If all good things must come to an end, then it had to happen sooner or later. After 7 years and nearly 400 tips, DIY projects, yarns, and wordy expressions of opinion, we have decided to end our Monday posts and shut down the website. We will still be sharing tips and great information on our facebook page, and pictures of both the practical and eye candy variety on Instagram. So as we and technology move along, please move with us and like and follow us at either or both of those locations. And as always, feel free to swing by and say hi when you share an anchorage with Eurisko. Thanks for all the support. See you out there.

Sailing Mnemonics

September 12, 2016

It's here! My latest book, Years of Ideas from a Simple Sailor is now available on Amazon.

Some people, like our boys, are lucky enough to grow up sailing. It becomes second nature, a part of their blood. One (or maybe even two) of our boys has sailed more miles than he has driven. The way many Americans drive down the highway without having to think about how to make the machine do what they want it to is the same confidence that the boys demonstrate when sailing: a race boat, a dinghy, or their home. For the rest of us, however, we have had to learn along the way. And there is so MUCH to learn, that memory aids are the only way I could keep some of the finer details straight. In fact, I still use many of them.

Keeping 3 sails trimmed requires constant diligence.

While teaching high school a lifetime ago, I was known for my use of mnemonics. I had little tricks for remembering all sorts of vocabulary words and grammar rules. Naturally then, when I started homeschooling, I brought that skill to my boys' education. So when Dave could never seem to remember whether 1 whistle was altering starboard or altering port, I created ASAP. 1 comes before 2. ASAP stands for Altering Starboard (1), Altering Port (2). Even now, when Dave hears "I'll pass you on two whistles" on the radio he mumbled "ASAP, altering starboard, altering port. 1 comes before 2, so he's altering port." I created that little memory aid on our first trip down the ditch a million years ago. Once I realized that I didn't have to be ashamed of the fact that sailing wasn't inherent, that I had to really work at it, I started sharing the dozens of other ways I remembered "how to" on a sailboat. The boys have heard them for over a decade, but they rarely listened because they didn't have to think about how to sail. But for those of you who might still be in the "have to think about it" stage (like I still am sometimes), maybe one or more of these mnemonics will help you, too.

Point to the flogging sail.

For the serious newbie, there is the ages old "port has 4 letters, so does left" and also the "red is shorter than green, port is shorter than starboard" aids. Red Right Return (when you're in the States) can be useful, too. But once you have mastered those, here are some trickier tricks. Being a woman, I don't have the little piece of metal that men supposedly have in the tip of their noses that gives them a sense of direction. (Wives tale or not, I hear about said "chip" of metal frequently, so it's become part of our family's knowledge-base, regardless of how true it may be.) In the ocean, with no points of reference except the sun (or stars), and wave and wind direction, I can't always tell you which way is north. Looking at the compass helps me not at all. So I created "left = lower." If I turn the boat to the left, the numbers on the compass will get lower. If I'm supposed to be steering 135 and compass says 145, I know I need to go "lower." Left = lower. I steer to the left. [We went sailing with some friends the other day and I REALLY wanted to share this. He was as confused as I often get. But I know from experience that not everyone is as willing to admit that they don't know which way to steer as I am.]

Watching the sails

Another way I use this left = lower is when determining drift or slide. Let's say your compass says you are pointed at 240 but the GPS says your actually moving 255. We know that the GPS is the real direction of movement. So compare the two. You are obviously sliding 15 degrees, but which way? Well, if left = lower, then right = higher. You are MOVING 15 degrees HIGHER than you are pointing, meaning you are sliding to STARBOARD. Because this is confusing for many people, let's try another example. Your compass says you are pointing 120 but the GPS says you are moving in the direction of 110. GPS is LOWER, lower = left, so you are sliding to PORT 10 degrees. (This part is usually my job. Dave looks down and says, "Oh crap, we're sliding." And then, without even trying, he says, "Which way?" While he certainly CAN do it, he says that's why he has competent crew, so he doesn't have to.)

Wing and wing with the drifter

When we returned Eurisko to a tiller from the wheel some previous owner along the way had installed, I found an even easier way to stay on course. Point the tiller at the degrees on the compass you want to go. Stick with me, here. You are headed 145 degrees on the compass. You should be steering 135. (Can you picture a compass? If not, go look at one.) As you're looking at the compass, 135 is to the RIGHT of center. Point the tiller AT 135. If you were headed 145, pointing the tiller at 135 moves the tiller to the RIGHT, which steers the boat to PORT, or left. Since left = lower, you can double check that this is the right way to get back on course.

