Skippering a yacht for the first time is a pivotal experience; one that's rewarding if done right. Rupert Holmes explains how to ensure everything runs smoothly on your first voyage in charge

The experience of a first-time boat skipper varies widely – as a relative newcomer, you will have a very different experience to someone who has already sailed a couple of thousands miles or more.

The transition between the experience gained on sea school courses and applying that knowledge on your own boat with your own crew can be a huge leap.

The school boats are likely to have been fully crewed, with an instructor on board to make sure everything runs smoothly – and who is there should anything go wrong.

Also, you will all have already been comprehensively introduced to the boat, its systems and idiosyncrasies.

Your first few trips as a skipper are likely to be with some of the most inexperienced crew you’ll ever sail with. If they are also your family members, there is a double dose of pressure.

Of course, as you gain experience, so will your crew, but for the first few trips you should expect the twin challenge of being both boat skipper and instructor.

The role of the boat skipper

Good skippers monitor and prioritise multiple factors both within the boat and externally while remaining outwardly relaxed and jolly – sailing is meant to be fun, after all.

A boat skipper smiling at the tiller

Sailing is fun! The key is proper preparation. Credit: Katrina Megett

How do they achieve this?

Preparation is key, but there’s more to it than that – here are three things that a good boat skipper should not do:

1. Hog the helm: If you’re on the helm, you can’t go forward to brief crew, help with deck work, check the navigation, or solve other problems when they occur.

The exception to this is close-quarters manoeuvring once each crew member has been properly briefed as to their role.

2. Become distracted by deck work: If you’re doing most of the crew work, it’s very easy to become focussed solely on the task in hand, and fail to observe crucial developments – such as approaching shipping – taking place outside of the boat.

3. Spend unnecessary time on navigation and pilotage: Time spent below is time when you’re not in tune with what’s happening on deck.

As part of your planning, make sure all the essential information is at your fingertips.

Take the chart on deck in good weather and if you do not need to spend time below – because of a change of plan, for instance – consider buying yourself the time to do so by heaving-to.

A man wearing a lifejacekt at the helm of a boat

As a boat skipper, it is important you do not hog the helm. Credit: David Harding

This is not to say that many skippers don’t enjoy a stint on the helm, taking part in deck work or, for instance, preparing a meal while under way, but it’s important to recognise that these tasks are secondary to the skippering role.

A relaxed skipper will think ahead and is always prepared to slow the boat if things start happening too fast.

One of the most useful elements in a skipper’s armoury is the ability to buy additional time when necessary, using a variety of strategies.

Heaving-to, furling (or partially furling) the headsail, and stemming the tide are prime examples.

Planning where and when

For your first outing in charge, it’s best to choose an area with which you are already familiar: this will make everything from pilotage to figuring out where to find visitors’ moorings much easier.

If you sail in a busy area, such as the Solent or parts of the West Country, try to choose a quiet time.

You will find mid-week much easier than a weekend in peak season when everyone’s fighting for berths.

It also makes sense to choose a period with neap tides – the smaller the better – as this will make manoeuvring and pilotage much easier, smoothing out the sea state if there’s a wind-against-tide chop.

Another obvious factor is that you don’t want too much wind.

Even if your boat might comfortably deal with a Force 7 or more in expert hands, exercising caution your first time out is a wise move, especially with an inexperienced crew.

This is generally an easy decision to make with your own boat in your home port, but in marginal conditions, it requires more bravery, especially if you are chartering and have to write off the costs.

Advance preparation is crucial to a successful passage, but don’t be tempted to produce a rigid schedule at an early stage: there are too many factors that may change to make this worthwhile.

A woman doing passage planning on a chart for sailing

You’ll need appropriate charts and pilot books, but don’t neglect your on-deck duties as boat skipper. Credit: Theo Stocker

Read up on tides (both streams and height), dangers and local regulations in the area you’ll be sailing.

Check the distances between ports, estimate passage times and note key pilotage features and limitations for each harbour.

At this stage, your aim should be to collate vital information, while double-checking it to eliminate errors.

Those based in areas where harbours are more spaced out and perhaps subject to tidal entry restrictions – the Cumbrian coast, for instance – will face a different challenge.

If there is only one harbour within a reasonably easy day’s sail, it’s more a case of identifying whether the conditions are suitable for making the passage.

Final planning should start with checking the latest short- and long-range weather forecasts, before making a firm decision on the planned destination and departure times.

NOTE: It always takes longer than expected to get under way – the time taken from preparing to cast off to actually being on course, outside the harbour and with sails set, can be quite considerable – allow plenty of time for this. Then double it!

Make alternative plans in case you can’t reach your destination, or the weather turns nasty.

Of course, you can simply return to base, although this may not be easy if doing so involves a long beat to windward, or is against the tide.

If access to your home port is restricted by tidal factors, you may need to remain at sea until there is sufficient depth on the next tide.

Top tip: If it is the first trip in your own boat, consider booking an instructor from a local sea school for a few days. They will help you – and your regular crew – to become familiar with the boat and equipment, and build confidence in handling and manoeuvring in confined spaces. If you’re sailing in an unfamiliar area, they will also help you to gain local knowledge.

