The first few times I took the helm, it reminded me of when I learnt to drive. Sat behind the wheel of a car for the first time, I wondered how the heck I was ever going to manage everything at once: steering, checking my mirrors, the brakes, clutch, changing gears, looking at the road, having a conversation and doing my makeup (just kidding 😋). How people managed to drive without conscious effort was a complete mystery. Quite soon however, and with practice, everything came together.

It’s a similar thing with helming a boat. At first it’s totally overwhelming. You not only need to steer, you need to look at the compass, the direction, waves, wind, the wind vane, heel of the boat, the sails, the telltales, other boats…! At first, even when you’re just trying to steer in a straight line, you’re all over the place but, like with driving a car, the more time experience you gain, the more automatic it’ll become. Let’s look at two topics; the basics and some more advanced techniques.

The Basics

Step one is to become aware of your senses:

  • Look for and feel the boat heeling (either more or less)
  • Feel the wind direction over your ears
  • Listen for flapping sails
  • Feel the pressure on the helm

These all give an indication something is happening and an adjustment is needed.Secondly, when you’re trying to steer a course, don’t spend your time staring at the compass. This won’t help since unlike a car, the forces of wind and waves are constantly putting you off course. You’ll end up compensating, steering left and right, and sailing a zigzag. Your fellow crew members won’t thank you for it either as they’ll end up feeling queasy! The best thing to do? Pick a point up ahead (either a landmark, or even a cloud) and aim for that. If you go off course your senses will tell you, and you’ll figure out what needs to be done to correct course. Soon, it’ll become second nature.Good to note too, if anyone on board is feeling seasick, the best thing they can do is take the helm. Giving them something to concentrate on (rather than letting them obsess about how rough they feel) alleviates the sick feeling almost immediately.

More Advanced Techniques

In this article (and video) by Yachting World, top sailor Brian Thompson (Vendée Globe skipper and holder of 26 world sailing records), shares his tips for super-hot helming

This article by Sailing World (published first in April 1985) called, “What every driver should know” is very insightful too. I never usually link to their articles because I hate their obtrusive advertising with a passion (😡) but for this article I’ll make an exception. If you hate banner ads, skip it!

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