Touchless Sailing

May 17, 2004
Other Catalina 30 Tucson, AZ
First, I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving and I hope you have a merry Xmas!! After all we've gone through over the past 2 years we certainly deserve it.

How many of you can sail your boat closehauled or on a close reach WITHOUT touching the tiller or wheel? I'll bet some of you can.

How many of you can sail your boat with just a LIGHT TOUCH on the tiller or wheel? It took me a while to develop a light touch, Without ALL the sail trim controls for the main and jib in perfect adjustment for the point of sail and wind condition it's imposable. In my early sailing learning days I fought the tiller/wheel - unnecessarily. When I lived in So Ca a friend had a property in Baja that was mostly only accessible by plane and we flew there often. Occasionally he let me fly the plane but he told me I had a death grip on the yoke and to loosen up or I'd never be any good at flying. I just couldn't so a pilot I'll never be!!

On a boat it's all about balance. If the boat is out of balance it's inefficient. If you have to exert force to the tiller/wheel to hold a straight course - your boat is out of balance and you're forcing it to hold a straight course. Your rudder is not creating a fine blade that is cutting through the water - you're dragging it through the water. and eventually the rudder will stall and stop working. You'll create weather or lee helm. You also need a minimum amount of heel to balance the helm. You can maintain a constant heel angle in puffs merely by "feathering" the boat - sail the boat a bit closer to the wind. Feathering only works up to about 12 knots of wind. Above 12 knots you need to make use of the mainsheet or traveler - I prefer the traveler.

Things change when sailing on a close reach. Feathering doesn't work. In lifts & puffs it's important to maintain a constant heel angle and balanced helm. Ease the main or traveler and reset after the lift or puff.

Once you get the boat balanced all it takes is a light touch on the tiller/wheel to detect and react to changes in wind velocity & direction. If it gets so breezy that you can't keep the helm balanced without luffing the mainsail you need to take further action to de-power the main & jib - adjust the outhaul, move the fairleads, adjust the Cunningham or halyard etc.

Our pilot friend made flying look easy because he used ALL the plane's controls to his advantage and the plane flew straight and true with little effort on his part. The same can be true for a sailboat BUT initial set up is necessary. ALL the sail trim controls for the main & jib have to be in perfect sync from the jump. So, unless a sailor understand the function of ALL the sail trim controls for the main & jib this exercise will never work. He can't GUESS at the adjustments. I've taken the guess work out of the equation with the SAIL TRIM CHART. It tells you WHAT adjustment to make and the THE SAIL TRIM USERS GUIDE tells you WHY you're making a sail trim adjustment. The WHY of sail trim is everything - otherwise you're just guessing at the adjustment.
Oct 29, 2016
Hunter 41 DS Port Huron
Three of us went out one blustery day this past summer, my son on the helm and a buddy of mine sitting in the aft rail seat and I on the other side, we ran the main sheet back to the opposite side winch from the working jib winch. Sitting on the aft rail seat allows you to see the rudder position indicator, we were able to keep the boat on course with complete neutral helm by manipulating the mainsail sheet, out on the puff and in on the lulls. We maintained a speed of over 7.5 kts occasionally hitting high 8's with winds gusting over 20.
Was an interesting experiment, we were actually steering the boat with the mainsail postion.
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Aug 19, 2019
C&C 25 mk2 Seneca Lake
Good topic. Having taught myself how to sail, I take satisfaction when I have balanced the helm and steer with the lightest of touch or more often - let go the tiller completely. I especially enjoy being able to steer by trimming sails. Naturally, not all conditions are favorable for this type of sailing, but those times that it is.... well, it's just pure bliss.
Nov 3, 2018
Cape Dory, Albin 300ms Motorsailer, Vega Baltimore
A drill that I often used when coaching a collegiate sailing team was rudderless sailing. Weight distribution, sail trim, centerboard adjustment could all be altered to steer the boat. Kind of comical to watch the first few times, but they soon got it. Made a big difference in boat speed once they put the rudders back on.
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May 25, 2012
john alden caravelle 42 sturgeon bay, wis
"sailboats steer with their sails, the rudder is for trim" how i was trained, what i teach.

the alden has a full keel and a yawl rig. the split rig makes steering so easy. the mizzen is the same as the tail feathers on an airplane. the main mast is farther forward on the vessel making steering off the wind so easy.
IOR boats with the rig so far aft, awful to drive down wind.

every time you move the rudder you are slowing the boat, so don't move it. when cruising, most of the time we use the wheel lock, set the sails, adjust as needed. we don't sail with an autopilot, that's no fun. :cool:
with a bigger sea rolling, you still hold the wheel at the " sweetspot" and only move the rudder as you feel the waves. your still steering by the sails. and in a bigger blow the sails steady the vessel when nicely trimmed.
a leftover sea with little or no wind, oh, hand your driving.

any boat that is properly helmed feels so much better, a better ride.
.... and it's all about the ride for me. i can be below and tell who's driving just by how the boat is riding.

"sailboats steer by their sails, not by their rudder" my father, grand father, grand mother, great grand father, his dad and uncle, ...... they all sailed, they all knew how to helm a vessel.

on 1,000 ft ships if you oversteer you can get the entire hull flexing to the point that you'll start snaking through the water, not good.

proper/skilled helmsmanship is rare now a days from what i observe. few captains teach it to their crew.
May 25, 2012
john alden caravelle 42 sturgeon bay, wis
the wind is never steady. up down speed, back and forth direction, puffs and lulls, waves near shores, waves out at sea. are you cruising? are you racing? are you using the waves? are you just going in a straight line. current? helmsmanship of a sailing vessel is a skill. steering with the sails is a huge part of it.
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