The MUSTO Skiff Learning
First published by Yachts and
yachting in October 2007
There can be very few people who step in a MUSTO Skiff
, or any other singlehanded skiff, for the first time
and find it easy. High performance dinghies are designed
for speed and tend towards the unstable and overpowered
corner of the dinghy design envelope. They are not easy.
In order to race them or to even to really enjoy them
most people will have first have to learn how to sail
them. As long as new owners realise this and manage
their expectations accordingly then learning to sail
them will be a fantastically rewarding experience.
On the initial sail most new owners will
get a glimpse of the responsiveness, power and thrills
that the MUSTO can deliver, however, it only becomes
a truly rewarding boat to sail when a certain standard
is reached. Unfortunately some sailors fail to get to
there and can become increasingly frustrated. This article
aims to identify that standard and suggest ways in which
it can be achieved.
Why are Singlehanded Skiffs Tricky?
Apart from the obvious problem of running out of hands
when trying to control two large sails and a rudder
while also providing the ballast, the main stumbling
blocks are Physics and Biology:
What all singlehanded skiffs have in common is they
are light boats, with little stability and large rigs.
This combination of design characteristics gives them
good straight line speed, but also dictates that manoeuvres
are best done at speed too. This can be better understood
if we compare two helms new to their boats, Mickey in
a MUSTO and Sam in a Solo, going through a tack.
Prior to Tack
Both boats are trucking along, the MUSTO going a lot
quicker. MUSTO Mickey comes in off the wire and the
boat loses speed.
Entering the Tack
Both helms steer up and lose power in the mainsail as
it starts to luff. The boats start to slow down. Although
the MUSTO is going faster it weighs less, and as it
slows down rapidly it loses momentum.
Head to Wind
Both boats are without forward power as they are head
to wind, in fact the wind is blowing them backwards
and the MUSTO’s bigger rig has more drag than the Solo.
This is often the point where the Mickey’s tack stops
and the boat goes into irons.
Bearing Down to Close-hauled
Unless Sam the Solo helm has done something badly wrong
he probably has good control as his momentum has carried
the boat through the eye of the wind, and water has
continued to flow over the large rudder meaning he still
has steerage. He can therefore bear off, fill the sail
Mickey may have got his boat through the eye of the
wind, but now has to continue to bear off and fill the
sail, without overpowering or stalling and steering
straight back up into wind or capsizing to leeward.
The key thing is that speed is your friend,
momentum is what keeps boats moving through tacks and
thus the quicker the boat is moving as it enters the
tack and less speed scrubbed off as the sailor crosses
the boat the more chance it has of coming out the other
side with enough water flowing over the rudder to make
the bear-away possible.
For new sailors, learning the complex
series of actions in coming in off the trapeze, crossing
the boat, controlling mainsheet and tiller extension
is tricky. The sailor has to learn several new actions
at the same time, any of which, if performed badly,
will cause a bad tack and possible a capsize. Because
of the speed requirement it is difficult to break this
down into smaller, more easily digestible ‘chunks’ .
If we take the example of our two competent sailors,
Solo Sam and MUSTO Mickey, another main difference in
their learning experience emerges. When Sam makes a
mistake his boat may slow down, but he is far less likely
to capsize than MUSTO Mickey who has a much smaller
margin for error. As a consequence of this Mickey will
spend a lot more energy in swimming and recovering and
will get colder, quicker than Sam, who can stay out
longer and get useful practice while Mickey is shivering
under a hot shower. Until Mickey can get past the capsizing
bit, Sam is likely to be on a more rapid learning curve.
My Personal Experience
I did my ‘hard yards’ in another trapeze singlehander,
the RS600, however, I think everything that I experienced
then would apply equally to the MUSTO and probably the
RS700. When I bought an RS600 I had a high degree of
self regard when it came to my own sailing ability,
I had raced successfully in many other classes, some
faster than the 600, so I thought learning to sail it
would be interesting, a bit tricky perhaps, but I was
not prepared for going back to the Square 1 of sailing.
