Listen to your helm for boat balance

Published on December 18th, 2018

by Skip Dieball, Sailing World
When I’m running clinics, and even at regattas, I often see teams that are struggling with the amount of helm they’re carrying. It even happens occasionally on my boat. With excessive helm, the driver is working against the boat’s natural course. Helm on boats varies greatly, but one thing is consistent — the more you limit excessive helm or rudder drag, the faster you go, so you really need to listen to what the helm is telling you.

What contributes to excessive helm? There are three main factors:

1. Sail trim
2. Boat balance/heel
3. Centerboard position

For most boats, we can zero in on each factor and use reference points to reduce the amount of helm, and thus go faster in a straight line (and arguably higher with added hydrodynamic lift).

Sail Trim
Generally speaking, if you understand the concept of how the sails affect the way the boat goes through the water, you are already ahead of the game. For many, we do understand, but we don’t always use the sails to help us listen to the helm.

At the basic level, the jib pulls the bow down away from the wind and the mainsail, when trimmed, lifts the bow up into the wind. On a perfectly balanced boat, you can feel any change in helm by just a click or two of trim on either the main or jib.

On a boat that is “mainsail driven,” such as Interlakes, Lightnings or Etchells, we need to focus more on the mainsail, as it contributes most to the helm. Constant adjustment directly affects the helm of the boat. On smaller boats, some remove the mainsheet cleats, forcing themselves to hold onto the mainsheet, constantly adjusting the main as it relates to the amount of helm. I have a mainsheet clean and always will—just my style. But, I always set the cleat is set low enough that I have to work hard to place the mainsheet in the cleat, and conversely it is easy to uncleat. – Full report

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