Fast helming is all about balance and finding easy speed, as Andy Beadsworth explains to Andy Rice
According to Andy Beadsworth, when you’re helming the boat you’re not so much steering as ‘applying load to the tiller’. “Sometimes the boat heels over and the load comes on to the tiller or wheel, but you want to keep going in a straight line. So as the helmsman you have to resist the load coming on if you want to keep the boat tracking in a straight line, or sometimes you go with the load and let it help you turn the boat, either luffing or bearing away, depending on your aims at the time.”
The bigger the boat, the bigger the loads, and the more the steering comes down to the efforts of the entire team, where the helmsman is the conductor who has the final say over the music that the orchestra is playing. Here are five of Andy’s best tips on the finer points of accurate, race-winning steering technique:
Don’t fight the boat
Accurate steering is mostly dependent on achieving the correct balance of the boat achieved through boat heel and sail trim. The thing I’ve learned from steering J-Class boats like Velsheda is you’ve got to allow the boat to go in the direction you want it to go in and stop it going in the direction you don’t want it to go.
Find your easy speed
One of the most important things is to have ‘easy speed’. It’s not necessarily your ultimate speed that’s important. Wherever possible, it needs to be easy, easy speed when you’re racing.
When you’re sailing with flat sails with a tight leech, the groove is very, very narrow. We all know that full and twisted setups have got a wide groove and if you’ve got the space to be able to sail like that it’s a much less stressful mode to operate in. When you’re racing against 50 other boats on a busy race track, you need to be able to pull the sails in and for the boat to go fast straight away. With hard and tight leeches, everything is quite precise and demanding. I find when we do well it’s when we’ve got ‘easy speed’ when the boat just wants to go.
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Steering to change
Quite often in the race it’s not really about going fast, it’s about sailing modes – being able to go fast in lifts towards the next header, or position your boat against another slightly differently just by changing the mode you’re sailing rather than sailing as fast as you can all the time.
When you’re steering through changing conditions, whether it’s going from gust to a lull or vice versa, or sailing through a header or a lift, this is when teamwork is tested the most. A number of things need to happen in unison to steer the boat accurately through a change of pressure or angle.
One of the most difficult scenarios is the header because as the boat heads and the mast starts to come upright you apply some rudder angle, and you can feel a load going on. Sometimes the boat starts to accelerate again and other times it doesn’t. So you’re tempted into applying more load… and then a bit more, now you’re up to 5° rudder angle but you’re not seeing the acceleration. Then you call to the mainsail trimmer to burp the mainsheet the tiniest amount, so he does and the boat picks up and accelerates again.
Of course you can force the boat if you want, but you’re putting a huge amount of drag on the boat to achieve it. As a helmsman and a trimming team you’re working to keep the whole system in balance.
Good communication between skipper and trimmer is vital. Photo: Nico Martinez / RC44
Use all your senses
Learning to use all your senses is a great way of improving your steering. Exercises like steering blindfold or closing your eyes for a few seconds is a great way of tuning into the other cues the boat is giving you – the wind in your face or the sound of the boat through the water, feeling the heel of the boat through your feet and so on.
Telltales on the jib are incredibly useful tools, but in light airs they can be unreliable, and in rain they can stick to the sail. I like to keep the jib luff tension as slack as possible, so I can see the pressure on the sailcloth. If your jib is hanked to the forestay, having small scallops between every hank can be a really good indicator for steering the boat accurately.
Think like a trimmer
To be able to do all the positions on the boat makes a massive difference because you understand the problems the rest of the crew live with through various situations. You can either expect your crew to do everything perfectly and just steer the boat how you want to steer it, or you can make it easy for them.
Sometimes you have to take the boat by the scruff of the neck and tell it what to do, but most of the time it’s about trying to keep the boat going fast and avoiding scrubbing off speed through overuse of the rudder.