Escape routes are a vital part of any plan when manoeuvring or passage planning.
Whilst cruising on the south west coast recently, it was apparent to everyone, except the skipper, that we weren’t going to reach the buoy that he’d chosen to sail up to.
It was also apparent to everyone, but the skipper, that when he did miss the buoy he would run the risk of hitting the (very) nearby harbour wall.
Escape routes are a vital part of any plan when manoeuvring or passage planning. When we are passage planning we call them bolt holes or ports of refuge and they are thought through before departure.
It is the same when we are manoeuvring; we should plan an escape route so that if plan A does not go well, we have a plan B at the ready.
Our skipper was approaching the buoy at the right angle and using the correct sail. It was his speed that was the problem. He had slowed the boat down so much that it was stalling and as a result it was drifting sideways.
In this situation any power applied by sheeting in the mainsail would just increase the sideways drift instead of increasing drive. This is precisely what was happening to us.
However, the skipper was still willing the boat to go forward rather than accepting the situation and focusing on getting the boat under control again.
What we needed to do was to accept that we were not going to make the buoy, bear away, ease the sheet a little and get the boat sailing again.
Unfortunately, our skipper had not planned an escape route , leaving him with nowhere to go (Fig a) but up against the harbour wall.
The buoy was missed and the skipper tried in vain to turn the boat away from the wall. With no steerageway the walls magnetic presence pulled us ever closer until eventually the skipper switched on the engine and we moved into clear water.
When he’d started the manoeuvre, I had suggested, that it may be prudent to have the engine ticking over whilst we sailed in the moorings, knowing that if we did not make the buoy we’d probably need it. Having the engine ticking over was my escape route.
However, the best escape route for this particular manoeuvre would have been not to choose this particular buoy but go for one where, if the buoy was missed, we would be able to sail away safely (Fig b).
Quite often when sailing up to a buoy it is not a harbour wall that’s the problem, but shallow water on the side of the channel. Choosing an approach which will take you into deeper water if you miss it may be the best option.
Escape routes should be considered for all manoeuvres. For instance, before committing to driving down a marina aisle to your berth, consider how you would get back out of the aisle if your berth is occupied.
Think through which way you would turn the boat in relation to the wind or tidal stream, or whether it would be easier to reverse out.
Plan the manoeuvre you are going to carry out and brief your crew – but always have in the back of your mind that if the Law of Sod does come to play, how you would deal with it and keep the boat safe.
Words: Simon Jinks RYA Instructor and Examiner