How to tack a reluctant ketch
If your ketch-rigged long-keeler is reluctant to go about, what can you do to help? David Harding sailed a Fisher Northeaster to find out
If your ketch-rigged long-keeler is unwilling to go about, what can you do to help matters?
For most cruising sailors most of the time, tacking is not a problem. You put the helm down, wait for the bow to pass through the wind, let the headsail(s) across and sheet in on the new tack.
There’s more to consider if you’re racing, but for cruising sailors that’s usually about it – unless you have a boat that doesn’t want to turn corners, and there are a few of those. Back in 2008, Rob Kemp and I went along to help the owner of a 14m (45ft) steel ketch that barely made it to within 20° of the wind when he put the helm down. Thankfully we found a solution (other than using the engine), and we also suggested some modifications that he could make to improve matters further.
This was a custom-built, cutter-headed ketch with several characteristics that conspired to make tacking difficult: the main mast was a long way forward, in-mast reefing was fitted to both main and mizzen and the mizzen boom had been shortened to eliminate the need for running backstays. It all combined to move the rig’s centre of effort (CE) further forward than it should have been.
Nearly 10 years earlier, I had been along with Mark Chisnell to help the owner of a Fisher 37 that was afflicted by similar problems and whose owner had once had to call out the lifeboat because of them.
Having had this experience with two long-keeled ketches, I was interested when Alan Ward got in touch about another. Alan sails North Star, a Fisher Northeaster, from Titchmarsh Marina at Walton-on-the-Naze. The Northeaster is based on the hull of the Fisher 30, which in turn used the same hull as the Freeward 30. While the Fisher and Freeward both have aft cockpits, however, the Northeaster has a large, central wheelhouse and 20cm (8in) more beam. She’s designed to be sailed from inside, which has obvious attractions but also presents challenges when it comes to sail-handling – as we discovered.
Having bought North Star in 2012, Alan gave her a complete strip-down and refurbishment, this year adding a new suit of sails by Jeckells.
He told me that she’s ‘always reliant on the iron topsail to tack’. Given the nature of the boat, and having distant memories of sailing a Fisher 30 from Lymington to Dartmouth many moons ago, I was not surprised. All the same, I couldn’t help wondering whether the problem might have been partially down to the old sails.
Sails that have stretched out of shape will result in more drag, less lift, more heel and less speed than sails that are working efficiently. This will lead to slower and more uncomfortable progress and, if your boat is on the cusp when it comes to tacking in certain conditions, it might make the critical difference.
Alan had only just fitted the new suit when I joined him at Titchmarsh to be greeted by 15-20 knots of (appropriately) north-easterly blowing straight up Hamford Water. Our mission was to get the boat tacking and, on a falling tide in a stretch of water that’s only a few hundred yards across at the best of times, tacking is exactly what we would have to do –
frequently! We kept the engine running but not in gear, just in case.
Start with the basics
If your boat doesn’t want to tack, look at the obvious things first. Make sure she’s moving at a reasonable pace, especially if there’s much in the way of wind and/or waves. The slower you’re going, the more likely the bow is to be knocked or blown off before it gets through the wind. Don’t let the headsail flog, because a flogging headsail slows you down and is a powerful force pulling the bow away. Allow plenty of room to tack in case it doesn’t work the first time and, once you reach head-to-wind, back the headsail to blow the bow round.
Don’t forget that the main mast on a ketch will tend to be further forward than on a sloop because the mizzen is taken into account in calculating the centre of effort (CE). So, if you’re not flying the mizzen or if it’s in any way compromised (in-mast reefing with a hollow leech, or inefficient sheeting, for example) you might encounter problems.
Being an experienced sailor, Alan already had most of these points covered. What we didn’t know was how the boat was going to handle in this sort of breeze with her new sails. They really made a difference and she would tack, but not every time. And Alan had his work cut out when I was taking the photos from another boat, because he was on his own.
