How to set a sailboat to hold a course, or using the wind to steer.

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People often ask me how I can sail the Flying Scot singlehanded when it is windy. One thing that helps sailing alone is being able to set your boat to sail a reach by itself. Many sailboat designs are capable of sailing themselves, the Flying Scot and the Catalina 22 are just two that come to mind. For this method to work, your boat MUST have weather helm.

Caution! Even done correctly, a loss of windspeed can allow the boat to turn downwind and jibe! A large shift in wind direction can also cause a jibe! It is STRONGLY ADVISABLE to stay near the tiller and be AWARE of what is happening at all times.

How to set your boat to sail a reach.

  • For a sailboat to sail herself, she must be able to both head up into the wind AND bear off away from the wind, by herself.
  • Your boat should have a natural tendency to turn into the wind, what we call "weather helm". If it doesn't, see if you have weather helm without the jib.
  • As you will see in the video, the helmsman attaches the triple strand nylon stern dock line to the tiller extension with a single wrap and cleats it on the spinnaker cleat with enough tension to hold the tiller the proper distance to windward. This is just one method to hold the tiller slightly to windward, and with a little "give". I used two bungee cords to the stern pulpit on the Catalina 22. Note the treeline in the background, there are two larger trees that you can use for a reference through the video, so you can tell if the boat is holding her course, and how she changes her course with a sail adjustment.
  • With an increase in wind or a lift, or the sail filling completely, the boat will heal more to leeward. This heal will put more of the hull's leeward side in the water and lift the windward side out, causing the boat to want to turn upwind, or "round up". This turn pushes the rudder to windward, and the tiller to leeward, and the boat heads up. Having a little give in the tiller attachment helps this work. As the boat turns into the wind, the sail will start to luff, and the boat will heal less, releasing the pressure on the tiller. The tiller will then return to it's position slightly to windward, and the boat will stop turning upwind. If you set the tiller correctly, with the sail is full the boat turns upwind, with some luff it holds its course, and when sail flapping it turns downwind.
  • Anytime the sail loses power, the slightly to windward rudder can turn the boat downwind. This turn puts power back into the sail, healing the boat and stopping the turn.
  • The boat uses an increase in power to head up, and a loss of power to bear off. But heading up reduces the power, and bearing off increases power! So it can be a self balancing system, as you can see in the video. The two trees are usually on the right of the frame, but towards the end of the video you can see we decided to change direction and head a little more upwind. The helmsman pulled in the mainsail the amount he wanted to turn upwind, and you can see the trees move to directly behind the boat.

    This system requires enough windspeed to stop the boat bearing off, about 10 mph in the Flying Scot. It is always subject to fail with a change in windspeed or a large windshift, so I don't do it with the sail in close. Where you have your sail makes a difference, the Scot does this best on a beam reach. Best without the jib and with the centerboard all the way down, both increase weather helm.

    What is REALLY fun, is to set your boat to sail a course, and then try changing things and see what effect it has. Change the centerboard position, ease or trim the outhaul, adjust the boomvang, move bodies from one side of the boat to another, try to figure out WHY what you did had that effect. You can learn a lot from this.

    In the video the wind was blowing about 10 mph, gusting to 15, and we wanted to eat lunch. Sorry about the wind noise, this is an old video from our first video camera, and it was windy.

    You need the Flash plugin to see the video, click the play button, maybe twice, to start the video.

    This video was taken with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ2. A $200 camera designed mainly for still photography, it will take a 30 minute 30 frames/second video with sound if you have the 1 Gig memory card.

    Sailing Video Index

  • Click the play arrow (maybe twice) to see the Flying Scot sail a reach by herself.

    Also, to see the Flying Scot sail herself while we put up the jib see, Raising the jib on the Flying Scot