Yachtmaster Instructor and co-founder of Rubicon 3 Adventures, Rachel Sprot takes a look at line handling and brings you her top 10 modern rules

They say that most accidents happen in the home, and I’d hazard a guess that the same is true for sailing. Of the accidents I’ve witnessed over the years, a significant proportion have been in port, often while mooring. It’s a time when the crew are starting to relax, the seasickness has vanished and the bar’s in sight. Meanwhile, the skipper is focused on the manoeuvre.

We often underappreciate the hazards involved in mooring. As the size of yacht increases, particularly above 45ft, it’s essential to upskill our line handling, and that of our crew. Last issue we looked at line handling techniques while under sail, this issue we’ll look at coming alongside, berthing, and other critical moments. The good news is that safe line handling isn’t complicated: with a healthy respect for the hazards involved and a few golden rules, it should be easy to make the transition to larger vessels safely.

1 Practise

It may sound counterintuitive, but if you’ve got novice crew on board it’s essential to teach them how to tie up while you’re still tied up. Taking time to demonstrate where to stand, how to lasso a cleat, and how to make off a line or surge it, is one of the best investments you can make.

Once you’ve done this, find a big, empty berth and come alongside a couple of times to ensure that everyone understands the procedure, it will pay dividends in the end.

With higher topsides, stepping off becomes harder – particularly on icy or slippery pontoons. Photo: Rachael Sprot

2 Surging a line

Using the warps, such as a midships line, is an effective way to bring a large boat alongside, but it needs both sensitive use of the throttle and sensitive line handling. The person stepping ashore needs to know how to surge the line, rather than snubbing it, and the person on the helm needs to work with them. In strong winds this can be the difference between coming safely alongside, or causing damage.

3 Heaving lines

As the lines get bigger and heavier, and the topsides get higher, stepping ashore with warps becomes harder.

Throwing a heavy line is difficult: if you get enough momentum to launch the line, you risk sending yourself with it. I’ve come close to this myself and seen it happen to another skipper (it did wonders for crew morale, though little for his own!). Throwing a few loops of the line, and not the whole coil, is the trick for short distances, but it will only cover a few metres.

“If there’s one essential skill the crew of large yachts need,” notes large classic yacht skipper, Jim Thom, “it’s using the heaving line.”

Coiling long warps and lines is heavy work. Photo: Rachael Sprot

While most medium-sized cruising yachts won’t carry a dedicated heaving line, they often have a throwing line in a bag, which will do the same job.

Practising on the dock first saves embarrassment under pressure and could be the difference between pulling off a manoeuvre first time, or having to come around again.

If you’re receiving a heaving line, holding out an arm on the side you want it thrown will help direct the line in the right direction, but away from your face.

<h2<4 Lassoing

If you’re not met by the marina staff, your crew need to be able to secure a line to the dock themselves.

Topside height has increased considerably in recent years, and where we might once have expected a crewmember to be able to step off a 50-footer, it’s increasingly unrealistic. Nigel Rennie has witnessed several accidents over his decades as an RYA examiner. Three Yachtmaster candidates left exams in an ambulance having slipped on pontoons and suffered serious injuries, and several more missed the pontoon entirely and ended up in the water.

“When I’m teaching a course these days,” he said, “I always teach lassoing.” To lasso a cleat, throw a bight of line wide enough to ensure that it encircles the cleat, and then bring in the slack.

Use your hip when coiling lines to help support the weight. Photo: Rachael Sprot

5 Coiling lines

Line coiling is an art. A well-coiled line isn’t just nice to look at though, it’s also a safety issue. There are times when you need to rig lines in a hurry, such as having engine failure in a confined space or needing a tow. Lines need to come out of the locker ready to use, not tangled among the buckets and fenders.

Coiling big, heavy lines is hard work though, and the larger the yacht, the longer it takes. Skippers can encourage good habits by allowing time to stow the boat properly before heading out of port. Using a winch, rather than your arm, to coil the line around makes it easier, or flaking it into a figure of eight on deck. To finish it off without finishing off your biceps, hold the body of the coil between the crook of your arm and your hip, while you wrap the tail around it.

