The search for a steady hand on the helm

Steer­ing well is more art than sci­ence

SAIL - - January 2019 Vol 50, Issue 1 -

Is it re­ally pos­si­ble to teach some­one how to steer a sail­boat? Lord knows I’ve tried, but I’m still not sure I know the an­swer to this ques­tion.

Yes, it is pos­si­ble to con­vey cer­tain ba­sic con­cepts. You can, for ex­am­ple, ex­plain how a tiller works: “Just push it in the di­rec­tion you don’t want to go!” (Though some, of course, will never get past this sim­ple coun­ter­in­tu­itive com­mand­ment.) You can also ex­plain how a boat, un­like a car, is steered from its back end rather than its front. Or you can hold forth on balanc­ing sails against a rud­der, on lee and weather helm and other re­lated top­ics. In the end, though, it al­ways seems your pupils will in­stinc­tively know what to do, or they won’t.

The first time I ever tried to tu­tor some­one on steer­ing was un­der some­thing like com­bat con­di­tions. I was the only crew serv­ing un­der an ex-Navy petty of­fi­cer, en route from Spain to Madeira aboard his 42ft cut­ter. I soon found out why he had in­stalled two au­topi­lots on the boat. Af­ter they both failed, and we were re­duced to hand-steer­ing, it turned out my skip­per had no idea what to do with the wheel. Given a course to steer he could not stay within 45 de­grees of it, a sit­u­a­tion only ag­gra­vated by the fact that his per­cep­tion of the wind di­rec­tion was al­ways off by 180 de­grees, be­cause the ar­row on his ana­log wind dis­play was stuck on back­wards.

The end of our pas­sage was sailed to wind­ward into the teeth of a small gale. In theory a close­hauled course should be eas­i­est to steer, but our boat, when my skip­per’s hand was on the wheel, was hope­lessly hob­bled by the steep seas and could not move for­ward. I tried hard to ex­plain the con­cept of sculling waves—head­ing up slightly as you go up a wave and bear­ing away as you go down it—but it was no use. I ended up hav­ing to steer my­self non­stop for 18 hours, by the end of which I wasn’t do­ing much bet­ter.

Later, when I was skip­per­ing boats off­shore my­self with pay-to-play crew, I usu­ally left the au­topi­lot off for a while to see who could steer and who couldn’t. I was al­ways amazed at how cer­tain peo­ple with lit­tle or no ex­pe­ri­ence could steer very well, and how other ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple some­times couldn’t help leav­ing very jagged wakes be­hind them.

The only con­clu­sion I reached was that the se­cret of steer­ing well can best be summed up in a sim­ple phrase: feel the boat. De­scrib­ing how to do that is an­other mat­ter, though. It’s like teach­ing Luke Sky­walker how to use the Force. The best you can do is tease your pupils with in­scrutable chores and oddly phrased apho­risms and hope they even­tu­ally stop think­ing about what they’re do­ing and just do it.

For that pre­cisely is the prob­lem. You can’t steer well if you’re think­ing about it. I learned this while crew­ing on a 48ft sloop in the New­portBer­muda Race one sum­mer. It was a com­pet­i­tive boat that had two se­ri­ous pro­fes­sion­als on­board, one as­signed to each watch, to act as ruth­less steer­ing Nazis 24/7. They were lib­eral about let­ting peo­ple have a try at the helm, but ab­so­lutely heart­less about kick­ing peo­ple off. No mat­ter how lit­tle time you’d spent on the wheel, you’d be im­me­di­ately re­placed if boat­speed fell off tar­get for more than a few min­utes.

Ben, the steer­ing Nazi on my watch, was per­fectly po­lite, but his com­mands were picayune. “Up two de­grees, please,” he’d mut­ter. Or: “Could you pos­si­bly head down one de­gree?” As if these minis­cule course changes could be ef­fected by just press­ing but­tons. What hap­pens in­stead, of course, is that you think about what has just been said to you and what you have to do to com­ply. Next thing you know you’re off course by 10 de­grees and feel a per­fect fool.

Still, I some­times some­how man­aged to steer well enough for long enough that Ben, at least for a lit­tle while, would start notic­ing things other than me. Then and only then could I get all the way into the zone and steer a per­fectly clean course. For this, in the end, is the cru­elest fact of learn­ing to steer a sail­boat well: you can only do your best when no one is watch­ing. s

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