16 April 2017

Boat Handling Experiments

16 April 2017 — Soper’s Hole, West End of Tortola, BVI

It is Easter Sunday and we are holed up in the appropriately named Soper’s Hole — a very protected harbor on the west end of Tortola. We thought everything might be closed for the holiday, but most of the pastel-painted shops along the quay are open, the restaurants are doing a good business, and a steel band is playing Caribbean style music. We have taken over a deserted balcony above the party scene, enjoying the light breeze and relative peace.

So, what are we doing out here? I haven’t had time to explain exactly what happened to get us out here on the Spanish Main. 

Briefly, our insurance finally came through and the deal to buy Petronella — the steel Joshua 40 that I’ve been blogging about — came together all of a sudden. Helena and I had to pack and jump on an airplane to Martinique without much preparation. That’s probably just as well. Less time to worry!

As part of the deal, the current owners, John and Gill, have agreed to sail with us at least as far as the Bahamas. It’s part of the deal because realistically Helena and I weren’t ready to buy what seems to us a very large boat, jump aboard, and sail her 1300 miles back to the US on our own. There were just too many things that could have gone wrong — probably very wrong. 

So we are now on a delivery cruise, but we are also taking the amazing opportunity to learn how to sail and handle Petronella from people who have cruised her for nearly 10 years, including an Atlantic crossing. In addition, we are learning everything we can about her various ‘systems’ (engine, electronics, plumbing, etc.) 

That’s a lot to learn in three or four weeks, but learning them on our own would be much more difficult. The value of these lessons is incalculable. The most important of these lessons so far involved boat handling.

My biggest fear was that Petronella — with her very long keel — would be too difficult for us to handle, particularly in tight situations like picking up a mooring or coming alongside a dock. I knew it was possible to maneuver such a boat in close quarters, having watched Luke Powell pivot his even less maneuverable pilot cutter 180 degrees in place. However, even though I’d watched him do it, and quizzed him extensively on the maneuver afterwards, such feats of seamanship seemed beyond my reach. Or were they?

Luckily, I’d come across a very good description of the turn-in-place trick in Tom Cunliffe’s ‘Day Skipper’ book. The fact that he’d put it in the first book of the RYA how-to-sail series clearly indicated it was a skill even beginners should and could learn, so I was determined to master it.

Taking advantage of a calm day, we motored Petronella into the middle of an empty bay

First experiment: see how she handled at dead-slow speed. I stopped her with her bow into the wind, then put her into forward gear without giving her any throttle. She began to move forward very slowly, but with steerageway, meaning that she responded to her helm.  Excellent, but what how would she handle with a cross wind? Would her head just blow off at slow speeds? 

Coming to a stop with the wind on the beam I repeated the experiment. Surprisingly, the wind seemed to have no effect. She just motored ahead slowly. I guess that if the wind was harder her head would fall off a bit, but since the wind was light, I didn’t have a chance to try this. Nevertheless, I was much encouraged. At least I didn’t have to worry about losing steerageway at very low speeds. Chalk that up to her long keel and big rudder, I guess.

Second experiment: turn Petronella 360 degrees in place to starboard — the direction favored by her prop walk. 

What is prop walk? It is simply the direction the stern swings when the engine is put into gear, before she gathers way. The direction it swings depends on whether the boat has a right or left-hand propeller. In Petronella’s case, her stern swings to starboard in forward gear, and to port in reverse gear. It must be emphasized that prop walk is noticeable mainly when the boat is stopped. As soon as she gather’s way, the keel gets a powerful grip on the water and cancels the effect out. To use prop walk to pivot the boat, you must keep her from moving ahead or astern. That’s the key trick to turning in place. Or at least that’s what I understood from reading Tom’s description.

Again, I let Petronella come to a stop. Turning the wheel all the way to starboard, I shifted into forward gear and gave her half-throttle, until she began to move forward — just a few seconds. The prop walk effect wanted to kick the stern to starboard, but the wash of her prop slamming into the hard-over rudder was much stronger, and her stern kicked slightly to port. 

I then throttled her down, waited a second or two for the revs to come off, put her into reverse, and again gave her half-throttle. 

In reverse, the wash from the prop was forward, so the tiller (still hard over to starboard) had no effect. This allowed prop walk to push her stern to port, thus continuing the clockwise turn.

When she started moving astern — again, just a few seconds — I reversed the action: killed the revs, put her into forward, and gave her half-throttle. Again, the wash slamming into the hard-over rudder overcame prop walk, and Petronella continued to turn clockwise.

And that was it. Like magic, the large and seemingly ungainly boat turned tamely in place 360 degrees. Wow!

According to Tom’s book, it would be more difficult to turn the boat in the opposite direction because prop walk would be working against the maneuver, but he urged readers to try it for themselves, so I did. 

Surprisingly, she turned nearly as well to port as to starboard. I theorize this is due to Petronella’s large rudder. The effect of the prop wash slamming into the rudder must be that much larger than the effect of prop walk, so she turns just as happily the ‘wrong’ way as the ‘right’ way. 

When I’d completed both maneuvers, John and Gill applauded loudly then declared I was ready to attempt to pick up our mooring. 

It was mid-day, so many boats in the mooring field had cleared out for the day’s sail, but there were still enough boats in the field to make maneuvering amongst them challenging. To keep it simple, I picked out a mooring in the back of the field for my first challenge. 

I approached in my usual way — from down wind with low revs. When we were lined up and perhaps 50 yards off the mooring ball, I throttled down to nothing, but left her in forward gear, slowing the boat to a crawl. When we were maybe 20 yards away, I took her out of gear altogether and let coast up to the mooring. I had steerageway until she came to a stop, so was able to bring the mooring ball right up to the port bow, where John and Helena neatly grabbed the mooring lines with a boat hook. A few seconds later, we were high-fiving each other.

We repeated the experiment several times, but each time Petronella handled beautifully. In five attempts, we missed just one pick up and that was because I came in too hot. Over confidence, I guess!

The next day, I practiced coming along side the fuel dock at the marina, but by that time, I was convinced that Petronella was no more difficult to handle than the Blue Moon, at least in moderate winds. We haven’t had enough wind to try maneuvering in stronger winds (where are the vaunted Trade Winds?!?!) but I suspect Petronella will be less likely to get blown around than the Blue Moon, so am feeling pretty confident at the moment. Not to say cocky!

So, a very big tick in the boat handling box. There is still lots to learn, but I am no longer worried that I will not be able to learn to handle Petronella in close quarters. A big boost to my self-confidence. Thanks to Tom Cunliffe and his excellent book, we are off to a good start.

Next Up:  The Passage So Far...


  1. Hi John,
    Thanks so much for letting us in on your adventures. Stay safe and please keep sharing.

  2. You guys are off to a GREAT START !! , Hooray for you.

  3. Must give that turning manoeuvre a try in my own boat

  4. I am living vicariously! Keep up the great adventure!


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