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Old 06-15-2001
Mark Matthews Mark Matthews is offline
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That Heeling Feeling

I am really uncomfortable when the boat heels over. It feels like it's going to capsize. I've got a 25-foot keelboat. How do I reduce heel?

Mark Matthews responds:
Thanks for the question. There are a number of things you can do to minimize heeling, but you won’t be able to get rid of the sensation altogether. For starters, you should know that sailboats heel most when they are beating, or when they are travelling upwind, at an angle of roughly 45 degrees from where the wind is blowing. At this point, the sails are sheeted in all the way.

If you decide that the boat is heeling more than you'd like, you have the option of easing the sails. If you release the sails entirely, the boat will flatten out, although you won’t be making much headway, but that's the most immediate control to eliminate heeling. If your boat has a traveler, you can also play that so that you depower the sail plan as the stronger puffs come along, thereby lessening the heel.

Of course the most efficient way to avoid excess heel is to reduce sail area. In this you have several options. You can either decide to reef one or more of your sails (For a description of reefing the mainsail see my article "Reefing Basics,"), or remove one of them entirely. One tactic to try is dropping and stowing the headsail and sailing with just the mainsail up. The boat won’t point as high or go as fast, but it may give you a better sense of control for now and allow you to ease your way into becoming better accustomed to the heeling. If you have several other crew members aboard, you can move them to the high side of the boat and have them hike out, using their weight to help keep the boat flatter.

Heeling, as I mentioned, is a natural behavior for sailboats. Barring extreme weather conditions, there is almost no way to capsize a 25-foot keel boat. Sailboats on the ocean can capsize due to large breaking waves, but these kinds of conditions are exceedingly rare.

Of course the point of sail your boat is on has a lot to do with heel. If you're beam reaching, with the wind coming perpendicular to the boat and the sails half in and half out, you'll find the boat heels quite a lot. Now head downwind and begin running, or going dead downwind and you'll see that the boat will sit relatively flat on the water, heeling only slightly from side to side. 

I hope this information is helpful to you. I’d encourage you to check out the Learning to Sail colletion here at SailNet for additional information.