Chris Nicholson is one of the most experienced ocean racing skippers in the world. He shares advice on night helming with Andy Rice

Chris Nicholson’s prowess in 18ft Skiffs and three World Championship titles in the early days of the 49er Olympic dinghy drew the attention of Grant Dalton when he recruited the Australian to join his crew for the 2001/02 Volvo Ocean Race on board the Volvo 60, Amer Sports One. Hi skills in offshore racing, in particular, make him an expert when it comes to talking about night helming.

Nicholson had been somewhat economical with the facts at the job interview with his new boss, as back then ‘Nico’ had next to no experience of sailing out of sight of land. But Dalton recognised the potential of this new breed of skiff sailor for understanding the demands of  helming twitchy, high-speed race yachts like the VO60.

Nicholson showed he was worth the gamble, proving to be one of the fastest natural helmsmen of the boat, particularly valuable at night when ‘feel’ and instinct become even more crucial. Here he reveals five of his best tips for fast and effective night helming.

However, as he points out: “The primary focus at all times is to keep everybody safe, and a good place to start is to have a clear compass heading to steer to.”

1. Have a safe number

Have a clear number in mind that you should be steering to. If the boat feels like it’s getting twitchy, know what your safe number is to bring it to a feeling of safety.

Don’t just rely on the electronic instruments either; if you’ve got a binnacle compass, use that too. If there’s a darker cloud, or a star, or a fishing boat, or if you can rely on any other external references [do that] because quite often on a wet boat like the Volvo 70 or 65 you’ll lose sight of the instruments with the water coming over the deck.


Have your most skilled helmsperson at the wheel during the transition at sunset. Photo: Amory Ross / Team Alvimedica / Volvo Ocean Race

You’ve also got to be sensitive to the heel of the boat so that you can tell what heel angle is through your body position and the angle of the forestay compared to the horizon. But if it is totally dark then you’re very reliant on the instruments – and that’s when you really need to know that safe true wind angle.

2. Sync with trimmers

As well as feeling the amount the boat is heeling, you need to feel how much grip you’ve got on the rudder, how close you are to losing control, what you can and can’t do. It’s always important to be dialled in with your trimmers, and never more so than in tricky conditions at night.

When you’re in sync with them you’re in a great position to deal with challenging conditions. You also have to have visibility of the waves to know when you’ve got a big wave coming in, or one that’s about to break, and be ready to call out ‘Bad wave!’, so that people on deck are hanging on and braced for white water.

3. Avoid Chinese Gybes

Everything we’ve talked about has been aimed at keeping the boat on its feet. But what if things go wrong? Maybe a broach or a Chinese gybe, depending on which way the boat spins out? If it does go wrong, make sure everyone has been trained to do their job to get the boat back on its feet. And do a head count to make sure everyone is still accounted for.

Twenty years ago you’d have worried a lot more about a broach than we do today, because the boats, the rigs and the sails are so much more robust. We actually do quite a bit more broaching these days because we tend to be pushing harder at higher speeds, but also knowing that the consequences don’t tend to be so severe if it goes wrong.

Chinese gybes are another kettle of fish. We run a pretty high focus on not letting them happen. If you have to err one way or the other, I’d go with the broach any day or night.


Photo: Richard Langdon/Ocean Images

4. Change Drivers

Sailors with a strong background in dinghies and skiffs tend to have a natural instinct for the boat’s behaviour, and that’s what you want to tap into in the really severe conditions. But always keep an eye on whoever’s driving to see how comfortable they are.

If you can see they’re getting stressed and starting to struggle while helming at night, then maybe it’s time to switch places on the helm. Even the most talented drivers can become a liability if they stay at the helm for too long. Much better to change people more often than you’d think.

5. Try your trimmers

Concentration, the kind you need for accurate night helming, is not easy to maintain. It’s something I struggle with myself, maybe it’s an attention span issue. Trimming is all about focus, about a long and detailed attention span, focusing on target speeds. Quite often you find that the trimmers are best at steering in night time conditions and times when things are pretty challenging.

They’re good at finding the sweet spot upwind and locking the boat into the groove. Sometimes it’s a matter of choosing who’s got the mental capacity for doing the job accurately for long periods of time. If you haven’t tried them out before, put your trimmers on the helm and see how they go.

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