Steering Downwind With Tom Whidden

In the 40th Anniversary Issue of Sailing World (July/Aug. 2002) we published a 1985 interview with Tom Whidden about steering big boats upwind. His downwind advice is timeless as well.

How is steering downwind different from steering upwind?
It takes more latent ability to steer a boat well on reaches and, especially, on runs. You’ll see a greater number of good helmsmen upwind than you will downwind, even though everybody assumes downwind is easy. One big difference between upwind and downwind is that you feel a lot less breeze when you are driving off the wind. For example, if the true wind speed is 14 knots, you might feel 20 knots of apparent wind on a beat, but on a run you may only feel about seven knots apparent. This means that you’re sailing in lighter air a majority of the time off the wind, which is why most guys light up their cigarette or eat their sandwich-because it’s a relief from the noise an wind of beating.

It’s tough to steer downwind well in light to medium air, because unlike upwind, the feel of the wind is less apparent and you don’t have a constant angle of heel or pressure on the helm to use as a guide. It almost takes a whole new mental attitude to turn the mark and do your best downwind. For this reason, rounding the weather mark is often a good time to change helmsmen. So put lunch away-eat it upwind. The breeze doesn’t stop shifting when you hoist the spinnaker, and as a driver, you need your full attention to continue using as many aids as possible-instruments, masthead fly, telltales, waves, other boats, sails, pressure on the helm, etc.

What’s the best position for a helmsman when steering downwind?
The most important thing is to be comfortable while you’re steering. With a wheel, it’s probably best to stand in the middle of the boat. You usually have to turn the rudder more downwind than upwind, especially in waves, and being in the middle will give you the best leverage possible. But this isn’t a fixed rule. With a tiller you can use the hiking stick to steer from the windward side, or you can straddle (or stand next to) the tiller in the middle of the boat. As the breeze comes on, you certainly should be in a position where you have as much 1everage as possible so you won’t let the boat broach or wander. This often means sitting on the windward side and holding the tiller with both hands. Brace your feet against something solid, too, or you won’t last long on an overpowered reach.


Try to steer from a position where you can see as much of the waves a sails as possible. Since the helmsman is often the person farthest aft in the boat, he or she usually has the best over view of the sailplan and won’t get mesmerized by the luff of the spinnaker like the trimmer does. Your position is also important for seeing the instruments. These are a little harder to watch downwind than upwind because the crew, instead of being on the rail, is in the center of the boat and moving all over. It always seems like someone is sitting right in front of the dials.

**What instruments do you use? **
You want to use the same basic instruments that you do upwind-boatspeed and true wind speed-plus the apparent wind angle. You need to watch the latter because your optimum wind angle downwind is a little harder to feel by the seat of the pants. When you’re beating, there’s a very narrowly defined apparent wind angle where the boat will feel right. But on a run, your wind can be anywhere from 60 apparent to 180 apparent to make your best velocity made good (VMG)- depending on the wind and waves. For example, in 10 knots of true wind, your best VMG upwind might be obtained somewhere in a groove that’s about five degrees wide (from around 26 to 31 degrees apparent). Downwind, however, the envelope that includes your best VMG is much bigger-it might be 25 degrees. So a good helmsman is keeping track of boatspeed, true windspeed, apparent wind direction and VMG (from an instrument, if available, or from a boat performance chart).

**What can you do if you don’t have the fancy instruments? **
You have to keep watching how you’re doing against the other boats. They are your best indicator of relative speed, and you should keep experimenting. On a run, for example, jibe more than you think is right (it won’t slow you down too much), and how you’re netting out with the boats around you. I think it’s great to learn how to sail by the seat of the pants and not get too dependent on instruments.


At night, one of the best guides you can have is a lighted Windex at the top of your mast. You don’t want to steer looking only at the Windex, but you should be able to use it as a reference. I once did a 1,000-mile Mexican race with Dennis Conner and we had a run all the way in a lot of breeze. Dennis didn’t care about the Windex and didn’t care about the instruments; he shone a flashlight on the telltale on the windward shroud and steered almost completely by that to avoid sailing by the lee. You’ll get a pretty stiff neck you keep looking up at that Windex all the time. Another good place to put telltale is on the backstay over your head.
Like upwind, having a good “feel for the boat and the wind can be very helpful. The good guys kind of feel the breeze on the back of their necks, which really helps them anticipate what is going to happen. Did you ever notice how short Conner gets his hair cut before big race? He has it trimmed very close in the back, and I hardly ever see him look behind downwind.

