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When backwards is best
by Tom Cunliffe
Tom Cunliffe recalls a situation in which it would have been better if he had sailed out stem first

Learning to stemboard could one day help you out of a tight corner Once in awhile, even experienced instructors allow themselves to be manoeuvred into a scrape.

These are often boat-handling frights and they don't only happen in learning situations. A bad first analysis usually leads to a snap decision and, before you know it, 'Bang!' you've clobbered the Commodore's yacht. I've learned not to let anyone attempt a manoeuvre without a last-ditch safety exit, yet often we're over-confident or too lazy to look for one. Let me tell you what i happened one summer afternoon.

My class and I were moored off a small port in a Westerly Fulmar, lying head-up to a moderate breeze at slack water, flanked by yachts riding two or three boats' lengths apart. One was locked up; the other, on our starboard side, had a family crew enjoying tea in the cockpit. The task for my potential yachtmasterwas to sail off the mooring. 'Hoist the main,' ordered the boss confidently, 'then we'll slip, bear away on port tack under this chap's stem and unfurl the genoa.' He might get lucky, I thought, but if the Fulmar proved unwilling to turn away from the wind we would T-bone the neighbours; so I peered pointedly at the big, fractional-rig mainsail and asked if this had been considered. 'I see what you mean,' the skipper said. 'S6 why don't we keep the main close-hauled and sail round his bows instead?' That was when I made my error of the year. 'Okay.' I responded.

Far beneath my jolly smile I heard - and ignored - the distant drums of doom. The cardinal sin after slipping was that, instead of easing the mainsheet a foot or two and treating the boat as if she never carried a headsail, our man pinned the main hard in as though the genoa were set. This jammed the sail on to the boat's mid-line, generating no forward drive but loads of sideways push to the stalled keel. He shoved the tiller to leeward trying to gather way, but she would have none of it, sliding sideways towards the innocents next door. Mum was pouring a fresh brew as we fetched up alongside. Fortunately, our team was ready on the lee deck-iFending guardrail and shroud, they averted physical contact, but Dad gave us such a 'sailing schools; I eat 'em for breakfast!' glare that I could only mumble an apology, shove our head through the wind and ease enough sheet to get going.

We could have averted this kerfuffle with backed headsail and well-eased mainsheet, bearing away smartly under the tea-boat's stem. But in tight comers this won't always work. Another solution was to wind ship and lie with our stem to the mooring, sailing off under genoa only, but that would have been messy. Far sweeter would have been to stemboard (sail backwards) out of our slot. Here's how to do it:

First, overhaul (slack off) the mainsheet all the way and make sure the kicker is hard on. Next, with the boat dead head to wind, have your strongest crew member push the boom forward to back the mainsail; the further out, the better. Before the boat starts to swing, slip the buoy. Many a small yacht will now gather way astern and all you need do is steer as though you were under power. She might try to sheer off one way or the other before settling down. This is the critical time to show her who's boss by positive helm reaction. Even if the boat had sheered off to one side or the other, she would have fallen astern far enough to bear away safely, especially as her mainsheet was fully overhauled.

Try stemboarding in calm water one sunny day. There's no need for a mooring. Luff head to wind under main only and wait until you've lost every scrap of way. Shove out the boom before the head blows off and start looking astern as you steer. With a bit of luck, your boat will behave herself.  

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