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Old 31-07-2012, 18:08   #1
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Steering by the mast

This came up in a recent thread but the thread dealt with a number of topics so I thought I'd single this out, because I think it's both important and hard to learn.

Originally Posted by callmecrazy View Post
I don't know if this is the same thing or not, but I was taught a little 'trick' that I forget the name of. Something like "steering by the mast".

Kinda hard to explain....When the boat is rockin & rolling, you steer in the same direction the boat is leaning, as opposed to counter steering. If the boat is rolling to starboard, you steer the boat to starboard. This goes against most principals and intuition, but it works.

Maybe someone else can explain it better.

I was told to "keep the @#$% boat under the mast" as a youngster.

It was left to me to work out how to do it. Perhaps that's because the finer points are so hard to explain, and it's so easy to get it wrong and make things worse. Not a good look when someone's at the masthead trying to sort a rigging issue....

Here's my take. The person helming has to anticipate when the mast is about to swing away from plumb (ie, to leeward in the general case), and move the helm to get the boat moving to that same side.

The aim is to move the boat so it will be under the mast when the mast gets to where it's trying to go. (Like good defensive play in soccer, maybe?)

The timing is very much like what you have to do when towing a heavy, single axle trailer too fast. In this case, the "Plumb" concept is rotated down to the horizontal plane, but otherwise the dynamics are startlingly similar.
The need is to keep the towing vehicle in a straight line with the trailer, and to do this, you ideally would have to move the 'helm' before the trailer starts to swing.

Assuming we're not Jedi or Zen masters, this option is not available to mortal humans. Sometimes, in a regular seaway, we can anticipate quite easily, but that's often not possible, so what we have to do is cheat:
The moment a swing becomes apparent, make a smooth but decisive move with the helm in the appropriate direction, almost like pulling a cork, rapidly but NOT too far.

This works best (and hence can be done with some subtlety) on boats with deep rudders going fast -- on some Navy ships with such assets they have successfully used the rudder in lieu of a roll stabiliser system, using software to superimpose a roll correction on the normal steering signal.


The best way I know to learn the dynamics and timing is to stand up by the mast on a small or tender boat when it's rolling with no sail up (eg motoring in a low oily swell, anchored in a similar situation with no wind, or where a light wind lies at an angle to a regular roll). If you're not heavy enough, try standing on the boom!

Holding lightly onto the mast to keep your balance: experiment with throwing your weight, in anticipation of the next roll, in the opposite direction. It's a sort of a snap move, and with sufficient practice (if you're heavy enough and yet agile enough!) you can hold the boat virtually rock steady, which is an amazing feeling. The timing and feel, once acquired, will stay with you permanently.

I first learned this as a teenager when my gf was below, trying to use the plastic bucket for the first time, and not enjoying it much as it slid hither and yon on the newly varnished sole. What's that saying about the strong motivating power of 'the wrath of a good woman'?

OTOH, I don't recommend trying to learn this while towing a trailer too fast (although it's almost the identical rhythm): the problem is that if you do it at the right time but in the wrong direction, you'll make things not just twice as bad but five times as bad, and you'll be upside down in the ditch. Don't say you weren't warned!
Andrew Troup is offline   Reply With Quote

mast, steering

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