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There are a number of guidelines to help you steer effectively upwind. There is also information you can glean from the feel of the helm that will help you find the correct trim and apparent wind angle for the conditions.
Depending on conditions, a good driver will consider some or all of the following when steering upwind:
- Jib Telltales (Are the jib telltales flowing, luffing, or stalled?)
- Balance of the Helm (Is the helm balanced, with just a slight weather helm, or are you wrestling to hold the boat on course?)
- Angle of Heel (Is the boat sailing at a comfortable angle of heel? Is it overpowered and heeled too much, or underpowered and too upright?)
- Boat Speed (Is the speed steady, rising, or falling?)
- Apparent Wind Angle (Is the boat pointing well?)
- “Feel” of the boat (Does the boat feel lively or sluggish? Is the boat pitching in the waves, or punching through the chop?)
Steering to Telltales
For starters, try to steer the boat with the telltales flowing. With the jib trimmed for a close hauled course, use the lower jib telltales as a steering guide. Steer so the telltales are streaming aft. Head up just short of the point when the inside telltales luff. The range of angle you can steer through with the telltales flowing—a few degrees—is the steering groove. By paying attention to the feel of the boat’s power, and the boat speed, you’ll be able to tell how far up in the steering groove you can point while maintaining power and speed.
If you head up too high, the inside telltales will luff, and soon thereafter the sail will start to luff as well. Aim to steer as high as you can while still maintaining full power.
If you bear off too far, the outside telltales will stall, and you will lose power and speed (and of course pointing ability).
When overpowered the boat will be heeling too much and hard to steer. Head up slightly, and let the inside telltales dance; the narrower angle of attack will reduce power and the boat should feel more balanced. Longer term, you can reduce power by lowering the traveler, tightening backstay, outhaul and halyards, and/or by moving the jib lead aft.
If the telltales are flowing, but the helm has no feel and the boat seems sluggish, try adding power by bearing off a couple of degrees. You can also raise the traveler, ease backstay, outhaul, and halyards, and/or move the jib lead forward.
In big chop, add power by bearing off a couple of degrees until the outside telltales dance. (Be careful not to bear off too far; the outside telltales will stall and performance will suffer.) If it is difficult to keep the boat in the steering groove, the jib may be over-trimmed – ease it a couple of inches. Once the telltales are flowing again, check your other guides.
Helm and Heel
Weather helm and angle of heel are key guides to upwind performance. If you are battling the helm, or the rail is in the water, reduce power. Flatten your sails, or head up to reduce angle of attack. In moderate to heavy winds, you can use the angle of heel as your primary guide; steer to maintain a consistent angle of heel. As you heel over in puffs, feather up (head up slightly); in the lulls, foot off a few degrees to maintain full power.
If you are pitching excessively when steering through waves, bear off a few degrees to add more punch. If you are overpowered when you bear off, increase twist by easing sheets or moving the jib lead aft. The extra twist will spill some power, and it will also increase the size of your steering groove by giving you more consistent power as you pitch, roll, yaw, and steer through the waves. Chop can stop you dead in your tracks if you feather up in fresh breeze. Adding twist will spill power so you can keep the bow down.
Trimming for an Auto Pilot
Before you turn the steering over to an autopilot, you may need to adjust the sails to reduce load on the system. Self-steering works best with a well-balanced boat and a wide steering groove. Set the boat up with slight weather helm, and trim your sails with a little extra twist to provide more steering latitude.
When coming about or tacking, think not about how quickly you can get the boat onto the new tack. Think instead about carrying as much momentum as possible with you through the change in course. Too fast a turn—which is common—will reduce momentum. Too slow a turn, and you’ll lose all your speed.
Although we say “hard-a-lee,” “soft-alee” might be more apt. Prepare to tack by checking that the working jib sheet is flaked and ready to run. Remove any slack from the lazy jib sheet and load it on the winch with two full turns.
Steering Through the Tack
Start with a slow smooth turn into the wind. This initial turn will help maintain speed, and it will also carry you briefly at nearly full speed toward your upwind destination. As the sails begin to luff, turn more quickly to pass the bow through the wind. Once the bow crosses head to wind, slow the rate of turn again, and bring the helm back to centerline before you are down to the new close hauled course; the boat’s angular momentum will finish the turn for you. Position yourself well to windward (or to leeward in very light air) so you can see and steer to the jib as it is trimmed. Come out of the tack just a few degrees below your regular close hauled angle, and then head up to course as the boat accelerates to full speed.
For best performance, it also helps to ease the mainsail a few inches to accelerate out of the tack. Trim in again as you reach full speed.
Handling the Jib
While you may want to take excess wraps off the winch, be sure to keep the working sheet fully trimmed until the jib luffs half way across the foredeck. As the jib luffs, ease a full arm’s length of jib sheet to reduce load, then spin the rest of the sheet off the winch and make sure it runs.
On the trim side, keep the lazy sheet taut. As soon as the jib clew passes the mast, pull in full armloads as fast as you can. When the sheet load is too great to pull, add wraps and grind the sail in the rest of the way. Stand up over the winch to grind, and use two hands.
Tacking in Waves
If time allows, look for a relatively smooth spot in which to tack, rather than tacking in the middle of a big set of waves. Use a quicker turn than in smooth water, as the waves will quickly slow the boat’s momentum. Time your turn to start as you run up the face of a wave, and turn quickly enough to get the bow around so the next wave pushes you down onto the new tack.
Since big waves are generally accompanied by big wind, use the following heavy air tips to guide you in finishing your tack.
When coming out of a heavy air tack, you can make it easier to trim the jib by slowing your turn. Turn just far enough to get the jib past the mast and shrouds, and then hold course with the jib luffing over the side deck. Don’t bear off to fill the sail until it is nearly sheeted home.