Striking a Balanced Helm
Striking a Balanced Helm
Finding the best heel angle for your boat is easy. Maintaining it across the wind range requires constantly adjusting your sail trim and crew weight.
I recently sailed two J/24 regattas with current national champ Will Welles. At Midwinters, he drove while I called tactics. We switched roles at the Sperry Top-Sider St. Petersburg NOOD. When Will drove, he was relentlessly prodding the crew to balance the boat. Then, when it was my turn, he was constantly moving his weight around and asking me how my helm felt. Until that regatta, I mistakenly thought I’d been doing a good job working the boat. Now I’m aggressively working my angle of heel—with great results.
We often use the phrase, “sail it flat,” and occasionally I do sail my Thistle absolutely flat, but mostly I race any boat with at least some heel. A better phrase should be, “sail it balanced.” A balanced J/24 or J/22 might have 10 degrees of leeward heel, while I might heel my IC dinghy 2 degrees to windward to get it to feel right. Each boat is different; fortunately there are simple ways to understand which angle of heel works best for your boat.
Whatever your best heel angle may be, keeping it constant is important because as your foils move through the water they’re creating lift. Any change of heel causes your foils to swing from side to side through the water, jeopardizing this precious lift.
1 Sail trim: The boat is balanced by easing and trimming the sails.
2 Rudder Angle: With everything in balance (crew, sail trim, and heel angle), the rudder should trail freely behind the boat without drag; note the straight tiller and even exit of the wake.
3 Crew Postion: The crew is at maximum hike.
4 Heel Angle: The boat is flat, and the sails are powered up, a perfect setup for the flat water and wind strength.
Find your angle
The optimal constant heel angle for any boat is easy to find. One way is to find the heel angle that gives a neutral helm. Neutral helm is when you don’t have to constantly pull or push the tiller to make the boat sail straight. When the helm is neutral, the centerboard or keel is generating all the lift while the rudder follows effortlessly behind. In my Thistle, for example, my helm is absolutely neutral at zero degrees of heel in flat water. The Thistle is designed to sail flat because the weight of the centerboard doesn’t contribute much to the boat’s righting moment, and sailing flat keeps the centerboard at a vertical—and efficient—position.
If I sailed my J/24 or J/22 flat, for example, I would have to constantly push on the tiller. So instead, I induce a little leeward heel to get that same zero-helm feel. Most keelboats are designed to have a balanced helm when heeled in heavy wind, to take advantage of the keel’s righting moment. In light air, we need to artificially induce heel to maintain balance. Regardless of the boat I’m sailing, I know I have the balance right when I can let go of the tiller and the boat continues in a straight line.
Neutral helm is best approximately 90 percent of the time. In the Thistle, we know a few degrees of heel works best in chop. Being perfectly flat causes the boat to slap into the waves, so when sailing in chop a light tug on the tiller is good. In heavy wind in the J/24, I heel up past neutral helm in order to swing the keel out a little, giving me more righting leverage. Heeled in this manner, I do feel a little tug on the helm. Conversely, in flat water and medium wind, I sail the J/24 flatter than neutral helm, actually pushing lightly on the tiller, it feels terrible, but it’s fast. In our J/22, I almost always have a little windward helm because we get just enough lift from the rudder to make up for the leeway caused by heel. Whatever boat you sail, neutral helm is the default, but always explore a few variations one way or another.