Top 10 Sailing Tips for Your Sailing Partner

Have you put together a checklist to train your spouse or partner in what they need to know to operate your small cruising boat? In an emergency or if you are incapacitated, it’s vital that they can run things alone.

Boating author John Vigor has a handy package put together in his gem of a book The Seaworthy Offshore Sailboat. These tips apply whether you sail offshore, along the coast or inside sheltered waters. Pass ‘em on, skipper!

1. Marine anchor and ground tackle

Show your friend or significant other how to inspect the ground tackle and explain how all of the parts link together.

Teach them the easy way to estimate scope, choose an anchorage, or lower and raise the anchor.

2. How to steer a compass course

Your partner should be able to steer a compass course within 3-5 degrees. Show him or her how to average a course by steering to one side and then the other for equal intervals.

Make sure they understand how to plot a basic compass course and plot a position by latitude and longitude from a marine gps.

3. Boat diesel engine operation

Go through the pre-start checklist for diesel engines. This includes checking oil, coolant and opening the raw water seacock. Start the engine and let your partner operate the shifter and throttle and maneuver the boat. Show them the proper way to shut off the engine. Explain safe fueling procedures.

Let your partner practice how to come alongside and stop the boat next to a life-ring or other object. Explain how to use wind and current to control drift. If you fall overboard, you want to be confident that your partner can bring the boat close enough to you for recovery.

4. Marine battery and shore power

Explain how to use the battery selector for startup, charging and house power. Walk your partner through the procedure for shore power hookup and breakdown.

5. Boat sails

Point out the halyards to raise and lower each boat sail, along with sail controls like the mainsheet and boom vang. Go through the steps to lower, furl or reef each sail.

Describe and practice how to heave-to under sail (see related articles below) If you fall overboard, this could be the single most important maneuver for recovery. Unlike complex man overboard maneuvers under sail, heaving to has proven to be much more simple for less experienced sailors. Heaving-to makes good sense in high stress situations.

6. Self-steering

Explain the basic settings for the wind vane or autopilot on different points of sail or sea conditions. Be sure to emphasize that autopilots use lots of juice, so the batteries must be monitored.

7. Marine flares and survival equipment

Demonstrate the basic steps to use marine hand-held or parachute rocket flares. Point out the emergency “ditch-kit” and explain how a marine EPIRB works.

8. Marine stove and oven operation

Demonstrate the procedure for ventilation, lighting, using and shutting down alcohol, kerosene or propane stoves. Describe simple fire fighting procedures with each type of fuel onboard.

9. Marine bilge pumps

Point out the location of all mechanical and non-mechanical bilge pumps. Show how to check a float switch and how to operate each manual pump.

10. Marine radio operation

Post the procedures for a Mayday distress call next to the marine radio. If you have digital selective calling (DSC), post those procedures. Go through each step with your partner.


All too often, we tend to forget that our spouse or partner needs to know how to run our small cruising boat too. Give yourself peace-of-mind today and pass on these ten tips to your first mate!

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