Steering a sailboat fast is a real art. It's true that helmsmanship has become a lot more scientific recently with the development of high-tech wind and speed instruments. But the act of steering a sailboat quickly from here to there will always depend largely on the "feel" of its driver.
The primary responsibility of a helmsperson is to make the boat go fast through the water. In the ideal world, the rest of the crew will take care of tactics, strategy and sail trim, so the helmsperson can concentrate on telltales, instruments, water and "feel." The reality on most boats, however, is that the helmsperson will also have to do a lot of the looking around and decision-making. This makes his or her job much more of a challenge.
Most sailors understand that the role of driving is easier when the trimmers communicate with the helmsperson about sail trim, target speeds, etc. However, the communication must go both ways. The person steering knows much better than anyone else how the boat feels, and he or she must constantly let the trimmers know whether the boat feels sluggish, overpowered or "in the groove."
The Mechanics of Steering
To steer a boat, you have to turn the boat continually. Some of these course changes are very small, almost unnoticeable, such as when you want to pinch slightly upwind. Other times, like tacking, you have to turn the boat through a very large course change. There are basically three ways to make a boat turn from one course to another:
Rudder -- The disadvantage of the rudder is that it functions essentially as a brake. As soon as you turn it more than a little bit, water flow separates and the rudder stalls.
In general, the rudder should be used as little as possible to turn the boat. A good way to practice this is to try steering a boat where you can take the rudder out. You'll be amazed at how much steering control you have with sails and angle of heel.
Sails -- How you trim and handle the sails has a large effect on where the boat wants to go. Using the sails to turn works as follows: If you want the bow to head toward the wind, trim the main and ease the jib. If you want the bow to head away from the wind, trim the jib and ease the main. You are using the sails to move the center of effort and pivot the boat around the centerboard or keel (center of resistance). This obviously requires good coordination between mainsail and genoa trimmers.
Heel -- Changing the angle of heel is another way to turn a boat. When a boat is standing upright, its underwater profile is symmetrical, and it tends to go straight through he water. As soon as the boat heels, however, its underwater profile becomes asymmetrical, and the water flow makes it want to turn. This is one reason why more heel produces more windward helm.
Small boats respond readily to movement of crew weight, so changing heel angle is very important for turning. Bigger boats are less responsive to weight placement, but you should still move your crew to help make turns, especially in lighter air.
Whenever you are steering, use all three methods to help the boat through every turn, no matter how slight your course change. This will keep the boat going as fast as possible.
Sensitivity to the Environment
The word "omniscient" means "knowing all things," and that's the way a helmsperson must be. He has to keep track of everything that's going on around the boat -- what the waves are doing, how fast the boat is going, how close to the wind it's heading, performance compared to other boats, approaching puffs, etc. You can't afford to look at any one of these things alone, so you have to watch them all at the same time.
It would be nice if the helmsperson could levitate off the boat and watch everything from above. Since this isn't possible, you have to find the next best position. In general, you'll be able to see and feel more indicators if you get higher off the water and further forward and outboard in the boat. It's very hard to be omniscient when five huge crew members are blocking your view of everything except the leeward rail. Here's what you need to see.
Telltale angle and activity -- Perhaps the most overused steering indicators are the telltales on the front of the jib. These are useful for telling the skipper how the boat is oriented to the wind, but they should be used as part of a larger package.
Angle of heel -- When it's windy, Olympic gold medalist and Star world champion Buddy Melges says, "I just try to keep the horizon level." What he means is that he watches the bow of the boat and generally tries to keep a steady angle between the horizon and the forestay. You can also measure heel angle with an inclinometer, but it's better if you learn to gauge this by feel.
Wave pattern -- According to legendary Paul Elvstrom, "I always try to sail downhill." He means you should steer for the low spots between waves. Upwind, the crew should look to windward and call out when they see a big wave (or set of waves) coming, as well as when they see a flat spot. Downwind the crew can be most helpful by watching the waves coming over the skipper's shoulder.
Wind on the water -- According to Russian Valentin Mankin, "I see puffs like colors on the water." We aren't all quite as gifted as this three-time Olympic medalist, but the helmsperson (and everyone on the boat) should keep an eye to windward (in the direction of your apparent wind), so you can anticipate changes in the wind.
Instruments -- For steering, the most important by far is boatspeed. This number should constantly be compared to your "target" speed for the given wind velocity and angle (see discussion of target speeds in the next chapter). Apparent wind angle can also be helpful for keeping the helmsperson in the ballpark.
Other boats -- The position and speed of boats around you will certainly affect the way you steer. For example, a boat on your lee bow means you want to shift into high gear and try to separate to windward.