In the event, the first few weeks were demoralising,
I could barely launch, 50% of gybes resulted in a swim,
but it was the tacking that proved most difficult. All
this incompetence could be seen from the bar of the
Stokes Bay clubhouse and at times I felt like I was
getting worse not better. After six weeks my ego couldn’t
take it anymore, I was very close to putting the boat
up for sale.
The root of the problem was that in any
training session I was coming up against the Physics
and Biology problem. My previous boats had always been
slightly more forgiving, and although I had been unable
to tack a Laser 4000 well when I first stepped into
it, the result of a bad tack was rarely a capsize and
didn’t prevent me from competing in races from Day 1.
Frequent capsizes were making me cold and tired which
reduced my physical ability, which in turn slowed progress
in learning boat handling manoeuvres. This effect was
compounded by the choppy Solent conditions and the time
of year, March, when the sea temperature is at its coldest.
The six week point was my nadir, but instead
of selling the boat I decided to try another approach.
I suspected that learning on the sea was not helping
me at all and decided to take the boat to Datchet Water
to see if that would make any difference. I was lucky,
for three sunny days near Easter I had F2-3 conditions
on flat water. Immediately, I was able to make more
than half my tacks, which in turn meant I was capsizing
less and could stay out longer before becoming exhausted.
Over the three days I became more and more confident
in my tacks and could start to ‘groove’ the steps and
movements until they became ‘second nature’.
When I took the boat back to my home club,
I was still able to tack even in the choppy conditions.
I had got over that initial ‘bump’ in the learning curve
and after that point progress accelerated.
Learning from the Learning Experience
Even as I was going through it I realised had not set
myself up a perfect learning environment, for most of
us sailing will always be a hobby, subject to the sort
of compromises you have to make in everyday life. Some
of the things that could made a more effective and pleasant
Choose your Conditions
Impossible for most of us, but if you have the choice
of when to learn, do it when the air/ water temperature
is warmest, or if finances allow, book a week of MUSTO
sailing somewhere like Minorca Sailing.
Choose your water, flat water is so much easier to sail
on than chop/ waves, this may mean trailing your boat
to another sailing club, or sail round the corner into
a more sheltered bay.
Get a Coach/ Mentor
The problem for many learners is they often have to
work out what they are trying to do before they can
achieve it. A friend/ paid coach who knows what they
are doing in a MUSTO will prevent the new learner from
re-inventing the wheel and designing the tack/ gybe
from scratch again. Videoing the action helps sailors
see there mistakes from the outside and can rapidly
pinpoint areas for improvement. A good idea if you can’t
get a coach boat is to persuade a good Musto Skiff sailor from
your club to go out two up in your boat, they can then
coach from the front (and sometimes provide a bit of
useful ballast when required). Other ideal opportunities
are MUSTO Class Coaching Days or just to persuade one
of the more experienced sailors at your club to talk
you through the manoeuvres. Other excellent resources
are the MUSTO videos posted on youtube, Google and the
class website, the Ian Renilson gybing vid (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfrbyNJ8hbQ)
has been particularly useful to me.
Practise on Dry Land
Rigging up the boat on land and going through the choreography
with a coach is an excellent learning environment. It
allows you to go through the actions like tacking in
slow time, before building them back up to real-time
speed. The basic movements can be acquired before getting
While it is not essential to have every last bimble
on the boat fully sorted, or the spreaders at exactly
the right angle, it is important, nonetheless, that
the boat is working. You do not want to go out with
the mainsheet fed the wrong way through the ratchet
or the kitesheets rigged under the halyard. Particularly
with a MUSTO, it is ten times easier and quicker to
sort these things out on shore than it is on the water.
It is also possible to set up the boat to make it easier
1. Don’t overdo the rake – standard settings are fine.
2. A lot of cunningham and a little bit of kicker will
make for easier tacking. The combination of these sail
controls encourage the leech to open and helps to prevent
stalling as you exit the tack.
