Tips from the Top from Dave Delenbaugh (US)

Steering Upwind



Steering a boat upwind has always been one of my favorite parts of sailing. One thing that’s important is to sit (or stand) in a good place. Position yourself as high off the water, as far forward, and as far outboard as possible. This will give you the best view of your sails, the waves in front of your boat, and the rest of the racecourse. Be sure you are comfortable, so you minimize distractions and maximize your attention span.

Once you’ve settled into a “batting stance,” you’re ready to start looking around and driving. To steer fast, you must assimilate information from a number of sources. Let’s discuss some of the guides you can use:

Jib telltales: This is where I look most often when steering upwind. Like a lot of helmsmen, I probably depend too much on this single source of information. But telltales are a very good indication of how close I am sailing to the wind. By watching the exact position of the windward telltales, I have a clear idea of whether I am slightly pinching, slightly footing, or sailing a normal upwind angle (see diagram). Remember that easing or trimming the jib will affect the telltales; also, if you’re watching only the lower telltales, you may be misled if they are breaking differently from those at the top part of the sail.

Angle of heel: A lot of good sailors steer by watching and feeling how much the boat heels. They find a heel angle that feels fast, then steer to maintain that angle (and the corresponding amount of weather helm). The easiest way to keep track of heel is by watching the angle that your forestay makes with the horizon. Using heel angle is actually another way to gauge how close you are sailing to the wind; the higher you head, the less you heel, and vice versa.

Instruments: If your boat has instruments, one of your priorities should be to post target speeds for each wind velocity within easy sight of the helmsperson or tactician. These are helpful for knowing whether you should steer the boat faster or slower or lower or higher) at any given time. Be sure to mount your boatspeed readout (and other important instruments) on the mast or in a location where it is easy to read while looking forward. That way you can simultaneously watch the instruments, telltales, waves and angle of heel without looking away.

Look outside the boat: It’s a good idea to make sure someone is always assigned to watch for puffs, lulls, waves and flat spots. Anticipating a change in conditions is key for steering. It lets you know whether you will have to head up for a puff or head off to punch through waves. On small boats, the lookout is usually the skipper; on larger boats it might be the tactician. Communication should include comments like, “There’s a puff coming in 20 seconds” or “Two steep waves in a boatlength.” Make sure these are loud enough for both the helmsperson and sail trimmers to hear. Other boats: Steering technique depends a good deal on how you’re moving relative to other boats. I like to have one crewmember (it could be the lookout) give me continuous readouts on our speed and height compared to our “neighbors.” This helps me know whether I should steer higher or lower. If we’re having a problem, I’ll ask for feedback on what the other boat is doing. Often a slight change in my steering technique will make a difference.

Practice and experience: Time in the boat is often the best way to learn how to steer fast. The first time we sailed Heart of America in Fremantle, for example, Buddy Melges tried to steer the waves as if we were in a Soling. Unfortunately, this didn’t work for a 12-Meter. It took us at least a month of sailing every day to figure out how to get through those seas quickly.

Steering Downwind

Steering downwind seems easy at first. After all, you just head for the mark and trim your sails. But it’s not so simple if you want to go fast. Finding a groove downwind is usually much harder than upwind. You don’t have the positive feel of weather helm, and it’s tough to settle in on a heading where the boat feels like it is effortlessly making its best VMG downwind. Fortunately, there are a few guides you can use.

Course to the mark: The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line, so you can often steer straight for the next mark, and trim your sails to match. This is especially true on a reach. I’ve used a point on shore, a compass heading, a light on shore, the stern light of a boat ahead, and even a star to help me steer a steady course. Just be careful not to get so fixed on one heading that you ignore changes in the wind and other variables.

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