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.

June 4, 2002
Tom Whidden

Tom Whidden

Daniel Forster

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.


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.


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