How to steer a sailboat

Posted by Director of Education on August 28, 2014 under About NauticEd, Bareboat Charter, Crew, Skipper | Comments are off for this article

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Sailing the helm should be natural – like riding a bike


Riding and sailing

What do these have in common?

This past summer I invested some serious time into having my daughter learn to ride a bike and it paid off on the last day of summer break.

It’s very sailing related so read on – no really!

Here’s what I did. I took the pedals and training wheels off and lowered the seat so that both tippy toes could touch the ground. Then on a hard surface, with a very slight incline I had her sit on the seat and push the bike along with her toes. At first when the bike tipped to one side she would put her full foot down to catch balance. After about 10 different sessions I noticed that as the bike was tipping she would automatically compensate and steer the bike to account for the tipping. I did not teach her this – it was just automatic and becoming natural. She was keeping her feet up and the bike was gliding. At about session 15 she was doing this to the point where I thought she was ready. I took her to a grassy area with a slightly bigger incline – just to account for the friction of the grass. I put on the pedals and pushed her off and AWAY SHE WENT.

The key ingredient here is automatic compensation. She did not even know she was doing it. She would automatically turn the wheel to follow the direction of her imbalance.

Helming a sailboat is exactly the same. At first you are all over the place trying to keep a straight line but as with my daughter, the more time you spend at the helm the more automatic it is going to become. This of course means more helm time more helm time and more helm time.

If you need more helm time but don’t own a boat read this post about gaining experience on a sailboat.

I was speaking to my friend Robert Barlow at Texas Sailing Academy in Austin Texas yesterday. Robert is an excellent sailing instructor.  He described a similar thing when he teaches. We were both talking about how students get distracted by the wind meter and the wind vane and the sails and waves and boats and… which keeps getting them off course. All we want the student to learn at first is to feel the boat and react accordingly to keep the boat sailing in a  straight line – towards a distance house or tree on land as a reference. What Robert does is to blind fold the student so that they have to rely on their senses.

Some of the senses are:

  • Boat heeling more or less
  • Hearing the wind direction over your ears
  • Hearing the flapping of sails
  • Feeling pressure on the helm

All of these give an indication that something is happening requiring an adjustment.

BUT the big trick is to get to a point where the information by passes your brain and goes directly to your hand. Not really – your brain still does the processing, but assigns less and less processing power to the required action – like the riding the bike scenario. How much processing power does your brain assign to needing to turn the wheel to stay balanced. If it required any of the main Ram to stop and think – “Oh I am falling – now which way should I turn the wheel to make me stay up – um let me see if I turn to the right the bike will do ummm that or left it will do this – ok left it is”. No that doesn’t happen.

Back to sailing. We need to get to a point where if the boat say heels due to a wind gust then the HAND automatically adjusts the helm to compensate the boat wanting to turn upwind. You hand just goes into automatic mode and prevents that by turning the boat down wind WITH OUT THINKING. Your senses hear the sail flapping – your HAND turns the boat down wind. Your ears sense more wind in your upwind ear, your HAND turns the boat upwind.

It is like your hand is doing the processing not your brain. This point is well proven possible by the bike scenario.

A few months back I was out riding my mountain bike. I was angling towards a tiny rock ledge no more than 3 inches high. If the front wheel takes on that ledge, the ledge will win. It’s simple physics a force to the left at the bottom of the bike near the ground opposing my momentum centered 4 feet off the ground will create a tipping moment. One that quickly ends in the middle of a cactus in Texas. None of these thoughts went consciously through my brain as my eyes delivered the information. My right leg mashed the pedal down, both arms pulled and my back muscles tensed to shift my weight back – all automatically and in the correct timing to lift the tire up over the ledge. Having completed that maneuver the arms swung to miss a rock and so on. At the next water break I stopped and thought about that and said WOW – that brain process is cool. Any neuroscientist sailors care to pop me an email to explain this? – I’ll post it as a comment here. How does the brain assign the processing power initially at a conscious level then pass it down to the subconscious. Even years later, the subconscious remains – ridden a bike lately? It’s still easy.

Back to sailing. And this is a note to instructors and to captains teaching crew members to helm. Be conscious of the subconscious.Try to help your student move that reactionary process to the subconscious so that the “hand” is doing the processing not the brain. If you are thinking about it – you just need more helm time.