Another way to keep track of everything that’s going on is to get some help from your crew. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Designate one person as the tactician, and ask him or her to keep an eye out for the little puffs and how the other boats are doing, and to keep the communication going with the trimmers. Make sure your tactician reports what’s happening behind your back, because you’ll lose your concentration if you have to keep looking back over your shoulder to see what’s going on.

**What’s the optimal amount of helm when you’re steering downwind? **
On the run, getting the right amount of helm is just as important as it is upwind, except that your goal is to balance the helm so that it is neutral. In other words, you should minimize the amount that you have to turn the rudder. Having helm downwind is definitely slow because you just want the boat to go straight. You’re not asking it to have lift or to go any closer to the wind, so all you’re doing by turning the rudder is creating drag.
Moving crew weight around is one of the best ways to balance the helm. If you have leeward helm, move some or all of the crew to leeward; if you have windward helm, get them up to windward. The helmsman is definitely the key guy in terms of feeling how much helm there is and what needs to happen to balance it. Balancing the helm on a reach is a different story. Even though weather helm is slow, sail area is fast when you’re reaching. Therefore, it pays to put up as much sail as you can control, even though this makes the boat heel over and develop helm. While you’d never sail upwind with more than four or five degrees of weather helm, on a reach you may be fastest with upwards of 10 degrees of helm.


**Is there a “groove” downwind like there is upwind? **
There is definitely a groove where the trimmer feels like he’s got some pressure on the spinnaker and the driver feels like the boat is going well. You just have to experiment to find the angle where the boat feels lively and the sheet is pulling, and try it for a while. Watch how you’re netting out against the boats around you. The best drivers can feel a little pressure on the helm once they start cooking; it’s kind of a vibration. Again, the speedo is the key instrument, and the helmsman essentially lives and dies by it. Figure out what speed seems to net out well, and then steer the boat up and down to maintain that speed.

What most people have the hardest time comprehending is the necessary interrelation between the spinnaker trimmer and the helmsman. Finding the groove requires communication between these two more than anything else. The spinnaker trimmer should be saying things like, “It feels right here, good pressure. Come up a little now because I’m losing pressure, or come down a little because I’m gaining pressure.”

**Is there anything you can do to make the downwind groove easier to find? **
The more open leeched your spinnaker is, the narrower the steering envelope becomes. In other words, the flatter the spinnaker, the tougher it is to fly and the more attention it requires from both the trimmer and the helmsman. It’s like having a fine-entry jib when you’re sailing upwind-the difference in steering between being light and heavy is not very great. One way to make the spinnaker a little more forgiving is to give it a rounder shape by closing the leeches a little. On a broad reach or run, choke it down by lowering the pole and moving the sheet lead forward. This will give you more of a curl and open the steering groove up a little.


Another way to make steering a little easier is to sail on the fast (high) side when you are trying to pick your optimum VMG downwind. It’s similar to widening the upwind groove by sailing a little on the full side when you’re beating. Most people err on the slow side downwind, and this is a mistake. You will pay for being low much more than you will pay for being high, because once you start to slow down the problem accumulates, and it will take you longer to get back up to full speed.

**What can you use as steering guides downwind? **
I like to use everything possible as a steering reference. If you have a stern light ahead that’s on a boat steering same the course you are, nothing’s better to keep you going straight. It’s the same when you can see a lighthouse or mark that you’re headed to. Sometimes you can line up a star in your shroud, but remember that this will only work short periods of time. The angle of waves will also help you a lot at night. Another helpful guide is sail trim. If your sails are trimmed for the course you want to steer and all of a sudden they start luffing, then either you’ve been headed or you’re steering high of course. So I’d say you should look at wind angle, waves, stars, moon, close stern lights, angle of the sails, feel of the wind on your face, angle of heel, horizon, a point on land-a whole bunch of things. You have to remember current leeway and all the things that are going to affect the course you’re steering. The best way to steer a straight course for a mark (if you can see it) is to line up the mark with something on land behind and then hold that bearing constant.