The primary winches are mounted just outside the sliding doors to the wheelhouse each side, giving the single-hander a fighting chance. On the other hand, it’s a big overlapping headsail and it has to pass around a lot of rigging, including forward lowers and outboard caps. This means you can’t start sheeting in until the boat is on a close-hauled course on the new tack, by which time there’s a large area of flapping canvas that has to be winched in a long way.
Without forward lowers or a babystay, you can often start sheeting in as soon as the sail is round the mast and before there’s any load in it. In 20-plus knots of wind with a boat like the Fisher, you have a challenge on your hands, especially when you have to start preparing for the next tack almost as soon as you’ve sheeted home from the last one. It was hard enough with both of us aboard, because I was taking photos from the stern and then scurrying forward with a camera around my neck to wind the winch.
One problem in a situation like this is that you might soon be too worn out to sheet the headsail in properly. Many cruising sailors under-sheet as a matter of course anyway. The problem is exacerbated when the tracks are too short for the length of the foot and height of the clew, so you can never achieve a remotely efficient sail shape – an all-too-common problem, though thankfully not one we encountered here. In this situation the headsail isn’t driving properly when you’re on the wind, so the boat won’t be sailing as fast or pointing as high as she should be when you go into the tack. It’s easy for one problem to lead to another.
Degrees of ease
During a successful tack, it took North Star over 30 seconds from helm down to passing through the eye of the wind. I was concerned that, although she might (but didn’t always) tack in relatively flat water, we needed to make the process more positive for it to work in a seaway.
To this end I suggested that Alan put the nose down (bear away) a few degrees and ease the headsail slightly to build up a head of steam before going into the tack. With the larger cutter in 2008, we had also eased a couple of feet of the yankee’s sheet as the helm was put down. This reduced the power in the sail – all of which was well forward of the boat’s centre of lateral resistance (CLR) – making the boat more inclined to turn into the wind.
The danger with easing the genoa on North Star was that it would start flogging unless precisely the right amount was eased, and it’s such a big sail that any flogging would kill the tack. With Alan being on his own he had his hands full as it was: we needed a method that didn’t rely on such precision.
A few tacks with the ‘ease-and-bear-away first’ method suggested it was reasonably reliable in these conditions, but we weren’t finished yet: I wanted to harness the power of the mizzen.
Let the tail wag the dog
Despite being relatively small, the mizzen has a significant effect on a boat’s balance because it’s so far aft. To exert any meaningful effect on a close-hauled course, however, it usually has to be sheeted significantly closer to the centreline than the sheeting arrangement will allow. Like most ketches, North Star had a central strong-point for the sheet so the boom inevitably dropped some way to leeward.
I rigged up a makeshift ‘traveller’ using a few lengths of line that allowed the boom to be brought pretty well on to or even slightly above the centreline. Even these few inches got the leech working appreciably harder and they made all the difference. As Alan put the helm down and let off the old jib sheet, I hauled the mizzen’s boom up to weather and the boat positively spun through the wind (well, by Fisher standards anyway).
To demonstrate the mizzen’s influence in a situation where other factors would have no bearing, we rolled away the headsail, dropped the main and motored into the wind, keeping it just off the starboard bow with the wheel unattended. When the mizzen was left to flap, our course remained constant. When we pulled the boom over to starboard, however, the boat came into and then through the wind. We repeated the test starting with the wind on the port bow and again she pulled through it, demonstrating beyond doubt that the mizzen plays a critical role on a ketch.
In practical terms, the challenge would be to rig up a system whereby Alan could adjust the mizzen from the helm station. That might be a challenge and he accepts that, in practice, he will probably reach for the engine key if there’s any question of not completing an important tack. Nonetheless, it’s pleasanter and more rewarding to use the sails when you can – and you never know when you might have no choice.
One problem in a situation like this is that you might soon be too worn out to sheet the headsail in properly
The primary winches are mounted just outside the sliding doors to the wheelhouse each side