Information from crew -- The crew should try to speak as little as possible to the helmsperson, so he isn't distracted. However, there are a few things the helmsperson needs to know. These include:
- upcoming waves and flat spots (and how severe they are)
- puffs and lulls (how soon they will hit)
- changes in wind direction (if you can predict using ripples or other boats)
- pointing and speed relative to other boats (constantly)
- convergence with other boats that will require a steering change
- continual update on genoa and mainsail trim.
Helm load -- The amount of helm is a very important factor. In general, about 3-5 degrees of rudder angle is fastest when sailing to windward. If there's too much weather helm, the rudder will create excess drag, which is slow. Not enough weather helm means you will lose some of your "feel." Also, the lift generated by the rudder helps the keel prevent the boat from sliding to leeward, and reduces the leeway angle as well.
How to Decrease Helm
If the boat has more than about 5 degrees of helm (often in heavy air when you have a lot of heel), then you should relieve helm to reduce rudder drag.
- Flatten the main (and genoa) by tensioning the backstay and outhaul.
- Move crew weight outboard and aft.
- Flatten the boat by pinching more and easing the traveler.
How to Increase Helm
If your boat doesn't have at least 3 degrees of windward helm, then you should increase helm slightly.
- Move crew weight to leeward and forward to increase heel.
- Make the main (and genoa) more powerful by easing the backstay and outhaul.
- Add rake to move the sail plan aft
The helmsperson is continually trying to sail the boat closer to the wind and maintain speed. As we mentioned earlier, the jib's telltales are a good guide for this. The windward telltales are continuous indicators of how high you are feathering. The higher you point, the higher they angle up the sail. Eventually, the sail will luff, and the windward telltale will point straight up. As you bear off, the windward telltale will lower until it is nearly horizontal.
The Upwind "Gears"
Think of telltale activity as representing four distinct gears, like you'd have in a car. By turning the boat a degree or two, the helmsperson "shifts" gears, depending on wind conditions and speed requirements.
1st gear -- Leeward telltale stalls for a split second. Windward telltale streams straight aft. As in a car, this gear is used for acceleration from very slow speeds, such as when you need extra power to recover from waves or accelerate after a slow tack,
2nd gear -- Both telltales stream straight aft. Use this gear for acceleration; also when you are close to full speed and external conditions (e.g. approaching waves or a need to foot for clear air) require that you achieve maximum speed.
3rd gear -- Windward telltale lifts to about 45 degrees. Leeward telltale streams aft. Once you've attained your desired speed, put the boat on the wind into this "point mode." This is the gear you should use for most upwind sailing.
4th gear -- Windward telltale lifts to vertical. Leeward telltale streams aft. Cloth begins to lift. This is "super-point mode," used when you need to depower in heavy air, take advantage of a flat spot, or squeeze off a competitor on your windward quarter.
While the helmsperson changes gears, the sail trimmers must also adjust sail shape. For example, pretend you're about to hit terrible waves and almost stop. The driver heads off into second gear to accelerate, and the trimmers simultaneously ease the backstay to get fuller, more draft-forward sails.
As the boat recovers, the driver shifts from second into third, while the trimmers pump the backstay to flatten the sails again. This is when communication between helmsman and trimmers is so important.
Every sailor has experienced times when a boat got so hooked up that it nearly sailed itself and went light years faster than the competition. Being "in the groove" is a somewhat subjective state of existence where the boat feels good and performs well. It's a lot like hitting a tennis ball with the "sweet" spot of your racket. You don't necessarily know exactly where this spot is, but you sure know when you hit it.
The goal of the driver is to keep the boat in this groove as much of the time as possible. You can make the groove wider and easier to find by giving the genoa a wider leading-edge angle and a more draft-forward shape. Do this by easing the backstay and/or increasing luff tension. This rounds up the front of your sail and makes the telltale activity less jumpy. It also permits the sail to function efficiently over a wider range of steering.
A wider groove is a good idea when:
1) The helmsperson is not very experienced and is having a hard time keeping the boat on the wind;
2) You are sailing in waves or puffy winds, when you cannot avoid being out of the groove for a certain percentage of the time.
3) You're racing at night when it's hard to keep track of things.
The disadvantage of a forgiving sail is that you won't point as high as possible. And sometimes the windward telltale will seem insensitive to steering changes. In this case, the luff may be too round for the conditions. Reduce headstay sag to make a narrower, higher-pointing groove. Remember that the more you flatten out the front of the jib, the more "critical" the sail will become, and the harder it will be to stay in the groove.
On a critical sail (one without much halyard tension or with a lot of backstay tension), the telltales will be jumpy. Instead of gradually lifting and lowering, the windward telltale will dance from vertical to horizontal with the smallest steering changes. This indicates that the entry is too fine for the conditions. You should go back to a rounder luff.
Chop vs. waves -- Bear off and power through chop, but steer around waves -- up the face and down the back side. You have the right amount of windward helm when you can let the boat steer smoothly up into the face of the wave without having to push the helm to leeward.