**Do you have any tricks for steering on an overpowered reach? **
Making sure you have good leverage on the wheel or tiller and communicating with the crew are key. Too many helmsmen just sit there with the tiller up under their neck and don’t say anything. You have to let the sailtrimmers know how the helm is. Make sure that they ease as much a possible, and don’t ever overtrim when you’re in overpowering conditions. The spinnaker is particularly easy to over trim because it looks so pretty when it’s in tight. You’ll find that the better crew tend to lose their spinnaker more often than you might think because it’s eased so much. I like to use telltales near the spinnaker leeches to help make sure that the sail is always eased to the maximum. The mainsail trimmer is equally important as the spinnaker trimmer, and he’s usually right next to the helmsman, so there should be a lot of talking back and forth. Make sure somebody constantly monitors the vang as well.

It’s usually worth going with the spinnaker even if it means you round up every once in a while. This may make it harder to steer than if you had a genoa but it’s faster. Don’t start depowering the rig until you’re at the point where you can’t steer the boat straight (because of weather helm) and the rudder begins to stall. The main rule for depowering is to start at the back of the sail plan and proceed forward. The first thing to do, assuming that the spinnaker is eased as much as possible, is to ease the mainsheet and the vang. Other ways to depowering the main, and therefore reducing helm, are bending the mast, pulling in the flattener, or even going to a reef. Secondly, you should take a staysail down, if you’re flying it, to reduce heel and therefore lessen weather helm. Finally, you can go to a flatter spinnaker. The helmsman is the only person who can really feel when it is time to make these changes.

When weather helm builds up and the rudder begins to stall (i.e. there’s bubble of air around it) before you can depower enough, one technique for reattaching flow on the rudder is to give the helm a few quick pumps. Keep an eye out for waves as well because they can tip the boat over, lifting much of the rudder out of the water. Anticipate big waves by steering a little lower so they won’t push you over so much. As usual, steer higher in the relative lulls and lower in the puffs.

**How about when you get out of control on a run? **
One thing I tell helmsmen when they’re steering downwind in severe conditions is that it’s very much like skiing. On skis you have to keep you body, and therefore your center of effort over the skis. You can’t lean way uphill or way downhill. In sailing, you have to keep your whole sailplan over the hull. Looking at it another way, you have to steer so you keep the hull under the sailplan and prevent the keel from becoming a pendulum. For example, if the boat heels to the right, then steer under it to the right. If the boat heels to the left, steer under it that way. These steering corrections should be fairly small; you don’t want to over steer and cause a turn the other way. If you’re having a hard time keeping the boat under the sails, perhaps your crew weight is too much to one side. You definitely want to balance the helm in these conditions.

A helmsman can have problems steering downwind because most boats have too much sail in a breeze and can’t be as effectively reefed as they can be upwind. Even if you could reef the main you’d end up with too much sail on the spinnaker side. So it’s critical to figure out a way to balance the boat with the sails (as it is on any other point of sail) and this requires working extra hard with the sailtrimmers. For example, if the boat wants to round up to windward, ask the person on the guy to square the pole. If the boat wants to go out to leeward, ask for the pole to be eased forward and the sheet trimmed.

**How do you avoid and recover from broaches? **
A boat is most vulnerable broaching (or jibe broaching) when the rig is loaded up. This usually happens at the bottom of a wave, where the bow digs into the next wave, slowing the boat and the rig tries to keep on going. Ideally the helmsman wants to go dead down the wave and then head up a little in the trough to avoid this.
Remember that steering corrections on a run should be as small as possible. The worst thing you can do when you start to round up is overreact. An inexperienced helmsman will typically crank the helm over as the boat starts to luff up, but when the sails fill and flow attaches to the rudder, the boat will have so much momentum going the other direction that it will do a jibe broach. The important thing is to try to get flow on the rudder without making too abrupt a movement. Keep ventilating the rudder (by giving the helm quick tugs) to get rid of a stalled bubble, and work the boat do to the compass course that you were originally on , or maybe a little lower. If feel like the boat is about to round up it’s probably better to call for a spinnaker luff and keep the boat going straight than it is to broach. At least that way you won’t lose all your moment down the course. If you do broach, the first sail that you trim back in should probably be your spinnaker. Just as you depowered the boat from back to front, you should power up from the front to the back.

