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Holding a Straight Course in Sailing

Holding a straight course is an imperative skill to master as you learn to sail. As an experienced sailor, nothing is more distracting to a good day out sailing than a novice helmsperson swinging the boat in all directions. What I’ve found is that often a new sailor has been taught to “fly the telltales” too early in the learn-to-sail- process. Telltales are short pieces of ribbon mounted on the sails. When they fly backward along the sails it means that the airflow is flowing smoothly; in turn, this means the sail is set correctly.

There’s no question that all sailors are keen to introduce and teach others to sail. What a great community of passionate people. So whether you’re a novice sailor learning to sail or an experienced sailor who loves to teach, this will be important.

As a sailing instructor and having owned my own practical sailing school, I have taught many people to sail. I’ve discovered that teaching to fly the telltales too early almost inherently invites the novice to be sailing all over the map. This is because the sailor is spending too much time watching the sails, watching the wind indicator and the wind meter, and not enough time looking out of the sailboat.

The issue really lies in that there is a delay between a course change and the telltales. So the new sailor tends to wait until the telltales are flying correctly before looking up and straightening the helm out. But by the time the sailboat is straightened out, the new correct point of sail has been overshot. The novice then tries to bring the sailboat back but overshoots again. Thus there is a constant “S” curve of trailing wakes out behind. A good thing to do is to point out the curvy wake to the novice so they can see what they have been doing.

The biggest mistake occurs when adjusting to go upwind to a close-haul position. If this is overturned, the boat can auto-tack over to the other side. An auto tack occurs when the wind catches the headsail on the opposite side pushing it through the wind and causing an involuntary tack. It’s an extremely common occurrence with new sailors and creates a lot of confusion as to why this happens. It also creates a lot of calamity and is a pretty embarrassing thing to do as the helmsperson. And you’ll find that you’re resorting to saving face by blaming the wind for a big change in direction. LOL. The term for a big change in wind direction is called “the wind clocked.” But in reality, the wind doesn’t clock. You just overstood the wind and got auto-tacked.

So let’s fix that shall we?

Introducing Rule A through Z, 1 through Infinity: Keep your eyes out of the sailboat.

When you drive a car and you want to speed up to 50 miles per hour (mph) (80 kph) you don’t do the following: Set your car going straight then watch the speedometer intently until you reach 50 mph, then look up to make sure everything is okay. No! Instead, you keep your eyes out of the car, watch the road and traffic, and make small steering adjustments to stay between the lines. You flick your eyes to the speedometer for perhaps 0.5 seconds every 5 seconds or so. When you reach 45 mph, you lift your foot slowly and if you’re a good driver you’ll probably land right bang on 50 mph having stayed between the lines all the way.

Let’s bring that concept over to sailing.

What you don’t want to do is the following: hold your eyes on the telltales (speedometer) until they are flying right and then look up. No! What you want to do is keep your eyes out of the sailboat, watching your heading and traffic, and flick-check your eyes to the telltales and wind indicators for 0.5 seconds about every 5 seconds or so.

With this simple revelation, you’ll never auto-tack again and your wake will be straight.

Now, here’s how to make adjustments for wind changes. You’re sailing along toward a distant hilltop on a distant island and see that you need an adjustment to leeward. As you begin to become more experienced, you’ll be able to determine from the telltales how much of an adjustment is needed. For now, a 5-degree adjustment is a good starting point. First, make the adjustment with your eyes. Pick a 5-degree change on the hilltop and turn the sailboat toward that new point. Wait until the sailboat straightens out on that new point then check the telltales.  If more adjustment is needed, repeat the process. Note that you’re not watching the telltales. You’re just checking them when the boat is heading straight. Using this method you’ll reduce or stop any over standing on the points that you want to sail to.

When teaching this, I always get the question, “Um duh, what if I’m not heading toward an island?” Well, there is always something, and if there’s not something, there is a cloud. I doubt very much that you’ll be learning this in the middle of the ocean without land in sight. Even if land is not directly ahead, there is land to the side. Make your adjustments according to the relative position of land on a shroud line or something on the boat. The point is that with your eyes out of the boat you can see your boat turning. Once you’re an experienced sailor you won’t have to worry about holding a straight course, it will all be inherent. But for now, get out and learn to hold a straight course with your eyes out of the boat.

Just like watching telltales or the wind meter, watching a compass instead of land or a cloud is also not a good idea. Compasses lag like the telltales, as do wind meters. Get your eyes out of the sailboat.

So the secret to sailing a straight line is to always aim at something in the distance or have a relative bearing on something in the distance against something on the boat so that your eyes are telling you if you are turning or not. When making adjustments to your heading, keep your eyes out of the sailboat so that they are telling you how much your boat is turning. Make small adjustments according to those distant objects and flick-check your eyes for half a second to the telltales or wind meter (or compass if you’re turning onto a new compass heading).

Keep your eyes out of the sailboat. And besides it’s safer; you’re keeping your eyes out for traffic at the same time.

And if you can’t remember “Keep your eyes out of the sailboat” remember this one.

You’re a sailor if you can…
hold a drink,
hold a conversation,
and hold a course.

And if you can do that while telling a joke, then you’re an advanced sailor.

Practical Suggestions

Remember each vessel, including sails, has a personality reflecting its construction and how it reacts to the conditions in which it is sailing.

  • The closer to the wind direction you are sailing, the closer you should set the sails toward the centerline of the boat.
  • Let the sails out until each sail just begins to flutter, then pull them slightly back in. This will give you a perfectly trimmed sail.
  • There is a saying regarding sail trim: “When in doubt—let it out.” This works well because if the sail is luffing, there is no doubt you should pull it in. Thus, only doubt can exist if it is set too tight or just right (see the bullet above).
  • When the wind is directly behind the vessel, sails should be out as far as possible. However, in this situation, the mainsail will block all the wind from getting to the headsail. One way to counter this is to fly the headsail on the other side. This is called sailing wing and wing.
  • Every point of sail has a distinct personality or feeling relative to the vessel.
  • When the vessel is sailing dead downwind and the sails are set wing and wing, the specific tack defined for giveway issues is determined by the side the main boom is set. For example, if the boom is set on the starboard side it means by definition that the wind is coming from over the port side and therefore the boat is determined to be on port and must therefore give way to vessels “on starboard.” Even if you are sailing by the lee, the give-way rule is determined by which side the mainsail is on. If the mainsail is not raised then the give-way rule is determined by which side the headsail is on. For example, if the sail is on port, you are on starboard.

Sail trimming provides physical and mental exercise for the crew, especially in regattas.

As sailors gain experience, they add these to their personal bag of skills.


A sailing regatta

Sailing Regatta

You can learn more in the Skipper Course....

Knowledge and theory for longer distances and overnight sailing in diverse conditions. The Skipper Course is a comprehensive online sailing course for beginner to intermediate sailors wanting to learn how to sail larger sailboats 26ft to 56ft. Or upgrade to the Skipper Course Bundle of online courses to also master maneuvering under power and docking!

Source: Skipper
Topic: Sailing Maneuvers
Authors: Grant Headifen, NauticEd Global Director of Education
NauticEd is a fully recognized education and certification platform for sailing students combining online and on-the-water real instruction (and now VR). NauticEd offers +24 online courses, a free sailor's toolkit that includes 2 free courses, and six ranks of certification – all integrated into NauticEd’s proprietary platform. The USCG and NASBLA recognize NauticEd as having met the established American National Standards.