Light air -- Key on speed. You have to keep the boat moving, or you will lose apparent wind and will have to accelerate again from scratch. Make sure trimmer communicates with helmsperson to avoid stall.
Medium air -- Key on pointing, especially in flat water.
Heavy air -- Key on angle of heel, and steer to keep boat from laying over. Take a bite to windward when overpowered. Bear off to sail through big waves; head up into relative flat spots.
Tacking -- Steering technique varies a lot according to type of boat and wind/sea conditions. In general, use weather helm (plus weight and sail trim in lighter air) to let the boat head up slowly into the wind. As soon as the boat is head to wind, give the rudder a harder push to accelerate the turn. Start to bring the rudder back toward the center so the boat settles onto a course that will put you in second gear.
Ducking another boat -- This is a classic case where miscommunication and trying to steer with the rudder alone can lead to disaster. The usual cause of a collision is that the main wasn't eased enough to relieve weather helm. Make sure the helmsperson and mainsail trimmer are communicating closely. The steerer also may need someone on the leeward rail or the bow to help coordinate the duck.
Steering on a Reach
A boat can handle more helm on a reach than on a beat, so keep the sails powered up. If it feels like you may start to lose control, depower the sails from stern to bow. Flatten the main as much as possible. Dump the mainsheet first, then release the vang, the staysail sheet, and finally the spinnaker sheet, if necessary. This should relieve weather helm and make it possible to keep steering the boat straight.
New helmsmen are always amazed at how much muscle power it takes to steer on a heavy-air reach. On bigger boats with tiller steering, it's practically mandatory for two helmsmen to gang up side by side on the helm.
The helmsman should call out firmly for main and spinnaker ease whenever it feels like there's a chance of broaching. When the rudder stalls (cavitates), pump it vigorously to reattach the flow.
Broaching -- If a broach is inevitable, gun for a high-speed rollover and recovery. In general, boat speed is your friend during a broach; rudder drag and heel are your enemies. If you keep up your boatspeed, your rudder will continue to function and the boat will bear off.
As the broach commences, your helm will probably be hard over and stalled. Save the situation by taking the following steps:
1) Straighten the helm quickly to reattach flow. The longer you drag a stalled rudder through the water, the slower you will go. The slower you go, the more the apparent wind moves aft and heels the boat.
2) Collapse the sails to pop the boat upright.
3) When the boat straightens up with sails luffing, you should still have most of your original speed. Now bear off sharply to a broad reach. You have to head off far enough to avoid another broach when the chute refills. A second broach is tough to recover from because you're going so slow.
4) Once you've borne off to a broad reach, trim the sails (from bow to stern) and build up speed before trying to steer closer to the wind again.
Steering on a run is one of the biggest challenges for any helmsperson. This is because it's much harder to find the groove. You don't have the positive feel of weather helm, and it's tough to know when the boat is making its best VMG to leeward. In addition, you're looking away from the wind and waves, and the apparent wind is harder to feel. So it's more important than ever to use the guides that you have:
Polars or target speeds -- Having this kind of information is more important on a run than a beat because the optimal downwind boatspeed and wind angle vary so much according to wind velocity. When you find an angle that your boat likes, set your pole position and steer up and down to maintain good pressure in the sail. You have to be very sensitive to changes in wind velocity, however, since a drop of just two or three knots can change your optimal angle by quite a few degrees.
Spinnaker trimmer -- On a run, particularly in light to medium air, this is the most important person on the boat, especially if you don't know your polars. The trimmer has to act as an extension of the driver's sense of feel. He or she must communicate how much pressure is on the spinnaker sheet and whether the boat should head lower to burn speed or head up to build speed.
Heavy air -- Use your best helmsman for as long as possible. Your object in steering on a run is to keep the boat under the mast. Steer into the roll. As the mast starts rolling to leeward, bear off. When it begins to go the other way (to windward), head up. It's a little like trying to balance a broomstick on the palm of your hand. You have to anticipate.
A little extra rudder at first is much better than a lot of rudder later on. If you have to make a choice, go for a windward broach (a knockdown) instead of the messier, more disruptive jibe broach.
Surfing -- Surfing is possible whenever you get waves and wind together. Besides adding extra speed, surfing gives directional stability and decreases the likelihood of a broach. Key off the wave that's behind and to leeward. On any boat up to about 40 feet, pumping the main will help the boat surf.
Drafting -- Many smaller boats achieve good results by hooking onto the wake of bigger boats on a reach or run. To do this, you have to fall in right behind the bigger boat as it passes you. Your best chance of getting a tow is to stay very close behind the bigger boat -- on her first stern or quarter wave if possible.
Jibing -- The most critical steering job during a windy jibe is to keep the boat under the sails. This usually means you should steer an "S" course. In other words, turn to leeward so the boat jibes, and then turn slightly back the other way (toward the new leeward side) so the boat won't round up on the new jibe. This is most important when jibing onto a reach.