POCKET SKILLS: Advice for Ladies at Sea (Gentlemen Invited)

Not all women are that ambitious, nor do we need to be, but a few boat skills are worth knowing. If you are intimidated, but have the desire to learn, there are several less-than-daunting ways to get started.
Publish date:
Social count:
Not all women are that ambitious, nor do we need to be, but a few boat skills are worth knowing. If you are intimidated, but have the desire to learn, there are several less-than-daunting ways to get started.
Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 10.25.51 AM

There is no denying that the seagoing world has belonged to men. Less than a century ago, women had to disguise themselves as men in order to work as shipwrights, crew on military and cargo vessels, or even as pirates.

Since those times, women have been able to shed men’s clothing and still secure these positions and others; such as tug boat captains, fishermen, world-class racers and Naval and Coast Guard officers. Though few nowadays have followed the career path of 18th-century buccaneer Anne Bonny.

Rudy and I know several women who spend many hours on their boats, sailing solo, leaving their husbands happily gunkholing the golf courses. Then there are those women, young and old, who have sailed around the world, some of them accomplishing the feat solo.

Not all women are that ambitious, nor do we need to be, but a few boat skills are worth knowing. If you are intimidated, but have the desire to learn, there are several less-than-daunting ways to get started.

One excellent way to learn is through the U.S. Coast Guard recreational boating courses, which all boaters, even experienced ones, can find helpful. I certainly do. Another approach is to get a copy of Chapman Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling, read through the sections that strike your fancy, and then practice.

Then, too, don’t overlook the folks who hang out at your local marina. Many of them not only have the knowledge, but also the willingness to help someone who desires to gain some skills. Every crew member should become capable of summoning aid or assistance, getting the boat back to harbor and retrieving a person from the water. Instead of beginning with these rather advanced skills, you’d be wise first to build your confidence with a few skills that are easily learned and can be extremely useful. Rudy and I call these “pocket skills.” Once mastered, they can then be tucked away in a back pocket, so to speak, to be pulled out and used as needed. A few of these skills are listed here.


The rolling hitch is one of the most versatile of all knots, yet few boaters use it.

The rolling hitch is one of the most versatile of all knots, yet few boaters use it.

“If you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot.” When I first got into boating, Rudy showed me one knot, the rolling hitch. He explained that although there are many knots, this one can do just about any job on a recreational boat that calls for a knot. “Later on,” he said, “if you want to learn other knots that’s fine, but until you do, focus your attention on the rolling hitch.”

After I became comfortable tying a rolling hitch, he showed me a most useful adaptation to it, where a bight of the line (that is, a u-shaped portion of a line instead of the end) is used to tie the knot.

There are three extremely useful applications for the rolling hitch:

• For tying one line to another, as when hitching a snubber to the anchor rode. To accomplish this, simply take the end of the line or a bight of the line and use it to tie a rolling hitch around the other line.

• For making a belay, as when tying a snubber around a samson post. To make a belay such as this, take a turn around the object with the line, finishing up with a rolling hitch tied around the line's standing part. If the load on the line will be substantial, take more than one turn, though seldom will more than two or three be necessary. It is these turns that will allow control of the line to be maintained once the rolling hitch is released.

• For making a loop, such as to lasso a cleat or a piling, simply turn the end of the line back on itself, tie in a rolling hitch on the line's standing part, slide the hitch until the size loop needed is arranged, then snug up the turns of the hitch to prevent it from slipping.

I have since added a few other knots to my repertoire, including the cleat hitch, bowline, sheet bend and square knot. But because of its great versatility, the rolling hitch continues to get, by far, the greatest percentage of use on our boat.


Although it is doubtful that one would be keelhauled for failing to learn the entire repertoire of knots, what often does raise the ire of the ship’s master is when things are not done “the ship’s way,” or in other words, the captain’s way.

There is one exception to this rule, however, and that is when time is of the essence in order to prevent damage or injury. Then, getting the job done is more important than how it is done, as long as it is done in a manner that does not make the situation worse. Once everything is under control and there is time, the crew can then set things to conform to the ship’s way.

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 10.49.50 AM

On our boat, we tend to be somewhat informal about how things get done, although I often notice Rudy coming along behind me, grumping about things not being done the ship’s way. To his credit, he is free with compliments when something is done well, like the one skill that he claims I do exceptionally well... that of ignoring him!

