Masterclass Boathandling: how to handle large yachts

Rachael Sprot talks about her top tips and tricks on managing large yachts, which are becoming increasingly popular in both private ownership and the charter market

If there’s one trend that holds true in all areas of boating, it’s that large yachts are becoming more and more common. Advances in technology have made ever larger yachts more affordable, while sail handling systems have evolved to make them easier to handle.

While a 50ft was once likely to be a ‘flagship’, today most builders offer at least one model over 50ft, often a whole range, many of which can be sailed short-handed.

The trend is repeating itself in the charter market: Sunsail now offers a 52ft monohull in its range of bareboats, making larger yachts accessible to those with an RYA Day Skipper Practical certificate and above. Still, there aren’t many opportunities to train on this size of vessel. We look at some of the factors that should be considered when upgrading:

Length

The length of a yacht itself is not the biggest challenge, you will soon adapt to the longer profile when entering and exiting marinas. However, be aware that there is a greater blind spot under the bow of a larger yacht.

In confined spaces or areas with a lot of activity on the water, it is important to actively monitor: mooring balls or dinghies can quickly disappear. Most modern yachts handle well aft, and parking in reverse is one of the easiest ways to overcome this problem as the skipper has a better view of where he is going. Otherwise, post a lookout on the bow.

Communication is more difficult on a longer deck, so brief your crew before sending forward and have an agreed set of hand signals.

Technology has allowed large boats to be more easily piloted by smaller crews. Photo: Richard Langdon

When you get next, let the team know ahead of you to count down from 5m using their fingers. It’s much more efficient on engine noise and it’s more discreet – nobody wants the whole marina to know you’ve gone from “Two!” to ‘Zero…ZERO!’ meters on the bow.

Shift

Displacement increases disproportionately with length. For example, the 2011 Hallberg-Rassy 412 weighs 11.1 tons, while the 64-foot version of the same vintage weighs 36 tons. That’s a 50% increase in length and over 300% in weight.

The increased weight means there’s a lot more power behind every maneuver. It takes a while to move over 30 tons through water, but once it gets moving, it keeps moving. To avoid doing things too quickly, on larger yachts you can put a lot of your power into neutral once you have established direction, as the boat will continue on its way longer.

Pay attention to the braking distances and go slowly: the wings will not be three times larger than on a 41 footer. Even at low speeds, 36 tons can cause a lot of damage so be careful with your revs.

Height

With a higher freeboard, you’ll have to plan your docking carefully: you can’t rely on a crew member who can get off and stop the boat, or push you out of a berth and get on board . Use bow or stern springs on wedges to cleanly exit a berth instead of the shove-n-go technique.

When docking, a center line is a great way to more or less secure the boat – go forward on a center line and move the helm away from the pontoon. This can hold the yacht in position while you set up the other lines. Mastering the art of lassoing a cleat will save the crew the risk of descending from high decks.

Time

Each maneuver is slower to execute than it would be on a smaller boat, and once set in motion, harder to stop. Just walking around the boat to set up lines and fenders takes longer, not to mention jibing a spinnaker or putting in a reef.

Give yourself enough time to think about the maneuver, put things in place and leave room for the sea to execute them. This is the most important factor that will reduce stress for skipper and crew.

When to ride

Without a doubt, the miles I’ve covered on boats over 50 feet have been the most rewarding. Large yachts can expand your cruising horizons, allowing you to take trips you wouldn’t otherwise take, with a crew you wouldn’t otherwise take. When it’s time to make the transition:

  • Make sure you are comfortable sailing smaller yachts before going over 45ft
  • Take another capable sailor with you, don’t jump into the deep end with a bigger boat and a novice crew
  • Gradually increase the size of the yacht
  • Gain crew experience on a larger yacht with a professional skipper to learn some of the techniques first-hand
  • If you are buying a larger yacht, invest in lessons on your own boat from an instructor with large yacht experience to help you learn the boat and build your skills and confidence.

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