It pains me to admit it, but powerboaters and sailors have a few things in common. And some of those things are mistakes, because several listed in Top 10 Mistakes Powerboaters Make sound very familiar. Getting lost, running aground, slamming into the dock, and failing to secure the end of an anchor line; these all happen on sailboats, too.

The Card dismasted

'The Card' caught its mizzen mast on a spectator boat at the crowded start of leg 4 in Auckland, halfway through the Whitbread Round the World Race 1989-90. Photo: David Branigan/PPL


But whether you are a newbie sailor or veteran ocean racer, there are some special “dos and don’ts” that apply only to sailboats. Now, there are plenty of mistakes sailors make that won’t be noticed by anyone except the most diehard perfectionist, which are much too numerous and boat-specific to list here. Instead we have collected ten of the most common errors, the ones big enough to derail your day of fun on the water.

1. Don’t sail too close to other boats

Sailboats heel over underway. It’s so easy to catch rigs when going by another boat, even the pros do it. Just watch this video from the 1990 Whitbread Round the World Race start in Auckland, when The Card clipped a spectator boat and lost its mizzen—a mistake the team then had to live with for the next 6500 miles.  (Skip to 1:09:30 to see the big moment.)

2. Don't catch fingers, toes, loose clothing, or long hair in winches

When a line wraps around a winch and is pulled in, anything that is between that line and the drum will be sucked in too. Ever wonder why sailors keep their hair tied back? It’s not just the wind-thrashing they’re trying to avoid; many fingers and ponytails have been shortened or removed by winch-pinching.

long hair winch

Long hair should always be tied back, to reduce the chance of catching it in a winch.

3a. Fasten off halyards

An unattached halyard is almost as bad as an unattached bachelor at a party; you never know what kind of trouble it will get into. Swinging free, the loose end will quickly wrap itself around a nearby stay, making it difficult to clear again. And this mistake will make the next one more expensive:

3b. Don’t pull on a loose line to find the other end
There’s something about a tail of line that makes us want to pull on it, to figure out where it’s attached. But if it’s not (see #3a), and it’s a halyard, the loose end will quickly climb the mast, faster than would seem possible. About halfway up, the weight of the line running down the mast will probably outweigh the line running up, and gravity assistance will kick in. The only way to recover from this? A quick scramble to the top of the mast—and hopefully that wasn't the only halyard available, or you'll have to free-climb. Luckily, it’s a nice view from the top.

spinnaker flying

Although this sail has been intentionally released from the boat for some warm-water recreation, it shows what could happen without knots in the spinnaker sheets. Photo: Neil Rabinowitz

4. Tie stopper knots in the spinnaker sheets

Ever seen a boat with a spinnaker streaming from the top of the mast, flying out like a flag? Yup, I have too. A few knots would’ve prevented the whole mess. (The 1990 Whitbread Round the World Race video shows an example of this at 1:08:22.)

5. Close your thruhulls when leaving the boat overnight

It’s like locking your car when parked at a big city mall: a small habit that one day might prevent a much larger problem. Maybe that ten-year-old hose on your engine intake won’t pick next Wednesday morning to split open... but maybe it will. Closing all the valves that could let in the ocean will keep a small maintenance oversight from sinking your boat. And thruhulls that get opened and shut several times a season will also be less likely to freeze open (or shut).

sinking sailboat rescued by US Navy

Powerboats may create noise and wake, but they can also be our salvation when we get into trouble. Photo courtesy US Navy

6. Don’t give powerboats the finger when they pass too close

Remember, today’s loud obnoxious wake-producing powerboat (the one cutting right across your bow) might be tomorrow’s towboat salvation. (For more on getting along with your fellow boaters, read Share the Water: Unspoken Rules of Sailors, Fishermen, Powerboaters, and Paddlers.)

7. Don’t interfere with lines

Those of us who grew up sailing were trained at a young age to raise a foot if something moved underneath it, which also helps us to avoid snakebite. Standing or sitting on a line will guarantee that it needs to be adjusted in the next thirty seconds.

Team McLaren tow

Shortly after this photo was taken, Anna Tunnicliffe's team undoubtedly either hoisted or tied down their jib, to keep it from flogging.

8. Don’t flog your sails

Sails are like gas for your car; disposable fuel. But the better they are treated, the longer they’ll last. The quickest way to shorten a sail’s life expectancy is to flog it, letting it thrash in the wind. It’s also really annoying to everyone else, and might damage something or someone while it's luffing out of control. One all too common example is jibs stored on headstays that aren't furled tightly enough. The breeze comes up, pulls a piece of leech free, and soon there's a huge flag blowing the boat around. Not only will the jib be damaged, but the tranquility of the anchorage or marina will be disturbed, which means annoyed neighbors. A tight furl will prevent all but a hurricane from unraveling it, and taking a final wrap with the jib sheets will almost guarantee a secure sail.

America's Cup 2013 capsize Neil Rabinowitz

Even the pros make mistakes. Who can forget the near-near-capsize of Emirates Team New Zealand during the America's Cup? Fortunately photographer Neil Rabinowitz was on hand to capture the drama.

9. Don’t start the engine without checking for lines over the side

Many sailors will start their engine to get back to the mooring or dock. Remember to check over the side before the prop engages, to make sure a random jib sheet, dockline, or dinghy painter hasn't fallen into the water. Unless you like swimming better than sailing, the day will not end well if you have to unwrap something from the shaft.

10. Don’t steer the wrong way when backing down

Sailboats don’t back up very well, so it’s hard to tell which way to turn the rudder. Instead of “tiller toward trouble” as when moving forward, push the tiller toward where you want the bow to go. That way the stern will move in the opposite direction, and all will be well. (If this seems really confusing and not at all clear, we can talk about wheel steering, which is exactly the opposite.)

Okay, that's ten, so it's time to stop. There are plenty more, even before we add in the mistakes that can also be made on powerboats. So if there’s a big boating mistake you think we’re missing, for sail or power or both, tell us about it and we'll share it with our readers. Hopefully by learning from each other we can stick to the small mistakes, the ones that only those diehard perfectionists will notice.