Really Useful Sailing Tips – Helmsmanship
Keeping the boat on the right course and under control is the Helmsman’s job. A few pointers follow as to how to be a good helmsman.
Tip 1 – Helmsman communication
The helmsman has the feel and performance of the yacht in his hands. The ‘helm’ can often feel if a yacht is overpowered by the wind, or if it is sluggish, perhaps because the sails are too tight. It is often up to the ‘helm’ to convey this information to the crew so that they can adjust the sails accordingly. It is equally important for the helmsman to receive information from the crew such as approaching gusts of wind, other vessels which may be a hazard, or if they notice he is off course.
Tip 2 – Upwind helming
If you can’t point as high into the wind as you think you should be able to (the instruments or known data about the boat will indicate this) you need to trim the sails, usually inwards. But other factors can play a part such as backstay tension, or the fact that you are heeled over too far, which causes leeway and a heavy helm. It’s important to keep the boat as flat as possible to go through the water to windward efficiently.
Tip 3 – The use of ‘tell tales’
The jib ‘tell tales’ are a valuable trim and steering aid. If they lift on the inside of the sail you need to pull the sail in or bear away. If they lift on the outside you need to ease the sail or sail higher. When the sail is set properly both inside and outside ‘tell tales’ should lie parallel and horizontal. Many top sailors like to have the inside ‘tell tales’ just starting to lift when sailing upwind. Remember to trim the main in tandem. However, don’t ignore other aspects of performance while relying exclusively on the jib ‘tell tales’.
Tip 4 – Tacking
Tack slowly and steadily through the wind (but not too slowly otherwise the boat can stop and get ‘caught in irons’, particularly in bigger waves!). Tack through the known tacking range of the yacht and a few degrees beyond so as to enable the yacht to accelerate before rounding up to the correct angle. Make sure the sails are trimmed in gradually until the boat is fully back up to speed on the new tack.
Tip 5 – Staying in the ‘groove’
Sometimes it feels hard to helm in a straight line and keep the helm balanced. This can be due to ‘weather helm’ where the boat keeps trying to round itself up. In this case you usually need to ease the main either with the sheet or down the track. Don’t use a lot of over steer through waves. It is better to trim the sails correctly and let the boat find its way around the waves. A little weather helm can be useful to push the boat up over the waves and improves the overall course to windward.
Tip 6 – Reaching
When you are reaching, ie. the wind is coming from abeam, the basic rule is to head up in the lulls and bear off in the gusts. This is because as the wind speed increases the apparent wind comes forward and in this way you maintain the maximum wind speed flow across your sails. This is particularly effective in light airs. In heavy gusts remember that the kicker/vang and/or mainsheet track can be deployed to depower and spill wind out of the sails if the helm is overpowered.
Tip 7 – Downwind sailing in heavy air
The smoothest and most controllable angle is to be several degrees high of dead downwind. With the wind directly behind you, the boat tends to roll, which can be alarming in heavier conditions especially if you have a spinnaker up. If you are trying to reach a destination that is dead down wind, bear away in the lulls when this is less risky and then come up again in the puffs. Don’t over steer or compensate too much for rolling – this just makes it worse!
Tip 8 – Downwind sailing in light air
The opposite of Tip 7 applies when sailing in light air. Sailing dead downwind will cause the yacht to flounder and lack power, so you need to head up slightly to increase the apparent wind strength during the lulls then bear away again on the gusts. It’s better to sail from broad reach to broad reach in these conditions as it keeps the boat moving, even though there is rather a lot of gybing involved!
There is nothing more exhilarating than helming a vessel under full sail, whether you are cruising or racing and I hope that these tips help you to enjoy the experience.