Balancing the Helm

Hi Sailors,

I’m excited about this informative series of blogs on the themes we’re emphasizing on our upcoming Grenadines trips:  SAIL; EXPLORE; GROW.  The theme of this first blog is SAIL, and the subject is, Balancing the Helm.

Let’s Start With a Definition
Balancing the helm is the process of adjusting the sails so that the boat tracks in a straight line, with only minor corrections using the wheel, or tiller.  I can remember way back when, wondering about this myself and asking, “Why worry about balancing the helm?  I’ll just steer the boat where I want it to go.  Right?”

Why Balance the Helm? 
The short answer is that you’ll sail faster, ease the load on your autopilot, or on your helmsman, and enable self-steering without an autopilot.  And that last one is a big one.  Ah, an easier overnight passage, staying on course, arriving at your destination sooner, and not being worn out - that’s why! 

I got my education on this subject back in the mid ‘90s.  It was an overnight passage from Ensenada in Baja, Mexico, to Dana Point, CA.  On that windy night, the instructor and trip leader, Mark Howe, had us tie in the second reef on the main, trim the sails a bit, and lock down the wheel-brake on the helm saying, “There, we’ve set the autopilot.”  He went below to make bouillabaisse for dinner and I was amazed that the boat tracked straight, keeping us on course plus or minus about 5 degrees on the compass throughout the night.

How Do You Know When Your Helm is Balanced?
It’s easy.  Can you lock the helm down without the autopilot and have her maintain course, plus or minus 5 to 10 degrees?  Can you steer with two fingers, making only minor adjustments?  Is your autopilot quiet, barely correcting course?  Those are signs your helm is balanced.

What Happens When You’re Not Balanced?
Here are the symptoms:  you lock down the helm but she won’t maintain course, rounding up into the wind; the autopilot steers a meandering course and gets over powered; the person steering is really getting a workout, and the boat is difficult to control.  Time to balance the helm.

How Do You Balance the Helm?
Here’s a mnemonic to remember:  Mainsail Up, Headsail Down.  That is, a trimmed main, by itself, turns the boat Up, closer to the wind.  A trimmed headsail, by itself, turns the boat Down, away from the wind.  By adjusting the sail controls in small increments on either the main or jib, to increase or decrease power, you’ll begin to see how the boat responds.  If the problem is weather helm (the boat turning Up toward the wind), you need to depower the main. 

Note how the leech of the main, in the area of the sail number and above it, is twisted and far more open than the portion of the leech below it. Twisting off the main, as shown here, is just one way to depower the mainsail.

Learning to Find the Balance
Remember that 1) different boats will behave differently, 2) that it’s easier to get the boat to steer herself when closer to the wind, and 3) that things also change with the wind speed.  For practice, take your boat out in a moderate breeze and experiment with getting it to steer itself.  Don’t engage the autopilot - lock the helm down when you are tracking straight.  Then, give it a couple of minutes to see whether she stays on course, heads up closer to the wind, or falls off, down from the wind.  To dial it in, start making simple adjustments, one at a time, to the main, and then the jib.  You really don’t need to know yacht design or aerodynamics to figure this out.

And, there’s another way.  Balancing the helm and sail plan is just one of the practices you’ll work on mastering when you join us on our upcoming sail-training adventures - follow this link to learn more!  It’s a week of sailing, learning to navigate and explore new cruising grounds, and working on the skills you want to master.

THOUGHT STARTER:  I can think of 6 methods I regularly use for either powering up or depowering the main.  What can you come up with?  Comment below or email me!

See you on the water,

Marc Hughston
Santana Sailing

P.S.  Up next with the EXPLORE theme – Sizing Up a New Anchorage.

My SMB was on The Sea of Cortez

When people ask what my favorite place to sail is, I tell them it is The Sea of Cortez.  It's uncrowded, beautiful, with warm water and good sailing breezes.  It's only a couple of hours from Southern California, it's another country, and, it's just something you have to experience.  Swim with Whale Sharks, Manta Rays, explore, eat well....

My Santana Mariners Bag at the Candalero anchorage on Espiritu Santo

My Santana Mariners Bag at the Candalero anchorage on Espiritu Santo

At the nav station on the Dufour 455

At the nav station on the Dufour 455

Approaching Nopolo

Approaching Nopolo

Heading South down the San Jose Channel

Heading South down the San Jose Channel

Fall Cruising Perfection: Santa Catalina Island

I’ve finally decided that October IS my favorite month of the year for sailing.  The days are shorter, but the sunsets are gorgeous in the warm dry air.  This is the perfect time of year for cruising Catalina.  The anchorages are deserted, and mild Santana wind conditions mean calm, warm, and peaceful anchorages.

It was about 11:00 PM on Sunday evening October 22nd when Chrissie and I departed Dana Point Harbor, bound for the West End and Big Geiger cove.  We motor-sailed our Catalina 34, La Terza Vita, until about 1 AM when a mild north-westerly filled in.  We unrolled the big genoa and sailed close-hauled for several hours, making 4-5 knots on a course that brought us in toward Ship Rock at the Isthmus.  We arrived with the sun at Big Geiger, and had the whole cove to ourselves.

Sunrise en route to Big Geiger cove

Big Geiger
We anchored bow and stern as the sun rose a bit higher, and then laid down for a few hours of perfect rest.  And later that day we swam, snorkeled, and took a dinghy ride to explore Little Geiger, Emerald Bay, and Doctors’ cove.  The only boat in Emerald Bay was the Beneteau 48 Cabernet Sky, on a mooring at Indian Rock.  I thought of stopping in to say hello, but we were enjoying our own solitude so much, I thought we’d let them enjoy theirs.  And that night at anchor the sky was so clear, you could see Long Beach in sharp detail with its orange glow behind.  And we were still the only boat in the cove.

Catalina-5 Big Geiger-R.jpg
 

Big Geiger from the road above.

 

It's nice to be the only boat in the cove.

Cabrillo Beach
It was Tuesday afternoon that we finally weighed anchor and headed for my favorite anchorage on the North Side of Catalina, Cabrillo Beach.  Tucked in behind Little Gibraltar, Cabrillo Beach is a lovely anchorage with a rock islet that has a piece of re-bar cemented into it – you can tie your stern rode directly to it.  Here’s what we did:  we dropped the bow anchor part way out near the point, and then backed in about 90 feet from the rock islet.  I took the stern rode in my hand, having first disconnected the chain, and while Chrissie kept the boat in reverse to hold our position, I swam it in to the rock with my Teva sandals on.   I tied off on the re-bar with a rolling hitch, and after backing down to set the bow anchor, there we were – super secure, and the only boat in the anchorage.

Catalina-11 Cabrillo-R.jpg
 

Tucked in behind Little Gibraltar

 

Our stern rode is tied off on the rock islet

This is the coolest anchorage on the north side of the island

Avalon
The next day after snorkeling at Cabrillo and exploring ashore at neighboring Goat Harbor, we headed out for Avalon, only about 6.4 NM away.  The moorings were plentiful and for a while, we had no other boats nearby.  And on that Wednesday evening, there was plenty of space at the dinghy dock, and there was no wait for an outside table at the Blue Water Grill.  We had a beautiful view of the Casino, and our boat, in the second row of moorings off the beach.  This was a perfect finish.

It’s November now, but there’s still time to enjoy fall cruising at Catalina.  Keep a sharp weather eye out for strong Santana winds, and make sure you have your copy of Anchoring At Catalina, so you can enjoy a quiet cove and a beautiful clear night at anchor.  And if you miss it this year, remember for next time that Fall cruising can be complete perfection at Catalina.