Steering (and Riding In) a Sailboat

All sailboats have a rudder, an underwater movable fin that turns the boat. This rudder is attached to either a long stick (tiller) or a wheel that you use to steer. In this article, you'll discover the differences between tiller and wheel steering systems, as well as where to sit when you drive or crew (on a sailboat, the driver's seat isn't always obvious; it can change when the wind changes) as well as areas to steer clear of when on a sailboat.

Tiller or wheel?

Most sailboats longer than 30 feet (9 meters) are steered with a wheel, just like a car. Through a mechanical linkage, the wheel controls the position of your rudder. When moving forward, turn the wheel left and the boat goes to the left — and vice versa. You may think that this is stating the obvious, but you see why when you compare turning the wheel to the other way of steering a sailboat — with a tiller.

You steer most smaller sailboats by using a tiller. Using a tiller for the first time takes a bit of getting used to, because the boat turns the opposite direction you move the tiller. If you move the tiller to the left, the boat turns right; move the tiller right, and the boat goes left.

Steering a sailboat is also like a car in that turning becomes more efficient the faster the boat is going (and in the fact that you can't steer when stopped). So when you're going fast, you can turn the tiller or wheel less to achieve the same turning arc. To turn when you're going slow, turn harder and keep the rudder over for a longer time.

For pure sailing pleasure, some sailers prefer a tiller on any boat up to, say, 40 feet (12 meters). Although a wheel takes up less cockpit space, it compromises the feel of the boat. Because of all the associated parts and connections, wheel steering has much more internal friction. A tiller directly connects you to the rudder, allowing you to feel the water as it flows below the boat, and for me, that sensitivity is preferable.

Knowing where to sit when you drive

One of the easiest ways to spot nonsailors is to see where they sit on a boat. If you're driving, you not only want to be able to steer well, but you also want to look good. The following tips can help:

  • When steering a dinghy, keep in mind the effect your weight has on the balance of the boat. Not only should you sit down, but the windward side (the side the wind blows on) most likely needs your weight to counteract the heeling (tipping) forces of the sails.
  • Sit just forward of the end of the tiller so that you can freely move it from side to side. Most boats have a tiller extension or hiking stick attached to the end of the tiller that enables you to sit fartherout to the side of the boat while steering. Using this extension all the time enables you to sit comfortably while steering — and look cool. Hold the tiller extension in your aft hand so that your forward hand is free to adjust the mainsheet. You also have a better view of the sails on a boat with a jib if you sit farther forward.
  • On keelboats with a wheel, stand or sit behind or to either side of the wheel. On keelboats with a tiller, sit on either side, wherever you have the most visibility and feel most comfortable — although keeping your weight on the high side to counteract heeling is important on a smaller keelboat.
  • If your boat has a blind spot because of a cabin top or the sails, move around occasionally to peek into the blind spot. Periodically asking a crew member to look for obstructions and other boats never hurts either. It's your responsibility to be aware of everything that may pose a danger to your boat at all times.

Knowing where the crew should sit

On most boats, the crew sits forward of the skipper. The crew members often are responsible for trimming the sails and moving their weight outboard (hiking) to keep the boat from heeling. In most conditions, they can sit on the windward side. But if the wind is very light or if the boat's sailing downwind, they may need to sit on the side opposite the skipper to help balance the boat.

On larger boats with several crew members, divide up the jobs so that everyone can feel useful. The skipper usually steers (although nothing says you can't trade around and share the joys of being at the helm). As the boats get bigger, your individual weight makes less of a difference in counteracting the heeling forces, but you'll still find staying on the windward side most comfortable, whether operating the boat or just hanging out.

Avoiding danger areas

Certain spots on a boat are safer than others. Before you leave the dock, make sure you know what spots to avoid (or at least be extra careful in) after you're under way. These danger areas include

  • Anywhere in the plane of the boom when it swings across in a jibe or tack. Don't forget to duck! Along with the boom, be aware of all the associated rigging, including the boom vang and the mainsheet.
  • Anywhere outside of the cockpit where you walk or stand. Many boats have handrails that make it easier to hold on if you must leave the cockpit.
  • At the bow and the stern. If you must go to these places, hold on tight, because the motion of the boat is accentuated at the ends.
  • In the path of the jib and jib sheets during a tacking maneuver. This path runs from the foredeck all the way back on either side to where the jib sheets go through pulleys heading for the cockpit. During a tack (or jibe), when the headsail flaps in the wind, the sailcloth and ropes are like whips.
  • In the "slingshot target zone" of pulleys under high load. If the block were to break loose, it would go flying.
  • On the leeward side of the boat. The leeward, or downwind, side is especially dangerous if the boat is heeling (leaning from the wind); the leeward side is closer to the water, and gravity is pushing you that way.
  • Shiny areas, such as varnished wood or plastic hatch covers. Shiny areas are probably as slippery as they look. Most bigger boats have a nonskid (textured) surface on deck to help keep you steady, but look where you step and hold onto something if you can. Sails on deck are also very slippery.

Yes, you figured it out — the safest place in most boats is the cockpit (as long as you stay low and watch out for the darn boom). The deck can be dangerous during maneuvers or in rough seas at any time.

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