We had been cruising for almost a year; I felt comfortable operating the boat and carrying out many of the tasks on board, but there were still a few skills that I had been putting off learning, not wishing to get out of my comfort zone. But Rudy kept encouraging me to learn, saying, “It’s not just the things that you can do; what also matters are the things that you cannot do.”

I finally decided it was time to learn some of these skills, and so that I would not be overwhelmed, I attacked them one-by-one, first focusing on their salient points and then, once I was comfortable, the finer details.


Operating our boat shorthanded as we do, the ability for each crew member to competently throw a line is important, since it usually is not convenient or even possible for one of us to stop what we are doing to throw a line for the other.

WEB EXTRA: Click Here to Read Jill's Guide to Throwing Rope

It is my hunch that there are more than a few women, and men for that matter, who are frustrated with the fact that their lines are not being caught by folks on the pier; I know I certainly was, so learning to get better at throwing a rope became one of my priorities.

I learned that the lines I was throwing were too short. Once I switched to lines with plenty of length, those same folks magically started to show a remarkable improvement in their ability to catch them. On our 34-foot trawler, the typical docking lines are 30-footers, and it is not unusual to see me throwing 40-footers.

Jill demonstrating her flawless rope throwing technique.

Jill demonstrating her flawless rope throwing technique. Click the above web extra and learn how to throw like a pro.


Effective communication does not always come naturally to everyone, and like many other skills, usually needs to be practiced; we certainly had to and still do.

It took years, but Rudy and I eventually recognized that many of the clashes on our boat had to do with the use of ambiguous terms. For example, our ideas of what is meant by “a little bit” seemed to differ greatly.

Once we began to use more specific terms, things improved and conflicts declined. Now, for example, instead of saying “give me some slack,” we’ll say, “give me X feet of slack.”

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 10.16.56 AM

We’ve also had foul-ups when commands from someone other than the captain were followed—sometimes a crew member, other times from the dock committee. Nowadays, we designate one person as the captain, and the crew is informed to obey only that person’s commands. There’s a little leeway in following this procedure, especially if action needs to be taken before there is time to notify the captain of the situation, but unless extenuating circumstances exist, we follow this rule on our boat.

Input from crew members and shoreside folks is welcomed, but we ask that they only relay information and do so in a manner that enables the captain to make relevant decisions. For example, when we come alongside a pier or into a slip, instead of a crew member saying “turn now,” they should by words or gestures, indicate the distance between the boat and an object or how fast the boat is closing in on it. It is then the captain’s responsibility to issue commands as to how to proceed.

The following are also standard operating procedures on our boat:

>We encourage independent thinking and action by every crew member, but not to the point that it interferes with the captain’s plan of action.

>Prior to any but the simplest or most routine of maneuvers, we review the who, what, where and when, plus other relevant aspects, such as current, wind, traffic or any other issues that might be pertinent.

>Since the need to amend, alter or abandon any plan can occur at any time, the crew may be reminded to stay alert for last-minute change of plans.


Hand signals are an easy-to-come-by pocket skill that you’ll find in frequent use on our boat, as well as on many other boats. There is nothing special about hand signals other than they need to be understood by all involved parties and all involved parties are in sight of one another. They can be enormously helpful when voice communication is difficult. Here are a few that we use:

>Index finger pointed down and moved vertically up and down, means “let go the anchor.”

>Index finger pointed up with the hand circling at the wrist, means “anchor is free of the bottom.”

>Straight arm pointed in the direction to maneuver, means “go that way.”

>One arm swinging back and forth horizontally, means “put engine in neutral.”

>Arm raised with fist held still, means “stop.”

>A fist moving up and down vertically reflects the speed desired; the more rapid the movement, the greater the speed.

>A hand held flat with the forearm moved vertically up and down, means “slow down”; the slower the movement, the slower the speed.

>Hand held flat and swung back and forth horizontally in front of the throat, means “shut down the engine.”

>Hands, or index and thumb held apart conveys the relative distance remaining; closing them together conveys the remaining distance; the speed to which the hands or digits close conveys the relative speed that the distance is closing.

If any of the above do not work for you, disregard them and make up some that do, including a set of flashlight signals for use at night.

There are many boat skills to be learned and many venues for learning them, from fee-based to free online to in-print and classroom to on-the-water training. Pick those that suit your needs and get started. If you cannot learn them all, at least challenge yourself to learn just one or two; even those few can make a positive impact on your boating ventures.