Jordan Spencer continues his tips for better steering of dinghies and skiffs.
Last month we talked steering and the dynamics that affect dinghy steering. This month, I thought I would throw out a few little steering techniques I have picked up over the years. Just remember, they are not independent of sail trim and body weight, but to be used in conjunction.
Starting with the basics, the first tip is to take your tiller extension behind you and place it on the deck. This technique is particularly effective on light wind days. Days when you aren’t hiking, or ooching the boat!
The purpose of this technique is to stop you over-steering the boat. By placing the extension behind you, you feel every movement of the helm. It also stops you sawing at the helm.
Once you start using this technique, you will notice that you use your body weight more for steering. For example if you need to come up a little, instead of steering you will lean your upper body in slightly, allowing the boat to slowly round into the wind. To stop the turn, lean back out slightly.
This sort of technique works well for slight pressure changes in light wind days or when trying to gain some height on a competitor without losing any speed. It normally occurs with a slight increase in mainsheet tension as you edge higher and a slight release as you edge lower. It is particularly effective if you are a tense type who translates a lot of energy through the helm.
In heavier winds, when you are hiking, you can create the same sensation by resting your steering hand on your chest. Of course you will steer more because of the increase in waves, but you will reduce the sawing associated with trimming main.
Another tip is to sail blindfolded. A common mistake a lot of skippers make is to stare at the telltales too much. If you want to sail fast, you have to be able to look at the waves, look at the boats to leeward, keep your eye on the boats on your weather hip, look up the course to see what the wind is doing, lean in to adjust vang or cunningham, trim sails. Each time you do any of these, and you haven’t developed your ‘feel’, you can sail off course.
By sailing blindfolded you learn to feel what is happening in the boat regardless of what you are doing. It also teaches you to stop over-steering the boat. To practice it, either work with a coach or your crew, if on a crewed boat, and they can act as your eyes and warn you as you head off course. You will be surprised how quickly you pick up your ‘feel’.
If you can practice this in each wind strength, you will soon be gaining boat lengths at a time on your competition. If you sail a single-hander and don’t have a coach, work with another boat and take it in turns to sail blindfolded.
The final tip for this month is to understand the impact of apparent wind when sailing close hauled. Too often I see skippers steer down as the jib luffs when they sail into a lull.
Think about what has happened. The wind has dropped, but your boat speed hasn’t, yet. So what does your apparent wind do? It moves forward, hence the luff on the front of the jib.
But what will happen to the apparent wind as the boat slows down due to the drop in the wind? It will move back to the exact same spot it was before the wind dropped and you were travelling at the higher speed.
So by steering down in response to the luff, all you have achieved is to move the boat lower on the course. If you are sailing against a skipper who understands this concept, you will find they regularly gain half a boat length to windward every time you sail into a lull.
So some pretty simple tips really, but add them together and there are some significant gains to be made, particularly in close-quarter racing.