Musto Skiff

The MUSTO Skiff Learning Curve

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 and continue.
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 learning experience:

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 ( 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 afloat.

Boat Preparation
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 to sail.
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.

Self Preparation
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.

Mental Preparation
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. For example:

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, Drop
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 did it).


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.

Dan Vincent
GBR 193

Sailing CV
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 described above.

In professional life, Dan is an officer in the Royal Navy specialising in Training Management.


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