cockpit.

Richard Dykiel

I agree with all you said in principle. In practice my Dana 24 came with single-line reefing and I haven’t removed the system. Yes a pain in the butt with friction, etc… although mitigated by the small size of the rig. Since I’m mostly single handling I find this handy and remember cases taking a quick reef while tacking in a narrow channel (steering with the knees is fun 🙂 Granted this is a corner case, but I thought I should mention it. That said I never hesitate going around the deck, if only (in mellow conditions) to enjoy the sight of my boat from the bowsprit.

Steven Schapera

John
Years ago there was a management guru who coined the term “MBWA” or Management By Wandering Around”. The idea was that if you only worked fromyour desk then you never got to see what was really going on. It made perfect sense to me and I have practised it for 35+ years. Getting out of the cockpit is the same concept, but marinised. When we go to the bow – provided we keep OPEN EYES (another managemnet tool!) – we invariably notice something unexpected – perhaps some chafe on a sheet, perhaps a twisted shackle…whatever. Its good management.
And, even if there are no surprises, it always wonderful to look back toward the stern and get an appreciation of where we have come from rather than the focus being only on where we are headed.
Regards
Steven

Colin Farrar

Like Colin Speedie, we’ve kept the single-line reefing system on our Allures 44 only because it’s cheaper than re-rigging it. However, we value your advice to get out of the cockpit! Some additional thoughts:

1) Often find that what appears to be a gale from behind the cockpit dodger “diminishes” to a stiff breeze as soon as I step on deck. The waves suddenly “shrink” by 3-5 feet, too.

2) I respect others’ opinions, but offshore we prefer not to use a bimini, let alone a cockpit enclosure. The benefits of all-around visibility are obvious: reading the wind on the water, checking sail trim, and looking for traffic. More subtly, the human face is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in wind direction and velocity, and we’re accustomed to using these physiological cues while helming, trimming the sails, or making decisions. Yes, the wind can be fatiguing, but we can always take a break behind the dodger or ask a crewmate for relief.

RDE

Reason #7 to leave the cockpit:
Untangle the rats nest of lines leading over the cabin top on your energy saving all lines led aft arrangement.
There used to be reason #8— untangle the lazy sheet from around the Dorade, but that problem has been solved on modern boats by eliminating the Dorades and installing a generator and AC in their place.

Nick Kats

Sound post, John, thanks. This has come up before on AA, in bits & bobs.

On my boat I am MASTER and my little ship is my KINGDOM. My little kingdom. It is unthinkable that I not be able to freely roam the decks & the A frame bowsprit in gales. Or just to go out for a stroll or a pee.

I’ve seen too many crew insist on staying in the cockpit in modest or nighttime conditions. These people are useless.

There are two main roots, I think, to this reluctance to leave the cockpit.
1). The modern design – lightweight, tender, bouncy pitchy & rolly, fin keel, no bulwarks, often designed without much margin of safety. Versus old boats which wrre heavy, stiff, slow to roll or pitch, full keel, adequate bulwarks, grossly overbuilt by today’s standards.
2). The recent explosion of hyper-safety standards. All sorts of safety equipment, consuming precious space, time and energy, supposedly to save life. This trend can be extremist. Advocates of this trend can be counted on to stay in the cockpit.

My boat is old school. This gives me the luxury to freely roam my kingdom in full confidence. I have had very little experience in modern lightweight designs, none offshore or in gales. On these I would have to reassess.

Virginia

I am also loving the embedded videos. There are so many instances where they can impart so much more information or illustrate a point much more concisely. Super addition!

Richard Dykiel

Good video on preventer. Question: is there a reason you don’t use a carabiner or snap shackle instead of having to tie a knot? I’m asking because the off center video on Dana 24 sockdolager shows their preventer system to be a line going round a block at the bow and then coming back terminating with a carabiner at the cockpit level, carabiner that they attach to the end of the boom when setting the preventer.

Pat James

Hi,
It’s great to read all of the comments.
One of my fears has always been the thought of being dragged face down in the water by a tether.

We are currently stocking a new (for us) yacht and recently purchased a life jacket teamo that has has a very useful feature. Once inflated it has a ripcord that allows the user to moves the tether attachment point to the back of the shoulders. This feature automatically turns users over to a face-up position. It could be a life saver.

After reading the article we will review the placement of our jack lines.

Alex

At the very least, no matter how your boat is rigged, you need to walk the deck regularly with an eagle eye on lines, hardware, etc. in search of anything amiss.

I recall a few years ago crewing on a friend’s boat on a long passage. At one point he found a screw sitting on the cabin top. His eyes went wide and he was a man on a mission in search of where it had came from. It ultimately turned out to be one of the screws that held the boom to the gooseneck and it was one of FOUR out of six that had worked their way out (the result of modification to prevent the boom from articulating when a vang was added). I can probably count another few dozen similar discoveries while “walking the deck” during a passage. Problems discovered early are often small problems that, if left to their own devices, turn into BIG problems. Get out of the cockpit often. The watch change is an obviously good time for it if there is only one person on watch at a time.