I always say:



Grant Headifen
Director of Education

Congrats Alexandra on your first ride without the training wheels.

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Learning to Sail with an Electronic Wind Meter

Posted by Grant Headifen on February 16, 2011 under Bareboat Charter, Coastal Navigation, Crew, Skipper | Be the First to Comment

Even if you don’t have one on your sailboat charter – one day you’ll be helming someone else’s boat with an Electronic Wind Meter and you certainly want the owner to be confident at what you are doing. There’s a couple of secrets so read on.

He’s what happened – I took out two guys who were experts at racing at their local yacht club. The trouble for them was they both kept on having to look around the bimini on our 373 Beneteau to get a peak at the wind vane at the top of the mast. I tried to tell them to use the electronic wind meter 18 inches from their face but they’d have nothing of it. It wasn’t pure enough. Then day turned to evening and evening to night. IE no wind vane watching at night … and they now had sore necks.

Wind meters are cool, and given the right calibration they’re pretty accurate. The resolution is greater than eyeballing the wind vane and thus you can be more consistent with your angle to the wind. I’m necessarily saying they are better than wind vanes but I’m definitely saying that being both vane and meter skilled adds to your sailing abilities.

Here’s a typical Wind Meter – it shows that the wind is 42 degrees to starboard. You’ll see a red dot at the bottom. Next to the red dot are the words TRUE and APP (apparent). The dot represents which wind direction the meter is measuring. In this case Apparent. For a discussion on True vs Apparent Wind see the NauticEd Skipper Course. The green and red don’t mean any thing other than green is the starboard side of the boat and red is port.

Typical Wind Meter

Typical Wind Meter

LEARNING TO SAIL WITH AN ELECTRONIC WIND METER – SECRET NUMBER (1): This goes to working with wind vanes as well. When making heading adjustments, keep your head out of the boat. This means DON”T watch the meter or vane as you turn the boat. You’re guaranteed to over shoot your desired new heading. Also it’s dangerous traffic wise. Watching the meter or vane means you’re not looking out for traffic during a turn. IE When driving a car and turning at an intersection you never would look at the speedometer. It’s too dangerous and besides what’s the point, you can best judge a safe speed in the intersection turn by the rate things are going past your car. Same same – watch things outside the boat when you turn.

Imagine this – make a 90 degree turn in your car using a compass and stay exactly in the center of the lanes. Well maybe Al Pacino (acting as a blind guy) in the oscar winning movie Scent of a Woman could do it but me? Never in 100,000 trys. Again – same same why would anyone make a 10 degree adjustment to their heading looking at the wind vane or wind meter. You can’t stay in the center of the lane (new desired heading).

I’ll provide an example scenario: Assume you’re sailing along on 40 degrees apparent (your wind meter and vane point 40 degrees off from the front of the boat). You notice the wind direction changes to give you a 10 degree lift (a lift means the wind direction has changed so that the wind meter or vane points more towards the aft than before – in this case now 50 degrees). You want to turn upwind to bring the wind back to 40 degrees. Here’s how to make the turn: Pick out something on the horizon dead ahead then pick out something 10 degrees upwind from that point. Turn the boat to the point with out looking at the wind meter or vane. Once you are now sailing at the new point, check how you’re doing against that 40 degrees and make another adjustment in the same manner.

This was so basic it’s not too much of a secret, but you’d be surprised … one time teaching in my sailing school I actually had to cover up the wind meter as I could not get my student to stop watching the meter and to watch the horizon instead. As soon as she started watching the horizon her whole sailing world changed. She could hold a course, tack, gybe make adjustments with out over shooting – everything. Her whole problem was that one little point.

Here’s another scenario  similar to a wind meter/vane turning problem – your navigator says to come onto a new heading of 160 degrees. Don’t watch the compass during the turn. First determine how many degrees the turn is, pick out a point on land or even a cloud to turn to.  Make your turn watching out side the boat – then check your heading.

LEARNING TO SAIL WITH AN ELECTRONIC WIND METER – SECRET NUMBER (2): Don’t teach new people at the helm anything about the wind meter or the wind vanes. It’s too confusing – First, just have them focus on sterring to points on the horizon and making turns to new points on the horizon that you pick out for them.

