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Cruising: Helming Offshore

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Don’t confuse helming a boat with steering a boat. Put it this way—you steer a boat when towing a waterskier or maneuvering around a marina in close quarters. Steering involves deliberate inputs on the wheel (or tiller) in order to move the rudder, which in turn makes the boat change directions.

Helming is not steering. Rather, it is the art of making near-constant, small adjustments to the helm (and thus the rudder) in order to keep the boat going in a straight line. Read that sentence again and let it sink in.

Offshore, I imagine the rudder as another sail used to “trim” the boat and keep her in balance, rather than a device used to change the boat’s direction. The helm then is my input, my “sheet,” so to speak, through which I trim the rudder. Point of sail, wind strength and consistency, wave action and the boat itself will dictate how much adjustment the helm will need to properly trim the rudder to keep the boat on its heading.

Proper rudder trim absolutely depends on proper sail trim first. Just like you’re taught to trim the forward sail first—the flow affects the mainsail—you must trim the sails first before trimming the rudder.

At each watch change on our trips, i.e. at four-hour intervals, either the skipper or the mate will be on deck during the transition. Part of our task is taking the helm for at least 15 minutes to get a sense for how the boat’s set up. Is it properly balanced for the conditions? Should we adjust sail trim? Should we put in a reef or shake one out? If anything needs doing, we’ll do all that while both watches are on deck and get the boat properly balanced. While we do use autopilots on our passages, we encourage hand-steering as much as possible to create good habits.

Balancing a boat upwind is easy. Almost all well-designed boats will basically sail themselves if properly balanced. Close-hauled, when you’ve got the genoa trimmed in tight and the mainsail centerline, try locking the helm with about 3 to 5 degrees of weather helm dialed in and watch what happens. If your trim is correct, the boat will sail a straighter course left unattended than she would with an overly eager person sawing back and forth on the wheel or tiller. Any time you’re fighting the helm on an upwind leg, it probably means the boat wants to point higher. So let it.

(On a side note: our Swan 48, Isbjørn, was originally built with a trim tab on the trailing edge of the keel, a mini rudder of sorts controlled by a mini steering wheel set inside the main one. This is where you’d dial in that weather helm to take some of the pressure off if you found yourself having to work too hard. The trim tab feature was a relic of the IOR racing era, and most 48’s, ours included, have since had them glassed over and the additional steering cables, quadrant and components removed to save space).

Off the wind, balancing the boat becomes harder, and will require more input from the person at the wheel. In general, over-trimming the mainsail is the biggest culprit to an unmanageable helm. Ease that main! When in doubt, let it out, as the saying goes, or if you want to sound saltier, “Let her run to the knot!”

There is an entire series of articles to be written on sail trim alone. However, suffice it to say that it’s the most important part of helming. For further reading, check out North U’s fantastic book on the subject simply titled Trim. Once sail trim is dialed in, helming is easy. Your job is simply to keep the boat pointing in the direction it already wants to go now that the sails are set up properly.

Upwind, especially, this requires almost no effort at all, just a little added pressure in the puffs, and a little ease in the lulls. In big waves upwind, it helps to pinch up—ease rudder pressure—ever so slightly toward the top of the crest, then foot off—add rudder pressure—to gain speed down into the next trough.

Reaching and downwind, more input is required to keep the boat straight, mainly due to wave action. A seasoned offshore helmsman will be able to do this for the most part by feel and intuition. As the crest of a wave approaches, the stern will rise and the boat will start to heel, add some pressure on the helm to keep it from rounding up. As soon as you feel the pressure on the rudder ease with the passing of the wave, release the added pressure on the helm to stay in balance.

Keeping a Turk’s head or some other mark on the wheel to indicate when the rudder is on centerlines vastly helps the process or helming. With a knot, in particular, I can always keep one hand on it and know by feel exactly where my center rudder position is. Anytime the boat does get off course and I need to bring her back up toward the wind, I never have to ease rudder pressure beyond center; the boat’s natural tendency to round up (weather helm) will bring her back up for me.

At night and in big seas, the stakes are higher, but the theory remains the same. It all starts with sail trim. With a well-trimmed boat and a good helmsperson, there is rarely a need to move the steering wheel by more than one spoke to either side, except in the toughest conditions.

A happy side-effect to all this is that once you get the boat properly dialed in, it also makes the work on the autopilot that much easier. Your wind vane will suddenly work a charm if you have one, and if you use an electric autopilot, it’ll consume far fewer amps and last a heck of a lot longer. 

Andy Schell co-founded and runs 59 North Sailing with his wife, Mia Karlsson, offering offshore sailing adventures on their Swan 48 Isbjørn, Swan 59 Icebear and Farr 65 Falken. They and their son, Axel, live in Sweden and sail Spica in their home waters off Stockholm. Visit www.59-north.com for more information

April 2022

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