Pro sailor Pip Hare shares her top tips on how to master the skill of helming downwind

For me, helming downwind, particularly in big breeze, is one of the absolute joys in this world. It is a skill that takes huge concentration and the ability to react to every element that changes the balance of the boat; this is a time when I feel most locked in to the sailing experience.

Regular practice and learning to feel your boat is the key to doing this well, but here are a few pointers that should get you on your way to mastering this skill:

Light airs

In light airs, helming fast downwind is all about maintaining momentum; remember that every movement of the rudder will slow the boat down, so focus on steering a smooth, straight line and let your trimmer do the hard work.

Broadly speaking the optimum wind angle in wind speeds of below ten knots is going to be between 130° and 140° true. Find the angle that is right for your boat and then stick to it, don’t be tempted to soak down more than one or two degrees when the apparent wind goes forward as this may lead to the spinnaker collapsing completely. A faster average at a consistent angle to the wind will be the best strategy.

It can be difficult to maintain a steady course in these conditions, especially if steering to the instruments. So for longer stints at the helm, find a comfortable seated position, use the compass rather than wind instruments and keep arm movements to a minimum.

The autopilot is particularly good at steering in straight lines so this is a good time to be using one. Set it to steer to a compass course, then knock the response down to the lowest level that will keep a course.

If sailing short-handed the on-watch crew member should focus on sail trim rather than helming. At night or when constant trimming is not possible, slightly over-sheet the spinnaker.

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Moderate breezes

As the breeze builds, the job of the helmsman becomes more active downwind. In moderate airs (10-16 knots) to steer fast downwind requires good reactions, a smooth action on the helm and constant communication with crew.

In this mode the optimum wind angle for downwind VMG will increase in the gusts, and decrease in the lulls. The helmsman needs to recognise when there is enough pressure in the wind to soak down a couple of degrees to leeward, then alter course back up again as the boat loses speed.

If you have polars then use them as a guide for when to soak, turning the bow down a couple of degrees at a time, allowing the speed to build then heading back in up a gentle curve.

Particularly when sailing with an asymmetric spinnaker, it is important to keep pushing the boat down – it will often seem fast at a hotter angle but you may be losing vital downwind miles.

If you have several displays, monitor the downwind VMG to help understand what the quickest wind angle should be. But don’t focus solely on VMG, instead use it as an occasional check or to monitor averages over time.

If working with a trimmer allow them to direct you by the pressure they feel in the spinnaker itself. If the sheet becomes heavy, they call you down, and vice versa if the sheet is light. In a sense it is the trimmer who steers the boat in this mode.

When using the autopilot in moderate conditions, set it to compass mode but use a remote control to direct the helm up or down to reflect changes in the wind strength.

Heavy airs

Anything over 17 knots and your boat should start to sing downwind. For some this spells absolute joy, for others a complete work out – or even time to take the spinnaker down.

As the breeze builds the optimum wind angle will continue increasing until you’re in the mid-170s with a symmetrical spinnaker, and an asymmetric will normally go no lower than 155° true wind angle.

Working with a trimmer the relationship will change; this time the helmsman will be telling the trimmer how much pressure is on the helm, giving them fair warning when an ease is required. If you intend to head up in a lull, remember grinding the spinnaker in may take some time so try to come up at the same rate the spinnaker is coming in.

Movements on the helm will naturally need to be larger, but try to keep them in tune with conditions and use sail trim and weight distribution to keep the boat balanced.

At some point, as the boat reaches maximum power, you may need to change from an aggressive style of sailing to a defensive one. In this mode you will be concerned with avoiding either a broach to windward or a Chinese gybe to leeward, and good communication between helm and crew is vital.

If sailing with a symmetric spinnaker, when the boat starts rolling excessively to windward avoid bearing away any further, instead gently come up until you feel the boat flatten or slightly heel to leeward.

For an asymmetric it is a broach to windward that is the greater risk; as the rudder starts loading, give a warning to the crew, who can release the vang as you try to bear away. If the boat does not react, ease the spinnaker sheet. If this is happening often, consider either taking in a reef or reducing the size of the spinnaker to maintain control.

When using the pilot in big breeze set it to steer to a true wind angle at a medium response level – this will allow it to automatically bear away in the gusts and should reduce the need to trim the sails.

Pilot movements should be similar to those of a human being on the helm – if it is working too hard that is a sign the sail trim or sail plan needs to be changed.

First published in the November 2019 edition of Yachting World.