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.
As a helmsman, what should you communicate to the crew?
The obvious things are, "Hey, the boat feels sluggish," or "We feel overpowered," or "I can’t quite sail the jib that tight at the right speed." These are all things that have to be felt through the wheel or tiller; anyone else will have a hard time figuring out what’s wrong. I know I’m better at feeling why the boat is slow when I’m on the helm-off it I can only guess.
One area where a skipper can be helpful is sail trim. A mainsheet trimmer, for example, looks at the main all day long and can get kind of mesmerized with his own little problems. It’s ironic how a skipper can look up and say, "Hmmm, we need a little more twist." The trimmer may be able to make the sail look perfect, but he can’t really feel its effect on the boat. Another thing the skipper can feel better than anyone is the angle of heel. A crewmember can read it off the inclinometer, but the helmsman can say, "Hey, I think the boat would go better with a little more heel." What’s important is pressure on the helm, or the feel of the boat.
How do you get and keep the boat "in the groove"?
Pressure on the helm is key to feeling the groove. The first thing that I do when I’m sailing a new boat is to mark the wheel or tiller so that I can always tell how many degrees of helm the boat has. With a tiller, this means starting with a protractor at the rudderpost, extending the degree lines forward, and marking them on the deck under the tiller. You want to go as far forward as possible because the small angles we’re talking about show up best there. A wheel’s a little more simple because once you mark the degree lines on the quadrant, you can put a piece of tape at the top of the wheel when it’s centered and another piece on each side of center at a certain rudder angle. Don’t measure the angle on the wheel; turn the rudder that amount and then mark the wheel.
What’s the optimum amount of weather helm?
I’d say that the optimal is probably three or four degrees; this has proven to be pretty fast on a trim tab, which you can actually crank fairly exactly and leave in one place. Five or six degrees has proven to be a little slow. With big modern rudders, having an angle of greater than four or five degrees is, in simplistic terms, like turning a barn door on the back of the boat. Three to four degrees will give the boat a little extra lift and provide the helmsman with the opportunity to feel when he’s in the groove. This is particularly important with a wheel, which often feels like power steering in a car. So I try to make sure there’s a mark at around four degrees on the wheel or tiller.
If you have only one or two degrees of weather helm, it’s probably not enough for there to be a feeling of a groove. Ways to add pressure would be to heel the boat more, move your weight forward, trim the sails more to the centerline, power the sails up, etc. For example, if you’re sailing along in medium air and have a hard time finding the groove, it might help to put a few guys on the leeward rail. Chances are that this is not faster through the water, but it would be faster for the helmsman. In other words, the boat will probably go fastest when it’s sailed upright. But if you heel the boat five more degrees, the helmsman will be able to feel the boat better and do a better job of steering, which may be more than enough to offset going slightly slower through the water.
Are there any other tricks that make it easier to stay in the groove?
It will usually be easier to keep the boat in the groove if you sail it on the full side, especially if the breeze is shifty or if there are waves. In other words, err on the side of sailing the boat slightly faster than the speed that you know will produce the best VMG. The reason for this is that heavy displacement boats depend on momentum, and once you start going slow the problem accumulates; that is, you keep getting slower and slower. Trying to point high in shifty or wavy conditions is like sailing with a jib that has too fine an entry-the envelope for error is narrow. When conditions are variable it’s harder to find the groove again once you’ve lost it; so if in doubt, sail slightly full.
What techniques do you use for steering upwind in waves?
Steer up the front side and down the backside. The bigger the sea, the more you have to think about how to get through it. When you’re going upwind, against the waves, you want to steer through the waves so that you are affected as little as possible by the waves’ action. The worst thing you can do is to turn the rudder too much. That’s a general rule of thumb. But if you don’t turn the rudder at least once in a while, a wave can really hurt you.
You need to have good peripheral vision and anticipate what’s going to happen. It’s like skiing. If you look only at the next mogul, you’re invariably not going to be that great a skier; but if you get the total picture and then deal with things as they come, you could be a great skier. When you’re steering a sailboat, you want to look five or ten waves ahead and at the same time handle each wave as it gets to you. I ask my crew (or my tactician) to let me know when a big wave is coming just in case I’ve missed seeing it; I also ask for input on where the flat spots are.
Another good rule of thumb is to keep the amount of weather helm to a minimum in waves. Generally, this means using less sail area than you would in flat water. Most people think that they have to put up a lot of sail to power through the waves; but this creates a lot of helm, and the natural reaction is to try to reduce it by feathering. But every time you feather in waves, you start going slower and slower. You want the amount of sail area that will let you drive off for speed without overpowering the boat and steer the boat through the waves without being overwhelmed by weather helm.
How should you steer a big boat through a tack?
A big boat has a lot of momentum and therefore a lot of shoot. This means that to optimize VMG you want to tack slower than in a one-design so that you gain distance to windward in the middle of the tack. The heavier the boat, the slower you can tack, but you don’t want to take too long or it will be hard to accelerate coming out of the tack. A boat generally tacks with the best VMG if you swing into the wind slowly and then spin more quickly to get the sails filled on the new tack as soon as possible. The lighter the wind, the more you should back the jib.
When I’m steering a boat through a tack, I like to begin the turn from my position on the windward side and stay there (as it becomes the leeward side) until I see the jib fill to what I think is the right angle. Then I’ll jump to windward and watch everything that can help me get the boat back in the groove and up to speed. The windier it is, the sooner I move up to the new weather side. If you do it right, your speed-building curve should level off just as you reach the speed that will give you the best VMG to windward. You definitely want to come out of the tack fuller in light air and finer in heavy air.
Any other tips for steering upwind?
Even though I’ve said that the helmsman should concentrate only on making the boat go fast and let the rest of the crew worry about everything else, that’s not exactly true. Sailing is a team sport, and the skipper needs to function as the quarterback-he should be producing the "theme" for the sailboat race. Too often, the helmsman jumps behind the wheel without knowing who’s doing what and steers his way through a race of confusion.
You have to organize things before you start racing, or you’ll have too much to worry about while steering. Look at all the races that Dennis Conner has won, his organizational and management skills are so good that he’s often won a race before he even gets out there. A lot of guys can steer a boat upwind well, but not too many are organized as well as they should be. When the helmsman, the quarterback, gets on the boat in the morning, he should pull everybody together for a few minutes and say, for example, "Okay, you’re going to do the mast area, and I want you to coordinate the moves between the bowman and sail trimmer on the spinnaker set." You’ll be surprised how easy this can make things during the race.
The job of steering a big boat upwind requires a wide range of skills, from doing your homework the night before a race to using your instruments for finding the best VMG. Anticipating what will happen next and always keeping an eye on the broader picture are key. When you’re able to do this, driving is a lot of fun.