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Old 10-24-2001
Mark Matthews Mark Matthews is offline
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Minimizing the Heel

I have a 27-foot Ericson and about five hours of sailing experience, so when I found myself in 15-knot winds that had me heeling, I was panicked thinking the boat would capsize. What is the proper method for minimizing heeling?

Mark Matthews responds:
With only five hours of sailing experience, there's plenty that can seem confusing or even frightening about sailing. My first five hours were spent trying not to collide with moored boats in the anchorage, which all seemed to be exerting a strange force drawing my boat to them despite my best attempts to steer other places.

There are a number of concepts with which to become familiar when beginning to sail. First and foremost would be the direction of the wind. Being able to tell which direction the wind is blowing from may sound simple, but ask a group of non-sailors to tell you which way the wind is blowing and you'll likely get any number of answers, for the simple reason that insulated in offices and automobiles, we're not very well oriented to the wind. Visual cues, flags on the shore, smoke, wind on the water, telltales on the shrouds, or a masthead fly can help illustrate the invisible force that powers sailing craft.

With that out of the way, you should know that the boat can't sail directly into the wind. Most boats can sail at about 45 degrees on either side of the wind. In this close-hauled position, the sails will ideally be sheeted in to their maximum trim. The boat will also be heeling at its maximum as well. Barring Titanic-sized waves or other extraneous acts of God, be assured that sailboats the size of yours don't ordinarily capsize; they'll heel over quit a lot, but they rarely capsize.

Boats will heel over more than usual in heavy gusts, probably more than you are comfortable with. To make your boat heel less, you want to do everything possible to present less sail area to the wind. First, make sure that your halyard is as tight as it needs to be for the given conditions. Then make sure that you have maximum tension on the outhaul, the cunningham, and the backstay. You can even try putting on some vang tension as well. If you don't know what these controls are, have a look at any of the articles on basic sail trim that we've published on SailNet.

Now, as you're sailing along and the boat heels more than you like, try easing the traveler to leeward (if your boat has a traveler). Otherwise, try easing the sheets and steering the boat off the wind a little. You'll notice that the boat will level out some, and conditions will seem to moderate. Once you boat is headed off the wind, on a broad reach or a run, the boat should remain fairly flat, and you should be scooting along quite merrily.

Why not take a look at the many helpful articles we have in our Learning to Sail section here at SailNet? You'll find a comprehensive set of articles that will spell out just about everything you'll need to know to tame your boat and therefore enjoy it more. Good luck to you.