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

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

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.

Our mis­sion

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

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