Sailing a MUSTO is a good workout, however, it is better
to get fit to sail rather then sail to get fit. If you
get tired quickly you will not get the most out of any
training situation, you don’t have to be superfit, but
the fitter you are the easier it is. ‘Yachts and Yachting’
has a regular column on fitness and nutrition and there
are any number of books on the subject.
Ensure your sailing kit is in good nick and suitable
for the conditions, including the swimming element and
fit a waterbottle carrier to your boat so you can take
some sports drink out with you.
Try to ignore the ego thing, if you are new to singlehanded
skiff sailing then look on it as a whole new discipline,
much like taking up windsurfing. You will get wet and
you will spend time sailing backwards, once you accept
these facts then you can take the pressure off yourself
and start to concentrate on acquiring the skills. Easier
said than done.
Plan your Training
It is difficult enough to get time off in order to get
some sailing and along with remembering all the sails,
foils and kit it is no surprise that many people hit
the water with no idea what they are going to do next.
My recommendation is that you have some simple goals
to focus on and break the sail down into exercises.
Exercise 1. Upwind sail, tacking as soon
as ready. Focus on keeping the boat flat throughout.
Rest: Have a quick rest and some fluid.
Exercise 2. Downwind Hoists, Gybe, Drop, Hoist, Gybe,
Exercise 3. Upwind sail – focus on keeping boat flat.
The trap many fall into, is to try and
learn everything during club racing. The main problem
is that when racing you try to reduce, tacks and gybes
to a minimum as they are risky and even if executed
well will slow the boat down. In races you will often
see sailors sailing ‘Big Squares’ (one tack, one gybe).
The other downside of racing is that you will be surrounded
by other boats which inevitably puts you under more
pressure than you need in the early stages of learning.
Keep a Log
Keeping a log of the training you have done and lessons
learnt/ observations made is a good way of reflecting
on what occurred and consolidating the training.
Time on the Water vs Skill Fade
The key differentiator between those at the top and
those at the bottom of any dinghy fleet is time on the
water. If you don’t sail you can’t improve and if you
leave long gaps between your sailing you will start
to regress – this phenomenon is known as ‘skill fade’.
However, the good news is that it is easier to re-learn
than it is to learn in the first place (just like riding
a bike). How much you sail will depend upon your aims
and motivation and other commitments. Nowadays, I am
lucky to get away for one day a week, but in the past
made rapid gains when I have had a whole week to devote
to practise. Of course, Murphy’s Law states that as
soon as you organise a week off work the weather will
change to either 0 or 30 knots, c’est la vie.
All or some of these ideas may help the
learner progress from that initial stage. Once you can
sail the boat you can then continue to apply these techniques
to further improve until you get to the stage when you
have mastered it (if you get there let me know how you
I believe MUSTO Skiffs are the most absorbing boat I
have sailed as there is so much to learn and the feedback
is so immediate and often wet. Every time I sail I feel
I improve in some way. However, getting over that initial
speedbump in the learning curve can be tough. Most of
what I have written is a combination of common sense
and my limited experience and I am sure there are many
out there who could add to it/ improve it.
Started sailing at age 11, after doing an RYA windsurfing
course at Hayling Island. Teenage years were spent sailing
Toppers, Enterprises and Solos between playing football
and windsurfing at Wraysbury Lake Sailing Club. Started
trapezing in Laser 4000s and 5000s, and moved to an
RS600 in 1999 and scored fifth at the Nationals in the
same year. Then hung up the trapeze harness to race
RS400s (3rd Nationals 2001) and Solos (1st Nationals
2004). After a few years of sore legs bought a MUSTO
Skiff in late 2005 just before being posted to Iraq.
Spent late 2006 going through the learning curve as
In professional life, Dan is an
officer in the Royal Navy specialising in Training Management.
read THE ART OF NOT GIVING UP >>>