Even Ziggy has his own tricks.

But sometimes, there is no course. Many times at change of watch I'll come up on deck and Dave will say, "Full and by." And that's the extent of our watch change conversation: keep the sails full; sail by the wind. Since Eurisko pretty much sails herself upwind and what she won't do our Windpilot, Ziggy, does, then there's usually nothing for me to do but look for ships. The problem arises, however, on those rare occasions when we're running wing and wing. This summer in the Bahamas we sailed off the wind more than we have since we gave up our easting and sailed straight to Panama 1100 miles from St. Croix. Wing and wing confuses my little brain. For the life of me I can NOT seem to keep both sails full. Or rather, I COULDN'T before I created this memory aid: point the tiller at the sail you want to keep full. Obviously, when things are perfect, the tiller is pointed straight ahead, but if the sail that is on PORT starts to back wind, point the tiller to PORT. It doesn't matter which sail is winged out to which side, the mnemonic is the same. You can go try it, or you can follow along at home. Here's how it works: Let's say you have the main out to port, the genny is poled out to starboard. You're headed dead down wind. The wind shifts or you drift off course or current affects you in some way so that the genny on starboard starts to flutter. What this means is that the wind is no longer directly behind you. It is now slightly off your right shoulder. To get it back behind you, you have to point the bow to PORT. (Right? Wind is off your right shoulder, point the bow to port and it comes back to being directly behind you again. Follow me?) How do you move the bow to port? Push the tiller to starboard, the side of the boat with the luffing sail. Now, previously, I used to line up my hands. One was the boat, one was the wind direction. I would pivot one to show the shifting wind, pivot the other one to show which way the boat needed to move to bring the wind back around, then move the tiller accordingly. Try that in 20 knots of wind with WAY too much sail up when you were just given strict orders from the captain NOT to backwind that main under any circumstances. All that thinking was far too slow. Now I don't even think. I just point the tiller at the sail I want to fill. Even Dave uses this memory aid now. But usually he just lets me steer downwind because my little trick (and my longer attention span) generally means we steer a straighter course.

A while back I posted a similar memory aid about sailing by tell tales. If you can't see the windex but you can see the tell tales on the genny, point the tiller at the side of the boat with the luffing tell tale. Here's a quick reminder of how this works upwind. You're sailing right on the edge of the wind on a port tack, the sail is set perfectly, both tell tales streaming backwards. Then, the outboard one (starboard) starts to flutter. This means you are too far OFF the wind for the sail set. Point the tiller to leeward (starboard) side, which brings the boat to port (windward) which fixes your telltales because now you're back to being close hauled to the wind. Point the tiller at the luffing tell tale.

When navigating a channel using a range, "chase the lower one" keeps you on track. The lower range is generally the closer one. Imagine two sticks. If you get too far to the LEFT of the line between those sticks, the lower one is to the right of the higher one, so you need to "chase" it by steering to the right. This brings you back on course. Chase the lower range.

You'll notice that many of these mnemonics apply to steering boats with tillers. If you have a wheel, you'll need to create your own. But creating memory aids is easy and sort of fun. We have many of them that are specific only to Eurisko. For example, in order to adjust Ziggy's control line to make him alter course slightly, we pull a string. If we pull the string that spins the knob toward us, he turns to the left. I know this because of RIGHT AWAY. If we pull the string that turns the knob AWAY from us, Ziggy steers to the RIGHT. I don't think I've ever adjusted Ziggy without at least thinking (if not mumbling aloud) "Right away."

For those of us for whom sailing is not second nature, who have to think too long about some maneuvers, who didn't have the benefit of growing up sailing, mnemonics can help us become more proficient and less reliant on a motor. If there's something that you can never quite remember how to do, create a mnemonic. And feel free to share. There are probably others (onboard or elsewhere) who can benefit from your idea.

"But what do you DO all day?" Many people considering jumping off the gerbil wheel fear that a day in the life of a cruising family may be too boring for them. You might be surprised. MONDAY we'll share a day in the life.


Connie McBride's work has been published in Good Old Boat, Sail Magazine, Small Craft Advisor, Cruising World, All at Sea, and Blue Water Sailing. As a full-time liveaboard cruiser for over 15 years, she has written several books and in her spare time, well, who has spare time?

Recent Articles



People and Places

Yarns and Opinions





Can't find your favorite post?

Did you find something of interest? Consider donating $1.
Thank you.