Before you can smoothly control a boat in the water it has to be balanced. This means the boat is sailing with little to no helm. This means the sails are in harmony with the wind and each other. This means the rig is sitting on the mast step in a position balanced to the Center of Effort. And, the boat is trimmed and sailing on her lines in the water. Not floating...sailing in the water.
Very often I hear, "She is sailing on her own." Well, that is good and moving in the right direction but will she point? Will she take a header and seek a new tack and lay line? Will she accelerate out of a tack sheeted out? It may not matter when a skipper is enjoying an easy sail and the beer is cold.
I like to see 94 slowly arcing toward the eye of the wind. I am not aboard viewing instruments I have only seen pictures of so, I need the boat to tell me how she feels and where the apparent wind is. You will hear various comments as to how many boat lengths she should sail by herself till luffing. The reason it varies is that each skipper and their set up is different. The boat is different, if you will. Find your own. Play with it.
Despite not being on the boat, there is a feel that can be sensed through the transmitter. It will come to you first by tension in the rudder stick. Then it will begin to relate through the winch stick. You will feel the boat change as you move the sheets slightly. You will feel when the boat is restricted, not free. You will feel the wind pressure change. You will feel the slowing impact of a passing wake. I am not kidding! In time you will feel it because what your eyes see and the pressure on your thumb will translate to a mental perception. Handicap people will tell you it is true. If that is not enough for you, think about the stirring of your hormones when seeing a beautiful woman and you haven't even been kissed.
In time it will come. When it arrives it will be like struggling along with the feeling of not moving forward and suddenly you are at lightspeed. It is like the day when you discover you can look around at the fleet and ponder your tactics and come back to the boat and find it is still doing its thing. You don't have to stare at it. Looking at it from time to time is to re-enforce your perception of feel. This is not deep stuff, guys. Don't micro-manage it! Let it happen.
I like to have a feather touch on the rudder stick for control; meaning a very slight weather helm. When not bothered by an overlap or fleet crossing plans, I will allow the boat to work windward slowly till there is just a hint of rippling on the leading edge of the jib. Then, with an ever so light touch on the rudder, cause it to fall off a bit, hold it till it feels right and then lighten up on the rudder and start the process over again. This is a trained discipline. It is intense and takes practice but very productive in keeping the boat moving at its best speed. This works extremely well in light air. It is a feel thing and allows you to look around. I am not there yet but I have the feeling that it is needed as a reflex so that it can be done under pressure.
A slight weather helm
This is where you are using an almost constant pressure on the rudder, however, it is ever so slight. Here you will be able to feel any slackening of the wind and release the rudder allowing her to come up slowly, always testing the boat. This is great during those periods where a light breeze will come following fluky conditions. Likewise, if the wind increases slightly you will feel the pressure on the rudder increase. If it stays and the boat wants to come up to quickly you will want to sheet out a tad to lighten the pressure. You always want to have the boat moving and at her best speed.
This is when a boat is in balance. This is where the CE is just 3/8" behind the wind on the mast step and the rig is in sync. If you can understand the concept and balance in all wind, sailing will be fun and not a frustrating event in survival. You will not be fighting the boat. You will be more at ease.
Did you hear rudder a lot? Well, stay off it. If you have to be on the rudder a lot then you need to change something. Keep fiddling with the basics of tuning till she is balanced.
Have you ever slammed your barndoor back and forth quickly. Well, it will slow you down and a good technique to learn when you are early to the line or maybe the sheets are out and you are still over running the raft up at the mark. How much rudder do you use in the tacking maneuver? Do you come in close and sharply round a mark? Have you ever had a boat swing wide around a mark, passing you on the outside, use a bear away tack and be five boat lengths ahead before you are up to speed? Then as you come into the wind, higher on the course, he tacks and covers. Ouch! You get the idea I'm sure.
The Sights and Thumbs of Sailing, A Test
When you think you have the boat balanced and she is handling easily, try these things for perception. Try this and see if you feel something while there is a change in the boat's movement. Take your time. It is just you and the boat.
On a nice easy beat to windward, thinking about that nice soft feel on the rudder, ease the sheets out a bit. Did you feel a change? Ease it out some more. Well? Now ease it out, little at a time, till there is no feel. Good.
Now this will be a bit more subtle. Get comfortable on a beat to windward. Now let out just the jib. Did you feel a change? Trim it out some more. Is there less pressure on the rudder? Good.
Okay, get on a beat again. She feeling good? Now I want you to tack but before you make the tack, slam the rudder back and forth a bit to slow it down. Don't stop it, just slow it down and then hard over on the rudder into a tack. Don't touch anything else. So, the boat is just sitting there with the sails full on a new tack. It is starting to move but it is pretty slow. Good. Watch it very carefully. Wiggly the rudder just a bit...not much now. Did you see it respond? Can you feel anything on the rudder? It should be moving forward now but do you feel anything? Now look carefully at this forward movement. Is it tracking on the lay line? Maybe it is sliding to the lee some, huh? Now as she starts moving faster notice the feel on the rudder. When you think it is no longer sliding leeward, feel how it feels. Feel how it feels when you get back to speed.
Now make a tack without slowing the boat down with the rudder. Carve the turn. Carve it around about a three foot radius. When you pass the eye of the wind and the sails fill out, wiggle the rudder a bit. Do you notice control? How does the track look? Do you notice any leeward slip? When the sails fill out, how does the rudder feel? Big difference, huh?
Do this several times. It is a good thing to do in re-enforcing the brain with what it sees and feels. It also shows you what not to do. It also points out some things that will unload the boat, if you will, and make the boat easier to turn. When you are balanced and sailing fast you want use the natural sailing properties to move the boat wherever you can, whenever you can and with the least effort.