How to steer a dinghy without losing boat speed. By Jordan Spencer.
One of the joys of dinghy sailing is that you experience directly all the dynamics that affect a boat. This is particularly noticeable when steering.
Ask most people how they steer a boat and it’s likely they will answer "with the rudder". Ask the same question of a top flight dinghy skipper or crew and they will answer "it all depends on wind strength, foil size and the characteristics of the boat you are sailing".
The three main ways to steer a dinghy are body weight, sail trim and the rudder. Lets talk about the impact of each.
Any dinghy helmsman who has had any coaching will have been instructed to hold the tiller directly in front of their chest/chin and use their wrist to steer, or to place the tiller on the deck behind them. The purpose of these techniques is to stop you oversteering.
Why? Because every time you turn the rudder, you are creating drag and drag slows your boat down. So, we try to use the rudder as little as possible.
Sail trim and body weight, are the preferred methods for steering a dinghy and usually are the primary method of steering. If you don’t believe me, think of a laser at a top mark. Say you want to turn downwind in 15-20 knots. You pull on the rudder to bear away, but you don’t ease main or vang and you still have a little leeward heel in the boat, what’s going to happen?
Well nothing! You are going to continue going in the same direction you were prior to heaving on the rudder. Only you will be going slower because of the huge amount of drag you have created by turning the rudder. This is because your sail and the heel are exerting a force which is trying to turn the boat into the wind and they are overpowering the rudder.
Heeling a boat to leeward (leeward gunwale closer to the water than the windward) will turn the boat into the wind. Heeling it to windward will turn it away from the wind.
With your sails, it’s a little more complicated. You need to imagine the centreboard/daggerboard as a pivot point. Sheet any sails in front of this point in hard and you will cause the boat to bear away. Sheet any sails in hard behind this pivot point and the boat will round into the wind. Therefore, if you ease jib and keep your main sheeted, the boat will round up, and conversely, a tight jib and an eased main means the boat should bear away.
Of course there are always exceptions. On some types of boats you need to pop jib so the bow can pop up and the boat can spin quicker into a bear away.
Or there are occasional times it may be better to use a lot of rudder. As an example, in lumpy choppy conditions, if you are good enough, you can steer for the low point of each wave and the increased drag is more than compensated by the reduced slamming. Knowing what works comes from understanding the characteristics of your boat.
The real benefit is to learn to use body weight, sail trim and rudder together to drive the boat faster, keep it more stable and your speed more consistent.
For example, a little windward heel as you turn in to the gybe, means you need less rudder, so less drag, a smoother turn and more speed. At the bottom mark, some leeward heel, trim on mainsheet first followed by jib sheet will spin the boat up quicker and inside your competitors. And as you pull on the last bit of jib sheet, you pull the boat flat with your body weight and you will accelerate quicker as well.
Its not just major direction changes that you can use these refinements to gain an advantage, you can refine it down to the smallest detail. A little bit of leeward heel to steer up a wave. Anticipate a gust so you don’t have to ease as much mainsheet and so you can hold your height, or pop a fraction of jib in the big gusts for the same benefit.
There are many ways to steer better. The critical point is to understand the processes and then start applying them to your boat. Once you stop using the rudder to steer, you will start going faster.