Ask SAIL: Too Much Weather Helm

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Drop the traveller in gusts to maintain control while retaining good sail shape. Photo courtesy of Dufour

Drop the traveller in gusts to maintain control while retaining good sail shape. Photo courtesy of Dufour

Q: When the breeze builds above 16 or 17 knots my 31-footer gets hard to handle and has significant weather helm. The autopilot does not like breezes above 10 knots. Recently it was brought to my attention that the boat has an offset backstay and this could be contributing to the problem. The dealer says it’s just a matter of sail trim and that the backstay has no effect. Do I need sailing lessons or a new boat?

Mark Otis, Janesville, WI



The offset backstay will have little or no effect on your helm. It does skew the tip of the mast slightly in one direction, but if you are experiencing weather helm on both tacks then it’s not the backstay and is instead a matter of sail trim. As soon as a puff hits you should drop the main traveler. You want to keep the back end of the main working, so easing the traveler rather than the mainsheet is the way to go. If you don’t have a traveler, make sure that you have good vang tension so that the leech stays quite straight without a lot of twist.

Don’t forget that because of the wedge shape of a monohull, the boat tends to head up as soon as it heels. The more it heels, the more weather helm you have. I like to say that it’s the mainsail trimmer who is really steering the boat when sailing upwind. A good trimmer picks up and eases the traveler with each change in wind speed, making it hardly necessary for the helmsman to move the wheel at all

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