Helping the Helmsman

What kind of information does the helmsman need, and who should provide it? An expert driver explains. From Sailing World, November 1990
“Everyone on the boat must be involved, either feeding information to the helmsman or in doing their jobs in such a way that they don’t interfere with his concentration.” —Robbie Haines Sailing World/Sharon Green

Olympic gold medalist Robbie Haines is best known for his prowess at the helm. As a driver, the man who gets all the glory when the boat wins, Haines will be the first to tell you a successful cam­paign is always the result of a team effort. Everyone on the boat must be involved, either feeding information to the helmsman or in doing their jobs in such a way that they don’t interfere with his concentration. During the past few years Haines has specialized in steering big boats-One Tons, 5O-Footers and sleds, so we asked him what the crews of larger boats could do to help the helmsman. These suggestions will work just as well on most PHRF or IMS boats of any size. 

What’s the most important thing your crew can do when you’re steering? 

The key to a good team is to keep the helmsman from feeling like he has to look around, so he can concentrate on keeping the boat moving. The helmsman also has to have a dialogue with the genoa trimmer when racing upwind. 


So, the genoa trimmer’s your most important source of information when you’re steering? 

Yes, the most important feedback that any helmsman needs, besides input from his tactician, is from the genoa trimmer. The trimmer should have his eyes glued on the knot meter and should know what the target boatspeeds are. Every boat should have targets, and the genoa trimmer should have these in his head. He and the helmsman should be constantly communicating on whether the boat’s going fast or slow relative to the targets and that’ll dictate how high the helmsman can point and his style of sailing the boat. 

Just after a tack it’s real nice to have the genoa trimmer calling off the rate of increase in boats peed because that will dictate the helmsman’s course. When you come out of a tack fairly wide, if the trimmer reports the speed is building quickly the helmsman can come up on the wind sooner. One thing that helps is to have the trimmer know what the lowest speed on a tack should be. For example, on big boats I like to try to keep the boatspeed from dropping more than a knot and a half during a tack. In other words, if you’re going six knots, the slowest you want to get in a tack is 4.5 knots. If he knows this information he can relay it: “That was a good one,” or, “that was a bad one.” 


What are some of the important skills the main trimmer should have? 

The mainsheet trimmer has a lot to do with how the boat feels. Whether he trims too hard or too loose or has too much or too little backstay can dictate how the boat feels. A mainsheet trimmer should have a very good feel about how the main should look in different conditions and be acutely aware of changes in the wind. Obviously when going upwind the main should have the proper depth and correct sheet tension, and knowing that just comes from experience. I don’t like mainsheet trimmers to cleat the main. They should constantly be ad­justing. I remember on the Twelves with Dennis (Conner), John Wright would seldom look anywhere but at the main. 

How do you want the communica­tion to go between you and both trimmers while sailing upwind in puffy, shifty air? 


I like to have constant input from the genoa trimmer and occasional input from the main trimmer. We’ve already discussed what the helmsman needs to hear from the genoa trimmer, so what I mean by input from the main trimmer is anything he can say with regard to, “We have a two-knot puff,” “the wind’s the same,” “I’m going to pull the mainsheet in a little, how does that feel on the helm?” 

How do you want the spinnaker trimmer to communicate pressure on the sheet? Do you want him to tell you to “heat it up” or just pass along the information? 

The spinnaker trimmer should provide information like “pressure,” or “no pressure;” the helmsman should dictate his own course. The helmsman should never stifle constructive comments from the crew, but sometimes it can get a little confusing if people are telling you where to steer the boat. There could be other considerations, like waves, that could keep the helmsman from doing what the trimmer wants. 


Or tactical considerations?

Exactly. But there is a definite need for the spinnaker trimmer to let the helmsman know when there is pressure or no pressure on the sheet. I always like him to have as few wraps on the winch as possible so he can feel the pressure. There’s no need to have six wraps on a winch when you ‘re sailing in five knots of wind. You would never feel the change in pressure. 

If you‘re tight reaching, how do you want the spinnaker trimmer to ease in puffs? 

In steady winds there should be constant adjustments. In puffs, if the boat starts to round up, that’s when you need to make the big adjustments. Usually the trimmer will feel the boat begin to round up and he’ll need to ease out six feet very quickly, and that will give control back to the helmsman. When you’re rounding up, if you ease quickly, it usually brings the boat back under control. If you’ve got a real good trimmer/grinder combination who can react to the big ease quickly, it keeps the boat under control. Where you get into trouble is when the trim­mer eases too much. If you ease until you get a pretty big curl in the chute but don’t collapse it, it should bring the boat back on her feet. 

How do you want the tactician to communicate about other boats’ speed and heading?

It’s important to have the tactician relaying accurate information. Going upwind I like tacticians who understand puffs, headers and lifts as they relate to wind velocity. For example, I’d like the tactician to say “The boat to weather is going faster, but the water looks a little darker up there and I think it’s a puff.” That helps me more than just saying “The guy to weather’s going faster.” If you don’t know it’s just a puff, you might react and change something which might not need changing. It’s the same with lifts and headers. A good tactician will take into ac­count increases in wind velocity which will make a boat point higher or decreases which will make it point lower. 

What can the tactician do downwind to help you? 

A tactician is crucial downwind. I’m a firm believer in the helmsman not looking back. I don’t believe a helmsman can steer a boat properly if he’s constantly looking at the boats behind, checking to see if they’re faster or getting on his wind. I think the helmsman’s responsibility downwind is to ride the waves and react to puffs, so he has to have someone looking upwind for him.