LEARNING TO SAIL WITH AN ELECTRONIC WIND METER – SECRET NUMBER (3): Don’t stare at the wind meter and try to figure out which way you should turn the helm to make the meter move in any one particular direction. That’s too hard because it’s backwards from what you’d think and guaranteed you’ll get it wrong when some one embarassing is watching. And as above, make sure when you’re explaining the wind meter to a new helmsperson that you disallow them from similarly using it to figure out which direction to turn.

Instead, the wind meter should be used to determine how many degrees off the desirable wind angle you are and if the turn should be towards the wind or away from the wind. That’s all. Example – lets say we want to be flying 30 degrees APP off the wind. Using the wind meter above, we’re 12 degrees away from 30 and we are heading too far down wind. So lets pick out a point on land or a cloud that is 12 degrees upwind (the what? Port or Starboard) from our current heading.

The NauticEd Skipper Course is chocked full of tips like this one.  Get started today and register for the NauticEd Skipper Sailing Course

Have you played with our FREE Sailing simulator, NED? We use interactive tools like this to quickly and effectively teach sailing skills.

NED the Sailing Instructor

NED the Sailing Instructor

Furling a head sail in high winds

Posted by Grant Headifen on February 5, 2011 under Bareboat Charter, Crew, Skipper | 2 Comments to Read

Sailing last weekend reminded me of this tip so here it is.

Often times when using a roller furler head sail you’ll find that if you’re furling it in really high winds, there is not enough furling line in the spool. And this has the potential problem of damage if you’re not watching what you are doing.

Here’s the scenario: You’re trying to stop the sail from flogging whilst furling so you’re holding the sheet on the winch and releasing slowly. The high wind puts a lot of tension on the sheet and thus you require a lot of tension on the furling line. The sail then furls up very tightly. This means that it takes more turns to furl to sail. Turns that you don’t have stored in the furling drum.

Now you’re cranking and cranking and all of a sudden it becomes very hard to pull in more furling line but the head sail is still a little bit out and needs a couple of more wraps. If an inexperienced crew member is doing this then, with the power of a winch, something is going to break. Ouch!

This happened to us last weekend sailing in a 30 knot blow in Tasman Bay, New Zealand on a 42 foot PDQ Catamaran. Fortunately I was doing the furling cranking and determined the problem instantly.  Not that I’m the world’s greatest expert, but I’ve just seen this plenty of times before.

Oh oh - no more line left in the furling drum

Oh oh - no more line left in the furling drum

I’ve got two solutions for this issue – of course once you reach shelter you can unfurl the sail and furl in back in with out all the back tension and problem is solved right? Well sort of. Not really because you might not be so lucky with the next crew member. So that’s not counted as a solution.

Here’s number one. Get some more wraps into the furler so you don’t have to deal with this again but how do you do that? I can remember the first time taking the end of the furler line, lying down on the deck with my head cocked all skew and feeding the line in and around the drum with great difficulty and frustration.

No the solution is much simpler.

(1) Pull out the head sail sheets forward and out from the fairleads, coil the sheets  and bring them forward.

(2) Wind the sheets around the furled sail  until the sail is fully wrapped then three more times for good measure.

(3) Pat yourself on the back that you read this blog.

(4) Uncoil and feed the sheets back through the fairleads – you’re done.

Wrap the headsail sheets around the furled sail

Wrap the headsail sheets around the furled sail

BTW – notice the awesome bay in the background.

A quick note however, some drums are really small and you might find that there is not enough room for those extra wraps. In that case you might consider a smaller diameter furling line.

What a small fine point of learning to sail this tip is. And now you’re understanding that it’s impossible to train your crew members on all the things like this on a sailboat but it can be a real problem and ultimately who pays for something on your boat when a crew member breaks something. You do!

So here’s the second part of the tip – A) Send this blog onto your crew members and also send to them your personal NauticEd Promocode. They’ll get $15 off their first NauticEd sailing course and you’ll get friend kudos and $10 credit towards your next NauticEd sailing for beginners Course. Cool eh!

Don’t know about the personal NauticEd Promocode? See here.