Steering your yacht easily in strong winds is fundamentally all about an understanding of the steering effects of the sails and the way in which these contribute to the balance of the boat. At its simplest, power in the jib tends to turn the bow away from the wind, while powering up the mainsail tends to turn the bow towards the wind. (Need new sails? See our feature: Choosing The Right Sailcloth.)
A second effect is that when the boat heels it will also try to turn up on the wind. These simple facts – and the major effect they have on steering the boat – are all too frequently overlooked by those who are new to sailing.
Too much power in the mainsail, for instance, will mean that you will need to constantly fight the boat’s weather helm, its tendency to turn up into the wind. While a little weather helm is a good thing and helps to provide positive feel, any more than three or four degrees risks slowing the boat and if you’re fighting more than 10 degrees of helm it will be difficult for even a skilled sailor to maintain a constant course.
If you have excess weather helm you will need to reduce power in the rig. When sailing to windward a performance cruiser can depower the mainsail in a gust by simply letting the mainsheet traveller a couple of feet down the track. However, on some boats the layout of deck gear makes it an awkward task that’s performed under the sprayhood, where you don’t have a decent view of the sail, let alone the ability to spot approaching gusts (see Easier sail handling: 5 steps to a better deck layout).
Gusty days can prove a problem for many boats, but the solution is simple – you have to look out for gusts – they show as darker patches on the water. If the mainsheet is eased to de-power the sail just before the gust hits, then it should remain fairly easy to keep the boat on course. However, if it remains pinned in tight the boat will screw up into the wind and there may be little you can do about it.
The steering effect of the sails also means that in strong winds the mainsheet must be eased before bearing away from the wind – some won’t bear away at all in these conditions unless the sheet is eased,
It’s also important to maintain balance between the sails. Given a cruising boat with a roller headsail it’s very tempting to pack the mainsail away and just use the headsail, or vice-versa. With a strong wind well aft of the beam the headsail only may be the best approach, as the sail will tend to pull the boat along.
On the other hand, with the wind forward of the beam power from the mainsail is invariably needed to maintain speed and steerage, but if there’s no headsail there will be a huge amount of weather helm.
Easing the mainsheet in gusts is helpful to de-power for short periods of time, but allowing to sail to flog and flap will quickly degrade the fabric. On a sail that’s in good condition you won’t see any damage visually, but it will certainly reduce the lifespan of the sail – reefing in good time is therefore invariably a wise plan.
While it may appear that reefing the main first is the best option, big overlapping headsails have a large proportion of their sail well towards the back of the boat, meaning they can contribute significantly to weather helm until they are partially furled.
Sail shape is also important to consider in strong winds – a flat sail will contribute more drive and less heel than a full or deep sail shape.
Setting the boat up to be easy to reef is therefore an important element of making it easy to steer in challenging conditions (see our feature on choosing the right reefing system).
It’s important also to understand the way in which sail shape changes when the sail is hit by a gust. A racer’s carbon fibre laminate sail will retain almost exactly the same shape – however, an ageing or poor quality Dacron cloth on a cruising boat will stretch considerably with the extra power of the wind in the gust. This creates exactly the kind of full sail shape you want to avoid, significantly increasing weather helm, and allows very little of the extra power of the wind to be converted to extra forward speed. (For more on modern sail design, see: 10 great modern sailing innovations.)
Steering over waves
When sailing upwind the boat will be most comfortable if you luff marginally a moment before the bow meets a wave, then bear away down its back. This avoids slamming and keeps the boat moving. In beam seas the skill is mostly about identifying the smoothest path between the waves.
Downwind, as each wave passes under the transom of the boat, it will tend to swing the stern away from the wind. This makes the boat luff up into the wind and as it does so the apparent wind increases, requiring even more rudder angle to return to course. Eventually the water flow over the rudder stalls and the boat broaches.
However, a quick tweak of the helm to bear away momentarily before the stern lifts on a wave will cancel this tendency out, with the boat remaining on a straight course with minimal rolling, the boat will also be faster. But don’t turn so far downwind that there’s a risk of gybing. In any case, a preventer should always be rigged, ideally with the tail led aft to the cockpit so it can be released if a deliberate gybe is needed.
If you have the mainsail set it’s important to make sure there’s plenty of tension on the vang, otherwise the top of the sail will twist excessively, adding to rolling, while the boom and the lower part of the sail will in effect be oversheeted.
If you’re using the mainsail, poling out the headsail stabilises the boat considerably when running, reducing rolling and making it much easier to steer. The sail can be furled while the pole is rigged, making the process much easier. However, if the mainsail is not used there’s no need for the pole.