**What can you do to help the boat surf in waves? **
One of the best downwind drivers I’ve ever sailed with is Mark Soverel. He’s unbelievable and it’s because he’s a surfer [Ed’s note: Soverel died in January, 2002]. Steering a big boat down waves is no different than surfing. What you’re trying to do build up boatspeed and apparent windspeed by steering across the wave. You then use this speed to make optimum VMG to leeward by turning (maybe 10 to 20 degrees) and going down the face of the wave. When your bow is about to dig into the next wave, head up so that the rig doesn’t become overloaded. It’s definitely not fast to go in a straight line. My advice is to watch a surfing contest on television, and just study those guys go across waves.
In surfing conditions, the helmsman should look for troughs on the windward side of the boat and also watch the bow wave. If you see the bow wave starting to get bigger, then it’s time to head up little. You want to pick the biggest wave to surf on, and this is where looking behind, or having your tactician look behind can really help. Every third wave or so is bigger than the others. Spend most of your time going down the big wave rather than trying to go down the little waves and missing the big ones. You have to discriminate. Steering by the lee can be very fast when you’re on a wave. Another trick that some helmsmen use for catching waves is wriggling the tiller just as a wave starts to lift their stern. I think this breaks up the suction that’s created when a boat is moving through the water and stops the boat from being sucked into the wave. It’s like breaking up the ground effect on a race car.

**What’s the fastest way to steer during a jibe? **
You lose very little by jibing downwind as long as your crew can execute a jibe properly. So one basic rule of thumb is that the helmsman ought to jibe at a speed that’s good for the crew. It’s no good to spin a fast jibe if the spinnaker ends up inside the headstay. Ideally, though, if you jibe only for the benefit of the crew, you’ll usually be steering through the jibe too slowly. They problem with turning slowly is that you don’t have apparent wind building fast enough on the new jibe. As a result, your speed stays in the low range, and it may take a long time to get it back up again. You should almost always turn more sharply than what you think would be right in a jibe.
By and large, you want to come out of the jibe a little higher than the angle that gives your optimum VMG. Your goal is to load the boat up (with apparent wind) on the new jibe as quickly as possible, because when you jibe you are making great VMG for a while (since you’re headed straight downwind), but you start losing all your apparent wind. If you don’t come up fairly sharply just after the jibe, you’ll lose too much momentum Your course should be up and then down-that’s the ideal jibe. The only exception to this is when you’re sailing downwind in a lot of breeze and you don’t need to sail higher to get back up to speed

**Where are you looking as you jibe? **
I watch the spinnaker the whole time. The reason for this is that the helmsman should call when the pole is tripped. You ought to yell “Trip” when the pole is fully squared (i.e. the boat is headed dead downwind or slightly by the lee), and this is the moment when you want to start turning the boat a little faster.

I use the angle of the Windex and the compass during the second half of the turn to help me know what heading I should be on for the new jibe. I try to end up so the Windex is a little farther forward on the new jibe than it was on the old to keep speed up. Another rule of thumb on a run is that if I’m sailing with the Windex about 25 degrees forward of dead aft, then we’ll jibe through about 25 degrees. In this case, I’ll say, “Let’s jibe through 35 degrees, keep good speed and then bear down to our optimum angle.” As we come out of the jibe, I’m looking for a rough compass course and Windex angle.

It’s safe to say that helmsmanship does not win races by itself, but it can certainly make a big difference. Both upwind and downwind, the best drivers can sense how a boat is going by the feel of the wheel or tiller, and they are quarterbacking the whole team according to this. Practice using all your senses when you’re steering, and don’t get hung up on any one aid like instruments or telltales. Communicate with your tactician and trimmers, and keep the boat sailing on the fast side.