All of us who sail small boats know that the best way to steer the boat is to use the shape of the hull, not the rudder, right? Heel to windward to bear away; heel to leeward to head up. The rudder is a brake. Sure. We all know it, but do we use that knowledge all the time?
I found out while spending a week in a Laser class under the guidance of an excellent instructor at Minorca Sailing in October that I have some issues in this area. I thought I was using heel to help steer the boat all of the time but Ian Coppenhall (a.k.a. Comet), the instructor, helped me identify three situations in which I was not heeling to windward when I wanted to bear away.
Windward Mark. The camera does not lie. And when our class was captured on video executing windward mark roundings it was obvious that I was sailing around the mark with the boat totally flat and using only the rudder to make the boat turn. Slow, slow, slow. Must remember to move my weight back and out to heel the boat to windward and use minimum amount of rudder.
Starts. The day that Ian taught the class about racing starts, his talk covered pretty standard stuff. Favored end. Transit. Hole to leeward. Yeah, yeah. I know all that. So I asked him for some more detailed information on exactly what he did in the final 30 seconds before the start. His answer was every bit as detailed as I had hoped. Blow by blow, every move he makes, second by second. But what was that? At seven seconds before the start, he said, he heels to windward to bear away into that nice gap to leeward that he has created for himself. Ahah. There it is again. I'm sure I don't do that. I bear away using the rudder and if I don't have steerage I scull frantically (and probably illegally). Must remember that. Heel to windward to bear away just before the start.
Heavy Air Gybes. The Tuesday afternoon of our first week in Menorca was wild. It was blowing 25 to 30 knots with gusts around 35 and I was psyched up to race in those conditions. I headed out in my Laser to the start area and played around in the waves for a while, waiting for the other boats to come out. Some of the other sailors seemed to be having trouble keeping their masts pointing at the sky long enough to sail more than 100 yards from the beach. After about twenty minutes it was obvious that most folk wouldn't be able to race in these conditions and an instructor passing by in a RIB confirmed my assumption that the usual afternoon racing had been cancelled.
"Is it OK if I stay out and play?"
"Sure. Just stay up this end of the bay."
So I started blasting around and riding the waves. After a while Ian came out in a RIB and followed along behind me. Gave me some tips on how best to catch the waves. So I thought I would show off and practice some gybes. Bore away to a run in a huge gust and tried to complete the gybe. Couldn't get the boat to bear away any further and somehow managed to broach and capsize. After I had recovered and caught my breath, Ian explained what I had done wrong. Of course. Have to heel that baby to windward if you want it to turn in these conditions. Normally I do roll the boat into a gybe but I guess it was sheer terror and cowardice (born from way too many death rolls over the last 25 years) that had frozen my brain in the stronger winds.
So I've been spending some time in practice sessions, in Menorca and since returning home, to try and break my old habits and create new ones. On windy days doing lots of gybes, with windward heel. In any conditions doing simulated starts and windward mark roundings, using windward heel.
I do get it right in practice now. Just have to remember to do it right in actual races too.
Look Ma! No Rudder!