First-time boat skipper: Fully prepare boat and crew for sea

Identify the location and function of all the lines before setting sail.

If possible, hoist the mainsail while moored to allow your crew to practise reefing.

It’s also important to demonstrate the safe use of sheet winches and anchoring procedures before setting sail.

Make sure everyone knows where everything is and how it operates.

This is particularly important for safety gear. All crew should be given a full safety briefing.

A boat skipper on the deck

Ensure you and the crew wear lifejackets. Credit: Go West Sailing

At least one should know how to operate the flares, how to send a distress call by VHF radio and understand the most important rules of the road.

A man overboard situation will test an experienced skipper and crew to the limit, so wearing harnesses and lifejackets is particularly important.

Brief everyone on your plan for leaving the berth.

This is especially important if it’s an awkward one.

If tide is an issue, don’t forget that you can wait for it to change direction – or at least reduce in strength – before attempting a difficult manoeuvre.

On passage

Try to be relaxed, aware and on top of events as they unfold.

There’s rarely a need to panic, providing you’re in touch with situations as they change and you create the time needed to respond.

Engage the crew in all aspects of sailing the boat, including looking out for navigation features and other traffic.

Help them to be as involved as possible by talking through, or demonstrating, anything that’s necessary.

If you’re unsure of where you are in a pilotage situation, or can’t identify where to go next, then stop or slow down.

A man looking throughbinoculars on a boat

Encourage crew to look out for navigational features and other traffic. Credit: Getty

In particular, don’t go beyond the last position you can positively identify.

Sail gently – consider tucking in an extra reef for sailing upwind or on a reach.

Even experienced skippers tend to reef too late.

The old adage “When you think you need to reef, it’s already too late,” is one to remember.

If running with the wind aft of the beam, use a preventer on the main boom, or take the mainsail down to avoid the risk of an accidental gybe and possibly being hit on the head.

Be prepared to give external dangers – whether other traffic, shoals, or man-made obstructions – an extra wide berth, especially if they are downwind or down tide of you.

A boat skipper on the helm as crew work on deck

An active crew is a happy crew. Provide tasks which will keep them busy. Credit: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

When you reach your destinations, choose an easy berth or mooring and allow plenty of time to rig warps and fenders.

There should never be a rush to do this.

Stem the tide, or gently motor along the edge of the channel, until the boat is fully set up and you’ve been forward to check everything is properly rigged.

Whatever you do, don’t spin round in small circles.

It may be a popular tactic, but it’s disorientating, confuses other traffic, and can be hugely stressful in a busy river or harbour.

Skills and experience

Try something new each time you sail: anchoring, picking up a mooring, MOB drill, reefing, heaving-to, or setting the storm jib.

It’s also worth getting your crew to helm for some simple manoeuvres – through instructing them you will learn as much as they will.

You can gain more confidence by trying to pick up a mooring and anchor under sail.

A couple anchoring a boat

Trying something new, like anchoring, with your crew will help build confidence. Credit: Nic Compton

Choose wide-open areas to start with.

The exercise will sharpen your feel for the boat and how it behaves.

As well as exploring new harbours and destinations by day, enter a familiar harbour at night.

A full-on night sail is not necessary – simply entering a port half an hour after twilight will help enormously the first time you are forced to do so for real.

Spend the night at anchor and grow accustomed to increasing wind strengths.

Top tip: It’s a great idea to make your first couple of outings in the company of another boat, to provide help and backup if you need it. Just don’t allow them to rush you.

Final thoughts

Despite the potentially hostile environment afloat, boating is statistically safe.

But it’s important to be aware of the biggest personal dangers: being hit on the head by the boom when gybing, man overboard and, less frequently, crushing fingers in a winch.

It’s also important to recognise the dangers inherent in using a dinghy – many more sailors are lost from their tenders, or when transferring between dinghy and yacht than are lost at sea.

A boat skipper at the helm of a yacht

Safe skippering means knowing your limits and staying within them. Credit: John Welbank

It’s also worth noting the large number of sailing yachts that, following engine failure, are rescued by a lifeboat.

Make sure your engine is serviced and in good order. An RYA engine maintenance course is a worthwhile investment.

Knowing your limits and staying within them is crucial to effective and safe skippering.

However, it is also important to push your boundaries on occasion in order to learn new skills and refine old ones.

One measure of the art of good seamanship is the ability to apply existing knowledge to solve problems in situations never before encountered – but doing so takes practice.

One of the most useful pieces of advice I was given as a relatively new boat skipper was: “A good sailor is someone who looks back over the last trip and asks, ‘How could I have done that better?'”

It’s advice that works universally, whether you’re a newly qualified day skipper or as experienced as Dame Ellen MacArthur.

Continues below…

A boat being sailed through a storm

Sailing in storms and squalls

One crew's brisk breeze and exciting sail can be another's gale, even if sailing similar boats. So what makes the…

Enjoy reading First-time boat skipper: tips for your first voyage in charge?

A subscription to Practical Boat Owner magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

PBO is packed with information to help you get the most from boat ownership – whether sail or power.

        • Take your DIY skills to the next level with trusted advice on boat maintenance and repairs
        • Impartial in-depth gear reviews
        • Practical cruising tips for making the most of your time afloat

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter