HELMING SKILLS

SAIL FASTER ,SAIL SAFER. Advanced techniques Series Part 5: Helming skills. Courtesy of Yachting World written by Pip Hare in partnership with Doyle Sails UK expert Brian Thompson.

In this part of our series top sailor Brian Thompson, Vendée Globe skipper and holder of 26 world sailing records, shares his tips for super-hot helming.

When you’re sailing upwind in a monohull, the key is to minimise helm movement to tiny corrections and keep a steady heel angle. If the telltales are flying and the heel angle is correct, there is little reason to change course, so steer straight. Remember, it is easier to lose speed than to build it up again so watch the boat speed; if it starts to drop, make a quick, small bear away to keep the boat moving fast.

In small waves or chop steer exactly as you would in flat water. There is no need to steer around these waves; your speed should take you through them.

The technique is different in big waves on modern boats with flat-bottomed bows. In this case, to avoid slamming, gently steer to windward up the face of the wave and bear away slightly off the top. This creates more heel so you land on the stronger side of the boat.

Reaching

When I’m reaching on a monohull, again I aim to go straight and fast with a constant angle of heel. A good technique for dealing with small changes in wind speed is to alter course slightly, coming up in the lulls and bearing away in the gusts.

With a big change in wind angle you must decide whether to follow the wind, or to retrim the sails. When sailing single-handed I tend to follow the shifts a bit more to avoid retrimming the sails all the time. Try not to move the helm too much and to feel the boat’s balance. If it’s overpowered then ease the mainsail rather than fight the rudder.

Downwind

On yachts such as the single-handed Vendée Globe IMOCA 60s, which travel faster than the waves downwind, we aim not to surf too deep, but to sail higher and carry the speed on and over the next wave. On more traditional boats with symmetrical spinnakers or poled-out headsails, steer to keep a constant speed and angle of heel. This should help prevent excess rolling.

As the wave approaches your quarter, come up a little to keep speed on, then bear away to surf down the wave. As you come to the end of the surf come up a little to keep the boat heeling. This will stop her rolling to windward when the speed comes off.

In lighter winds aim to keep your spinnaker powered up, concentrate on the luff and boat speed. At the first hint that you are slowing down and the chute is collapsing, come up to reattach the airflow to the sail. Try not to exaggerate helm movements, keep it all calm and once the boat is going well, steer straight and keep on moving.

In reality, the wind does not often make massive shifts so there is no need to make huge alterations in course. If you keep slowing down, then it is probably because you are over-steering. Make sure the telltales on the gennaker are flying well and don’t get greedy; if you have a good boat VMG downwind then stick with that course.

Steering a multihull

In light airs the big difference in steering a multihull is the effect of the apparent wind. In fast multis the apparent wind angle stays pretty similar whether you are at 45° true wind angle or 100° – you just go faster as you bear away.

This can make it very hard to steer well to windward. Good instruments help, but on the 35ft tri I raced in the 1992 OSTAR I would sometimes put in a tack and look at the angle I turned through just to work out if I was on the breeze or not.

Bearing away behind a big wave on a multihull could induce a capsize so must be done with caution. However, in bigger seas this method should stop the boat from hanging in the air so much and hopefully keep the leeward hull attached to the water.

Reaching is the most dangerous point of sail for capsizing as when hit by a gust or wave you have the greatest angle to turn through to keep the boat safe. Bear away and you will have to power up before you reach a safer downwind angle; head up and the boat will heel more before it flattens out.

It is essential you know which way to turn. Slowing down will cause the windward hull to slam into the oncoming waves. On Banque Populaire V the riskiest true wind angle was 115°. At 116° we would always turn down in a gust, at 114° we would turn up.

Downwind on a multihull, I look at keeping everything very steady, watching apparent wind angle, true wind angle, course and speed.

Top tips for setting up your autopilot

  • To set up your pilot to steer to windward, handsteer the boat on a good course, engage the pilot, then dial down two or three degrees as this will allow for any small variations in the wind direction and allow for waves knocking you off course.
  • If your pilot has apparent wind mode, this is the best way to steer upwind, but check that a windshift will not put you off course and into danger.
  • A well-balanced sail plan should require much less work from the pilot, allowing you to turn down the response or gain and save power.
  • Take over from the pilot for short spells at regular intervals, as this will let you feel the balance of the boat and make adjustments when necessary.
  • Remember you are still smarter than the machine!
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Single-handed ocean sailor Pip Hare has clocked up thousands of miles racing and cruising. Among her achievements are five solo transatlantics, including the OSTAR and two Mini Transat races. She also works full-time for the RNLI on sea safety and is Consulting Editor on Yachting World. See also her series on short-handed sailing.

Photo: Thierry Martinez

Brian Thompson is a vastly experienced sailor, who has raced solo and fully crewed round the world in monohulls and multihulls. His most recent record-breaking run was with Loïck Peyon aboard the trimaran Banque Populaire V, which sailed round the world in a breathtaking 43 days.

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