What Every Driver Should Know
What Every Driver Should Know
Sailing World presents David Dellenbaugh's interview with Tom Whidden on the finer points of steering a big boat upwind, published in the April 1985 issue of Yacht Racing & Cruising.
When you’re steering upwind, where do you sit?
I prefer to steer from the weather side in almost any amount of wind, as long as it’s comfortable. You’ll find that most of the good sailors steer from the windward side because this offers them a better opportunity to see the waves, feel the wind in their face, gauge the pressure on the rudder and get a feeling for the angle (heel) of the boat in relation to the horizon; it also keeps them out of the disturbed air in the slot. Except in the very lightest of winds, where it’s important to see the jib when it’s just starting to lift, I think every big-boat helmsman ought to work on learning to steer from the windward side. I don’t think you’ll really improve your ability to feel a boat until you almost always steer from the weather side.
What do you look at when steering?
Too many helmsmen I sail with become mesmerized by the telltales. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use them, but the less you depend on them the better off you’ll probably be. I put telltales about a third of the way up the genoa and two feet back from the headstay. I also like telltales on the shrouds. The best skippers use these telltales, but they also use the speedo, the waves, the horizon, the angle of heel, and so on. The person who uses many different factors and is able to compute them while steering has the best chance to become a good helmsman. I try to emphasize getting away from telltales and using them only as a reference.
A big boat is generally hard to feel, at least compared to a one-design. That’s why it’s good to stand up on the weather side and get as much input as possible when you’re steering. You can’t rely on just one thing; if you’re only looking at the telltales, for example, what happens if the sail trimmer has the jib in too tight? You could be sailing by the telltales beautifully, but slowly and surely, the boat will start going slower and slower.
I like to put a boat’s instruments as far forward as I can and still be able to read them. This allows me to keep all my steering aids-telltales, waves, angle of heel, instruments, and sails-in my field of vision and eliminates the need to look down. If you have to turn your head and change focus to see the speedo or compass, then you’ll have to re-orient yourself every time you look up, and that’s slow.
How much do you steer by the instruments on the boat?
You have to sail a big boat more by the numbers than you would a small boat. The technology we have on boats is getting better all the time, and you don’t want to ignore the input that instruments can give you while you’re sailing upwind, especially on bigger boats, which are relatively insensitive. However, just as you wouldn’t sail a boat only by the telltales, you don’t want to steer it solely by the instruments. I’ve seen people try to sail a boat upwind using only the apparent wind angle instrument, and that’s ridiculous. If you use any instrument other than as a reference, you’re going to get into trouble. You have to find a happy medium where you use the instruments as a guide but don’t get mesmerized by them.
Which instruments do you look at?
Let’s break it down into two stages-a boat’s tune-up period and then the time during races. The best way to learn how to sail a boat fast is to use as many of the instruments as you can. When you first start sailing a boat, see how fast it will go with different sails in varying conditions. If possible, have another boat with relatively the same rating out there with you and try different things. Then start keeping track of boatspeed, angle of heel, wind angle and speed (both true and apparent), velocity made good to windward, etc. If you have a good navigator or someone who is comfortable with numbers, start making a chart for your boat. At this stage, use all the instruments.
When you’re racing, however, it’s difficult for even the best helmsman look around at a lot of instruments. You have to narrow it down. I think the two most important instruments are boatspeed and windspeed (I prefer using true wind, if possible, since it won’t be affected by acceleration or deceleration). If you have made a performance chart or if you have a velocity prediction program, you’ll know generally what boatspeed you should be getting at each windspeed. For example, if the skipper sees that the windspeed is 16 true and knows from experience that the best VMG will be made at a boatspeed of 6.8 knots, then he should start looking for 6.8 on the speedo.
How do you know to pinch or foot?
You’re continually looking at a tradeoff between going higher and slower or going lower and faster. The course that pays off is the one that will get you to the windward mark the fastest; the one that gives you the best VMG. Your optimal angle will depend on wind strength and sea conditions. In smooth water, for example, it will usually pay off to sail higher. This will give you the best VMG, but it also may mean that your speed through the water is lower than it might be in waves. Some helmsmen are confused when I suggest they try sailing at a slower boatspeed; they can’t believe that I want them to go slower. What I’m really saying is, "Let’s head a little higher and try a little slower speed, and then see if that doesn’t net out to a better VMG to windward."
As a rule of thumb, the average sailor steers a boat too fine; that is, it’s sailed too high and too slow. Most people are obsessed with pointing well when they go upwind. But what most people don’t realize is that pointing is a net effect-it’s not just where you point the bow. It involves a boat’s speed through the water and how the keel interacts with the sail plan. When the tactician says you’re not pointing well, you can’t just aim the boat higher because this means you’ll go slower and the keel won’t lift as well. You get going lower and slower, and it’s a cumulative problem.
How is steering upwind at night different than during the day?
If you can learn to sail a boat by feel during the day it will certainly improve your chances to sail a boat well at night. The best sailors feel the wind better at night; that is they are more attentive to where the wind is, either on the back of their neck or on their face, and they can feel the wind changing. You have to depend less on what you can see and more on your "sixth sense."
At the basic level, be sure your instruments are lit up. A flashlight on the headsail also can be an important reference since most sailors depend on the jib telltale more at night than during the day. I like to position a high-powered light so it is constantly shining on the telltale. That doesn’t mean you’re looking at the telltale all the time, but when you do look at it you don’t have to wait for someone to shine a light up there. If you have a flashlight that goes on the side telltales from time to time, it’s not a bad idea either, and make sure your Windex is lit. As far as position goes, standing to windward still offers the best opportunity to feel what is going on, which is important since you certainly can’t see the wind or waves.
What’s important for the helmsman to hear from the crew?
You definitely don’t want everyone in the crew trying to communicate at once; that isn’t good for the helmsman’s concentration. I think that there are basically only two or three people who should talk to the helmsman-the tactician, the sail trimmer, and possibly the navigator. During a race, the helmsman will concentrate on steering the boat fast; the tactician will report tactics, the navigator will communicate with the tactician; and the sail trimmer will talk directly to the helmsman about speed. Most of the rest of the crew will speak up only if there is something on the course that should be considered. I like to have this communication go primarily to the tactician so the helmsman stays out of it as much as possible.
Big-boat sailing is a team sport as you can’t do everything when you’re driving-delegate responsibility. If you set up a good hierarchy of communication, then you’ll hear what is essential and not waste your time being distracted by non-essential information. You’ll also free yourself from having to tell everyone else what to do.