Downwind steering is a great challenge in heavy air; Tony Bull has some helpful hints.
Sailing downwind in strong wind and waves is definitely the most challenging time for a helmsman. Incorrect technique or lack of concentration can have catastrophic consequences for the boat and is downright dangerous for the crew.
Those readers old enough to remember the halcyon days of IOR boats with their masthead rigs and pinched in sterns will all have tales of horrendous broaches and involuntary gybes. It was a welcome relief when Bruce Farr and other New Zealand designers came along with fractional rigs on lighter boats with wider sterns. Today's IRC racers are a delight to steer and a welcome relief to all of us sufferers of “IOR back”, incurred while wrestling those huge lumps of boats downwind.
Heavy air running is probably the aspect of steering that requires the most natural ability of the steerer. A lot of sailors can be taught to steer by looking at the telltails, waves, angle of heel, etc, and after a while become quite competent, but only a rare few instinctive beginners and longtime steerers can handle a real rocking and rolling downhill ride.
To see a top class helm in action on a screaming run is to see someone with a real feel for the boat. Their awareness and intuition set them apart, and a lot of their manoeuvres seem almost pre-emptive.
However, most helms are able to develop techniques which will enable them to become increasingly competent and confident in their abilities when confronted with a hard running leg.
Sailing around a course with boats of similar ilk, we become accustomed to concentrating on chipping away, making small gains here and there while trying to minimise our losses. Surfing conditions, however, are probably the one area where huge gains and losses can be made, as the ability to carry a spinnaker and surf waves can make a difference of minutes over several miles.
As we curve around the top mark and head off on the downwind leg, those pesky waves which have made life so uncomfortable beating up now become a boon. One of my favorite moments in sailing is the surge of adrenalin as the spinnaker cracks open and sets, and you feel the boat shoot forward. As you surf down the first wave you are away.
It is easy to lose focus with all the bustle of the crew as they set the spinnaker, drop headsails and tidy up, but important to remember a few basic principles that apply to all steering, and are especially important in heavy air.
No white knuckles
Don't grip the helm too tightly. You need to be firm, but don't white knuckle it. This only makes you jerk the boat around when you move the helm. You do need to move the helm a lot more than usual when catching waves but don't overdo it; as in all steering situations, sail in smooth controlled arcs.
Every now and then you may have to adjust quickly to a sudden wind shift or cross wave, but try and minimise it; a lot of steerers appear to randomly jerk the helm around and it really serves no purpose it just slows the boat down and makes life uncomfortable for the crew. One of the biggest grizzles from foredeck crew (and they do grizzle a lot!) is about being thrown off their feet as the boat is abruptly jerked out from underneath them.
Boat under the rig
When catching a wave, a lot of steerers tend to load up a bit too much and heel the boat over before they dive off down the wave; it is all about getting downwind so there is no point reaching along before bearing off. Come away as soon as you can and keep the yacht level at all times.
It is extremely important to keep the rig over the top of the boat as much as possible. If the rig rolls over to starboard then you should steer to starboard to bring the boat back under it. Keeping the boat level is not only faster but also keeps the boat tracking straight and far more comfortable to steer.
Maximise the gain
Similarly to entering the slide down a wave a bit late, I see a lot of helmsman come up out of the slide a bit too early. As the yacht surfs down a wave, the speed increases dramatically and the apparent wind drops accordingly. Sometimes after the initial surf, this wind decrease can seem like a lull and the helmsman steers up for some pressure while still gaining some benefit from the wave. Be aware of this as it can add up to several boat lengths by the bottom mark.
The waves ahead
Sailing downwind and surfing are great fun and one of the joys of sailing but, as mentioned earlier, in extreme conditions it can be a handful to keep control. These situations arise when the boats begin to go so fast that they start overtaking the waves ahead. As you steer down one wave and towards the back of the next wave ahead, it is imperative that you do not just spear straight into it. That can be catastrophic, ending in a nosedive and possible pitch pole.
As you reach the trough of the wave, steer up and across the back of it and then bear away as you break through the crest. This needs to occur on every wave like a mantra: “Down the face…across the back…down the face…across the back.”
Find the comfort lane
In order for you to be able to sail in these conditions, it is important to have as much control of the boat as you can. Make sure you sail in what I call the “comfort lane”, usually with the wind slightly across the boat, ie, coming in over your windward shoulder. Be very wary of running by the lee or loading up the boat too much by going high.
The set of the sails is very important in this scenario; keep the clew of the spinnaker strapped down and do not allow it to lift in the gust as this will unbalance the boat and start to induce the dreaded death rolls. This may involve moving your spinnaker sheeting position a long way forward or coming down hard on the spinnaker tweakers. On boats with symmetrical spinnakers I always like to have the spinnaker pole a bit forward with the clew strapped down. The pointer I always look for is to get the centre seam of the spinnaker in line with the forestay; this means that the boat should be evenly balanced under the spinnaker.
Sailing in this mode usually means not being too concerned about the position of the mark you are heading toward. It's okay just as long as you are sailing in the general direction. Get down near the mark and then sort out what to do for an early drop, allowing you to reach into the mark under headsail. A lot more ground will be lost in a wipeout or roundup if you try to steer directly to the mark. Just go where the spinnaker takes you.
Those tricky gybes
Gybing well in these conditions is the domain of the very best steerers. When gybing, it is paramount that you use the “S curve”; that is to curve down into the gybe and as soon as the boom passes over your head straighten up and turn the bow back downwind to lessen the force of the boom slamming across the boat. The track of the boat should look like a shallow S in the water.
Getting the boom across the boat is the hardest part of heavy air gybing, and we have all been in that situation where we are more than halfway through a gybe and running by the lee with the boom cocked skywards and things look ominous, as evreyone waits for the boom to come slamming across. One way to negate this is to work really hard on gybing when the boat is at top speed, planing down the face of a wave when there is much less apparent wind in the sails and it is much easier to gybe and flip the boom across as a result.
In extreme conditions safe sets, controlled gybes (if at all) and early drops are the order of the day. However, there are always times when things will go wrong and wipeouts are part of the sport. Have someone on the vang constantly to ease it at the first sign of the helm beginning to load up; this will save a lot of roundups and enable you to steer the boat back down. (The vang needs to be located in an easily accessible place.)
Once you know the wipeout is inevitable, do not fight it all the way. I see a lot of helmsmen with their wheel or tiller in full lock, tugging on it to return the boat to course, but the quickest way to recover is to get the water flowing over the rudder again, and this will not happen with the rudder stalled in full lock.
Bide your time and keep the helm central, let the boat come upright and slowly you will regain steerage. One of the main distractions is the noise of the sails flapping and ragging which puts everyone on edge. Mentally distance yourself from this and remain analytical.
Ready to race
Prior to every race it's important to set up by getting out early and sailing the course in miniature, and that especially the case in heavy wind. Putting the spinnaker up and getting in a few gybes before the start takes away all the apprehension and sorts out any problems with crew placement, gybe angles, etc. If you are going to get it wrong it is good to do so before the start and then talk it through so it is all hunky dory for the race.
Steering downwind in big winds is extremely testing and a lot can go wrong, but it is a hell of a buzz when you get it right.
Tony Bull's racing experience ranges from sportsboats to offshore racers, and he is currently tactician on the Rogers 46 Shogun. He runs the Quantum Sails loft in Geelong.