Spun Yarn: A Balanced Helm - A Heavy Weather Necessity


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We've written a lot on the subject of heavy weather sailing. But more can be said about the importance of a balanced helm on those knarly days. ("Knarly" Definition: A Southern California surfing term, meaning conditions not suitable for your Aunt Tillie.)

A balanced helm is ideal under all conditions, as it means the rudder is mostly aligned with the centerline and doesn't provide extra drag. The usual test for a balanced helm is to sail on a reach, then let go of the tiller and see what happens. If the boat comes slowly to windward, that's a mild weather helm, and that's okay. But if it turns hard upwind, or downwind at all (lee helm), the rig needs adjusting. (A slow, gentle turn upwind is okay.)

Balancing the helm is not hard to do. To correct for weather helm the mast should be raked slightly forward. If the boat has lee helm, then the mast should be raked a bit aft. Do it by making small adjustments to the forestay. Move the forestay connection up or down one adjuster hole at a time, checking the helm balance each time.

But once you have a balanced helm in mild weather, you may find yourself fighting strong weather helm in windy, gusty conditions. That's because when the boat heels the force vector off the sail is trying to rotate the bow into the wind. So, the way to avoid this is to sail the boat as flat as possible. (I try to maintain a slight heel, no more than 5 degrees.) Why sail level, or close to it? Because a sudden puff that heels the boat excessively can cause an uncontrolled "round up." If the boat rounds up through the eye of the wind, it can flop onto the opposite tack, causing the jib to backwind. This can result in a capsize if the jib sheet isn't released instantly. (All this stuff can be disconcerting to a keelboat sailor, where sailing heeled way over is perfectly normal. Hey, welcome to the exciting world of dinghy sailing.)

Here are some ways to keep the boat flat:

• Hike out hard in the puffs. (Use the hiking straps, they're not there just to look sporty.)
• Rake the centerboard aft a few inches. This helps balance the helm in heavy weather.
• Tighten the main outhaul and downhaul, flattening the sail.
• Tighten the jib halyard just enough to take out the wrinkles in the luff. (Some wrinkles are desirable in mild conditions.)
• Normally, sit in the front of the boat (under all points of sail). This means always using the hiking stick. The crew should be forward of the jib cleat, the skipper just aft of the cleat. But in heavy weather, it helps to shift your weight aft a few inches.
• In the puffs, try pinching up just a touch. This unloads the boat somewhat.
• If you get the least bit nervous, ease the mainsheet enough to unload the boat. When it's blowing hard, I don't cleat the mainsheet. Instead I just hold it, ready to slacken instantly. Admittedly this is kind of hard on my ancient body.
• Ease the vang somewhat. This allows some twist in the upper part of the mainsail. This will spill some air up high, reducing heeling.

Now go out there and defy the gods of Wind!
I usually set the boat up for nuetral helm close hauled up wind in 5ish knots of wind and flat water. Crew weight in the boat and its position really does effect this quite a bit. Also, too deep of a jib (cut wrong or blown out) will really effect the helm and point. I use either Quantum sails or Scott sails to get the shape I want.

As far as heeling past 5 degrees upwind (short of a good roll tack), I've noticed the boat slows and increases its slip sideways as the boat just loads up digging a bigger hole in the water. The rudder starts to get "short" in the water as well as the working angle of the centerboard becoming less efficient. Flat and pinched in breeze on is best You can also vang sheet the main to flatten it so you maintain a flat sail as you ease the mainsheet in the big puffs. My 2 cents.

Fair winds and following seas.
new guy

I just picked up a Capri O-14 last sunday...the mast looks like it doesn't have any through holes in the bottom, just a cam like piece that looks like it just sits on top of a pin in the mast step. Any One? Hi, I'm the new guy Joseph.