For many years, I have been giving clinics and helping folks try to get more out of their Interlake sailing experience. We do this sailing thing for fun and the easier it is to sail your Interlake, the more enjoyment you’ll receive.
One particular facet of sailing Interlakes that is tough to master is managing the helm. Too often I’ll see a team that has excessive helm (myself included!), that is when the driver is driving/working against the boat’s natural course. I attribute this, partly, to the Interlake being relatively heavy-helmed. There are plenty of boats out there that have a light helm, so when you come to an Interlake, the relative tug on the tiller is so much more that sometimes you just don’t recognize what the boat is communicating.
Weather helm is what we generally experience when going upwind. Here’s a picture of 13-time National Champ George Fisher. Look closely at how far off centerline the tiller is. Granted, this could be a situation where George is footing to get through some waves, etc., but the point here is that he is fighting the boat a bit and therefore dragging the rudder through the water.
What contributes to excessive helm? There are generally three main factors: 1) Sail Trim, 2) Boat Balance/Heel, 3) Position of CB. For the Interlake we can zero in on each factor and try continue to use points of reference to reduce the amount of helm the boat has, and thus go faster in a straight line (and arguably higher with added hydrodynamic lift).
Generally speaking if you understand the concept of how the sails affect the way the boat goes through the water, you are already ahead of the game. For many, we do understand, but we don’t always use the sails to help us listen to the boat. In its basic form, the jib pulls the bow down away from the wind and the mainsail, when trimmed, lifts the bow up to the wind. On a perfectly balanced boat, you will be able to feel any change in helm by just a click or two of trim on either the main or jib. Because the Interlake is so “mainsail driven”, we need to focus more on the mainsail as it contributes to the helm. Constant adjustment will directly affect the helm of the boat. That is why some have considered taking off their mainsheet cleats, to force you to hold onto the mainsail and adjust the main as it relates to the tug of the helm. I have a mainsheet clean and always will…just my style. But for those that have sailed any of my boats, you’ll know that the cleat is set low enough that you have to work hard to place the mainsheet in the cleat, and conversely it is easy to uncleat…this is the same as not having a cleat, though my hands are grateful that I do!
So when you are on your close hauled course with the jib trimmed just with the battens in lined with the centerline of the hull and the top tell tail flowing, you are now working the mainsail as an extension of the helm. Trim the main harder and the helm will increase. Ease out and the helm goes more neutral. Find this range, mark your mainsheet, look at the spread between the pulleys @ the transom…do anything you can to gain better understanding of the range and create a point of reference that you can then quickly check when the boat seems slow. Take this knowledge and then plug in the depowering factors (vang sheeting &/or traveler adjustment) to fine tune the balance through main trim!
The Interlake is a stable dinghy. More so than many other smaller one design boats. For this reason you have to have good communication with your team about your fore/aft weight placement and, as it relates to the helm, the side to side balance. When I was a Jr. Sailor my coaches always preached sailing the boat flat and that the rudder was a brake if you didn’t. Not for a number of years after did I “get” the concept. If you think about the amount of heel you are carrying upwind and then correlate that to the tug on the helm, you’ll quickly understand this concept. The question always asked is “how flat do I need to sail”? The answer, as we have witnessed in GPS tracks of sail testing and boathandling, is that the flatter the faster. I like to challenge Interlake Sailors to find the transition point of helm (the point where the helm goes from windward to leeward). That is as flat as you’ll want to sail. In some cases (especially lighter winds), you’ll want and need a little windward helm to gain hydrodynamic lift off the blades. When you gain a slight increase of helm, you should work on managing that with sailing flat and regaining neutral helm. This is an important range of balance that you need to work with your crew to perfect. It all translates into faster sailing!
One quick note about fore/aft weight placement. A common error I see is that when the boat is “loaded up” people tend to sit too far forward. If you are going to error, this is a good place to be, but just keep in mind that you’ll want to slide back and together as your feet slide into the hiking straps. If you are sailing 2-up, be sure that the forward crew is about one body-width aft of the shroud. If you are sailing 3-up, that should be ½ a body width.
Position of Centerboard.
Fortunately for us in the Interlake Class, the Centerboard down position is pretty standard (leading edge perpendicular to the hull). Most of the tuning guides talk about having relative marks on your CB pennant so that you know exactly where the board is set up for a given wind range. I like to mark mine so that I know exactly when it is perpendicular (for 0-5 knots), up a few inches (5-10 knots), up 6” (10-15 knots) and up 1’ (over 15 knots). I rarely set it and forget it…rather I see how the boat feels through the helm, check the relative position and adjust accordingly. Knowing where you have it set and then fine-tuning is really important in the Interlake. An example is sailing in waves. You’ll need a little more board up to free up the helm to drive around the waves. The point here is that there are a number of One Design boats out there that have CB’s that are integral to the balance of the helm. Be sure to read the tuning guides and ask the experts if you have a question as to whether you could reduce the helm by moving the centerboard. In the Interlake Class you’ll find that some folks do and some don’t. That is why we practice and experiment at the club races!
In conclusion, the purpose of this article was to get you to think about helm. As I already mentioned, too often I’ll see a boat sailing upwind with too much helm. By easing the main (or depowering), balancing the boat or goofing around with the CB position, you will find the boat’s sweet spot and recognize better upwind performance.