THE ART OF NOT
aim this missive not at those who are proficient at
the fine art of MUSTO Skiff sailing. Not those who can
skip about the surface of this high powered ironing
board with impunity like Olga Korbut herself. (Olympic
gymnast 1972, chaps. Terribly famous at the time). Neither
those for whom perfecting snappy gybes and pelvic thrust
wire to wire tacks in a force 6 is but second nature.
Nor those for whom their MUSTO Skiff is but an
extension of their limbs.
I address those who like me have just started out, or
who are thinking of doing so. Or, more especially those
who have been humbled by their efforts so far. And maybe
your Skiff lies sulking under covers in the
dinghy park. Unloved, while you wonder what to do next.
So maybe you are questioning the wisdom of your decision
to try and conquer the MUSTO Skiff in the first place?
I am qualified to comment since I am a late arrival
into the class having acquired my MUSTO Skiff in late September
2008. I could have timed this purchase a bit better
really. My early efforts at Skiffing coincided with
autumn equinox. Biting Easterlies and gusting Westerlies
supplanted benign Southerlies. All of which conspire
to making the aspiring Skiffer look, well, rather crap,
However, sometimes you have to force the issue and I
have sailed my Skiff, rain, shine, snow, frost and flu,
pretty much every time I can. I have studied the excellent
DVD at length. (This is essential viewing.
The presentation and production is really excellent.
Inspirational stuff. Though I would caution that the
sequences on wire to wire tacking are, as far as I can
see, almost entirely theoretical and for me likely to
stay that way for some time.)
A lot will depend on your previous experience on how
your first steps with the Skiff go. But unless your
C.V. includes serious time in a say, a RS600, or a passport
occupation as a circus high wire act then the likelihood
is that you have some hard yards before you. Starting
in winter, when the water and sky is steel grey I have
found it helps to have fellow Skiffers about you. If
you do not have any locally, it would be more than a
good idea to seek them out. At Chew Valley Lake SC we
are blessed. Because like alcoholics you don't realise
how addicted you are until you try and give up.
So at Chew we have a self-help group, where my alcoholic’s
analogy comes unglued, since we are in the business
of keeping each other addicted. There is no appointed
leader. (Except that in some Orwellian
way Paul Clements is in charge. At least, he is swiftest
to the keyboard on a Monday to post the first of usually
quite high email traffic on the preceding weekend's
events). The point of this is that, such are the challenges
of the MUSTO Skiff it is not always easy to maintain motivation,
even despite encouragement you
might receive from your peers. My particular nadir came,
not after a day of unremitting capsizes, and there have
been plenty, but more recently, by which time on occasions
I could keep the mast over the boat for an
entire force 4 race.
No, my total frustration came in the progress of a club
handicap race. The wind was oscillating 20 degrees and
between force 2 and 4. But the sun shone, and on paper,
it was a nice day. However as a Skiffer you will
rapidly come to view the breeze with the kind of electric
awareness of a top-flight skier who clocks intimately
the nuances of the snow crystal on the piste surface.
Thus even as you read this, you will know these wind
conditions mean the difference between standing on the
deck and full on trapezing. And vice versa.
My final capsize of the day was characterised by a shut
off in wind while on a reach (which I should have spotted
but did not) and a mad scramble for the centre of the
boat. I just about made it. But was rewarded in my Herculean
efforts by a massive header and a capsize to windward
with the mainsail pressed firmly to my face.
It may well have been amusing to watch. The drop in
to windward started remorselessly and it all happened
in relative slow motion at no more than quarter speed.
It certainly took me a while to extricate myself. I
ashore in complete frustration and resolved never to
be so stupid as to sail the thing again.
By Tuesday this did not seem such a great idea. 06:30
the following Saturday saw me at the wheel, with my
Skiff behind, heading to Stokes Bay for the training
On arrival we were greeted by a firm Southerly reported
at 20 knots straight on shore with crashing surf. Against
the background of the previous weekend it was a bit
inauspicious. The briefing from Russ Clark, was exemplary.
