Opinion: Steering Well is More Art than Science

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There’s an element of mystery to different people’s abilities to steer a sailboat

There’s an element of mystery to different people’s abilities to steer a sailboat

Is it really possible to teach someone how to steer a sailboat? Lord knows I’ve tried, but I’m still not sure I know the answer to this question.

Yes, it is possible to convey certain basic concepts. You can, for example, explain how a tiller works: “Just push it in the direction you don’t want to go!” (Though some, of course, will never get past this simple counterintuitive commandment.) You can also explain how a boat, unlike a car, is steered from its back end rather than its front. Or you can hold forth on balancing sails against a rudder, on lee and weather helm and other related topics. In the end, though, it always seems your pupils will instinctively know what to do, or they won’t.

The first time I ever tried to tutor someone on steering was under something like combat conditions. I was the only crew serving under an ex-Navy petty officer, en route from Spain to Madeira aboard his 42ft cutter. I soon found out why he had installed two autopilots on the boat. After they both failed, and we were reduced to hand-steering, it turned out my skipper had no idea what to do with the wheel. Given a course to steer he could not stay within 45 degrees of it, a situation only aggravated by the fact that his perception of the wind direction was always off by 180 degrees because the arrow on his analog wind display was stuck on backward.

The end of our passage was sailed to windward into the teeth of a small gale. In theory, a  closehauled course should be easiest to steer, but our boat, when my skipper’s hand was on the wheel, was hopelessly hobbled by the steep seas and could not move forward. I tried hard to explain the concept of sculling waves—heading up slightly as you go up a wave and bearing away as you go down it—but it was no use. I ended up having to steer myself nonstop for 18 hours, by the end of which I wasn’t doing much better.

Later, when I was skippering boats offshore myself with a pay-to-play crew, I usually left the autopilot off for a while to see who could steer and who couldn’t. I was always amazed at how certain people with little or no experience could steer very well, and how other experienced people sometimes couldn’t help leaving very jagged wakes behind them.

The only conclusion I reached was that the secret of steering well can best be summed up in a simple phrase: feel the boat. Describing how to do that is another matter, though. It’s like teaching Luke Skywalker how to use the Force. The best you can do is tease your pupils with inscrutable chores and oddly phrased aphorisms and hope they eventually stop thinking about what they’re doing and just do it.

For that precisely is the problem. You can’t steer well if you’re thinking about it. I learned this while crewing on a 48ft sloop in the Newport-Bermuda Race one summer. It was a competitive boat that had two serious professionals onboard, one assigned to each watch, to act as ruthless steering Nazis 24/7. They were liberal about letting people have a try at the helm but absolutely heartless about kicking people off. No matter how little time you’d spent on the wheel, you’d be immediately replaced if boatspeed fell off target for more than a few minutes.

Ben, the steering Nazi on my watch, was perfectly polite, but his commands were picayune. “Up two degrees, please,” he’d mutter. Or: “Could you possibly head down one degree?” As if these minuscule course changes could be affected by just pressing buttons. What happens instead, of course, is that you think about what has just been said to you and what you have to do to comply. Next thing you know you’re off course by 10 degrees and feel a perfect fool.

Still, I sometimes somehow managed to steer well enough for long enough that Ben, at least for a little while, would start noticing things other than me. Then and only then could I get all the way into the zone and steer a perfectly clean course. For this, in the end, is the cruelest fact of learning to steer a sailboat well: you can only do your best when no one is watching. 

Photo Courtesy of Charles J Doane

January 2019

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