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Weather Helm .. do we need it? .... plus Self-Draining options — Part 1A

Part 1 on Weather Helm, finished with this paragraph .... the added text runs from that.

I have personally found that boats that round up TOO fast when the helm is let go, can be even more dangerous than those that round slower, as they often pass instantly through the eye of the wind and then get hammered on the new tack with the same squall. The tiller will also go crashing across with powerful force. All of this can be dangerous for both equipment and crew and I personally prefer to have the boat go where I want it to go, rather than have the boat sail in new directions by some default.   So in my own designs, do not expect to find much weather helm as I am personally happier when its close to neutral.   It's sure a lot easier on an autohelm too if you use one ... and you now know that your rudder is no longer slowing you down. ;)

Added August 2020:   Relative to the above, its worth considering where the need for Weather helm came from, apart from 'just a nice feel' (in a gentle breeze).   Monohulls heel quite lot and if this is an open dinghy, the boat can be quickly swamped or even capsized.   So designers built-in an assumed 'fail-safe' weather helm, so that the sail load was relieved by rounding up.   For large heavy craft, this can 'sort of work' ok if you can physically tolerate the tiller load.    But for a lighter, open boat, while the boat will round up, the boat will often go quickly through the eye of the wind and if the sails fill on the other side and the boat has taken on a lot of water, the boat can now heel and capsize on the new tack!   Unless this is a boat equipped with 'self drainers' (see below), the only solution here is to let the sails go totally free, preferably lower them, and bail out the water.  In rough conditions this is urgent .., even a potential life or death event if far from shore, as a swamped boat is a VERY unstable one.    (I remember getting swamped in a 14 foot dinghy while cruising in the Solent-UK when I was 19.   If I were not with a very strong guy who pulled me to safety, I would not be around to write this today.  An experience not easily forgotten).     

So why describe this here on a trimaran website?     I do so to show one of many differences with a trimaran.  A trimaran will NOT heel very much and will give time to release the mainsheet.  At this time, you do not want the boat to round up and risk being thrown on the reverse tack .,, you want it to go straight or slightly towards the wind, as you can soon pull the mainsheet back in and continue on without either risk or chaos.    Think of it as just taking your pedal off the gas as compared to some violent steering maneuver to avoid a jaywalker.    The need for a strong, positive weather helm is just not there for a trimaran, so just get used to the lighter helm on my boats and enjoy the lower loads and resistance.      When sailing for long distances in a small boat, you will really get to appreciate that neutral helm and start to feel sorry for those skips who have white knuckles fighting their heavy helm in a boat that's forced to sail with significant forces constantly fighting each other.   We're passed doing that.

Footnote:   Although I soon discovered the advantage of a nearly neutral helm with my first trimaran in the 1980's, I was certainly not the first to appreciate it.   Mike McMullen who wrote a very interesting book on Multihull Seamanship just before his tragic disappearance in Three Cheers during the 1976 OSTAR, also stated this:  "adjusting for perfect balance is best, as any lee OR weather helm will slow down a fast multihull", which certainly agrees with my own assessment.


NOTE on SELF-DRAINERS.    Many of you will be familiar with these but perhaps not all, so here's a little rundown.    

For boats that are not self draining (from having enough intact buoyancy below the waterline to keep their floor level about the waterline), water can be sucked out through these little gizmos that can be installed in a boat at the most effective location, as long as the speed is sufficient relative to the amount of water that has to come out.   They typically require anywhere from 2 to 5 knots to work though (depending on their design) .... and when really swamped, it's initially not easy to get enough speed.  You often have to put speed ahead of direction until you get most of the water out.   I still remember hanging out with some fellow-teenage sailors at the village pub in Hamble, UK after my near drowning from a capsized, swamped dinghy and trying to figure out some solution.  There was already one self-bailer on the market ... a brass tubular design, beautifully machined by Avon at the time, but although it worked at a noteworthy slow speed, the volume of water sucked out was low. .. especially relative to its cost!   I ended up designing and making a 3" wide venturi of 1/8" alum plate with a rubber hinge (see sketch below) that could be foot or hand operated.   Tests in a large wooden box showed it would suck well, but it leaked horribly when closed.  The surrounding sealing surface proved way too large relative to the rubber gasket density.  I was working on a solution when the Elvstrom hit the market and Holt-Allen came up with a smaller, red nylon unit with a clever soft round seal of about 1" diameter.  That worked ok (for a while) and 100's were sold (including a couple to me), but over a year or two the nylon distorted, so those also leaked .. leaving the Elvstrom as the #1 .,. a position it still enjoys today, over 65 years later!  (now made by Andersen).


Some boats (like the cruising Wayfarer) often use an Elvstrom stainless self-bailer installed in the bilge each side and once sailing in rough water that can rather frequently come aboard, these are just left open as long as there's more water going out than coming in.

Personally though, I still far prefer to sail a boat that is fully self-draining and for any non-race cruise boat that may be exposed to rough water for significant distances, this is the only safe way to travel.    I am pleased to report that the W17 has undertaken several open water inter-island crossings exceeding 40 miles and its self-draining cockpit copes admirably.   With this feature, one can take a few big ones over the bow in rough seas and not have to fret ... its all gone in seconds without a mention.

mjw ...2020

PART 2 on Weather Helm, gives suggestions on how excessive weather helm can be reduced.


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