Unambiguous communication between the bow and the helm is vital for safe line handling. Photo: Paul Wyeth

6 Communication

Effective communication is particularly important on a large yacht where the controls are a long way from where the load is applied. Agree terms in advance and explain what you mean by each phrase. Danny Watson, skipper of Challenge 72, Catzero, insists that crew repeat back the instruction: “Slip the bow line,” should be answered with “Slipping the bow line,” and then “Bowline slipped.” The bow is too far away from the helm to see what’s going on, and the foredeck team are the skipper’s eyes forward.

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Loading or unloading a line at the wrong time can be dangerous. A line should never be loaded without ensuring the people handling it are ready. If you’re going to drive onto a midships spring, explain this in advance and make a final check that hands are clear before engaging gear.

The language we use matters too. Sail training skipper Emily Caruso pointed out that “Make it off” sounds very similar to “take it off”. Unfortunately, it has completely the opposite effect to the one you want when you’re trying to secure a boat in a cross wind!

7 Planning

“Taking time to get the right lines in place can prevent a lot of rushing and mis-handling,” said Helen Walker, skipper of expedition yacht, Zuza, “then all the safety aspects can be adhered to without extra pressure and confusion.” With planning and preparation novice crew can be safely involved in deck operations, without it they’re more likely to be sidelined or injured.

Taking time to get the right lines in place can prevent a lot of unnecessary rushing when the time comes to deploy them. Photo: Paul Wyeth

8 Loose Ends

“Always ensure you can dump the line from on board if needed,” said John Wetton, Yachtmaster Instructor, “don’t put bowlines on cleats on board.” Having the loose end of the line on the dock means you’ve ceded control to those on shore who may, or may not, have understood instructions. If you’ve still got line on board you’ve still got options, such as easing, or releasing the line. There are times when you need to abort a manoeuvre or abandon a snagged line and depart the dock without it.

There is a story – possibly apocryphal – of a sailing school that almost lost a yacht when a line snagged. They were springing off a flimsy finger berth in a French marina, but when the line caught they were already making way. The rope was secured by a locking hitch with no way to release it. As the line came taut it ripped the pontoon off. Chaos ensued as they dragged the errant pontoon on a leash around the marina before eventually colliding with it and holing the hull. True or not, a line snag at a critical moment can have major consequences and being able to release it is key.

Cleats on the deck or pontoon can be hazardous – keep hands well clear when slipping lines. Photo: Paul Wyeth

9 Cleats

Cleats may look benign, but they can be dangerous. A few years ago the Hamble Inshore Lifeboat deployed to a woman who’d lost three fingers on a pontoon in the river. She’d been trying to hold on to a mooring line which was only around half the cleat. The manoeuvre had gone wrong, and under pressure she held onto the warp rather than letting go. It’s easy for hands to be sucked towards a cleat, especially if the vessel is in strong wind or tide. A safe distance of half a metre or more should be maintained and crew need to understand the importance of friction in giving them control.

Always ensure you can dump a line from the boat so crew onboard retain control and have options. Photo: Paul Wyeth

10 Complacency

The best lesson I came across was from an old school friend. She’s not a sailor, but she does watch the Below Deck reality TV show which follows superyacht crew working aboard charter yachts. “Have I seen Episode 6, Season 2?” she enquired.

Below Deck isn’t the first place I’d seek instruction in seamanship, but this episode captures a terrifying accident. Deckhand Ashton Pienaar stands on the wrong side of the tender towing line as it pays out. His ankle is caught in a bight of line which drags him over the side. Disaster is only averted by the cameraman who stops filming to release the tow setting the six-tonne tender, and Pienaar, free before he loses a limb or drowns.

It’s not only novices who are hurt by poor line handling, professional seafarers can become complacent too. We’re all guilty of relaxing our guard when it comes to line handling, but good technique keeps everyone safe and models best practices for those around you.

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