And the advice from him about personal goals, was received,
and only by the end of the day, fully
Because, irrespective how others about you may be doing,
it is vital that you focus solely on what YOU are doing
and the steps YOU need to take to make progress. In
other words you may come plum last in a race, indeed
as I have serially, and be overtaken on the water in
a club handicap race by Flying Fifteens. And while it
is tempting to beat yourself up about this, don't. You
have set yourself one of the highest challenges dinghy
sailing can offer. Any fool can sail a ‘lesser’ boat
and look pretty smooth. So when things get messy, stay
with it and don't be hard on yourself. Pick one thing
and work on it. Other reverses or areas of weakness
have to be set aside and must wait.
And this is what I took away from the Stokes Bay training
day. Everyone who sails the Skiff at the highest level
has been through the learning process. And probably
not that long ago. Plus, such is the challenge of the
boat I suspect you never really stop learning. The Skiff
rewards a smooth, flat, fast tack or gybe like no other.
I know this because I very occasionally do such a manoeuvre
and it is immensely satisfying. In a
sense the Skiff is simple to sail. You do it the Skiff’s
way, or not at all. But Stokes Bay was tough. I could
believe it was 20 knots. And the wave pattern made downwind,
a challenge. Multiple capsizes led, in my case, to serious
But despite this I learned a lot. We were for example,
counselled to dump the Cunningham and more concerningly,
the kicker, totally at the top mark. In any other class
in 20 knots no kicker would seem suicidal. Indeed first
time I tried this, I bore away, and the boat accelerated
wildly. In approved K16 style I dropped to my knees
to hoist the kite. As I did so the bow speared a wave.
I didn't exactly get the chance to look, but I fancy
the leech of the main went forward of the mast. At least
I was in the correct position to pray, as the boat rolled
to windward at a rate that would shame the Eurofighter.
I think I got as far
as the lowers, as I started the Lord’s Prayer. (The
moral to this is, I think, don't bear away too much!
And maybe don't dump the main totally in a breeze. Plus
pick your moment to bear away. I have now practised
this since. The lack of kicker makes gybing a shed load
easier, as air can exit out of the top of the main,
so a BIG thank you to Russ and Dan Vincent for this
I received the usual inquisitory email from Paul Clements
the ensuing Monday morning. "How", he demanded
to know, "had it gone?" When I told him I
had ‘on occasion’ capsized, a new message shortly appeared
my inbox. "Had I", he enquired, "noticed
how the effect of the waves had been to drive the hull
This, I felt, deserved a response and here it is:
"Paul - By the time I eventually reached shore,
utterly inelegantly amid great dumping surf, and a crashing
of my luckily clapped out foils on the shingle, not
before a heart stopping entanglement with the, Outer
Distance Mark, I felt like Defoe's Crusoe himself. I
was all in, and fervently glad to be ashore. The journey
from sixty minutes prior when I had set off in hope
had been an eternity. Whilst one was able to converse
with onlookers upon regaining dry land, a more reasonable
response would have been to have lain on the beach for
twenty-four hours to regain composure. And so, while
tempting to respond in the negative; that, no, my skiff
did lie obediently with the mast downwind jumping from
the sea with the very slightest pressure from my weight
on the centre board (from which I did not, at any point
fall, smiting my chin, painfully) and to which I had
but scampered (not of course putting a ding or three
in the hull with my harness as I went, I must emphasise),
rather, yes; now you mention it, I do recall in my dimmed
mind that my boat was very swiftly indeed inverted with
the top mast in the mud on each of the ten or so occasions
I was at liberty to inspect Ovington's finest hull finish
at length. And that on each such occasion it required
of me very considerably more effort than might reasonably
be expected of any human since an Eskimo roll was a
bare minimum for resumption of service. Yes, I did notice.
It was by a margin, the very most tiring and hardest
sailing I have ever done in my life. But I am still
glad I went and it was brilliant".
If your experience matches mine, the Skiff will teach
you where your limits are, and because you cannot, or
should not, give up, how to get past them. Fellow would
be Skiffers, if I can do it, so can you. Remember
personal goals are what count here. Tick these off,
and results will surely follow. I reckon. If your Skiff
is under covers and unused, get it out and find out
Good luck and enjoy.
Graham Cranford Smith
MUSTO Skiff 354.
Also worth a read The
MUSTO Skiff Learning Curve >>>
Ed's note: The picture at the top clearly
shows Graham is perhaps too hard on himself as he looks
to be going pretty well in that photo :-)